Why Compose? (A Personal Perspective)

kafkaI don’t remember ever “becoming” a composer. I’ve always felt the inner push to write down musical ideas and it’s an impulse I’ve always been happy to follow. It’s always seemed logical and natural to me, then, to invest the better part of my life in pursuit of the profession.  My young adulthood was spent getting two degrees in music in addition to the countless hours on my own spent pouring over scores, listening to recordings, perfecting drafts, begging for reading sessions, working with publishers and patrons, and all the other difficult but necessary things young composers do to hone their craft and build their careers. It’s a pursuit I doggedly continue into the present.

Yet, especially in light of troubling economic times, I sometimes wonder if it wouldn’t  be more sensible to cast this all aside and pick up an additional job instead.  The question brings itself into sharp focus:  why compose?

Each composer has their own way to answer that question, but my answer is simple. I don’t compose to get some reward; I do it because this is what I’m called to do. I do it because I love sounds and find it deeply gratifying to share them with others. Even after 20 years of writing, I still feel a rush when I start a new project or a performance goes well. That sense goes far deeper than superficial joy; the surface is founded on respect and awe and a mature love for the craft that helps push past the “bad days” and the critics and the pessimists.

I can quit a job, I can retire from a career—I can never stop being a composer and to try to do so would be untrue to myself. I might have a fatter bank account if I spent more time punching the clock, but at what cost to my sense of value as a human being? Would I really be able to enjoy all those extra material “things” knowing what the real cost was?

It’s tempting for me and many others in our profession to think of those who compose full time as being more fortunate, but when you examine it, that road is not without its pitfalls. If you don’t win the competitions, if the album doesn’t sell very well, if the grant falls through, if the orchestra gives the big commission to the other guy—you don’t have bread on your table for a while. And one doesn’t have an employer to help absorb the costs of health care and other important benefits. At least while initially developing their careers, full time composers dance on the tip of a knife. It’s no surprise, then, that many in our vocation choose the relative security of having a day job to fall back on. While dismaying that one has to give up some writing time, there is the advantage of having the freedom to write whatever one wants without needing to think about whether it will sell or having to please erstwhile patrons and commercial publishers.

Thus, in reality, “professional composers” (like me) come in all manner of guises. Many find happy homes in music education or performance; others practice law, medicine, agriculture, homemaking—indeed, in virtually any career path you could probably come across a composer. What you come to realize is that what ultimately matters in judging a career is not the manner in which the composer spends their time but rather in the quality of their creative output.

So I compose and will happily continue to. All composers today are faced with either taking stock of the harsh realities of modern living and splitting their time between steady employment and writing, or they accept the risks of building their own career. In either case, if the focus is on the intrinsic value in creating music and not on chasing money and fame, then a fulfilling and worthwhile career in composition will be the reward.

This article originally appeared on the Polonius Sheet Music blog.

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2 thoughts on “Why Compose? (A Personal Perspective)

  1. I liked what you said.I feel satisfied when I am doing the creative process of writing(I hate scoring but you have to do it). I generally don’t care about the fame or money. I kind of dislike the idea of others doing certain things for the name of attention but then again its their choice and not mine. I agree with the fact that if you do like composing music then this is something you will never have to decide on to give up or retire from. Even though, sadly ,I chose nursing in order to survive, I will never give up composing music. I will retire from nursing but my last piece of music will be on my death bed whether I am what others define as “success” or not.

    1. I’m about to become a nurse too! (LPN). I really like it. But of course you’re right. Composing is my calling; nursing is my job. That’s how it will always be. -BN

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