When Making Art Stops Making Sense

I exist on the fringe of an incredibly tiny subculture of artists: the living composer of “contemporary classical music”. When I have to introduce my line of work to someone outside my niche, I usually explain that I write music for the types of ensembles one would see in a concert hall, but my music sounds very different from what is normally programmed in these venues. The follow-up question is generally about career options, to which I reply, “Well, composers can either try to write for film or teach at the collegiate level.” The former requires a very different educational path than the one I’ve been on for the past nine years, so becoming a university professor has been my primary career goal.

Composers like myself work in a medium that is unknown to the vast majority of the population, our concerts are largely attended by other composers, and we almost always work for free. We spend years in universities and conservatories acquiring advanced (and usually expensive) degrees in music, and when we finally stumble out into the real world, our eyes adjust to the light of a reality where we have to cage-fight for a handful of underpaid teaching gigs. We are now generally expected to have a doctoral degree not only to teach, but also because the degree is an indicator of professionalization. Although it’s difficult to admit because I don’t really believe in it, my eventual diploma is the validation of my craft, my ticket to calling myself a ‘composer’ — in many instances, my degree and pedagogical history is more important than the music I’m writing. Conversations with with my colleagues and friends at school reveal the enormous stress over how to continue post-graduation. For me, this stress has increased exponentially as I near finishing my doctoral degree. Choosing this career path makes less sense every day as I continue to ask myself: “Why am I writing music that so few will hear? Who am I helping? When will making a life as a composer make sense?” Although I have not found any articles on the Medium platform about this issue, or contemporary classical music in general, other people have tackled this topic on different blogs and e-zines. Yet many do not address what I see as the most noxious symptom: When making a life in art stops making sense, you start to resent your work, and this resentment demeans your connection to both the cultural landscape and to your sense of self. This is an awful situation to be in for any artist, and it is one I and many others struggle with much too often.

This problem is not unique to composers, but it is the arena I know and I believe we have a strange and difficult situation. Currently, contemporary classical music primarily exists in academia; in the eras of the “greats” (think Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, etc. — the composers you learn about in grade school), music was largely funded by and functioned for royalty, wealthy patrons, and religious institutions. Migrating composition to the academy created a much different framework where art music lost much of its earlier use-value. In the academic structure, our art doesn’t really sell. Although I highly doubt that any of us who entered the field of composition did so for the career opportunities and high salaries, not knowing how or if one can support one’s art is incredibly troublesome. I am envious of my friends and colleagues who can make a living with their art. My cousin is a very talented photographer who is able to fund projects that she is passionate about by maintaining clients in the editorial and fashion worlds. My web-developer partner (yes, coding is an art) spends his days happily absorbed in his work, which allows us to lead comfortable lives. Composers, on the other hand, create intangible objects, experiences, that don’t have a shelf life. The primary way to make a living as a composer is therefore to do something outside creating your work, such as teaching. Of course, other artists deal with this issue, but the options for other media can be variegated.

The supply and demand ratio for composers is also incredibly skewed: there are so few jobs out there and they are very often adjunct positions that are poorly paid and lack benefits. The logical question is, why not take a position in another field in order to fund that composing habit? Firstly, it’s not necessarily easy to find a job in another field, especially after honing in on such a specific skill set. Secondly, if you are able to find a 9 to 5 that pays the bills, does that really leave enough time for your art? We are all aware that creative energy isn’t something that you can just switch on; the same goes for composing. It takes a lot of time and a lot of effort. So while the adjunct position in a music department will certainly require time spent away from one’s art, there are many habitat benefits. It is easier to stay connected to the contemporary music culture when you’re surrounded by it and it can provide things like performance opportunities, travel funding, and access to research materials. There are few organizations outside of academia that provide such benefits. Even though I don’t always want to live in it, the ivory tower can have its perks.

We as Americans often forget that we live in a wartime society. Culture is not even close to making the list of our government’s fiscal priorities. Just look at the funding cuts that arts organizations and grant funding institutions face every year. This is a huge part of why the number of viable jobs and grants available to composers is dwindling. Yet another symptom of this problem manifests in how society views art that exists outside the status quo. There are very, very few people or organizations going around saying “keep doing what you are doing, it’s important!” I, as I know many others in my field do, try to remind myself that creating new music, even for the smallest of audiences, is important. Searching for new ways to engage with music, culture, self, society, etc., is important. A world without evolving artistic experiences would not be a world I would want to live in. Now, I can only speak for myself, but these little self-reminders only go so far. For art to be viewed as an important commodity, we would need a cultural revolution, an astronomical decrease in defense spending, a change in values…you know, easy things.

Although the picture I’ve painted is streaked with negativity, I am still incredibly grateful for the opportunity to create art, to work with talented musicians, and to share my music with others. This is why I haven’t thrown in the towel and moved to a field with a bit more job security. Instead, I am trying to figure out how to make a life in music composition a viable option. For the next year and a half, my education and graduate funding will keep me connected and financially stable. Provided I finish my dissertation (and pass one final exam…), I will enter the job market with a fresh Doctor of Musical Arts attached to my name and the tentative plan of securing a (preferably non-adjunct) teaching position at a university in a city or region my family and I would like to live in. For this to happen, I’ll probably need to offer my soul to some deity or begin studying star charts. In the meantime, I am trying to let go of the weight of uncertainty and the expectation that you’ve only really made it as a composer if you’re in a tenured track position and garnering fancy commissions from well-known ensembles. I have plans, some big and some small, that will keep me involved in the contemporary music community without needing a university position. To be honest, a university job has lost nearly all of the appeal it had when I began this path. There has to be other ways to stay true to one’s art, maintain connections with the community, and also take care of all those practical life things like paying rent, eating, etc. I am going to find my way, and I know many others will, too. I am trying to readjust so that making a life in music composition, in art, makes sense again.