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How It’s Going

I think I’m having a creative crisis. I’m in my late forties, after all.

The thing is, I’m not sure about a lot of the things I’ve previously been sure about. Not blogging much in the last two years is a symptom of something.

Now, I have been making music. I also finished a novel and started another one. I wrote a few poems. I made and shipped a video game and started another one. So it’s not as though I’m not “productive.” As an artist, I still have things to say. It’s just that I don’t feel like actually saying them.

By the way, the game I made is free and you can play it in your browser:

Play Starside, LLC free in your browser.

It’s probably more fun than the rest of this essay, honestly. And it features music by … me!

Anyway, the question is: Do I think of myself as a “Composer” with a capital “C”? And if so, what does that mean? And to whom?

I plugged a middle-aged composer in the midst of a creative crisis into the Midjourney AI image generator, and this is what it gave me:

Welp.

They’re all overweight white guys writing something out longhand on paper while sitting at a computer desk. They’re all wearing patterned collared shirts with the sleeves rolled up and the top two buttons undone. They’re all right-handed — except the dude in the upper right who is using a pen in each hand. Now that’s productive!

They all look like they’d criticize strangers unfairly on Twitter, too.

Yikes.

I’ve also been thinking … I don’t think of myself as a particularly toxic person, but a lot of the things I’m “into” are surrounded by toxic discourses: politics (obviously), computer software, video games, the Bible, the Christian church, sci-fi/fantasy literature, and most relevant to this blog, “classical” music.

(By contrast, my wife is into otters and quilting and cozy mysteries. There’s not a lot of toxic discourse there. Then again, she makes up for it when she engages with indigenous issues and women’s rights, so.)

Anyway, this blog is about Very Important Music which is a Very Important Topic for me because I am a Very Important Composer who writes for Very Important … well, not to put too fine a point on it … nobody, really.

What Even is “Classical” Music?

First of all, I don’t even like to call it that. I mean something like “music in the orchestral tradition of the colonial West” because “classical” is a historical period. It’s not just a pedantic point. I don’t disagree with most of what Ethan Hein writes here: What should we call classical music? He lands on “notated music” which is at least historically accurate, descriptive, and values-neutral.

Most of the music I make isn’t notated, of course. I only do that when the constraints of the task entail (putative) performance. There is something that is not shared between my tracks Quantilization and We are the Leaves that Float Down the Stream, made within days of each other, neither notated but both equally capable of being notated — and the something that is not shared has to be genre, right? The first is some flavor of EDM. The latter is … what? Nothing, until it’s written on staff paper?

Or take this:

You can imagine that being notated, but it currently isn’t. It’s a pastiche in the tradition of vaguely Russian, vaguely twentieth-century orchestral concert music, which surely would have been notated. I can say with authority that there are some artistic pretensions here given that I’m the pretentious artist in question.

The digital mockup is just fine for me as the artifact. I don’t care if it ever gets notated or performed.

I mean, I do care; I just haven’t put in the work that matters.

And then there’s this:

That’s the full original soundtrack I made for a friend’s video game. Artistically, I think it’s got a clear vision, it meshes well with the visuals, and people seem to have connected with it. I’m rather happy with it. It has an orchestral plus electronics texture and uses various Very Important Compositional Techniques. It’s an artistic work that is part of a larger commercial work, also artistic.

A moderate success. It lives up to its pretensions.

Not notated. No need.

So, what is this stuff?

Maybe I could call it “composed music” but without all the baggage. Even that isn’t great, because “composed” implies a separation between the person who conceives of the music and communicates it by way of notation and the people who realize it by way of performance. If I made it on my computer, there’s no distance between me as a composer and me as a performer.

I guess?

I make a lot of music. I’m not really a composer, except when I am.

I’m not really a beat maker, though I do make beats; nor a bedroom producer, though I do produce things in my bedroom sometimes; nor an EDM producer; nor a film and TV composer, even though I’m on IMDB so I’ve got that going for me.

Wherever I am, I don’t feel like I belong.

It’s a personal problem.

The Baggage

The point is that whatever you call it, this hobby of mine involves a huge tangled hairball of discourses, many of them toxic, all of them tiresome.

Part of it is elitism. The music-school-to-concert-hall pipeline is comprised of highly competitive institutions that either act as museums or platforms for Very Important Music with Very Important Artistic Pretensions.

It’s convenient for me to be anti-elitist because I’m not very elite. To put it lightly, composing, performing, conducting, and even to some extent listening to “classical” music takes a lot of skill. And there are people with more or less of it. There’s no way around that.

And yet, it’s not as though the meritocracy has much … merit.

So, I like to say “pretension” rather than “merit” because it’s about the artistic intention, not the outcome. I don’t (necessarily) mean pretentious in the sense of puffed up, self-important, prideful, or otherwise characterized by an ambition to impress rather than edify. Though there is a lot of that, too. Maybe “ambition” or “artistic intent” would be better.

Like, some of my music is just me messing around. Wasting time. And some of it is Very Serious Music for Very Serious People. And all points in between. There’s obviously a difference, but it doesn’t matter that much to me in the moment of creation. The difference is some kind of appraisal. Some kind of assignment along some kind of axis of expectations.

Regardless, artistic pretensions may be conservative or radical; they may stem from a high-modernist concept of artistic transgressiveness or a neo-neo-reactionary concept of preserving the cultural heritage of “the West” or yet again some idea of infiltrating, dismantling, diversifying, and rejuvenating the old institutions — or anything in between.

I admit it may just be status-seeking.

Is that a bad thing?

If you’re a minority or LGBTQ or disabled or (gadzooks!) female composer or performer who wants to displace some dead white guys, more power to you! Nothing wrong with seeking status if that means, you know, recognition that you exist in society and have a right to take up space and move around and do things like any human being would. Ideally, there would be room for everyone — an orchestra on every corner with easy access to all comers — but sadly, that’s not the world we live in.

That’s not me, for all the obvious reasons. It may just be sour grapes, but at least I take some solace in the fact that I’m not just one more mediocre white guy taking up a slot that could go to someone from a historically excluded demographic. Not that I’ve tried very hard or been very worthy, either. Should the opportunity arise, I doubt I’d cling to that principle.

On the other hand, if you’re someone who “appreciates the finer things in life” or has designated yourself as someone with a refined palate for music — the advantages and disadvantages of being bourgeoise are pretty well-documented, aren’t they? I mean, I get it. I’ve been there. It’s just hard to maintain that level of bullshit, honestly. Like, come on. I’ve been in concerts where about half of the people are there for the music and half are there for the vibes — specifically to wear fancy clothes be seen drinking champagne in the lobby. To play aristocrat. It’s annoying to me that something I genuinely care about is also a status marker.

Classical music has always been mostly a rich people thing. Or at the very least, class hierarchy has always been a dimension of it. I mean, you could hear Bach for free, back in the day, if you went to a particular Lutheran church. Liszt and Paganini were pretty famous for packing out affordable concert halls. But to the extent that it was part of the patronage system for a while, and then part of the academic system — I mean it’s not a crisis that it’s not “popular” — it’s sort of by design.

(That said, I’d say that orchestra music is in fact pretty popular these days because of film and video game soundtracks. And there are folks who look down on that, speaking of class hierarchies.)

And if you’re going to get 100 top performers in a room, that’s going to cost money no matter how you slice it.

At some level, I want to write “vulgar” music. Sentimental. Pastiche. Kitsch.

Is there anybody out there playing the bars and honky tonks but with, like, a chamber ensemble? Why not?

On the other hand, if you’re someone who thinks that the music of European aristocracy of the seventeenth-nineteenth century is the epitome of all human cultural output then you are wittingly or unwittingly aligning yourself with a white supremacist narrative and you should rethink your entire worldview. Ask me how I know. (Hint: It’s easy to declare yourself the best if you get to decide the scale.)

Yeah, this.

Ah, Ennui

The thing is, I’m not really that interested in any of this part of it. If you are, great! Good for you. Enjoy that.

Maybe it’s being white and gen-X in America. I’m never bored because I’m used to entertaining myself, but then I go and fill up my time with the dumbest crap. It’s like I’m still watching Scooby Doo and drinking Dr Pepper after school while I’m waiting for mom and dad to get home from work.

“Whatcha watching?” I dunno. This. Whatever’s on TV right now.

“Whatcha composing?” I dunno. This. Whatever’s on my mind right now.

I never learned how to do things in a community much less in public. For one thing, I don’t have the energy to be interested in every dang thing — never mind critical thinking. Everything you do is in public now.

I dunno … that’s a lot of steps.

I feel naked all the time. Like that dream where you showed up to class so unprepared for the test that you’re not even wearing pants.

I make music because I can’t not do it. That’s it. There is joy in the act itself. I gravitate toward orchestral music for complicated personal reasons not because I think it’s culturally important or superior. I don’t like Shostakovich or Glass because I want to impress you but because I just do. I also like They Might Be Giants and Peter Gabriel and Hallmark Christimas romances and black licorice and a whole lot of other things that are tacky or sublime or both.

What all those things have in common is petty hedonism. My petty hedonism.

I mean, I know I have a perspective, which obviously comes out in my music. I don’t mean that I don’t have any message, just that the message is mostly that I enjoyed making this and I hope you enjoy listening to it. It’s just about being human and wanting to share.

I make noise because I’m here not because the noise has intrinsic value.

Which is also political. Everything is, even the choice not to be overtly political. Creating anything is a political act because an audience is a polity and the dynamic between creator and audience is a power dynamic that runs both ways. I get that as a white heterosexual upper-middle-class cis male in North America I can get away with the particular pretension of being unpretentious. I get that. I’m not trying to make that choice for anyone else. I’m not holding it up as what’s good and right and proper.

Just.

The general discourse around classical music is exhausting. I’m not a Very Important Person making music for Very Important People. But if you want to write for a string orchestra or a woodwind quintet, that starts at a very high level of … pretension.

At the same time, there is more orchestral music now than at any other time in history. It’s everywhere. You can carry even the most obscure works around in your pocket and stream them into your ears at will. It used to be mostly impossible to be a “composer” and now practically anyone who wants to pick up the tools can do it.

Every 30-second car commercial implies an 87-piece orchestra.

We don’t really know what to do with this abundance. In our current economic system, relative abundance equates to relative worthlessness. What has worth has to also be scarce. Bedroom orchestral music I made on a laptop is pretty worthless. The scarce commodity continues to be things like concert halls, performers, rehearsal time, or even recording studio time.

This is worthless:

Having the tools or even the ability doesn’t book out a concert hall. To do that, you have self-promote. Network. Or know someone. And then you have to get into the discourse. You have to pick sides. Build a “tribe.” (Hey, that’s problematic!)

I asked Chat GPT how to get a piece performed once it’s been published:

  1. Research orchestras in your area: Look for local or regional orchestras that might be interested in performing your piece. You can find information about orchestras in your area through online directories or by contacting your local music association or conservatory.
  2. Contact the orchestra’s artistic director or music director: Once you have identified an orchestra you would like to approach, contact the artistic director or music director to inquire about the possibility of having your piece performed. You should be prepared to provide a copy of your score and any relevant information about the piece, such as its length, instrumentation, and any performance history it may have.
  3. Consider submitting your piece to competitions or festivals: There are often opportunities for composers to have their works performed by orchestras through competitions or festivals. Look for call for scores or submission guidelines and follow the instructions to submit your piece.
  4. Build relationships with musicians and conductors: Building relationships with musicians and conductors can be a helpful way to get your music performed. Attend concerts, participate in music forums and events, and network with other musicians and industry professionals to try to make connections that may lead to performance opportunities.
  5. Be persistent: It can be challenging to get your music performed, especially if you are a relatively unknown composer. However, with persistence and determination, you may be able to find opportunities to have your music performed.

Thanks, robot! That’s pretty much exactly what I expected. Also, it sucks.

You can write music for films or video games. That’s honestly what I would do if I wanted to make a living as a composer. Selling sheet music and booking elite orchestras is definitely high-effort and low-yield.

Maybe I’d write for school bands. There’s a real opportunity there if you can write student music that is both playable and sounds interesting. Just crank out four-minute pieces with straight-ahead rhythms pitched in the middle of each instrument’s range.

I don’t have to. I’m just a hobbyist.

But you could.

So What?

I’m not trying to complain about all this. It’s just how it is.

Meanwhile, I do things that make me happy, even if it means toiling away in obscurity. As an amateur, I have the luxury and privilege of not giving a dang about the discourse in classical music. It will all work out one way or the other. Live concert halls may “die” or they may be subsidized into the foreseeable future. Performances will happen, or they won’t. Performers and conductors and music directors will become more diverse just in time to be supplanted by digitized AI.

I have feelings about all this, of course, but those feelings don’t matter to anyone but me. (And my wife, when she has to listen to me gripe.)

My pretensions are as a hobbyist. However, it’s an expensive and time-consuming hobby. I can’t exactly claim that I don’t have any stake in these currents and discourses, even though I don’t have much influence — or right to any, for that matter.

All I know is that two things are simultaneously true: I love making music and I also hate it. I experience a felt need to contribute to a discourse that I don’t want any part in.

It’s sort of like how I have opinions about Star Wars media, good and bad, but I don’t in any way want to tell you what they are because then we’d have to talk about them and it’s all just so tedious and so meaningless but also so fraught because what if we disagree? Are we now obligated to make our positions clear? Must we choose a digital tribe and performatively engage in the everfucking culture wars?

Bleh.

I hereby declare that the culture wars are over and everyone lost. We are now left to fight over the ruins, if we want to.

So.

I’m having a creative crisis.

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