Life in the the Two Composing Worlds

As a rare token Downtown composer in academia, and at a Northeastern college with strong classical music connections, no less, I inhabit a strange, slim intersection between different worlds. Sometimes I suddenly find myself thrust into the world of “Uptown” composers, the “mainstream” and arguably successful composers who live on the fringes of the orchestra circuit. It happened again recently, and while institutional secrecy prevents me from detailing the circumstances – I’ll leave you to speculate what panel or award I was involved with – I’m still free to describe the experience.

And what a different experience it was from my get-togethers with the composers in my usual circles! These were composers who actually live off their orchestral commissions. They traded gossip about who had been nominated for the Academy of Arts and Letters; who was up for the Ives Award (no one Ives would have respected, certainly); who had kept whom out of the Century Club; how long it had been since various colleagues received Guggenheims; who was trying to get on the board of what artists’ colonies. Every person mentioned was a composer, but what different lives these people live from those of the composers I know! It was clear that they spend their careers clicking off a series of expected honors and awards, pre-ordained notches in a composer’s belt. You’ve apparently got to get in there early, studying with a big name in grad school, and starting to apply to artists’ colonies in your 30s, or you’ll miss the boat. To their credit, the colleagues with whom I was dealing expressed some self-conscious embarrassment over attaching such importance to such external signs of a composer’s success, many of them won, by their own admission, more through politicking than through the observable high quality of anyone’s music. They expressed disdain for a number of composers who allegedly feel themselves entitled to such honors, who canvas for them incessantly and become furious when passed over. (As Milton Babbitt lamented when Bill Duckworth interviewed him: “Where’s my Guggenheim?”)

It’s a very different life than the one the Downtown composers I know lead, the experimental composers who work in postminimalism, conceptualism, electronics, and improvisation. I think I know one Downtown composer who’s actually been to the MacDowell Colony, none who’ve been to Yaddo, none in the Academy of Arts and Letters, none who’s ever taught at the Aspen festival, none who’s had a premiere at Tanglewood, none who’s won the Prix de Rome, none who’s won a Guggenheim. (Generally speaking, only three major awards are open to Downtown, or experimental, composers, and none of them can be applied for, you have to be anonymously nominated: the Herb Alpert Award in California, the Foundation for Contemporary Performance Arts in New York, and the MacArthur “Genius” Award.) The Uptown composers barely know that my world exists, and they exhibit no curiosity about it. They’ve never heard any of Robert Ashley’s operas, speak slightingly of Alvin Lucier’s “boring” music, yet are aware that an occasional Downtowner like Morton Feldman or Steve Reich rises to a popular success beyond their wildest dreams. That seems to bother them, but they don’t think about it much.

Save for the sole fact that the rewards of that life enable composers to spend somewhat more of their time composing than my friends and I can, I don’t envy it – it seems so much more about prizes than about art. Some of the honors, like the Prix de Rome, entail long residencies, so that those composers’ lives seem to get swallowed up in the obligations the honors bring. The amount and level of politicking required would turn my stomach. Many of the Uptown composers are excellent musicians, but it seems to me that their music often gets warped at some point along the way, it becomes so little focused on personal artistic necessity or audience reaction and so focused instead on the opinions of fellow professionals. And ultimately it seems like a class thing: you become a composer so you can live in the beau monde of famous orchestra conductors, society matrons, people with enough money to commission a $200,000 opera here and there, so you can drink martinis at Tanglewood with Leonard Slatkin or whomever. I’m happy to be, instead, in the poverty-stricken, overlooked, little Downtown music scene where instead of enviously whispering to each other about who got what award, and plotting to get the next one ourselves, we go on with our work uninfluenced by prizes we have no chance of winning anyway, and argue, over inexpensive red wine, about where music itself should be heading.