Thomson’s Mistake

Virgil Thomson liked to explain that artists become alcoholics more regularly than composers because composers’ moments of triumph come in public, at the performance, while artists get their triumphs at home alone, in the studio – and then drink. But he was wrong. There’s little triumphant about attending a performance of your music. The people you hoped would come don’t. The performance is rarely what you envisioned (although mine tonight was excellent). Audience reaction seems perversely skewed toward superficial thrills. If you’re being performed in New York City, your quiet moments will be drowned out by the rock band next door (even at Zankel Hall). People won’t know what to say afterward, and comments will be perfunctory and uninsightful.

No, composers’ moments of triumph come just the same as painters’, and any other artist’s: at home, alone, in the studio. That’s what you eventually learn: the great reward of being a composer is the thrillingly intense satisfaction of the process of composing itself when it’s going well. Everything else – performance, publishing, recording, awards, residencies, reviews – turns out to be a disappointment. That’s why envying any other artist’s life is so pointless.