from Liza Figuroa Kravinsky: Challenging an assumption

I am a composer in her fifties, so a New York Times article about how innovators get better with age piqued my interest.

According to the article,

The directors of the five top-grossing films of 2012 are all in their 40s or 50s. And two of the biggest-selling authors of fiction for 2012 — Suzanne Collins and E. L. James — are around 50… According to research, the age of eventual Nobel Prize winners when making a discovery, and of inventors when making a significant breakthrough, averaged around 38 in 2000, an increase of about six years since 1900.

The article also notes that, ironically, most of a today’s corporations tend to hire younger employees and push out the older ones, limiting the innovative potential of their workforce.

Age blog imageAlong the same lines, here is a great article from NewMusicBox about how music composition competitions for emerging composers impose arbitrary age limits on entrants. The age limit seems to be around 35 or 40. These competitions seem to assume that older composers have either already succeeded or failed.  I would like to challenge this assumption; first with my own story, and then with examples of other late-blooming composers. 

Those who have read my previous guest posts are familiar with the Go-Go Symphony I founded and composed for, combining Washington DC’s dance beat with original classical music. This project may be valuable in infusing popular culture into classical music — something some say is needed to reinvigorate the classical scene.

I couldn’t possibly have thought of composing the Go-Go Symphony if I hadn’t spent my younger years outside the classical music bubble. I studied music composition and theory in college, but I didn’t go to graduate school; opting instead to become involved in the pop music scene. I toured as a keyboard player and wrote and produced songs with commercial recording artists, and composed for filmmakers and video producers. All of which taught me much about the psychology of the average music listener.

It’s a pity that I probably can’t enter my composition into many emerging composer competitions due to my age. While my outsider experiences have taught me how to survive without such support, it wouldn’t hurt for me to receive it, since it exists. Unlike most younger composers who are more likely to be in graduate school, I don’t have easy access to student musicians, rehearsal space, and other academic institutional support.

There are many more reasons why other composers might find their footing later in life.  That is why history is full of examples of late-blooming composers, as I discovered in this Wikipedia entry titled “Late Bloomers”:

Anton Bruckner is an example of a musical late bloomer. Although he played church organ some in his twenties he did not become a composer until his 40s. Singer K. T. Oslin released her first album at age 47 which was a major country music success. Al Jarreau is also an example, who released his first album at age 35. AERIA Recording Artist Colie Brice released his 10th solo album Late Bloomer at 39. Elliott Carter did not achieve compositional maturity until his Cello Sonata (1948), when he was 40. César Franck and Leoš Janáček also matured late as composers: Franck at 56, with his Symphony no. 1 in D; and Janáček at 50, with his first true breakthrough, Jenůfa (1904). Iannis Xenakis did not even begin studying composition until 30, with Messiaen. Leonard Cohen did not release his first album until he was 32 years old.

It is so encouraging to read about all these late-blooming composers, so I will keep striving.  If anyone out there knows of any music composition grants or competitions that accept applications from older composers, please share it with us here.  I know I am not the only one who would want to know about them.

I’m not saying that my work is necessarily innovative (though I like to think it is), but I feel my maturity is an artistic asset rather than a liability. It took a lot of experience, mature confidence, and well-rounded perspective for me to create something true to my heart. My past successes and failures have improved my present projects — something that comes only from experience.

We need innovators to help save the classical music industry, don’t we? Why ignore the older emerging composers who might be at their creative peak? 

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  1. says

    Yes, older doesn’t mean you are no longer needing assistance or not innovative. I had composed music for years, but did not make my first recording until I was 66 years old. within 4 years I had put out 2 CDs, and a 2-CD set of improvisations in collaboration with a cellist of my same age…… my music has been bought in 17 countries on 6 continents… also have gotten some lkicensing work …… And yes, I have noticed that competitions generally limit applicants to their 30’s. I am now 71 years old, and do not consider myself finished……Also in past few years learned to play flamenco on piano, and have done some pentatonic and 12-tone numbers, although music in the style of the Romantic and Impressionistic styles reman my favorite …. I create very lyrical music generally, and play with rubato ….. I write piano music somewhat like a vocalist ….I play what I sing (in my head at least, as the range of a piano is beyond my vocal range.)

  2. Scott says

    Here here! I am 24 years old and I am just starting my BM in composition this fall. I feel a little embarrassed about it, but I am glad that I took so long. I have spent years studying and playing noise, punk, jazz, Balkan folk music and Turkish classical music. Very uplifting to be reminded that aging is a good thing for creative people.

    That reminds me, I love that you used real Go-go musicians for your symphony. Sometimes classical musicians don’t understand the nuances of a groove. I’ve experienced this with Balkan folk music being played by my classical friends. I think all classical musicians should play more folk music and jazz when they are younger.

    • says

      All the Best to you Scott ….I’m the 71 year old in comment above. ….. have a M.M. in Music Theory…. taught many years. Indeed, in college and to this day though classically trained, have always had a great interest in all musics of various cultural regions of the world. And indeed, studying and learning about folk music from different countries is very good….many of the Classical composers were fascinated with, traveled and learned different folk musics, and even incorporated some these folk melodies in their Classical compositions, including symphonies….Jackie

    • says

      It’s nice to meet like minded composers. I often feel out of place in the “new music” community with my style of music. Perhaps we should network with each other more formally – start our own brand of composition competition. Or perhaps create our own supportive performing industry – performing each others’ works. We must be the change we are waiting for.

      • Scott says

        What about a facebook group to share ideas for building a career as a classical composer. We could invite composers to be a part of it and share what works and what doesn’t, along with new ideas.

        • says

          A charming idea. But with some hidden limitations. I have many innovative ideas how to improve the lot of Classical Music. But….However, on the flip side of that album, while we are busy discussing innovative ideas to improve out lot as new Classical Composers/performers, the Corporations who support Facebook with their ad dollars, who have a vested interest in the contraction of the Classical Music Market, will be continuing to move the goal post back to prevent us from succeeding. You see, if the opposition knows what you’re thinking BEFORE you act, then THEY can act before you act. Loose lips sink ships, so they say. Perhaps there is a more private forum available to exchange ideas so they won’t be stolen. Perhaps, a “Union”, club, brotherhood/sisterhood. But Facebook? IMHO, If you try there, you will fail.

      • says

        I like: “supportive performing industry – performing each others’ works”. This is a proactive and positive cross supporting step. Let’s talk more of this.

  3. says

    Thanks for the article! I have a similar story and sometimes get frustrated by my aging “emerging artist” status (touring pop/rock musician in my youth and now a late bloomer composing for percussion ensemble and chamber groups). Please keep the late bloomers in the loop about opportunities!

  4. says

    Miss Liza, I, too, share your concerns. Although I have been fortunate enough to have occasional success visit my door throughout the past several decades, I now am making music which, IMHO, if, far and away, the best I’ve ever made and, hopefully, this new music can offer a major contribution to saving Classical Music. I, like you, have sought to combine and embrace other musical forms in a Crossover effort to widen the audience for Classical Music. My current work involves combining Bach and Vivaldi with Progressive rock and Electronic Trance and other popular rhythmic content to create something entirely new. I know it’s new because I’ve invented new Multiple stacked and layered tunings to perform it and play it on a very advanced Hi Tech instrument which allows me to completely discard the traditional chromatic scale.

    My concern, like you, is that age prejudice will inhibit the Music industry from discovering music, served by the advantage of wider life experience than can be usually attained by younger composers and performers. Let’s hope that articles like these will serve to enlighten enthusiasts, Composers and Competitions, alike with a broader approach to this problem.

        • says

          Les, nice interview, great music, and interesting new guitar!

          I like what you said: “My age, for example, sometimes plays an impactful part on certain elements of public perception. For me, it’s the seasoned reason for my innovations, as I believe, my current music is, by far, the best of my career.”

          I’m glad I’m not the only one who feels that way about age and innovation. Good luck with all of this!

          Where are you based? I’m in DC but go to NYC once in a while.

          • says

            Thank you Liza. Glad you enjoyed my text interview. The “new guitar” is a MIDI Guitar controller called the Starr Labs Ztar. It is a soundless Controller, connected via MIDI to my Computer. The Ztar uses 8 nested and layered tunings to allow me to completely discard the chromatic scale since I can place any note or pitch, adjacent to any other note or pitch, regardless of sequential order. If you’re not busy on July 9th (this Tuesday), you can tune in to a live video interview with me which will also stream on YouTube. I’ll be discussing my innovations merging Classical (actually, Baroque, mostly) with Rock and the means by which I do that:


  5. says

    Great post! I have run into this issue as well having started composing in my 20s but then being out of the scene for a long while while raising my son. I’m 41 and already too old to be considered emerging and have a big hole in my composition CV from when I was doing other work. I have decided to continue to carve out my own path but still, it would be great to be able to get some recognition as an older emerging composer, especially as a female composer not attached to any academic institution.

    • says

      Yes, Lisa, I almost included a paragraph of my experiences as a Filipino American woman composer. Ethnicity and gender issues may contribute to complications in establishing oneself as a composer. I left it out because I did find success in the pop/commercial world. But I must say I did encounter looks of surprise when people realized I could indeed compose music very well.

      • says

        Ethnicity and gender issues are definitely an issue as well. One of the reasons I focussed on other work (writing and theatre) after my son was born was that I was tiring of being the token female composer in what was an almost non-existent new music community where I live. Things have changed in the past 15 or so years but now I’m 10-15 years older than any of the other emerging composer in our still very small community. Definitely a conundrum that I’ve found is best solved by producing my own very multi-disciplinary work.