The Artist’s Simple* Guide to Choosing a Career (*actually, not)

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I recently finished reading Alex Ross’ book The Rest is Noise, “a history of the 20th century through its music,” as the jacket puts it. I grew up well-acquainted with classical music of the 18th– and 19th-century variety (my parents owned a 10-disc set called “The Top 100 Masterpieces of Classical Music, 1685-1928”) but I didn’t really discover the 20th century until I ran across a composer named George Crumb my senior year of college and then spent the next few years breathlessly trying to catch up to the present day in classical music while simultaneously completing multiple graduate degrees. So I appreciated Ross’ weaving the various strands of 20th-century music into one sweeping narrative, which gave me a new perspective on the traditions to which the current generation’s composers are heirs.

Reading Ross’ accounts of composers’ personal and philosophical motivations made me reevaluate the fundamental reasons why I make new music. I realized that we as artists have a choice about who we write for. I use “write” simply because it describes my work as a composer, but the same choices apply to creators in any medium with substitution of the appropriate verb. These choices, in turn, fundamentally determine what sort of music, words, pictures, or performances, etc. we create.

First, an artist must choose whether to make art for his or her self, or for others. For writers in the performing arts, the “others” they must consider are both audiences and performers. This is not, however, to draw a distinction between work that appeals to performers and to audiences; in practice, they are the same. A strong performer who truly resonates with what they perform will almost inevitably share that experience with those who listen. Thus, the composer shares their work first with a small group of performers, and then through them with a larger audience.

Writing either for oneself or for others requires another choice between three alternatives, which manifest in slightly different ways. If you write for yourself, it could be for self-expression (releasing heartache, joy, wonder, or angst pent up inside you), self-discovery (learning about yourself and crystallizing your unique abilities more clearly), or research (discovering new possibilities in the world outside yourself). Similarly, if you write for others, it could be for entertainment (allowing them to vicariously release their own joy, angst or whatever through your own work), catharsis (helping lead them towards revelations that catalyze personal healing and growth), or mind-stretching (enlarging their sense of being by making them aware of new ways of being in the world).

In either case, the first option consists of giving either yourself or others what you know you want, whether expression or gratification. The second is to give yourself or others what you may unconsciously want but are afraid to admit, finding a transcendent solution to problems that have haunted you but which you have been unable to articulate. The third option in each case, however, is supposedly detached and disinterested, satisfying no need, fulfilling no desire other than pure intellectual curiosity.

A self-motivated artist must be indifferent to the possibility of having a career. Such artists may in fact have successful careers if their motivation dovetails with audiences’ demand, but this is purely coincidental. Charles Ives made his living selling insurance by day and composing at night because he knew (and didn’t care) that no one would buy his work.  In recent generations, academia, with its promise of tenure, has provided refuge to numerous such composers, freeing them to pursue their own work without needing to please the masses. However, achieving a tenured position typically requires one to first write to please others in a very superficial way: catering to the tastes of one’s professional references and committee members, a burden from under whose weight some artists’ creative spirit never rebounds.

I’ve always believed that having an other-centered motivation makes more sense for an artist, both idealistically and practically—idealistically, because it is hard to justify one’s vocation on purely internal grounds, without benefiting the world somehow, and practically, because writing for others greatly increases the chance of receiving some form of compensation for one’s work. Which level your motivation aims at—whether you aspire to create entertainment, catharsis, or mind-stretching—determines the size of your potential audience and therefore the feasibility of having a good career.

People are only going to pay for something they feel they need, and only a few people feel a palpable need for intellectual stimulation (again, being in academia likely distorts one’s perception of the size of this group). However, many, if not most, people do want entertainment, even emotional support, and are willing to pay for it (sadly, in modern society, we often pay for the mere illusion of it). Of course, it is still up to you as the artist to introduce yourself to your potential audience, but maximizing your exposure won’t do you nearly as much good if there are only a dozen people in the world who could be interested in what you create.

In addition, the kind of other-centered motivation you choose determines the range of styles in which you can write. Consumers of entertainment are looking for a known quantity; your local symphony orchestra plays the “Emperor” Concerto every year not because patrons are wondering what it sounds like, but precisely because they already know, and they know they like it. Art music and entertainment music do not have to occupy separate worlds, but the composer has to stay firmly within the styles most people are familiar with in order to do both. If you are writing for catharsis, you can push people out of their comfort zones a little, so long as you bring them back to a comprehensible place by the end. A true experimentalist spirit justifies your work solely for stretching performers’ bodies, listeners’ ears, and everyone’s minds; in that case, the more radical the style, the better.

In trying to become a composer as I was inhabiting the world of higher education, I was taught to assume a hierarchy among these goals. Naturally, most academics, having the security to pursue self-expression, prized that set of motives above those that reached out to hoi polloi of the outside world. Within each triad, entertainment, the bread and circuses of the masses, ranked the lowest, as did self-expression, a naïvely Romantic concept. Slightly better was trying to improve the uncultured masses through catharsis, or oneself through personal growth and self-knowledge. But the loftiest motivation for all creative work, as in all the other departments of the university, was surely research—finding out new sounds purely for the thrill of discovery. If you could get people to sit through the results of your experimentation, so much the better; the greatest service we could do for our audiences was to stretch their minds.

But after contemplating Ross’s history, I realized that even I, as a (hopefully) lifelong academic, don’t actually live according to such principles. I listen to a fair amount of 20th– and 21st-century music in a conscious effort to stretch my mind and my ears, but I’m not doing it so much for pleasure as out of duty: as an aspiring professional, I feel I ought to be aware of the latest developments in my field. But in those times when I need the comfort of music to help me get through the difficulties of life, I don’t turn to ultra-modern music, even though I live with it constantly in my professional work. (I eat spinach every day, too, but I still don’t consider it comfort food.) I listen to what I’m thoroughly comfortable with, to music I’ve heard dozens of times before which holds no surprises for me. (This may be partly because I tend to strongly associate any piece of music with the circumstances in which I first heard it. Thus, I’ve found it’s dangerous to listen to new pieces of music during difficult life experiences, because if it turns out to be worth listening to again, it will forever be linked to bad memories in my mind.)

All this is to say, I now believe those academic-composer voices may have been wrong: for me at least, research is not the goal of art. I would be much more satisfied to know I created something that another person might want to listen to again and again, drawing comfort and happiness from it repeatedly over the course of their life. But this is no excuse to just write sappy, unadventurous music. Instead, it is a call to pursue the tension between stretching listeners’ ears to enlarge the range of pieces that can have a cathartic, comforting effect for them, and writing music that inhabits that sweet spot, giving them time to actually enjoy it. It’s a challenging paradox to balance, but anything less is short-sells both my art and my fellow humans.

Mazes, Traveling Salesmen, and the Aesthetics of Spontaneity: Stephen Goss, Labyrinth

Labyrinth, by British composer Stephen Goss, was commissioned by the Guitar Foundation of America for their 2016 International Concert Artist Competition, where it received some outstanding performances, particularly by competition winner Xavier Jara and runner-up Andrea De Vitis. Dedicated to the memory of Italian novelist and philosopher Umberto Eco, Labyrinth takes inspiration from Eco’s book From the Tree to the Labyrinth. Eco contrasts the images of the dictionary or “tree of knowledge,” which organizes the world into a finite, closed loop of connections that can be exhaustively known, and the encyclopedia or “labyrinth” of knowledge, which allows for practically infinite ways of connecting the dots to find order in the world.

Goss sees this distinction as parallel to the difference between a classical labyrinth (traditionally found on the floor of a cathedral), consisting entirely of “a single path from the mouth to the goal,” and a maze, “which gives the traveler choices for the route, some of which lead to dead ends.” An even better metaphor, he suggests, might be a network of points “in which every point can be connected to any other point.” This suggests the classic computational problem of the traveling salesman, who seeks to find the shortest route that visits each of a certain list of cities.

France, Eure et Loir, Chartres, Notre Dame de Chartres Cathedral listed as World Heritage by UNESCO, Labyrinth of the Cathedral

Labyrinth, Chartres Cathedral, France

Thus, Labyrinth is constructed in a series of 13 short fragments, played without pause. These may be literal quotations, clever reworkings, or outright forgeries of works from various periods of music history. Goss specifies which fragments should be played first and last, but instructs the performer to play the remaining fragments in a different order every time, without omitting any. This instance of mobile form (that is, the piece has no determinate order of sections) presents two related challenges to the performer: one practical and one aesthetic.

The practical problem is one of memory. For many musicians, playing confidently from memory is one of the greatest hurdles they have overcome in their training, and they feel a certain pride in being able to play an entire piece, start to finish, without the score. The problem with a work like Labyrinth is that it must not be played start to finish. Nor, if you take Goss’s instructions literally, can it be played in any of the orders one has previously used. No need to worry about running out of possible orders, though: there are 11!, or approximately 40 million, possible permutations!

Instead, the challenge in playing the fragments in a non-linear fashion is to remember not only which fragments one has already played in that performance but also which orders one has followed in previous performances. When Labyrinth was the set piece for the GFA International Concert Artist Competition, the judges employed someone to mark each contestant’s ordering of the sections to ensure no one played in the same way in different rounds of the competition. Some of the contestants I spoke to solved this problem by dividing the fragments into three or four chunks of fragments which always occurred consecutively, so that they only had to remember which chunks they had already played.

In my opinion, this solution follows the letter but not the spirit of Goss’s instructions. One of the beauties of mobile form is its potential for improvisation, the ability to choose in the moment what you will play next. Therefore, as I practiced this piece, I decided to also practice making up the order on the fly. To be sure, this comes at the cost of a less-than-perfectly-smooth transition now and then, but I think the marvelous freedom it affords is worth the price. I think of it like a maze, where each junction requires a choice: sometimes the choice can be made decisively, but other times there will be a slight hesitation, and that’s okay.

Whether the performer plans the order of sections in advance or decides it spontaneously, they will then have to confront the aesthetic problem of performing Labyrinth: how to decide which sections should follow one another. One approach would be to do so randomly or by some statistical process: one could roll dice to determine the order, play every other (or every third, etc.) segment all the way through, follow reverse alphabetical order of the fictional composers’ last names, and so on. However, such a mechanical approach seems lacking in artistry. For me, some segments will naturally follow each order in a more aesthetically pleasing way, especially if they are tonally related or have pitches in common.

In other words, the performer of Labyrinth is obliged to execute a sort of real-world traveling-salesman problem, determining which fragments lie “closest” together in musical space and constructing a route that connects them all in an efficient—and elegant—manner. This process could very truly be described as playful, even competitive. I remember visiting the Human Maze in Winter Park, Colorado as a child and trying to find my way to the stations with the letters M, A, Z, and E to stamp my passport and get out of the maze. At the age of four, I was only able to complete this quest after several trips up the lookout tower in the middle of the maze and a good deal of help from my father. Meanwhile, older children and adults would dash past me, trying to complete the maze in record time. (Two decades later, I read that the creator of that maze started a successful business franchising his setup to other amusement parks and resorts throughout the country.)

Winter Park Amaze'n Maze

Human maze, Winter Park, Colorado

However, you cannot simply calculate the ideal ordering of fragments in Labyrinth in advance and then play that. More specifically, you can never prove that you have found the ideal order, according to your aesthetic tastes or anyone else’s. Remember, once the number of points gets large enough, the actual traveling-salesman problem can only be solved by a computer large enough to pass for a minor planet. Various algorithms can generate reasonably good paths, but it is extremely difficult to prove that no shorter path exists. In particular, so-called “greedy” algorithms, which operate by simply traveling to the nearest unvisited point to one’s current location, tend to fare poorly in finding an optimal solution, since they run the risk of having the last two or three unvisited points be widely separated from each other. Similarly, it would be easy in Labyrinth to get stuck with only one or two segments left to play which didn’t pair well with each or with the ending.

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Visualization of the traveling salesman problem

My personal solution to performing Labyrinth was to envision each fragment as a point in a network, with paths connecting each pair of points, but with some paths weighted more heavily than others according to their efficiency. (In computational theory, this is apparently known as an “ant-colony” algorithm.) That is, I will tend to choose certain transitions more often which I think flow more smoothly. These weights may be stronger for certain pairs of segments than others, but in every case, but I will allow myself to choose even “awkward” transitions a small percentage of the time. For example, I particularly liked following up the “Scherzo” segment with “Contrapunctus,” both because of their common pitch B-flat and because of the musical humor of following a quote from a witty scherzo by Beethoven with one from J. S. Bach’s incredibly serious Art of Fugue. I thought of making a rule that these two segments would always appear next to each other in my performances of Labyrinth, but the few times I allowed myself to break this rule, I always seemed to come up with an especially intriguing order! One of my solutions is recorded at this link.

Chartres Labyrinth Outdoor

Garden labyrinth behind Chartres Cathedral, France

Classical performers in the Western tradition are trained to learn pieces of music linearly and by exact repetition. Everything is scripted and rehearsed, thought out beforehand; non-linear, spontaneous, or improvisatory performance feels strange and uncomfortable. Sometimes I wonder if this dynamic carries over into my life outside of music as well; I often find myself rehearsing what I will say in various social situations beforehand so I can put on a polished show when the time comes. Learning and performing Labyrinth has led me to explore an alternative mode of performing—even a mode of being—which I have found incredibly freeing and stretching. Having a flexible repertoire of responses which I can draw from at will, leaning more on tried-and-true favorites if necessary but mixing in new ventures as well, feels empowering, both in music and in life.