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.

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