Seeking fame, or not

July 6, 2008


My biggest shortcoming as a composer is my disinterest in disseminating my music. It is not that I don’t think my music lacks qualtity — I think I’m one of the best composers on the planet today — but I find that my real interest is in composing music, not pedaling it to performers, or convincing publishers or record producers that they should put out my music. This blog represents the extent that I am willing to pedal my music to the world, and I don’t sell it, it’s there for people to take. I have a friend who is amazing at promoting her music. She attends every performance she has, no matter where it is, and is constantly rustling up the next commission. In fact, all this effort is paying off for her as she is getting more performances and commissions than ever before. But as far as I’m concerned, her music is only ok, not great, just ok.

I started a publishing company in 1994 that publishes much of my music and a hundred other composers, and my music sells reasonably well. I don’t make a lot of money from this venture, and what money I do make is put back into the company. I’m sure a smart business person would tell me to not waste my time on something so “unprofitable.” My role models, Aaron Copland, Serge Koussevitzky, and Gunther Schuller would advise otherwise.

I read a chapter on J.S. Bach in Paul Johnson’s book “Creators” that was an illuminating read. Bach was never rich. He never sought fame. His output was part of his faith, and ultimately, how he communicated with God. His contemporaries viewed him as a old-fashioned composer I know the feeling, though I don’t mean to ever elevate my music to the level of Bach’s. My music is also old-fashioned. I see the rising fame of Thomas Ades — a gifted new voice on the scene — but I have no interest in being modern, hip, or embrace a musical language that is not me. I tried that already and realized that there already IS an Elliott Carter, and already is a Pierre Boulez — I don’t need to copy or emulate or pass on their aesthetic as a composer.

In Johnson’s book, he reminds us that we have only some of Bach’s complete music available to us. Upon his death, Bach divided his manuscripts among his wife and his nine surviving children. Each of them went their own way and much of the music was lost forever.

I stopped copying my music by hand in the early 1980s, switching over to computers. However, there are many scores that were created using old, no longer available or working software, where the only copies of the pieces are print outs of those computer files. The originals are gone. (Remember Deluxe Music Construction Set? HB Engraver? Mosaic? Encore? Personal Composer?) My music since then has been copied using Finale or Sibelius software. How long will it be before those files are dead? Clearly, it is important, at least for posterity, for composers to print out on acid-free paper, final copies of their compositions, for possibly interested performers of the future — not for a composer’s glory from beyond the grave, but for the interest of performers who MAY be interested.

My cantata, “Hidden Legacies” touched thousands of lives in the early 1990s. Now, the work is a memory for those who sang and heard it, is out of print as a CD and as a score. But it was written for a particular topic and a particular time (the appearance of AIDS, “the gay cancer” as it was called at the time). That time and relevance is past, so the piece can die now. Add to this equation that the piece was written for synthesizers that no longer exists, nor the software for downloading the sounds into those now-dead instruments. I’ve come to grips with the death of that child, knowing it had its place, value, and use for many people. And knowing that it touched, and even changed lives, I am happy and honored to have been able to contribute something to the world, even if it had a short shelf-life.

I told some friends the other day that I really don’t want to be famous: I’d have to work too hard — I work too hard already, and to have to work even harder doesn’t seem attractive, regardless of the financial benefits or [relative] fame. I have had a blessed life as a composer. I have written works that have been heard and loved by many. People have loved performing my music and cursed me for not being able to get my tunes out of their heads. That’s enough fame and adulation for me.

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Fame is a bee
It has a song
It has a sting
Ah too, it has a wing.

Emily Dickinson

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[Photo by Jim Kelly: RB in front of poster for “Flashpoint/Stonewall” at Carnegie Hall — a moment of fame, three sold out performance in June 1994.]

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