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 WAC Newsletter, October 1997
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Point of View

The following is a slightly altered reprint of my column from the Summer '97 bulletin of Composer/USA. -- AB

How Do You Define Success?

by Al Benner

Just as there are many different reasons why one composes, there are probably the same number or more responses to how one defines musical success. Since this is a field in which very few of us make a living solely as composers, success in this area might not even be a term we consider. Although I am making a broad generalization here, I suspect, success in its fullest term to most of us means we are making a living only as composers (meaning strictly through writing music); we are getting a sufficient amount of performances (and good worthwhile performances to boot); we are getting recognized for our talent and musical voice by our colleagues, those in the musical community, and the general public (and a little bit of adoration wouldn't hurt); and we are being viewed as significant and important composers in the lineage of composers (Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Bartok, Benner).

There is a multitude of us out there defining ourselves as composers. I find that most of the complaints composers have are about the lack of performances. Performances to most would signify some type of success. But how many performances? If a piece is only played once and then shelved, is that success? Is being published or having your works on CDs success? To me, that is only a significant accomplishment, providing it is a "name" publication or CD company. There is a plethora of self-publications and, providing he or she has the money, anyone now can get a CD made. That doesn't mean that individually some of these productions aren't good, just that as a measuring stick, it doesn't carry the weight that it had a number of years ago. Is winning awards a measure of success? To some extent it is depending upon the award-a Pulitzer prize is pretty significant, but before all of the non-award winners start complaining about the lack of opportunities or that "tired" argument about tonal versus non-tonal music, winning an award doesn't guarantee success or make you a better composer than a non-awarded composer.

Just as we have to decide individually why we are a composer, we all must have our own reasons why we continue to compose and pursue this "frustrating" profession. Most of us will not make livings solely as composers; most of us will not get many performances; most of us will not find our colleagues enthusiastic about our work or even willing to discuss the merits of our work if it is something different than they write; most of us will not be known or even heard by the general public; and most of us will not survive the passing of time and be recognized and played in the future. Given those facts, it is a pretty depressing field. But just because we might not make it in the future, does not mean we shouldn't continue to compose in the present. And just as we have our individual reasons why we compose, we must also have our individual definitions of success.

I think someone who calls himself or herself a composer is someone who is constantly trying to learn more about his/her craft. A good composer can write in any style and make it musically sound. I am not saying this is the reason why one should compose, but for me, I compose as a means of communication, of personal philosophy, and for the enjoyment and/or stimulation of others. I want to compose pieces that performers want to play and people want to hear-either because they enjoy it and/or because they think there is something significant about the piece.

For me, success is a series of small steps. Like so many things in life, it appears when you least expect it. Let me share a few "successes" of mine in the past few months that may either help you define your our success or, at the very least, give encouragement to some.

I was at a conference in April where the general musical direction was that of avant-garde. My flute and piano piece, To an Unborn Soul,was played. The work is based in modality and certainly was dramatically different than the majority of pieces on the program. Afterwards, a few friends came up to me and expressed pleasure in hearing the piece, but most of my colleagues said nothing. Upon leaving the building, I was confronted by a young man who certainly gave the appearance of being at that concert for the avant-garde music and asked if I was one of the composers. I said I was and he responded "oh yes, you wrote the flute piece. It was beautiful."

I was a participant in the Louisiana Sinfonietta's String Quartet Festival of New Works from Baton Rouge in May. On the last day of the Festival, there was a general concert for the public. Ten quartets were chosen and played anonymously. My Three Preludes for jazz string quartet was one of them. After all the quartets were played, the audience by ballot selected one of the quartets to receive the Audience Choice Award. I was the winner of that award.

In June my son Nicholas was baptized. As I had for his brother Albert, I wrote a song for Nicholas, Through a Baby's Eyes, to be played at that service. The pastor, who is also a very fine baritone, sang the piece with me accompanying on the piano. Albert's piece, In My Father's Arms, was also played. It was performed by the church's musical director and the church's organist/pianist. After the service, many people from the congregation sought me out to tell me how much they really liked the works. A few even said the emotional contents of these songs brought tears to their eyes. A few days later, the church pianist, whom I did not get to thank on that day, wrote me expressing her enjoyment of playing In My Father's Arms as well as hearing Through a Baby's Eyes, and would like to order both pieces for herself.

These three separate occasions, through no direct prodding or solicitation by myself, brought comments from a listening audience that my compositions in some fashion communicated to them and through that communication they were emotionally moved and/or found enjoyment upon hearing them. A young man found beauty in a melody; an audience selected my piece for recognition; a congregation was stirred by the emotion of two songs; and a performer sought me out to tell me of her pleasure in playing my work. Not the wide encompassing range of success as defined earlier, but to me it was a series of small steps in a long journey. It is why I compose and for me, it means that in some way and in some fashion, I was successful.

The following is a reprint of an Editorial that appeared in Penn Sounds, Summer issue, 1997. -- AB

Off the Top

by Harry Hewitt

I write this at 4:00 a.m. on a pleasant October morning, plagued by a cold midway through its life-cycle, and as an asthmatic, laboring mightily while I await my usual inhalation time a couple of hours away. Perhaps it's the time and circumstance that brings out the philosopher in any of us--whiling away the hours, listening to Ravel's Introduction & Allegro among others, and once again considering the nature and consequences of genius.

Here is a work, now about 72 years young, which has never left the select repertory of masterpieces for the Harp since its first performance. We all know of Ravel's meticulous watchmaker approach to composition--many days, or many weeks, a few measures at a sitting, amid much rejection. It seems the opposite of passionate spontaneity of expression. Perhaps it is. But the result is an effortless, seamless and unforced work. If one defines passion as a form of devotion, devotion as requiring discipline, then this is a passionately disciplined exposition of the nature of impressionism, and of the necessity of such a descriptive term to describe its nature. Yet the work itself is abstract and nondescriptive. Earlier masters such as Rameau, would have been comfortable with many aspects of the thematic material (though a bit startled by some of the harmonic implications). It begins so directly and sweetly and when the Harp enters a few measures later, everything is inevitable--construction, exposition, modulation, counter themes, bravura embroidery (here known as pointillism) and an absolute rightness, measure by measure, and moment by moment.

All of the above only to say to my young friends who insist on creating their works overnight or at the last possible minute, who 'don't have time' to re-write or 'think about things', and who are vastly pleased with the results and astonished that anyone would regard the work as less than perfect, all of this to say to them, lovingly, "Second thoughts (or 3rd or 4th or 5th) are often better or best."

Try to be patient with yourself. Even Mozart had to study and struggle in order to become a master of String Quartet writing. And if, with all his gifts, he devoted hours to revision, isn't it possible there may be more to composition than writing off the top? Are you so sure you've nothing at all to learn? You do have time--a lifetime, in which to consider the consequences of your creative decisions--plenty of time in which to regret hastily made pieces and ill-advised performances.

WAC Newsletter, October 1997
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