PPI Studios

How to Tell if You’re a Professional Composer

Earlier this month I was asked by a man who identified himself as an amateur composer to play his “Variations on Happy Birthday” for a videotape to be given to a friend of his as a birthday present. As he was paying, and I had the time, I agreed to do it. Over the several days I spent practicing, I had plenty of time to think about what it might mean to be an “amateur” composer.

Can we all agree that, in this culture, “professional” definitely has it over “amateur”? And yet, while I’d definitely consider myself a professional-level composer, I can’t say I’ve made much of my living at it. I know lots of composers with benches on that same boat. So…?

Well, the “Happy Birthday man” (as my wife referred to him) didn’t read music—this whole fifteen-minute piano solo had been transcribed by a colleague of mine, who had in turn referred him to me. Reading music is not a requirement, though—exhibit A is Irving Berlin, of course, one of the best-selling composers of all time. And, without having any idea of the actual statistic, I’d venture that there are lots and lots of people making and selling music without being able to read a note these days—maybe more than can read music.

But these variations were variations “in the style of”—mostly late romantic and early 20th-century music. I heard (and he and I talked about) Chopin, and Brahms, and Prokofiev and Copland, and I’m pretty sure I spotted a little Lizst, and who knows, maybe Shostakovich. This is what “Happy Birthday man” listened to, and this is the music he wrote.

Well, that must be the difference. We professional types are all trying to carve out individual sounds, to find our own voices.

Except—

When I was in school in the early 80’s, there was a definite orthodoxy about what kind of avenues you could travel down in search of your own voice. I distinctly remember being told not to try and write a rondo; being scoffed at for presenting a piece with a key signature; and generally being made aware that Real Composers didn’t write tonal music. I also remember our teacher addressing the composers’ symposium on the subject of the heretic George Rochberg, who had recently, after an perfectly respectable atonal career, begun writing music that sounded a lot like Brahms. His final comment: “I hope none of you grow up to become little George Rochbergs.”

As I understand it, this attitude has pretty much all gone away. While the imperative to find one’s own voice is still there, tonal centers, and even keys, are admissible parts of the toolkit. It was with this in mind that I recently decided to write a sonata for cello and piano. It uses sonata form only in the broadest sense of two theme groups, a development and a recapitulation; having gotten to this age and weight—and developed my own voice thus far under the influences I have—I’m not about to start modulating to the dominant. But it’s been a strangely liberating experience.

Except of course, if I wear my other hat—my musical theatre songwriter hat—I have no idea what the fuss is about. In that culture, yes, it’s a good thing to have an identifiable voice—except that if a show demands it, and many do, pastiche is the order of the day. While we were mixing the demo of All About The Kids at PPI studios, Chip, the engineer, an old friend, was teasing me about the various past-their-glory rockers I was obviously channeling. (Chip has recorded and mixed my music for over two decades, from my attempts to write for Muzak to my Emily Dickinson songs for string quartet and soprano. But his favorite sessions were the ones to record and mix my songs for Country Critter Jamboree, a big-headed-costumed-character show for a now-defunct amusement park in Massachusetts. To this day he refers to me as “Mr. Critter.”)

In closing, a cartoon I clipped years ago on the subject (the stains are not part of the original; this is what happens when something gets kept on my desk for years):

Maybe it’s not so bad to be an amateur after all…?