The other day in Chicago a composition student at Roosevelt University where I serve as a member of the Artist Faculty asked me how to “cultivate his career.” I closed my eyes for a moment, listened to the radiator in the grand old Chicago Auditorium Theater Building clank, and realized with a start that the look on my face was probably pretty close to Marlon Brando’s in his final scene with Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now. “Are you okay?” he asked. I rubbed my chest, sighed, and smiled.
“Tell me about your value system,” I replied. “Are you a mindful individual? What are your goals as a person? How does making art manifest those goals? If you aren’t yet clear about those goals, then asking yourself what you want to be doing in five, ten, or twenty years is putting the cart before the horse just as surely as a child’s finger painting is precious, but it hasn’t the same intrinsic artistic value as a Da Vinci line drawing.”
“I envy you your passion,” he replied. “So why did you look so pained when I asked about how to ‘cultivate my career?’”
“One cultivates a garden, not a career,” I replied, warming to the subject. “Art doesn’t need Us, but we need Art. I, for example, am obsessively shy and private, yet, when I talk about Art, I feel only humility and passion. This is typical of people who are committed to something larger and more important than themselves and their personal actuation.”
“But I want to be a ‘success’,” my young friend persisted. “How can I be one?”
“Well, bearing in mind that only you can define what constitutes ‘success,’ I can tell you that you’re on the wrong track if you think that receiving and executing high profile prizes or commissions constitute anything but a limited sort of ‘success’—a fleeting, superficial kind. I’m all for ‘creating opportunities’ but that ‘cultivation’ must be in the service of a vision / project greater than simply piling on another ‘commission’ to write another piece: running around at top speed taking meetings and generating interest in your work that will evaporate the moment you stop hectoring people is the worst misunderstanding of what ‘cultivating’ people is, or at least ought to be.”
“Success to me means people loving my music,” he said, a little hurt.
“Now, there you’re on the right track,” I reassured him. “For me, connecting through music with other human beings is everything. If I can emotionally connect with one person in the room and move them to do good, I’ve made a start. People rarely ‘love’ a piece of serious music—it’s not a popularity contest, after all. But antagonizing people who’ve handed over precious moments of their lives to you is the height of arrogance and selfishness. Furthermore, simply pasting some sort of ‘socially relevant’ message on top of an otherwise abstract musical utterance (and all music is essentially abstract, whether one wants to admit it or not) does a disservice to the cause—whatever it is.”
“You make ambition sound like a bad thing,” he said, quietly.
“Not at all. I’m all for drive. Drive and, above all, resilience. Taking risks in your Art is the only sure way to generate rejection from certain quarters. And, since ‘rejection’ is about the only thing an Artist can really count on in the long run, learning how to tolerate it is critical. Artistic ambition is crucial; professional ambition is, in the long run, sort of a bore after one has figured out the relationship between their Art and the Marketplace. Profitable music isn’t better; it’s just more profitable.
“Do you compose every day?” he challenged me.
“Of course. I’m composing right now. The goal is to ‘become music,’ not Me. I achieved this through the acquisition of comprehensive musical technique and countless hours writing, practicing, reading, listening, and performing music and literature. People change, situations are fluid, money comes and goes. I’ve told people for two decades that all I want to do is to learn how to write a decent opera. I expect Anton Coppola, aged 103 and conducting his latest opera, feels the same way. That’s when the irony of the situation becomes the most bittersweet: just as you begin to figure out how its done, you’ve run out of time to do it. When people tell you that they know ‘how it’s done,’ or that they ‘know what they’re doing,’ you should take them at their word and distrust most of what they say, because they have stopped learning.”
“Aaron Copland once wrote that he answered every letter within 24 hours and that that was a key to being a good professional,” he said.
“What a good man he must have been,” I responded warmly. “Again, it’s a values thing: simply be kind to people. I have learned that, for me at least, figuring out which letters to ignore has been helpful. Turning things down. Knowing when to walk away. When to stop. Avoiding toxic situations. Letting people be who they are and not who I want them to be or to have been. In the end, being a composer is a vocation, not a career. We are both secular priests and simple entertainers who speak truth to power. Not for nothing did a certain real estate magnate belittle the ‘Queen of Soul’ as ‘someone who worked for him’ when she died. We exist as an antidote to people like that. That’s a calling worth cultivating.”
I looked out the window at the El as it swept by and wondered if the young composer sitting in front of me had read Heart of Darkness or heard Brando’s line reading of “The horror.” I drew the music for the lovely piece he’d brought with him toward me, pulled my glasses down to the tip of my nose so that I could make out the notes, and his music filled my brain as I read. “So beautiful,” I said aloud. I scanned ahead. “So many trivial notation problems that you should clear up before this music goes on the stands. Now let’s talk about the difference between Power and Authority.”