So You Want to Compose…

One of my projects for this fall is to do more composing. On finding myself at the local library last night, I thought to check their catalog for books that might give me inspiration or fresh insight.

There was nothing in the catalog that would be even faintly useful to me.

They have both Music Composition for Dummies and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Music Composition, but since I’m neither a dummy nor an idiot, those titles don’t sound promising. They have an online copy of Composition for Computer Musicians, so this morning I glanced at that. It’s an introduction to using the technology to write pop music. Trouble is, I already know the technology, and I don’t need an introductory text of any kind. What I need is the real skinny.

If I were a painter, I’d have a lot more books to choose from — three on using water colors, three on using pastels, and so on. I’m not saying any of these is a great book; I wouldn’t be qualified to judge. But none of them is for dummies or complete idiots.

I’m not planning to complain about this to the librarian. For one thing, the reason I was at the library last night was to attend a meeting. The head librarian was also at the meeting, and she shared some discouraging news about yet another round of budget cuts. They’re not going to be rushing out to build their collection this year, let’s put it that way.

Beyond that, I sort of understand the reason for the disparity. There’s no demand for books on composing because composing is not a socially valued activity. If I were to write a string quartet, for instance, what would happen to it? Exactly nothing. There are, to my knowledge, no actively performing string quartets here in Livermore — and if there were, I’m sure 99% of their repertoire, if not 100%, would be “the classics,” not new pieces by local composers.

There are, in contrast, several art galleries where local artists’ work is displayed. They’re not big, high-powered galleries, they’re sort of small and poky. But they exist, and they show local work. And every year there are a number of open-air art shows. Visual artists can join the Livermore Art Association, but there is no Livermore Composers’ Association. So painters have several ways to share their work with the public, and an organization that provides some form of support. Composers have none of that.

A big part of the problem is that the music industry is heavily dominated by late-stage corporate capitalism. People here in Livermore do listen to music and care about music — but most of the music they listen to is generated elsewhere (notably L.A., New York, and London) and sold to them as a commodity. If it were practical to do the same thing to painting, trust me, our corporate masters would have figured out a way to do it. Painting is still a cottage industry because it’s not so easily brought under the control of mass marketing strategies. Sure, you can buy an expensive ticket to the Monet show when it comes around, but that’s a little more trouble than switching on the car radio. And the Monet show is not going to be nearly as much fun as a Rolling Stones concert, because there will be crowds of people standing between you and the paintings!

There are other factors. No special techniques are required to start learning to paint. You just buy some stuff and try it. Composing, even at a minimal level, requires years of preparatory study. (Sure, you can buy a cheap guitar and write songs without knowing a darn thing about music … but even tuning the guitar requires training. Writing your song down on score paper so that it exists in a fixed, definite form requires more training. And that’s just the beginning.) Also, painters don’t need ensembles to perform their works. It’s just you in your studio, and when the painting is done, it’s a physical object. A music composition, in contrast, is a long string of instructions to performers, detailing how they’re to wiggle their fingers.

The computer changes that last factor, and decisively. Composers no longer need teams of players to wiggle their fingers. But the rest of the social structure hasn’t changed. As a result, composing is a far less attractive activity to the aspiring artist than painting.

I’m not planning to use these facts as an excuse to feel sorry for myself. If anything, they might make me feel privileged — a practitioner of a Black Art. Mainly, I’m just noticing what’s going on.

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