Sep 292009

Yesterday evening, after staying up too late to watch two episodes of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” while knitting as I’m wont to do I happened to stumble upon a documentary on Steve Reich on TV. Of course I had to watch it.

I have loved Steve Reich’s music ever since I first heard about it in school. I had a very extraordinary music teacher in grades 11 through 13 who broadened our musical horizons whether we wanted to or not. To me it was as if I had just waited for something like this for all my life. It was there that I first heard contemporary composers, African drumming, and such, and her lessons were quite different than the ones I was used to before.

The funny thing is that I all but forgot about this kind of music. So yesterday I switched channels on my TV and all of a sudden there was this guy talking, and I thought, “I know him. who’s that?” and then there was “Music for Pieces of Wood”, and I thought, “Oh yeah, Steve Reich. How do I know this piece? I don’t have a recording of this, so why do I know every single note? Oh – I’ve played this in university.”

While I sat there, completely transfixed, my husband entered the room. He opened the door, took one look at the screen where Tehilim was played and said, “Steve Reich.” Matter of fact. And I thought, “This is why I love this man. He doesn’t even ask if this is about Steve Reich, he just knows it.” Even though he didn’t know that piece of music before.

Since then I have been in thinking mode again. About music, and the kind of music I love, about things I keep forgetting about even though I love them, and how much I’d like to make music that has that kind of feel to it, how I keep forgetting that one can not only make songs but music that consists of rhythmic patterns and transmutations, music that uses the human voice as an instrument instead of the main focus of everything, and about the fact that I don’t play drums anymore which is a bit weird but okay with me.

And, together with my husband, I have been thinking about living the life of a composer. Not that I’m in any danger of doing so, since that would require me to actually compose some music first, but my husband would very much love to spend his life inventing and playing music and being able to make a living of that.

And we found ourselves wondering how does someone like Steve Reich do it? Where does his money come from? Does he do his own laundry? Is he married? With children? I looked him up on wikipedia and found that yes, he is married and has a son, his income seems to come mostly from grants, commissioned compositions and touring, but I couldn’t find out anything about the laundry and the dishes and such.

Which is a shame. I would like it very much if I could learn more about the actual living conditions of other artists. Especially those who are able to earn a living by making their art. I know a bit more about writers thanks to writers who blog. But musicians don’t seem to take to blogging.

I know how my husband does it, getting up in the morning, doing household chores, cooking, folding laundry, trying to squeeze in a bit of guitar playing before lunch, then some time with our son before teaching, and teaching, and teaching, in between doing a bit of housework again, answering e-mails, making phone calls, teach some more, preparing dinner when he’s already feeling starved, playing the guitar again while waiting for our son to fall asleep, and then, finally, at the very end of the day, at the time where he feels like falling into bed, he goes back to the very same room that he spent his whole day in and works on his own music. For me that’s the time when I slump down in front of TV, the time where my energy is completely depleted and I’m running on empty.

I guess he is too. But – as you can see by my example – it’s either making music on empty batteries in the evening or it’s not making music at all. And then, after he has spent evening after evening recording, mixing, recording additional instruments, learning how to play drum set because he doesn’t have a drummer, learning how to record, adding more layers, other instruments, mixing some more, my husband really is too exhausted to go out and sell his music.

Because that’s the other thing. These days it takes him several years to make an album anyways. In the end he’s usually so fed up with that huge thing that ate his life for the past years that he just puts it away in a drawer. Both him and me aren’t any good at marketing. And to be frank, this isn’t something we are really interested to learn. We’d both love to have someone else take care of the advertising and selling part. In fact, we’d both love to be able to give the music away for free, something we both have doing for years now, if only somebody would pay our rent and such.

Steve Reich is really exceptional. He is so in many ways but also in that he isn’t teaching. Most composers do one way or another. Most musicians do. My students always think that a musician is someone living the life of a rock star, always on tour and/or in the studio. Well, I know a lot of musicians and most of them are teaching to earn a living. Some of them are also playing in bands on weekends, a lot of the ones I know have jobs that don’t have anything to do with music but you’ll find that the minute they have children on top of their jobs the music has to give way.

Music is cruel. You can’t just set it aside when you don’t have the time and pick it up again later. Much like an athlete you have to stay in training. After a short while your muscles get weak, you lose your calluses, your dexterity, and the ability to play the music you hear in your head. When you put too much other stuff into your head, housework, organizational detail, advertising, finances, mindless blubber, and when you stop listening to music because you “don’t have the time”, you even lose the music in your head.

I know all about it, it has happened to me. My head full of things I have to do, things I have to remember, and places I have to go, my life empty of space to just sit down and listen to something or play, I felt as if I had died inside.

Just the other day I was walking down the street and thinking about what the ideal life would look like to me, and I found (as I always do) that I’d be perfectly happy to spend my life writing both words and music, creating whatever strikes my fancy. And my husband as well. Right now we seem to cram creativity into the nooks and crannies of our already very busy lives. And often there is no space for creativity left.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not jealous of Steve Reich, it’s just that living the life of a composer, or the life I imagine a composer like him to have – which might have nothing to do with reality – seems like a wonderful thing to me.

  2 Responses to “The life of a composer”

  1. I suppose some of the answers would come if you knew if his wife takes care of most of the mundane details of life. Or if the grants enable him to hire a personal assistant.

    In my mind’s eye, the life of an artist is solitary, child-free, unconventional – a bit of a blank slate upon which to work. I’m sure that cannot be realistic.

  2. That was wonderful read! Thanks for sharing your impressions on this great composer.

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