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Every now and then, when someone I meet hears that I'm a composer who writes for the concert hall (not just because I like it, but it's the work I get mostly), I am often asked if I would ever consider writing more "accessible" music, ala pop, commercial, main stream, etc. Usually I get very annoyed when I hear that. Mainly because it's already assumed that I write esoteric music that is liked only by a small intellectual crowd and the person asking hasn't even heard a note of what I've written!

It's very clear to me that all great music from all walks of life have an innate quality and expression that any listener would be affected by regardless of genre. Music is simply meant to be heard, not understood. Ok, maybe that sounds a little trite, but I think I may have proved this theory.

Recently, a CD entitled "American Portraits" arrived in stores all over the world. It contains two of my works "Streetscape" and "Deep Woods" along with the great music of Jennifer Higdon, Carter Pann, Jonathan Bailey Holland and Kevin Puts, performed by the awesome Maestro Paavo Järvi leading the awesome Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Naturally, I wanted it to be noticed. So I brought a personal copy of it to a record store in my neighborhood in NYC that would be played there all day in public. And within two days of it's release, all the copies there were sold!

This is clear proof to me that the subject of genre has absolutely nothing to do with how great a piece of music is. These customers were in the store hearing from the speakers this music of mine as well as that of Higdon, Pann, Holland and Puts. They were clearly affected by what they heard and decided to purchase. Nothing more natural.

Of course I was thrilled with this at the time. But later, I was sad because this happened only in one store and I didn't have the means and ability to get the CD played publicly like this in any of the other stores here and abroad. It's very perplexing to think that a simple gesture of getting a great recording heard in public wouldn't be made because the music is originally assumed to be esoteric and boring without even being heard in the first place.

A lot of us living artists are thought to be moral outcasts. Most of the jobs that I'm able to get are usually brief (commissions, teaching, singing gigs,etc) and these jobs irregularly come and go. It's very hard to find anything more permanent, and god help me, I've searched. Nonetheless, I am still dependent on family and friends to help me out now and then. I know I'm not the only one, but it still hurts and it makes me want to yell out sometimes.

I'm very tempted to assess blame for this current state that we artists are in. I often think of a certain powerful group of composers in the mid 20th century that seemed to write music that sounded more like a research activity than actual music (you composers know who I'm talking about). But this attitude may be more reflective of my own personal state of mind rather than the actual truth. And that's something I can't ignore. The fact is, before we judge anyone that we don't like, we still have to look at ourselves first. And that's very hard to do.

But a nice little thing happened recently. One night I was in a bar in my neighborhood and I had a great conversation with the bartender Pamela, a really cute, jaw dropping red head wearing dark glasses and a stunning tank top that almost made me drool. When she discovered that I was a composer, she then said to me: "Charles, I know this is a stupid question, but what exactly is a symphony?".

When she said that to me, instead of the usual "do you write commercial music" crap, I felt like a million bucks! It was like being in a nasty and humid swamp and finding that one beautiful sun flower. It showed me that we artists are still relevant and we all have a decent shot at getting that earthbound immortality that we're all looking for (whatever that is). Maybe I'm making too much of this little thing, but sometimes it's only the little things in life that matter. My mom certainly taught me that. Anyway, I gave Pamela a more or less concise description of what a symphony is and she didn't seem bored. :)

Overall, I'm still very proud to be an American composer and I'm proud of the works I've written. And lord knows that I truly appreciate the love and support from my family and friends who like what I do. I guess this means I'm not done yet.


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Comment by H. Archibald on April 7, 2011 at 11:55am
A very enjoyable post, CC.
Comment by Doug Lauber on March 30, 2011 at 12:52pm

Excellent post, CC. You realize you are a talented composer and so it is your duty to do what most people cannot accomplish. You have a 'gift'. You undoubtedly enjoy the process of composing and hearing your work performed. That reality exists in stark contrast to the 'culture' of our times, where a narrow stylistic niche rules the radio airwaves. We have to deal with that...

So the big question is how do you get your recordings played to a mass audience? Mozart and Bach are fine, but how do we get 'classical' radio stations to play contemporary work? I've always been against the strict categorization of musical genres because it discourages inventive experimentation. Maybe there is hope in the form of a free internet. Ultimately, a good solution is for parents to encourage their children to explore the world of music rather than be force-fed by a mainstream media.

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