Thoughts on Music: Reflections on a Musical Career

by Gwyneth Walker

(written in Seattle, WA, February 26-28, 2004)

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As I continue to travel and work with musicians around the country, I find that my values as a composer (as a human being) gain in clarity and focus. And thus, I wish to express my aesthetics in these short essays.

1. Equality

My primary value is equality. As a Quaker artist, I believe that all musical endeavors are of equal (or, potentially equal) worth. The choir rehearsing on a weekday evening, perhaps in the less-than-glamorous basement of the church, strives to make music. As does the symphony orchestra, on Saturday night, on the concert stage. The school ensemble, the community chorus, the amateur chamber group and the professional touring artists are all musicians, all living a musical experience.

And yet, support for these musicians is most often unequal. This is not simply a matter of financial support. For, realistically, the professional orchestra needs more funds than the church choir(!). Rather, this is a matter of community and personal support. It is a matter of recognition and respect. And, it is a definition of art itself.

The honest endeavor. The working with the notes. The awareness of the transcendent message of the musical language. All are present with these many musicians. This is the artistic experience

But, when wealth and prestige become associated with the arts, inequality starts to assert itself. And, the artistic expression suffers.

In some communities, all of the financial resources (and most of the media resources) are directed to support the one, professional symphony orchestra. Meanwhile, the other community ensembles, some of which involve and relate to the majority of community residents, are left out of the funding and promotional equation. This is disturbing, and unhealthy for the musical life of the community.

I do not propose, as a solution, that the financial or glamorous elements be removed from the arts! These have always been there, and they always will be. But I do suggest that we might all benefit from examining our values, and our forms of conversation, as these affect music in our community. As we may support the professional artists, and discuss their skills and performances, do we balance this with discussion and support of our local, amateur artists? Is the glowing report that we might give of hearing a world-renowned artist perform in a prestigious hall balanced by the positive remembrance of a well-enjoyed musical presentation at the local school or church? [Where did we hear the more imaginative programming, by the way?!?] Is the prestigious concert hall central to our definition and appreciation of music? Or, is the inspired performance, regardless of setting, the most basic element? Are the local performers and composers afforded equal respect to the visiting artists? Are the notes on the page what really matter? And, if so, are they not intended for us all to enjoy, as equals?

2. Integrity

Writing music is a craft. It is a skill, developed over years of training and practice. The composer is a craftsperson. There is pride to be taken in a "job well done," in "an honest day's work." Shortcuts to the compositional process are generally not effective!

The composer and the performers know when a work is well written. The form is apparent. The message is discernible. The writing is idiomatic enough to reflect knowledge of the instruments and voices involved. There is originality, combined with technical mastery of the musical language.

Honest work is reward unto itself.

But, the work is hard. The composer must be ready to undergo self-criticism. Growth is achieved through realistic self-evaluation. This is particularly challenging when the composer feels that a composition needs improvement. How frightening, yet healthy, to confront one's technical shortcomings!

Honest work means that the music speaks for itself. Putting aside external references, the work must be judged solely by the notes on the page. When the composer can display a score, and, hopefully, a recording of the score, and then allow this music to be evaluated on its own merit, reality is present.

In all of the arts, but especially music, it is possible to talk about the performance (or the composer), rather than to talk about the composition itself. To focus on names and circumstances, rather than on the notes. This can lead to a "camouflage" effect. Not the honest product.

Musical creativity flourishes when there is the "real" effort, the genuine endeavor. When the music is discussed on its own terms. When true evaluation can be expressed.

Writing music is never easy, even for accomplished composers with professional careers. Time is needed for reflection, criticism and experimentation --to allow the imagination to "play." There is the constant challenge for greater mastery of the craft. There is the voice of integrity. It is the call for beauty.

3. Benevolence and Faith

We composers can plan. We can strive for excellence in our craft, and hope that our music will reach many performers and audiences. We can "network" and organize. We can attend Conferences to showcase our music. We can send out perusal scores and recordings. We can work tirelessly on behalf of our music.

However, it is often those events and connections which we did not plan ourselves which prove to be the most beneficial, and the most wonderful! For, how can we (alone) generate the widespread performance of our music? And, how can we (alone) enable the music to enter the general repertoire?

The answer is benevolence. It is the gift of others when our music is accepted and brought to life in performance. If the music speaks to others, then it is through their receptiveness and their help that the music will disseminate. The composer cannot do this alone! The blessings of kindness and support are needed.

It is a gift to create music. And, it is a gift beyond planning when the message of the music resonates within performers and audiences. It is their gift back to the composer. And it is they who purchase and support the music so that the career can exist! A composer cannot force this to happen. A composer can, however, be ready to see these gifts when they are given -- to appreciate, enjoy and show gratitude.

It is quite possible that special people enter one's career. Individuals who champion the music can make a huge difference. Sometimes, the composer never even meets these musicians. Instead, the encouragement is an unexpected, unplanned "gift." [Unpredictable events can be delightful, and often amusing!] Perhaps, the composer might then see that the career is guided, in this manner, by faith.

There are many contributors to creating a new work, and having this work enter the widespread repertoire. This is not a career fashioned by the composer alone. One needs the musicians who commission the work, the composer, the music copyist (unless the composer is the copyist), the publisher and then the performers far and wide. Often valuable support is received from Radio Hosts, and Musical Organizations. Many contributors! The jobs of music copyist and music editor (at the publishing house) are often under-appreciated. Yet, without the loving care given by these skilled musicians, the music itself would never reach the performers!

These are gifts. This is generosity. This is benevolence in a career where one has left some room for miracles.