A Machiavellian Guide to Becoming a Composer

A Machiavellian Guide to Becoming a Composer

A Machiavellian Guide to Becoming a Composer

Painting of Niccolo Machiavelli

I am currently reading the very interesting 48 Laws of Power, which is sort of an updated version of Machiavelli’s controversial work but with a modern perspective. I started thinking, becoming a world-renowned composer is a process not unlike overthrowing a medieval princedom, so what would Machiavelli’s advice be to young 21st-century composers?

So moral judgment cast aside, a blatantly careerist approach to becoming a composer. And naturally, none of this has anything to do with music.

When you’re young, find a shtick and stick to it

If people don’t know you, they can’t develop an opinion on your music. Yet we are bombarded by stimuli and competing voices all the time, so to cut through that noise you need to hammer on a consistent, easy-to-grasp message that they will remember. This means finding a shtick, and drilling away on it in derivative forms until you become known for it. Once you’re “the singing cats guy” or whatever, you’ll get steady commissions and less successful composers will resent you—ride this wave for a while and milk it for what it’s worth. But eventually people will start to get bored with your shtick. At that point, you can break out of the mould and cause an aesthetic controversy, like Bob Dylan going electric. If you switch too early though, people will forget you and turn their attention to the next composer with the next shtick.

Say you’re an iconoclast, but don’t write iconoclastic music

Art is supposed to be about originality, and the history of music has left us with a story of powerful iconoclasts changing the world. So the people who support your art want to believe that you are doing the same thing. But if you really do blaze too many trails early on in your career, nobody will notice you. It’ll be too far from their frame of reference, they won’t see why they should bother to try to understand your work, and you’ll toil in obscurity unless you happen to get lucky and be rediscovered later in life, like Varese or Partch. But for every of those, there are thousands who never left obscurity. Once you do achieve some measure of fame, then you can actually be an iconoclast, but until then, you need to be secretly conservative while claiming to be radical. Of course, many artists will see right through this, talk trash about you, and shun you. But once you’re powerful and truly start to innovate, they will begin to doubt their initial impressions and begrudgingly accept that you are a real artist, even though they hate you for it.

Pick an aesthetic camp and defend it

People love to compartmentalize, and despite the rhetoric to the opposite, artists and art lovers are no different. They’re busy putting you into a neat little box (if they notice you in the first place), and the more clearly defined that box, the better they remember you. Steve Reich didn’t become famous by sort of writing repetitive music but still keeping some of that total-serialism goodness in there just to spice it up. No, he went whole hog: repetition was to be the future of music (at least his), whether audiences liked it or not, and that let people put him in a box. Once thoroughly categorized by a large number of people, demand for your music grows.

Kiss the asses of more successful composers

If you find yourself having relatively little sway in the community of composers, find some more successful composers and befriend them. They won’t actively do anything to help you out, but you will learn stuff from them: how they interact with other people, what they talk about, and what their biases and weaknesses are. You can then use that information in your interactions with others, whether by subtly cutting down your competition, or simply choosing battles you are more likely to win. Subtly is the key though, you need to appear magnanimous at all times and as if your successes come to you effortlessly due to your unbounded creative genius. If you figure this out, then the tables will turn and the formerly successful composers will come sucking up to you instead.

Copy your teachers just enough that they like you

Given the generation gap, your composition teachers may be more likely to actually help you out career-wise than your peers, because they don’t see you as a threat. Especially with older teachers, they are trying to pass on a legacy and if you impress them they will use you as proof of their genius as a compositional mentor. But the reality is that most composers like what they like and they’re most interested in the concepts they use in their music. Doing something very different from what your teacher likes will not make them interested in your work—remember, they have very little incentive to try to figure out what your aesthetic project is. Blatant copying won’t get you very far either, but if you work somewhere within their style, they will be impressed. But don’t innovate too much, because outshining the teacher can lead to insecurity on their part and they may withdraw their support. It’s a fine line.

Go to all the summer institutes

You need to know all the people in the scene, and one of the best places to meet them is at summer institutes like Darmstadt or Bang on a Can. Bring a piece that is flashy and will impress people with a limited attention span, because there will be a lot of music and nobody’s really listening to anyone’s piece except their own anyway. If you know some of the teachers/faculty, make your relationship public in front of the other participants in order to make yourself appear more powerful. If you don’t know them, introduce yourself at the first occasion or at least try to make it seem like you have some connection to them without overtly brown-nosing. Use these institutes to appear successful and powerful among your peers. That will draw them to you and you will be in a better position to manipulate them to achieve your own goals.

Apply for every competition and get to know the jury

Competitions are a good way to develop authority early on in your career. However, most competitions are won by people that know the jury, either due to blatant favoritism, or because the winning composer wrote something that appealed to the jury’s aesthetic. So get to know jury members whenever you can, and if they like you, make sure they know you are submitting something. You don’t want to tell them which piece, that would be too obvious and nobody likes to feel used, but they’ll figure out which one is yours through your style, if they’re interested in supporting you.

If on the other hand they don’t like you, then you’re best off submitting a piece that is closely aligned with their aesthetic leanings, since juries overwhelmingly pick composers that sound like them. After all, they’re going through hundreds of submissions and nobody has the mental energy to fairly adjudicate all of them, so they default to what’s most appealing to them: their own style. But as with the teacherly advice above, don’t try to outshine the jury—just create a well crafted, forgettable piece that will wow them in the moment and make them feel like their legacy is spreading to a new generation of composers.

Learn to drop names, opus numbers, etcetera

In social settings, composers often compete with each other in terms of name dropping and other feats designed to show how thoroughly composerly they are. (As an aside, if you really do love all this kind of stuff and you don’t like the politics of composition, you might be better served by a career in music criticism.) However, regardless of your natural proclivities, you need to be able to impress strategically. You will get tested with probing questions, the purpose of which is to establish the pecking order, so make sure you come out on top by being able to say something impressive-sounding about some famous composer, performer, recording, or similar. However, avoid getting drawn into an extended conversation, keep your name dropping to impactful sound bites.

Don’t talk too much

Nobody can keep up an air of brooding creative genius if they can’t keep their mouth shut. Invariably, the more you talk, the more people see that you’re not so much better than them and they stop respecting you. Yet most composers happily engage in all sorts of useless philosophical talk about the nature of creativity, the underfunded state of the arts, the best notation for this and that extended technique, and other topics that are irrelevant to becoming a successful composer (or a good one). Eventually someone will counter your point in a way you can’t respond to, or worse yet, they’ll just silently come to the realization that you’re not all you’re hyped up to be.

Better to stay above these types of conversations, using short closers that demonstrate how you are so much beyond this type of discussion. Or, if you do have to participate in some way, keep your comments to vague statements that partially contradict themselves, things that will make people ponder what the deeper wisdom behind your words is. Ideally, such comments should also get other people to open up more so you can reap the benefit of the flip side of the rule.

Be everyone’s friend but don’t help any of them

Your friends will never help you in your career or in becoming a better artist. They will either be secretly jealous of your successes or they will hide your faults from you out of pity. Yet having lots of friends is useful, because it allows you to see their faults and weaknesses, which can then be turned against them. Or at the least, you can learn from their mistakes and avoid falling into them in the first place.

You should also make the effort to appear to be helping your friends in their careers. People can’t resist the urge to return a good deed, often with disproportionate interest. Sociologist Phillip Kunz proved this in 1974 when he sent Christmas cards to 600 strangers, got 200 replies back that year, and continued to get cards annually for the next 20 years. The more you can fein to do them a good turn, the more people will bend over backwards to do actual good things for you. Occasionally, you may be tempted to reciprocate in kind with actual helpfulness. Resist this urge. Your friend will start to take you for granted and you will be forgotten the moment their fame eclipses yours.

Court controversy and/or an air of mystery

Nothing gets people talking about you more than controversy or some weird personality quirk. It doesn’t matter what you do, it just needs to be something that scandalizes others. Maybe you profess your hatred of Bach forcefully and frequently, maybe you steal the pieces of your peers and write satires of them—the more extreme, the better.

Next, don’t act the way people expect you to: make cryptic comments during pre-concert discussions, prominently display porn on your website, show up early for concerts but then leave part-way through the last piece of the evening.

All of these are perhaps too artificial to actually work, but once you develop a spectacle that is outrageous yet believable, people will line up to get a glimpse of what it’s all about.

Get other people to do the work for you

Composers often try to do everything themselves—they’re control freaks by nature. But there is only so much time in the day and eventually you need to delegate. Manipulate your friends into promoting your concerts for you, force your students to copy your scores for free, and above all find a way to get someone else to do the composing for you whenever possible. Stockhausen was a master of this. When you collaborate with others, make sure you get top billing, but delegate tasks so that your collaborator does the lion’s share of the work. Done skillfully, they will even thank you for it, thinking you paid them some great favor to help them in their career.

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