Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

“Starting out in the business, the key issue for me was, ‘What does it take to be a filmmaker in Hollywood?’ Even today I still wonder, ‘What does it take to be a filmmaker, or maybe even an artist, in Hollywood?’…What is the price you pay, to work in Hollywood? Do you end up with a split personality? Do you make one for them, one for yourself?”

This quote comes from the mouth of Martin Scorsese in his landmark documentary “A Personal Journey With Martin Scorsese Through American Movies,” and though the great director is discussing life as a filmmaker, his words resonate with a truth that applies to any of the arts.

Of course, it’s unlikely many artists ask themselves this type of question in the music world, where such a duality isn’t quite as blurry, but it’s an idea worth exploring. In the realm of new classical and “art music” especially, it’s likely the question is posed even less, if only because, even for the most successful composers, the sort of success that comes with Top 40 charts and multi-platinum record sales (though even that’s not much of an indicator of success nowadays with the advent of various new media outlets to get your music out with) is unlikely to happen.

That doesn’t make the question impertinent to the field of classic and art music, however. We still might ask ourselves how one composer’s music gains recognition when ours feels, well, better, or more artistically-minded. Part of this is simple ego- if the other composer’s getting attention, why aren’t I?- and part of it is simple prejudice. (Their music isn’t as good as mine. How are they getting recognition?) Right or not, this is the sort of thinking at the heart of the idea in Scorsese’s quote above.

So that said, what does it mean to be a successful composer of new music? All things being subjective, I’m inclined to go with a basic criteria of live performances, recognition from critics and colleagues, and an ever-expanding fan base. This isn’t to say that composers who lack these things are “bad” composers- as with film, great success does NOT always equal great artistry (and vice versa, lack of success does not equal lack of artistry). But this can cause a dilemma for the creative spirit within.

It is a sad truth of the world that great art- all things being subjective, of course, with each person having their own definition- is often not the most popular with the general public. The best movies aren’t always the most successful at the box-office, with the same being true of theatre. The best books aren’t necessarily the most popular reads. And the best music is not necessarily the most popular with the masses. These things haven’t always been the case, and they aren’t always the rule. But it can be discouraging to the true artist when articles are written about the latest mega-blockbuster hyped by Hollywood or the latest mechanized pop album by an artist with little or no real discernible talent, while no print is devoted to an undiscovered masterwork by a new talent.

Of course, this is less the case in regards to movies- where if executives even get a whif of awards buzz thrown a smaller film’s way, they get the marketing team on it ASAP- than it is music. But the modern music business is, in itself, a very tough nut to crack, simply because, more than any other art, music is an art so divided by genre labels that each “genre” has its’ own levels and standards for success. In movies, at least all of the genres are ultimately guided towards success with the almighty dollar. πŸ™‚

Even when the definitions of success are taken into context of a composer’s respective medium, things can get discouraging. What happens when your friends and colleagues can’t even be bothered to give you their 2 cents, or even the time of day if they feel there’s someone more important to focus their attention onto? With the former, it’s easy to forgive- lives are busier than ever before. It’s hard enough to get 5 minutes in to do the dishes, let alone listen to the latest work of an artist you admire, or are even friends with. (Especially hard when the piece is longer than 5 minutes… πŸ™‚ .) But the latter can mean hurt feelings and long contemplation on whether we matter to others around us, much less are than respected by our “fan base,” if we don’t even get acknowledged by those we respect.

Let’s look at another quote:
“Great cooking is not for the faint of heart. You must be imaginative, strong hearted. You must try things that may not work. And you must not let anyone define your limits because of where you come from. Your only limit is your soul. What I say is true, ‘Anyone can cook.’ But only the fearless can be great.”

This quote comes from Chef Gusteau, the French chef the rat Remy admires in “Ratatouille,” last year’s animated jewel added to the crown of Pixar Animation Studios, and a movie that’s become one of my favorites. In the context of the film, it’s topic is cooking, but it’s fundamental truth is universal to all of the arts. As Roger Ebert has said, the more specific a story is, the more universal it becomes.

It’s not the end of the world if our art, or ourselves, are not readily acknowledged as it’s being created. To those who snub us, it’s their loss. And it’ll mean success, and acknowledgement, when it comes will be all the sweeter and satisfying. But such discouragement can lead to rash choices (including simply quitting), which will only further our status as “fringe players” in the ever-expanding field of artistic creation, or probably worse, guarantee our art goes unrecognized outside of our friends and loved ones.

But nothing can squelch true passion, true vocation. The true artist will feel like a part of them is missing if they aren’t making art. True, sometimes we’ll experience greater creative inspiration than others, but that doesn’t necessarily mean our artistic well is dry, and inspiration can hit us at any moment. As Father Brian’s mentor says to him in “Keeping the Faith” (another film that’s a very favorite), “You cannot make a real commitment, unless you realize, that it’s a choice, that you keep making again and again…I’ve been a priest over 40 years, and I fell in love at least once every decade.”

Originally, this blog was going to use the Scorsese quote as a springboard to discuss the duel nature of music as both an artistic venture as well as a commercial one. But I got stuck. However, inspired by two recent readings, a more tantalizing and provocative discussion emerged, dealing with no less than the very psychology of the creative mind. Hence the title. πŸ™‚

But more on that in the next blog. For now, that should give you enough food for thought for a while. Sure, it sounds pretentious, but it’s a subject close to my heart…and generally on the tip of my brain. As with everything else, you write about what you know. Isn’t that what the best blogs are?

Thanks for listening. Till next time.

Brian Skutle

Check out Brian’s new composition, entitled “Entr’Acte”, right here on Sonic Cinema at the Music page.

Categories: News, News - Music

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