Get with the program

Contrary to what my previous post might let on, I am not in fact spending this absurd amount of free time not making. I am learning… Android development! With a little nudge from a friend (from a musical theater writing workshop I’m in, of all places), I picked up Big Nerd Ranch’s beginner-friendly Kotlin Programming in early March, which introduces basic programming principles with the shiny, very modern Kotlin language. I spent a few weeks with it before moving on to the same publisher’s Android Programming, which covers more advanced techniques specific to the Android framework. Two months into the whole enterprise, I’m two thirds of the way through the second book, inching my way out of a particularly difficult chapter about HTTP and background tasks. I have a few simple apps built with the same book’s guidance, and one entirely from scratch as a personal project (a scoreboard), which I released to the Google Play Store yesterday for publication. Do I have any clue what I’m doing? No. But I’m enjoying myself.

It’s a tired old cliché to dream of quitting a steady, well-paying job to pursue a true “passion,” usually something artistic in nature. Not me. I have been dreaming, on and off, for years about making a career change to something far away from music as possible. I don’t know how to explain this fully and well. Obviously, I am not 22 anymore; I want to actually get paid for working; I want to be able to support a family of my own in the not-too-distant future. But, you ask, if I had all the material success in the world as a composer, if all that time and effort had actually paid off, would I still be feeling the mysterious tug toward something else? It’s easy to get comfortable in success (so I’ve heard—I wouldn’t know!), but alas, that has not been my lot. My perennial lack of happiness in the music profession, supposedly my area of “talent,” is just my cross to bear—and at this time, the profession is all but nonexistent. Is tech the answer? I don’t know. But it’s dangling in front of my face like a fat carrot, my calendar is empty, and I’m going all in.

There are some surprising (or not that surprising?) parallels between composition and programming. In my opinion, it makes complete sense as a path for a trained composer. Both satisfy the same impulse to build; both involve organizing basic elements into something logical, harmonious, and bigger than the sum of its parts; both are easy to romanticize. But programming is undoubtedly more objective: code works or it doesn’t; music doesn’t unless it does. You can write bad music and be far more popular than someone who writes good music. Can you write bad code and still be successful? I guess I’ll find out for myself.

Keep making? Some thoughts

I recently came across what I thought was a compelling and somewhat provocative essay by one Nicholas Berger called “The Forgotten Art of Assembly (Or, Why Theatre Makers Should Stop Making).” The author articulates many of the same thoughts I have been having about the now-constant storm of lockdown-induced virtual performance, which I have been either too afraid or lazy to express—afraid to sound like a grumpy snob (though this would not be surprising to anyone who knows me well), or lazy because, well, frankly I’m just not that invested anymore in music or art as industry. Whatever I have to say about this matter is inevitably colored by own disgruntlement, so… make of it what you will.

The way I see it, the conflict seems to be this: that there are those for whom the love of artistic creation entails a turning inward, a certain impractical slowness and non-concern for business; and then there are those for whom it is nothing but make, make, make, and make sure the whole world sees. There are of course merits to either side, and in between is possibly an entire spectrum, in which where we fall is determined by individual temperament (kind of like politics)—but in the last decade that I’ve tried to have an honest go at this profession (or “profession,” more like), which has coincided with the explosion of social media, I have noticed that it is those in the latter camp, by far, whom fortune favors.

So whatever we can observe about this current state of affairs, it is not new; it has been happening for a long while now, and this whole coronavirus business has simply accelerated it to the point of absurdity. What are we to do? We can’t just tell people to stop doing what they’re doing. Performing artists have suffered especially from the lockdowns and social distancing measures; our “non-essential” jobs were among the first to go. People have to stay afloat somehow and do everything within reach to stay relevant. But again, none of this is news; tightened conditions have simply raised the stakes a little higher. I have always found something a little degrading in the ever-increasing need, if one wishes to have an artistic career at all, to be constantly seeking attention and fighting for scraps. Those with stomachs for such a fight—and I can only see it getting even more brutal from here—will simply have to keep on fighting; the reward is always there (maybe?) for anyone willing to be the last person standing.

As for me, well… perhaps I and any others who share my temperament are better off not inhabiting the same space as those who are playing the game, as it were. Is it important to make, make, make? It depends; if to “keep making” means to have to compete more frantically than ever for attention in digital space—and for what reward exactly? Certainly not a living wage—then I would prefer not to. Different strokes, perhaps; but whatever anyone’s inclination, I would gently submit that any self-respecting artist ought to be willing to ask if they are making anything of true substance or are simply adding to noise. Sometimes the distinction can be quite subtle.