Thursday, November 14, 2013

David Carpenter, composer

David Carpenter’s music has been performed throughout the U.S., including venues at the Aspen Music Festival and School, the Oregon Bach Festival, the Brevard Music Center, and the International Double Reed Society Conference. His music has been performed by the Temple University Concert Choir and Chamber Orchestra, Network for New Music, Momenta Quartet, Pascal Gallois, the Argento Ensemble, and the Delaware County Symphony, where he was composer-in-residence for the 2012-13 season.
David held a residency at the MacDowell Colony and a fellowship at the Boyer College of Music at Temple University, where he earned a doctor of musical arts degree studying with Dr. Maurice Wright. David has taught at West Chester and Temple universities.
Eight scenes from David’s opera, The Age of Innocence, based on the novel by Edith Wharton, will be performed on Sunday, November 17, 2013 at 3 p.m. at Christ & St. Stephen’s Church, 120 West 69th Street, New York City. Admission is free.

In addition to his composing career, David does donation processing in the Advancement Department at the Curtis Institute of Music.
What is your typical schedule and the balance between Curtis and composing?

I started at Curtis in April 2012 as a part-time temp. I was made permanent in August, but still part-time; that’s the scope of the job. This job has been a blessing because I get health insurance. It’s incredible. I can’t tell you how many people are floored when I say I’ve got a part-time job with health insurance that I don’t have to pay for. I’m very lucky to have that.

I’m at Curtis for only 4 hours a day, and it goes so fast because I have to get a lot of things done. It’s almost a relief to do my job and to get away from composing for a while, and not have to check my personal email.

After 4 hours, you’re tired, and it’s dangerous to have the afternoon off because you want to take a nap. But what I do actually, is, go to a practice room and do at least a half hour of composing whether I want to or not. I have to be disciplined about it, and keep at it, because otherwise I feel like I’m not really being a composer if I’m not writing music.

I used to work in a library for 8 hours a day, which was very depressing because that’s all you get to do. You go home, and you’re tired, and you’re not feeling creative. Everyone at Curtis knows I’m part-time, and I’m glad people there know that I have this opera and this other life.
For the 2012-13 academic year, I worked at Curtis and also taught music theory, solfege, and composition at West Chester University. Having the teaching job, in addition to my Curtis job, made me feel validated as a musician. Unfortunately, due to budget cuts, my position at West Chester was eliminated for fall 2013, but I’m hoping to teach there in the spring.

But not teaching this fall allowed me to concentrate on the upcoming performance of my opera. Time is such a valuable commodity, and I’m lucky to have the afternoons free. If I was teaching the same time as Curtis and the opera, I just don’t know if I would have been able to deal with it. So I just do my job at Curtis, and no one asks me to do more than 20 hours, and then I go home and work on all the publicity and fund-raising for the opera.

Interestingly, I haven’t really composed for 2 months, because I’ve been working so hard on the opera production. But that has been very validating as well. It tells me that I have something that I think is worth showing to the world, and I have people who are willing perform it.

Tell us more about the opera.

When I was at Temple, I had a fellowship which gave me the financial stability to write a very big work for my dissertation. It’s often very difficult to get such a large work performed, but I was lucky enough to have a few scenes performed at Temple.

Donna Gill, the pianist who I worked with there, liked the piece, and suggested that we do some scenes in New York. We’re doing about an hour’s worth of scenes. Donna is doing this pro bono. She’s a wonderful pianist who’s worked at Juilliard and still works at Temple.

I will be at the final rehearsals, but Donna has worked with the singers one-on-one for the past month. You don’t want the composer there the whole time, and I trust Donna’s musicality in realizing my music. We also have a professional stage director, Andrew Chown. So the singers will not only be singing their parts, but acting them, too. And we needed only minimal staging for this production—a couple of chairs and a table.

Aaron Copland once said, “You have to be lucky.” I am lucky to have this performance happening in New York. That’s tremendous. This opera is very dear to my heart. I love the story; I love still the novel after all this time, and I really want to share this with people—that’s why this performance in New York is free.

What are your motivations for having a non-music job?

I have a doctorate in music composition, and I’m not a particularly skilled instrumentalist, so I don’t have the option of doing performance gigs. There are some composers who are wonderful pianists who can do that; I’m just not that type of musician.

I do need to supplement my composing income. I’ve done that so far with teaching or by having another job to support myself. Before Curtis, I worked in libraries and at a museum. Some people do all adjunct work; some people have another job like I do. That’s how I’ve pieced it together, and I’ve kept my identity as a musician, which has been a good thing for me.

My Curtis job gives me a stability that even if my adjunct job disappears, I have the income and I’m not paying for my own health insurance, and I am very grateful for that.

I was very fortunate to have had the fellowship at Temple, as well as a fellowship at the MacDowell Colony to work on my opera in the fall of 2010. The MacDowell residency didn’t seem real. You get your own studio, they feed you, and give you a stipend so you can pay your rent at home while you’re gone. They pay for everything, and every day I was expecting someone to give me a pail and a mop and say, “OK, clean the bathroom.” It was an amazing experience.

But that’s what they do. They see you’re serious about your work as an artist, and they make it financially possible for you to do that. You need financial grounding to do creative things, and that’s why musicians and artists are always looking for that backing.

Is there any overlap between the skills required for your Curtis work and those required for composing?

I think being a creative artist, you tend to be rather obsessive, and that’s how I tend to approach composition, working at a very detailed level.

Interestingly enough, in my job at Curtis, there’s a huge amount of detail. You’re doing the same thing over and over, but you have to interact with colleagues to make sure it’s right and consider all the people affected by what you do. I think my obsessiveness as a composer really helps in my job.

As far as how my Curtis job helps my composing, I’ve learned a lot about fundraising, which has been useful for my campaign for the opera.

I’m using Hatchfund; they know how to work with artists. First of all, you have to apply and show that you’re a serious artist. The donations are tax-deductible, and with every donation, Hatchfund asks that the donor give at least 5% more, which goes to maintaining the website and their staff. The published goal and amount raised is the artist’s money; they’re not taking a cut.

Having just begun to learn about fundraising, I have more and more admiration for the professional fundraisers in the advancement department at Curtis. The “ask” is so hard to do. It’s gotten easier, but it’s still weird. They told us at Hatchfund, sometimes the reason people don’t give is because they weren’t asked. So I’ve gone through sending mass emails to people, and I’ve been meeting people, talking to them, sending them emails, and doing the ask. It’s still difficult for me, but I have gotten results.

And I make sure to send a thank you immediately. I’ve been very good about that, and of course my job taught me that. That’s one of the biggest parts of my job at Curtis: generating thank you letters. When I see a donation to my opera, they get a thank you within 24 hours. That’s how you make them feel good about what they’ve done. Otherwise, the donors feel their money has gone into a black hole and you’re not really grateful to them. To keep track of all the donations, I have an Excel spreadsheet which lists donors’ names, my dates of contact with them, and the date and amount of their donations.

What compositions will you work on after the opera performance?

As for where things will go from there, I’m not sure. I hope the performance of the opera in New York leads to more connections, more exposure; maybe even a teaching job. For the moment, I probably would like to stay in Philly. It’s a good place to be. I can afford it, and New York is right next door.

As far as current composition projects: I have a nephew who was born in 1996; he lives in France with my brother, his father. For his first birthday in 1997, I wrote him a theme, and his present every year is a variation on that theme. So I have to get to writing variation 16 this year.

I also wrote a string trio in 2012—some Curtis students played one movement from it, and I’m trying to add two other movements to it. That’s what I was working on before the opera tidal wave. It’s always important to be composing, though that composing is a lot easier when you know you’re going to get a performance.

What advice do you have for young composers?

A composer composes. That’s the most important job. But it’s so tough to get attention. You go through a lot of self-doubt, and you wonder if it’s really worth someone’s time to listen to your music.

What I’ve learned -- and I knew this before I started my doctorate, but I know it even better now -- is to have that idealism to pursue your musical life, you have to have a financial grounding first.

It should be so obvious, but there are some people who don’t realize it early enough, especially people getting doctorates. They need to know that they’re going to have a very, very hard time getting teaching jobs in academia.

You get the doctorate to teach. There’s really no other reason to get it. The problem is, schools churn out so many people with doctorates in the humanities, and so few can find jobs. Schools don’t seem to want to deal with this real, practical problem. It’s not that I don’t think people should get doctorates. I was grateful for my experience at Temple, and I’m glad I did my doctorate there.

But I think it’s unfair, especially for people in their 20s, to get accepted into these programs, go into huge amounts of debt, and then have little chance of actually landing a teaching job. So being able to interact in a positive way with people who are willing to support you financially is very important for a composer. And you don’t have to give up your integrity as an artist to do this.

That’s the other thing that I think artists have to be really savvy about: You have to be able to relate to a potential donor, to give someone a reason for being excited about what you’re doing, which is not easy. And even if they are interested, sometimes they need a little nudge to make that financial commitment—often they want to give, but they’ll put off giving because they’re so busy. It’s hard to motivate people, but I think artists need to be really aware of how to connect with people.

If you just put yourself out there, you might get some nice surprises, because people really do want to help. I think that young composers need to know how to deal with financial realities, especially if they’re getting a master’s or a doctorate in composition. If you really want the degree, by all means pursue it, but I would avoid going into debt at all costs, and be sure to have a plan for making ends meet once you’re out of school. Being a composer is a wonderful thing, and I wouldn’t give it up for anything, but just be ready for a serious uphill climb to be successful at it.

Learn more about David’s opera here.
Photo (c) by Joel Perlish.


  1. Thank you for the read. Honestly you covered the topic and broadly examined all areas. If i was to write this i would have done a few things differently myself but you have definitely inspired me to get into the world of blogging. Thanks heaps for the post i really appreciate it. Have a good day and keep blogging:)

  2. I truly relish whilst I go through your blogs and articles.florida mobile homes for sale