I listened to a lot of music growing up, mostly from my parents’ living room stereo. They liked a mix of rock, blues, and alternative singer-songwriters from their own generation, as well as some highlights from the Western classical tradition. These styles formed two separate categories in my head – one current and accessible, and the other canonical. Some historians and musicologists would cringe at such a neat classification, but I would not be alone in drawing a hard line between Hendrix and Mozart still today.
The differences between Hendrix and Mozart, or really between any two representatives of distinct musical communities, are complex – but so are the similarities. Both were wildly popular innovators who responded to a particular society at a particular time. Music connected them to some of their contemporaries, even while setting them apart. Consider that few classical musicians would claim to measure up to Mozart, just as few blues or rock guitarists would claim to measure up to Hendrix, but most musicians in their respective traditions have been influenced by their creativity.
As I listened to music in my parents’ living room, ‘measuring up’ was not on my mind. I didn’t think of music as a way of comparing and evaluating people. It wasn’t until college that I began to set my sights on a place of honor in the music history textbooks and the pop music charts. It was in part the textbooks themselves that changed my perspective from a playful child to an aspiring young adult. One of my college professors also deserves some credit (or blame) for that transition. She laid out very clearly for me the hierarchy of classical music composition, and talked about relevance in terms of one’s position in that hierarchy.
Being impressionable and competitive, I set about finding my place in history, even while nursing private, suppressed fantasies about life as a twenty-first century troubadour. I lost my playfulness and gained skill as a composer. My music shifted from being an avocation to being a vocation, as I began to focus on career options behind the value music brings to society. The sound of my music shifted away from some of what I had listened to in my parents’ living room.
I spent a few years trying and failing to break into the inner sanctum of the classical music world. I connected with some talented, successful musicians, and received some notable requests for new music, but my applications to doctoral programs were rejected and jobs outside academia were impossible to come by. I reflected on my failure and came to some important insights. First, my skill as a composer and my creativity as an artist were only one piece of the puzzle. Like it or not, I was playing a political game. Second, I was playing it poorly, because I did not want to play politics.
I was lucky to be in Alaska when I came to those realizations. Here were communities that were thirsty for music and places that would inspire me deeply. I gave up striving and returned to playfulness. I stopped knocking on the closed doors of elitist communities and began to contribute to the people around me. And although being an Alaskan musician can be frustrating, it is also very rewarding.
This transition did not happen overnight. After a few years, it is still incomplete, but it has produced a few more important insights. We do not need to see our names in history books to use our talents well. We don’t have to please professors who hold different attitudes formed in different cultures in order to develop as artists. Music is between us, not above us, and we would be happiest if we let it connect us.
Michael Dickerson is an Anchorage composer, writer, and educator. He is a board member at Northern Culture Exchange and a 2020 Rasmuson Individual Artist Award recipient.