It’s hard out there for a composer

Local filmmaker Kate Imbach just completed a short film about local modernist classical composer Christopher Fulkerson, who’s made his living driving a cab ever since work for composers dried up a couple decades back. He talks about how PCs vs. Macs (and pencils vs. computer programs) and the fall of the Soviet Union impacted his profession, and also drives the camera all around the Mission. See for yourself:

26 Responses to “It’s hard out there for a composer”

  1. And...... says:

    ….that’s why you drive a cab. :-/

    Great short film!

  2. A composer who doesn't drive a taxi says:

    “Very often I get told that I’m the only composer somebody’s ever met…”

    Ditto. That said, you can make a great living composing for TV and Film. However, no amount of pencils will make that happen: Being computer savvy is practically required, regardless of genre. Describing modern composing as “elitist” or “populist” sound more like excuses for personal shortcomings or lack of success than legitimate critique.

    • Devoid of identity, you recommend an alternative I do not seek, and attempt a put-down because I happened to mention my pencils? Hiding behind an pseudonym that does not prevent your own shortcomings from being seen, such as missing the point and merely attacking another. And who mentioned elitism?

      • Pseudonym says:

        Yes, many people comment online without revealing their identity. Maybe if you weren’t so busy demonizing technology this might be more obvious? I have not missed the point, but rather you are refusing to accept your own reality… A full-time cab driver who compares himself to Julius Caesar? When you’re done mentally masturbating in here, then you might be capable of discussing shortcomings, especially your own. Especially since you denounce two rather accomplished composers as not even being composers? What a laugh!

        • bryan says:

          dude ,fuck off. i bet u got less talent then shit. just leave the guy allone. i totaly understand what he mains and im just an 18yo composer from the netherlands ;) .

          even if you do use the computer ( notation programmes ) its stil fukin hard to get ur music out there.ur only a composer if you can composer without pc , so in your head and writing it down on paper. if not ? ur not accomplished composer. i like to cal these people ( most of them ) song writers.
          anyways none of my concerns. i am doing well:) going to perform my new pianoconcerto in greece next year ;)

  3. ... says:

    There is a very healthy scene of living composers in the Bay Area. The commissions and world premieres have not dried up, and some of them even write in pencil. All of the musical images in this video, as well as his historical references, are more than 75 years old. Contemporary composition is not in peril, but his particular brand of academic, European post-war modernism has certainly seen better days (the 50s). Steve Reich and Philip Glass have long since quit driving cabs themselves (which they both did at one time). The uninteresting content of his music, along with his slightly arrogant and defeatist attitude, are more likely factors in his total obscurity than the poor state of modern music.

    • blah says:

      Yeah when you end up devoting your life to producing content that nobody wants you can either blame the world or blame yourself. This guy blames the world, seems to think he’s entitled to acclaim because he’s smart, and assumes that if he’s marginalized it’s because the public has the values of Stalin and Hitler.

      When I was making pop music and nobody wanted it, I blamed myself, recognized my own limits to make money through that medium, and stopped jerking myself off. The problem was not the values of the world. The problem was, as Samuel Johnson would have said if he were a contemporary music critic, “your music is both good and original. But the part that is good is not original and the part that is original is not good.”

      • blah says:

        but dammit I just promised myself I was going to stop using the internet to express negativity. The truth is I have no idea whether this guy deserves more acclaim, and got only the faintest impression of his music in the film. It’s an interesting little movie.

        • ... says:

          The impression is faint because the only music of his featured is a brief excerpt of a midi realization of what is ostensibly an orchestral piece.

          From his bio (

          “He now writes in what he calls the High Modernist idiom.” Ugh.

          “He has not been greatly honored for his efforts, but has occasionally received various small awards…” Why would you say that?

          “Christopher Fulkerson remains a fire-breathing, unrepentant and intransigent modernist; it is his only genuine musical love, and he should not be believed when he pretends, for example for reasons of courtesy, to have more than a professional use for any other kind of music.” This pretentious attitude is a big reason this type of music was never very popular in America. Meanwhile, everyone else has moved on. His music is not suffering because of its complexity – many people have done well in recent years on that front: post-minimalism, totalism, and there is even a movement called the new complexity. I guess he chooses to ignore the fact that Brian Ferneyhough exists, and he seems not to want to budge on this point: “He considers the Elliott Carter Concerto for Orchestra to be the greatest work of music ever written, without exception.” It’s not society’s responsibility to pity him because he was born 100 years late.

          • Jacob says:

            Any person that would use those statements to describe themselves is obviously suffering from a debilitating case of self-aggrandization.

            This man is a taxi driver that likes to make music on the side. Nothing more, nothing less.

    • Steve Reich and Philip Glass are not composers. It is too bad you think my attitude is defeatist, you are obviously going only on the edit you have seen and not bothered to look any further. Miss Imbach was interested in the difficulties of being obscure. Too bad you’re so arrogant as to accuse another of arrogance instead of hearing the message.

  4. MrEricSir says:

    This video could be edited into a great Apple commercial: buy a Mac or be underemployed for the rest of your life.

  5. Matthew says:

    Cool video.

    Makes me glad I didn’t get a PhD.

    • Thank you. You’re quite right to doubt the wisdom of getting a Ph.D.; I’ve often said that if I’d known I’d have to drive a cab literally until I die I would have thought of something else after the M.A.

  6. Former Passenger says:

    Random memory: He drove me to the airport a few years ago; on 101 he just kept jamming on the gas, then off again, then jamming on again, then off again, over and over (annoying as hell). He swore it saved gas. I tried to explain why that was patently false, but he was having none of it.

    I did buy his CD.

    • I don’t drive that way. You sound like one of those high maintenance passengers who will gripe for no reason. Unless it was an unusually bad cab or bad traffic it is very unlikely I actually drove that way for more than a short time. That would not prevent an unreasonable person such as yourself from complaining of course. I have never, not once “sworn it saves gas,” and no one has ever told me such a line as the one you claim you spoke to me. If there was such a conversation, it was not as you describe. Remarks such as you claim you or I made are so unlike me I daresay you’re lying. You don’t get a refund of the CD.

      For the general, sane, public, I just point out how little surprised I am that some of these remarks are so surprisingly irrational and hostile… the hostility is completely in line with most of the video, from the first line Miss Imbach chose to use… apparently, if only I were willing to do what I don’t want to do, and write for Hollywood (John Williams advised me AWAY from that career, saying “I don’t think Hollywood is the place for a serious composer”) then I’d have a career; if only I didn’t have personality shortcomings, I’d be a success; yadda yadda.

      I am living in the reality that you pretend doesn’t exist, in which the SF Symphony has not on any of the four seasons I have studied done more than 2% repertoire by living Americans; those with the hostility are living in a bubble. The hostile views are, in my opinion, left over from the Reagan and Bush years, during which the idea was developed that a person is wrong not to be successful in the terms that those monsters allowed – a time when some were teaching it takes “courage to be rich” but could not speak in proper English well enough even to say “the Democratic Party” but instead said “the Democrat Party.”

      One of the attributes of our society is cruelty to those whose description of circumstances challenges their own PC idea of how everything is all good and nice. That was actually a movement in the Soviet Union, related to the topic I touched on at one point in the video. The Soviets were smart enough to refuse to condone it.

      The video is getting a lot of views, very many more than anyone thought likely, and so far only this site, for some reason, has people who feel called upon to decry what I have said.

  7. Tuffy says:

    Best thing I’ve seen on MM in ages.

    • Thank you kindly! It’s really Kate Imbach’s accomplishment – the narrative flow was one she made of remarks she edited. Personally, I am pleased with it, and quite surprised to learn how well it’s doing.

      Oh also to the doubters, I suggest you read what William Kraft said about the video, he is a well-respected American composer.

  8. stencil says:

    Charles Ives put food on the table through actuarial work.

    The modern day composer refuses to die!

  9. MAC says:

    I’ve been in his cab before. He spent the whole time making what he thought was charmingly self-deprecating jokes about being a cab driver, but really came across as a massive inferiority complex. I told him I worked for an online music service and it went downhill from there. Kept acting like he only drives a cab because he won’t give in to popular culture. I told him to add on $3 to my credit card for $10 cab ride (it was late and we were drunk) and he shot back a sarcastic “ooooh, big time music guy huh?”. I said forget it, handed him a ten and got the hell out of there. What a jackass.

  10. This incident cannot have occured as the individual describes. I do not make remarks like this. I take solace from the fact that videos of my cab work are known to very many people and never has there been a suggestion to the effect this supposed passenger claims. In 21 years of driving I have NEVER made EVEN ONE SINGLE SARCASTIC REMARK about a tip. I do NOT assume a tip AT ANY TIME… it is one of the thing about my cab work of which I am most confident. IF this person was my passenger, he remembers things according to his own mental confusion he has already admitted he suffered from. This also does not jive with reality in that his tip would have been a good one – I would be least inclined to be “a jackass” when given a nice tip. This report so fails to correspond with reality that I wonder whether it is made up.

    • Also, about my supposed “massive inferiority complex,” I can thank you for your willful misunderstanding (apparently, modesty is wasted on you), which at least contradicts some of the accusations of other types that people feel called upon to make. Fortunately, the sum total of the abuse only reinforces the undesirable reality the video describes.

      Some people are abusive and say I’m arrogant; others are abusive and say I have a massive inferiority complex – the blatant contradiction, and the commonality of abuse, only confirm the harsh side of what I’m saying.

      But I have said for years that it is better to make a realistic appraisal of your situation and go from there, than live in illusion. Even Caesar had setbacks, and he didn’t get out of the hole by being unrealistic about them. It is I believe a very positive thing indeed to face a bad culture with a creative reply. Many of the greatest artists of all time and every stripe took a dim view of their own time, as I do of ours.

      I have met people in my cab who even have sen the video before meeting me, and liked it very much. Cab Industry people, and Classical music professionals willing to be themselves and not pseudonyms, have so far all been very congratulatory and positive.

  11. bryan says:

    hey there chris.
    im a 18yo composer/ pianist who writes classical ( traditional ) romantic and contemporary music :D .
    i liked the film a lot. i just want to ask you:
    you like to write contemporary music right ?

    why dont you mix your music with different classical styles ? thats what i do :) and it works very very wel. im invited to greece next year. im from the netherlands.

    wishes you al the best,


  12. M. Stanton says:

    The folks urging Christopher to compose within acceptable commercial realms don’t realize what a disservice that does to the diversity of music out there. I have heard some of his music, years ago, and it sticks with me. And these folks imagining their conversations with a “stuck up” cab driver should think how cool it is to run into a cab driver who can tell you something about Anton Webern. What the hell is wrong with that anyway? Quit trying to stuff everybody into a box.