Composers – consider your audience

James McCarthyThu 7th February 2013

A response to ‘Getting It Right: The Contemporary Composer and the Orchestra’

The composer Julian Anderson wanted me to emphasise that ‘Getting It Right’ is an academic conference, not a public debate, but I wonder what ‘the public’ would have made of yesterday’s discussions. Composers from academic institutions descended on LSO St Luke’s yesterday to discuss ‘The Contemporary Composer and the Orchestra’. Issues such as the usefulness of composer-in-residence schemes, the importance of workshops, working with conductors… The sort of stuff, in other words, that only composers would be interested in. But there was – between the lines – a topic that I believe the public would be very interested in, and that is the question of the deluded expectations of composers in academia. I’d like to preface my remarks by saying that this is not in any way a comment on the music that any particular composer is writing. Composers should, of course, be allowed the opportunity to express themselves in whatever way they like, and I would defend that right to the very end. There, that said, I’ll dive in...

It is perhaps the biggest bug-bear amongst composers of contemporary music – and particularly contemporary orchestral music – that while achieving a premiere performance is relatively easy (and I stress the word relatively – it’s actually incredibly difficult, particularly when you’re just starting out) getting a second performance of your work is nearly impossible. This was a view trotted out on several occasions yesterday, most notably by Julian Anderson, who in his key-note speech listed several works that have not been performed in the UK for many years and which, in his view, should be. And other composers throughout the day spoke of the great ocean of mixed emotions that a composer frequently descends into following the premiere of a new work: the joy of having heard their music played, mixed with the knowledge that a repeat performance (if one hasn’t been included in the original contract) is deeply unlikely. Orchestras can squeeze a little bit of PR potential from a premiere, they can squeeze nothing from a second performance. So goes the gripe.

If there had been any members of the concert-going public present yesterday, they would have been able to point out the obvious solution to this problem, a solution that is absolutely blinding to those outside the members’ club of academic composers: if you write music that people actually want to hear then they will come and hear it. Do you think that John Adams, or Steve Reich, or Sir John Tavener, or Arvo Pärt, or Thomas Adès, or Mark-Anthony Turnage (who was interviewed yesterday and is a composer within academia who understands his sizable audience) struggle for second performances and lack for commissions? There are many composers who work within academic institutions who know how to fill a concert hall and still bare their souls honestly. And there is nothing wrong with composition as an academic pursuit: pioneering work in extended instrumental techniques, electronics, or manners of orchestration filter through to all branches of music and in countless ways enrich the music of our time. The trouble arises when you present these academic compositions to the public in a concert hall and expect the public to lap it up. Don’t write music designed for your chums in academia to slap you on the back and say ‘well done’, and then be surprised when no one outside that merry band gives a fig.

There are academic branches in every subject. In fact, many eminent musicologists write for Gramophone, but those writers understand the difference between writing for Gramophone, where their views will be read by a very wide but knowledgeable audience in many different countries, and writing an academic paper, which will only be read by their academic peers. These writers cut their cloth to meet their audience’s expectations and needs. It doesn’t mean that they are betraying the purity of their academic pursuits by writing for Gramophone, and nor does it mean that their academic papers are in some way more important because they are read and respected by a different, much smaller group of people.  It just means that these writers are communicating as effectively and honestly as they can to two different groups of people, and, importantly, understand that both groups’ opinions are important.

All composers, but particularly composers who are salaried by academic institutions, need to be aware of their audience. They must ask themselves this: are they writing music for ‘peer review’, or are they writing it as – and I’m going to use an absolutely filthy word now, the squeamish would be advised to skip to the next paragraph – ‘entertainment’. If the composer is writing music as an academic pursuit then they should go into it fully aware that this is what they are doing, and not be crushed when the world doesn’t want to storm the concert hall demanding to hear their music. If they are writing music to say something about themselves and the world we live in today, then they need to be aware that what they say needs to be a least partly intelligible to the average concert-goer.

Imagine that there is a playwright alive today who is as great as Shakespeare. They have Shakespeare’s grasp of language, of drama, fantasy and of emotional truth. They have everything, in short, that a playwright needs to change the world. But they write their plays in Klingon. Is this playwright unnecessarily limiting their potential audience?

Now imagine a chef who is the master of every kitchen technique. A chef who is at the very cutting edge of molecular gastronomy who can create dishes that are achingly beautiful to look at. But their food tastes of old socks. How long would their restaurant stay in business?

Imagine a football team who are the best in the world. They have just won the Champions League for the fourth consecutive year and the fluidity and imagination of their passing is surpassed only by their jaw-dropping individual skill. Imagine that that football team decide one day that they are bored by passing the football around as football teams have done for decades and, in their new quest for originality at all costs, they decided to only play whilst hopping. How quickly, after the initial period of curiosity and amusement and as they plummet down the leagues, would their supporters start to look elsewhere for their football kicks?

There were a few mentions of Beethoven yesterday, about how his Ninth Symphony wasn’t understood by the public for many decades after he died. This is a thought that composers who experience little actual success in their lifetime cling to when it all gets too much. The psychology is simple and goes something like this: Nobody cares about my music! But it doesn’t matter, because if someone as great as Beethoven can struggle then so can I. Me and Beethoven are actually pretty similar. Me and Beethoven a kindred spirits. Hang on, I AM Beethoven… And, easy as that, the composer rediscovers their sense of self-worth. But composers who are writing music as an academic pursuit needn’t put themselves through such self-delusions. What they are doing is academically interesting. It is academically interesting to ask a cellist to pluck their A string with their teeth while de-tuning their C string with their right hand and slapping the body of the instrument with a kipper with their left. That is an expansion of orchestral technique, and it is certainly original. But as soon as you transport the kipper-slapping cellist out of the sphere of academia, put them in a concert hall and ask people to cough-up 25 quid and give up an evening of their lives to come and listen to them, the paradigm shifts.

I am not saying that any composer should write a particular type of music, employ a certain musical language, or approach their art in any way that doesn’t feel entirely honest. My point is simply that if you write music of a certain type (and it is a very certain type), music that in the language it employs is inherently designed to impress a small community of contemporary music aficionados, then you should enter into that with your eyes open, and don’t be surprised if nobody in the wider world wants to hear it. And, perhaps most importantly, don’t expect orchestras, who rely on ticket sales to stay alive, to foot the bill.

James McCarthy

James is a composer and features editor of Gramophone.

© MA Business and Leisure Ltd. 2014