The changing status of composers today

Gary YershonMon 15th May 2017

The Oscar-nominated composer on his new ballet, and life as 'a pencil for hire'

Most of my working life as a composer has been spent as what the late James Horner captured in the phrase ‘a pencil for hire’, creating music on demand for drama in film, TV, and theatre. At the least, we pencils have to be prepared to alter the ideas we come up with to suit other people’s tastes. At worst, our entire contribution can be ditched and other human writing implements brought in to replace us. Most of us long ago accepted that purse-string holders regard music as a necessary evil, leading them to treat us with a scepticism usually reserved for car mechanics or plumbers: “Does it have to be done that way? Couldn’t you do it cheaper? My niece/nephew/husband/wife has a friend whose next-door neighbour says you should try it like this…”

The status of composers in the world of ballet presents quite a contrast. It’s not just that we’re granted more autonomy. Our art, it seems to me, is given more respect. My score for Northern Ballet’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas remains pretty much as it was when I delivered it to Northern Ballet in November 2016. I’ve made a few nips, tucks and extensions in response to requests by choreographer Daniel de Andrade, who discovered during rehearsals that he needed a bit less here or a little more there. But, thanks to Daniel’s superbly detailed scenario, to which I adhered closely, there was not the kind of assault on the overall musical structure that can occur when a gaggle of TV executives — most of whom you never actually meet: they send memos or messengers to deliver their judgments — blast holes into what you’re trying to do.

Having grumbled so comprehensively about the way composers are treated outside ballet companies, I must confess that, although I’ve had some negative experiences in TV and theatre, and whilst large numbers of my colleagues who compose for cinema continue to endure the slings and arrows I’ve catalogued, the movies I’ve written for myself have been joyful adventures. That’s because I’ve had the good fortune of sharing them with the wondrous Mike Leigh, as collaborative an artist as there can be.

The spirit of collaboration is the key. If it’s absent, you feel you’re a hired hand — or pencil — in an industrial process, prone to the sense of alienation that is the lot of anyone in that situation. But if your director or choreographer welcomes you and your contributions, is open to your ideas, and treats you as an equal, then, regardless of the medium, your experiences will be as happy as mine have been with Daniel and Mike.

Northern Ballet will be touring 'The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas' from May 25 to October 21 at various venues throughout the UK. For full details, please visit: northernballet.com

Gary Yershon

Gary Yershon writes music for the theatre, radio, television, film, and dance. His score for Mike Leigh's 'Mr Turner' was nominated for an Academy Award and he is an Associate Artist of the Royal Shakespeare Company.

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