Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Survival strategies for the average composer (4)

4: Don't write for the Arditti Quartet

Let me make this clear right from the off: I've got no beef with the Arditti Quartet. They're an astonishing ensemble, who've brought some extraordinary music to life, and they and their contribution to so-called contemporary classical music (SCCCM) can't really be over-estimated. They reach heights of virtuosity that few if any other groups can, and when Stockhausen needed a quartet that could manage to keep time while flying about in four different helicopters, there was only one quartet to go to. I admire and respect Irvine Arditti and his cohorts immensely, and they are undoubtedly a Good Thing.

But even the Ardittis only work to a 24-hour day, some of which they have to sleep through, and there's a finite number of pieces they can look at.

When I go to composer workshops and the like, something that often strikes me is that many young composers seem to be unaware of this, and have written a piece that is, frankly, unplayable by anyone who isn't the Arditti Quartet. The Arditti's success seems to have encouraged a belief that nothing is unplayable, and that therefore everything should be made that much harder. It's like one of those Westerns when the local gunslinger has to put up with a succession of challenges of young bucks eager to prove they have a faster draw than him - the ultimate badge of composing respectability would be to write a piece that the Arditti Quartet couldn't play.

There are several reasons why this is a Bad Thing, not least because music is a social force for bringing people together in a spirit of exploration and cooperation, and to reduce it to a complexity pissing contest is a woeful waste of everybody's time. But here are the main points to bear in mind:

  1. While the Ardittis do devote a saintly amount of their time to looking at scores of young composers, they're getting music written for them by all the most prominent composers around, so stop and think: are they really going to spend time scrabbling round your parts rather than Jonathan Harvey's?
  2. Just because the Ardittis can play anything, it doesn't mean that anything is writable. Sometimes a piece is unplayable not because it's fearlessly testing the boundaries of instrumental technique, but because it's just badly written.
  3. If you spend your time writing for a performance by the Arditti Quartet, you're missing out on the possibility of performances by other quartets, who may not have Irvine Arditti leading them but are nevertheless very good. Write for the musicians who are actually going to play your music. If you make friends with Irvine Arditti and he asks you to write him something really, really difficult, then you can pull out your bag of near-impossibilities.
  4. With regard to the point above, if you hadn't considered the fact that at some point your best bet will be to ask someone other than Irvine Arditti to play your piece, you really need to rethink your priorities. Now.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

The soloist

New Tale from the Back Desk online here.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Survival strategies for the average composer (3)

Great things are afoot at Defeatist Towers, but it's important not to let real life get in the way of procrastination, so here is the third in what remains for the moment a regular series.

3. It's not your fault... but you still have to deal with it.

Bobbins's comment on strategy no.2 raises some points that regularly come up if you're in the business of what we are pleased to call Contemporary Music, and just like a drunk in the pub, no matter how friendly the initial approach, when they appear you know in your heart that things are bound to turn nasty eventually.

But, like the lairy pisshead waiting outside the pub at 11 o'clock to deck you for looking at his pint or spilling his bird, there's no avoiding it, so we may as well pile in. There is, ahem, a debate continuing about what's happened in SCCM* since the turn of the last century, whether it's a valid development, whether it has any future or will ever attract a large audience, whether classical music is dead**, and whether the perpetrators should be dragged outside and given a damn good kicking by hoards of indignant Classic FM listeners.

Arnold Schoenberg, knocking up a few volleys in between alienating the masses

Now there are many arguments and counter-arguments here: Who abandoned whom first, composers or audiences (answer: audiences, as it happens, during the 19th century), whether it's allowable to write music not based on the tonal system (answer: of course it's "allowed", I'll write whatever the hell I like, thank you very much), and so on and so forth. As with the drunk man we met in the pub at the start of this post, an awful lot of this fractiousness is down to some misunderstandings, but that doesn't make the outcome any less violent. Except that it's down to a lot of misunderstandings that happened years ago, long before you and I were around.

The practical upshot of this is that as soon as you're outed as a composer, and just after the inevitable question is asked "Do you write modern music?", you'll be expected to be on the defensive about what your interrogator perceives as a century of atrocities that were perpetrated out of personal malice for them.*** The honest answer is that a) it was like that when you got here, b) yes, there is a lot of bad modern music about, but there's a lot of bad old music as well, it's just that we've had time to forget about that, c) not all modern music sounds the same, d) there's nothing inherently wrong, as it happens, in writing music with a limited audience, e) Hey, Schoenberg's really not that bad, have a listen to this great Hilary Hahn CD of the Violin Concerto! and f) actually this whole argument is at least 20 years out of date anyway, if you took the trouble to pay any attention to current trends. Unfortunately, such arguments will fall on deaf ears. Sorry, but as far as the world's concerned, everything's ruined, and it's all your fault, you composing bastard.

*SCCM: So-Called Classical Music.

Classical music actually died in about 1827, of course.

*** I remember an occasion as a boy when a piece I wrote for a school music competition making limited use of serial techniques was denounced by my housemaster (yes, it was that kind of school) as "a sick joke". I argued back in a very cogent fashion, explaining the history of Schoenbergian technique and the long establishment and academic respectability of such methods, and was I think very restrained in that I never once used the phrase "you narrow-minded wanker". Or even anything worse.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


Jessica Duchen provides a handy roundup of the opening salvos of the London orchestras' new seasons today. But what's this?

So Stravinsky and Vaughan Williams emerge as flavours of the month, which is an interesting combination since Stravinsky could probably have eaten Vaughan Williams for breakfast, given half a chance.

I'm not convinced. A Google Fight would appear to back Jessica up, but given that Vaughan Williams was very tall and hefty (over 6', I think), and Stravinsky was a measly 5'3", surely Ralph would whup Igor's ass?

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Survival strategies for the average composer (2)

Judging by the swelling stats for yesterday, this is is obviously a topic that has gripped the imagination of literally some people. So let's not hang about! Strategy number two awaits.

2. Accept your insignificance

Yesterday I discussed the unavoidable fact that the normal thing for a composer to do is stop composing, which means that if you're still doing it past college, you must be some kind of weirdo. But what drives those of us who do to do the thing we do?
There's a fallacy that's common in SCCM: that because, say, Beethoven's late quartets weren't immediately understood or accepted by his contemporaries, and as they're clearly a work of genius, then anything that's not immediately understood or accepted by one's contemporaries must therefore be a clear work of genius. It hardly seems worth pointing out that this is false logic, but so many composers still seem to fall into the trap that I suppose I must.

This isn't something that's limited to the Average Composer, by the way: it's a nonsense that infects the entire business from top to bottom. Closely related is the delusion that because you're writing SCCM, what you produce is therefore more significant than whatever happens to be in the charts or on the front of the music press. As the logical conclusion to this line of thought is to declare that Paul McCartney's Liverpool Oratorio is a more significant piece of music than Penny Lane, I fell no need to dissect this one further for now.

The reason I mentioned Beethoven was that this stuff is largely his fault: before him composers were admired and revered, but it was after Beethoven that the composer as Artist took a hold, and it was only a step from there to the morass of self-importance that the Classical Music business finds itself mired in now. Even now, some 200 years later, composers are expected, indeed encouraged, to measure themselves against a deaf German from the early 19th century.

Now, I'm not saying that you're not as culturally significant as Beethoven; but let's face it, as composers have been trying, and mostly failing, to live up to his example ever since, it's pretty unlikely. Most of the top composers now, whatever they may like to think, are nowhere near that level, and probably neither are you. And the fact that nobody's ever heard of you (and come to think of it, pretty much nobody outside the tiny, tiny clique surrounding them has heard of the top composers either), does not mean that you're a misunderstood genius. It just means no-one's ever heard of you. Accept this, stop worrying about your place in posterity, and you'll be a big step on the way to happiness.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The writing's on the wall

New Tale from the Back Desk online now.

Survival strategies for the average composer (1)

Average, a.

1. Estimated by average; i.e. by equally distributing the aggregate
inequalities of a series among all the individuals of which the series is

2. Equal to what would be the result of taking an average; medium, ordinary; of the usual or prevalent standard.

Most composers, if we are honest (and few of us are) are average. This isn't necessarily a qualitative judgement - although that comes into it. What I mean is that most of us are neither in the shining stratosphere of success, from which a few names look down beatifically while the rest of us stare sullenly back with a barely concealed jealous rage, nor in that sad category of people who persist in pursuing the muse despite ample evidence that they have no talent whatsoever for it, on whom the rest of us look down with a mixture of disdain, smugness and relief. Most of us bumble along, turning out pieces as and when we can squeeze them between the demands of a day job and the need to get the groceries in, occasionally getting a performance and filling with optimism that this time, our big break is coming, before sinking back into our routines as the recognition fails to erupt, and we carry on with the next piece, slightly crestfallen, but soon once more hopeful that what we write holds some significance beyond ourselves, and will be recognised eventually, and preferably before we fulfil the essential condition of being a composer and die.

Of course, as Morton Feldman pointed out, being a composer is inherently abnormal, as the normal thing for a composer to do is give up, probably soon after he or she leaves university or college and realises the full extent of the world's indifference to SCCM*. But given that you've failed to fall at that hurdle, and are bobbing by, neither sinking nor swimming, what you need to do is take on board certain facts. Hence this, the first in a series of posts designed to enlighten and educate, and make the average composer's life if not better then at least slightly more tolerable. And following from the sage words of Mr Feldman, let's proceed:

1: Admit it, you're weird

You are though, aren't you? If you had any sense you'd have quit this composing lark years ago. Unfortunately, you somehow managed to leave the education system without having the idea that anyone might be interested in anything you have to say knocked out of you, and if you're still scribbling now, it's probably too late for you. Admitting to yourself that what you do is weird is the first, and possibly most important step to take if you're going to cope with being a composer in the 21st century. You can expect the world to tolerate what you do, but by and large, you can't expect it to show any interest in it. Occasionally someone will appear to express something greater than apathy, but it'll very rarely lead anywhere, so don't get your hopes up.

*SCCM: So-called classical music

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Till the money runs out

The days pass, and I find myself on the brink of the new season, preparing to take up my cello and start rehearsing once more. After a good long summer break, it's good to feel some enthusiasm building for the coming year.

That's tempered with some trepidation, though. The credit crunch is biting everyone, and the orchestra's no exception. Rising costs, venue hire, the difficulty in persuading people to part with some cash in return for an evening's entertainment are all things that impinge on the activities of an amateur orchestra, and one that receives no subsidies at that. We rely on the subs that players pay, ticket sales and any sponsorship we can attract to keep going, and while it'd be exaggerating to say that we're on the brink of collapse, that fact is that an orchestra's an expensive thing to run; we made a big loss last year and we expect to this year. A lot of imaginative thinking will be needed to find new ways to raise money to keep the band going. (Any other amateur bands having the same worries round here?) >eanwhile hard decisions must be made, programmes changed and belts tightened.

Performing arts organisations must all be looking over their shoulders at the moment, as they're usually prime targets to have their grants cut when the economy starts to nosedive, no matter how well they seem to be doing. There have already been scare stories in the recent past when the Arts Council cut off all support to a number of prominent bodies. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that the time's coming when the best place to be is in an amateur band, working on a small scale and, for all the financial worries, perhaps better placed to ride out the storm than a large pro organisation that depends on public subsidy. One of the points trumpeted about the new Kings Place development is that it's funded entirely by private money, which I suspect is another sign that no-one sensible would want to be relying on public money at a time when there seems to be something in the air against the very idea of it.

On a tangent, there's some interesting (and quite long, don't try printing this out if you want to save trees) reading in this government report on amateur music-making. There's a bit of techno-waffle and stating the bleeding obvious, of course - this is a government document, after all - but I shouldn't be churlish, as it's good to see something vaguely official that propagates the notion that the Arts are something that people do, rather than a product to be passively absorbed. Whether this leads to the conclusion that amateur organisations should be cherished and supported in a way that officialdom doesn't really do at the moment, or that by some twisted logic their presence and popularity should serve as a reason to slash public arts funding remains to be seen.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Something fishy (2)

This week's Tale from the Back Desk is online.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Something fishy

One of the interesting sideshows to the McCain-Palin shebang is big-haired soft rock giants Heart's reaction to the appropriation of their song Barracuda. The Wilson sisters issued a cease and desist notice to the McCain camp, which they dutifully ignored, as unlike previous occasions, they were fully paid up and entirely entitled to play it.* Co-writer Roger Fisher has now decided to make the best of a bad situation and pledge his royalties from the Republicans' appropriation of his song to the Obama campaign, which is a neatly ironic resolution.

What this does highlight (apart from the double edged sword of copyright law) is an interesting question: how much a composer can really be said to own his work once he or she has put it out into the world, and whether (s)he should even be able to exert any influence.

It's perfectly natural for composers to wish to retain control over their creations, of course, just as a parent would like their children to grow up and act like they'd like them to. But with music as with offspring, once they're in the world they rarely end out how you imagined. Some children grow up to be junkies, and some songs grow up to be Republican soundtracks - just ask Bruce Springsteen. All you can do is hope that the gentle nudge you gave them as you sent them out will be enough to put them on the right path. It's difficult to let go, but music can't be preserved in aspic, nor should it be. Composing begins with following the example of those who've gone before you, and you have to accept that if you have any decent ideas, they in turn will be taken up by those who come after you.

Here's something for the weekend: a different take on the song in dispute, by the splendid Rasputina:

*McCain's habit of violating copyright is a bit unfortunate, given his zealous support of extension and protection of it. Hey, maybe if he hadn't supported all those term extensions there'd be more public domain music he could use for his campaign.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

A hairy situation

Another Tale from the Back Desk is now available for your delectation.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Stuck in the middle with you

Pity the poor sixth.

Doing the washing up, I find my head filled with "Do-Re-Mi" from the Sound of Music. You know the one, the song that gives cutesy names and puns to all the notes of the diatonic scale. Except one.

"La - a note to follow So [sew]."

That's the sixth, what's technically known as the submediant, and Rodgers and Hammerstein hold it in such contempt that they can't even be bothered to think up a decent line. It's nothing special, La, it's just a stopping place on the way from the bright lights of So to the glittering wonders of Ti (a drink with jam and bread). Sort of like a motorway service station - you need the facilities, but you wouldn't choose to go there if you had any real choice in the matter.

Even the technical term's an insult - submediant, i.e. like the mediant, only not as good. Don't get any ideas above your station, Mr Sixth, we're only hanging round with you because we can't get close to the mediant for all the cool kids crowding him as he determines major and minor.

It doesn't get any better when you consider the unfortunate interval from a tonal perspective, either. In the tonal hierarchy, the submediant is the location of the relative minor key. Now, you may think the minor mode's proved its popularity over the years, but consider this: When you're in a major key, you modulate to the dominant. The exciting, virile, even more major dominant. Never to the relative minor. Yet when you begin in a minor key, the accepted path is to get away as quickly as possible to the relative major (which is located in the prime territory of the mediant. Yes, the Mr Big Shot mediant, so much more U than the boring old submediant. Who'd want to go there, eh? It's the tonal equivalent of Wolverhampton.

Not everyone hates the submediant - Brahms loved nothing better than to pile the sixths on, and there's a wonderful bit in the finale of Beethoven's Choral Symphony, when a massive dominant chord is emptied of its harmony, and then the single note left behind is reinterpreted in a new context, which swings the tonality unexpectedly towards the submediant key. It's an awe-inspiring moment, although Beethoven ruins it by prancing off on a thoroughly silly march, so maybe he didn't like our middling friend so much after all.

Well, I say it's time to stick up for the little guy. What's so bloody great about all these so-called perfect intervals, anyway? Let's hear it for the submediant - the tone that's not afraid to be different.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

First thoughts on Haydn

There are always things you have on a list of things to do that you'll probably never get around to: Read big important books, do Significant Acts, that kind of thing. Occasionally it's good to gird your self and set out to conquer one of these cultural Everests. In the last couple of years I've ticked a couple of musts off my list: Ulysses and The Gulag Archipelago (Which I'm crawling through at the moment). But this is a blog about music (well, most of the time), and so I've embarked on an aural quest. Listening to Haydn's 104 Symphonies in order probably isn't on most people's lists. Ever since I first started listening to Haydn (and I started young - he's my dad's favourite composer, so I've been indoctrinated from an early age) I've always been amazed, and slightly intimidated, by the sheer amount of music he produced. It somehow seems more extraordinary than, say, Bach: his genius lies in seeing the harmonic and contrapuntal potential in a theme, so once you've done that it's a matter of writing it out. But Haydn's era was one that raised originality to the peak of what was expected from a composer. As I crawl through one of my own compositions at a tortuously slow rate I feel a bit jealous of old Joe, churning out a symphony every week. Fortunately the machinations of economics mean that I can now do something that would have been prohibitively expensive until not all that long ago, and buy myself a nice big box of 33 CDs containing all 104* of them. (I got it rather cheaper than that link, but the Grauniad shop doesn't seem to have it anymore.) I considered for a moment blogging each and every one of them, but decided that would be too much like hard work, so I'll content myself with popping up with random observations every now and then as I work through what must be just about the least known body of hugely important and influential music there is.

I'm always surprised how dismissive some musicians are of him; something along the lines of "well, it all sounds the same doesn't it?" - which is a sure sign they can't have listened to very much of it. I find it amazing, and inspiring, that anyone could produce such a huge amount of music, with such constant innovation, coupled with equally consistent quality and no hint of routine at all.

*Some count 107, but they're nit-picking.