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.


bobbins said...

I blame Schoenberg + co: once he started mucking about with 12-tone rows (and got away with it) the die was cast - anyone composing art music after him was considered "backwards" if they produced music that people could actually sit and listen to :-) Once composers turned their backs on audiences ("Society for Private Performance"? 'nuff said) it was inevitable that the general perception of them would be that they're just a bunch of elitist weirdos. Unfortunately it seems that they're happy to accept this, as most contemporary composers I hear still churn out "music" that is frankly bizarre. Okay, I doubt anyone really wants another Back To Bach, but a little less "col legno" and "sul ponticello" and the like might stop people scratching their heads so much :-)

petemaskreplica said...

Now now, we'll have no Arnie-bashing here. If you think legno and ponticello are to blame you'll have to go back at least as far as Berlioz to find the culprit. (In fact Grove tells me that "col legno" was being used as far back as 1605.) And if you read this recent piece by Alex Ross on a couple of interesting new books (one of which I'm reading at the moment, as it happens, so I'll probably be coming back to this) you'll see that actually, audiences were abandoning composers long before Schoenberg was even a twinkle in the milkman's eye, so this old canard that composers have betrayed their audience is guff, I'm afraid.

And anyway, I like 12-tone music. If it's good.

bobbins said...

LOL, okay, that's me put in my place :-)

petemaskreplica said...

Not at all! It's always good to have a diverging point of view. Although obviously it's my blog and I'm right ;)