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.


Ben.H said...

Excellent points, to which I can only add this corollary (based upon the experience of one of my composition teachers):

3a. If the Ardittis haven't heard of you, try approaching a quartet who will actually care about getting your piece right.

petemaskreplica said...

An excellent point, Ben, and one that I shall shortly shamelessly steal, as it connects to strategy no.5