“I thought all composers were dead and with a beard” – Susanna Eastburn on our second Composers’ Conference

What’s the collective noun for “composer’? This was a question we at Sound and Music found ourselves asking as we embarked on our second Composers’ Conference, just before Christmas. 55 composers attended, all of them directly involved with one or other of Sound and Music’s programmes. We organised it so that the composers themselves could generate the agenda and discussion points. Our role was to listen. And now our responsibility is to share some of the tremendously important points and questions that were brought out on that inspiring, provocative day.

Perhaps the first question to ask is: why has something like this never happened before? The answer I think is twofold. Firstly, at a very basic level, we offered every composer travel expenses and a small fee for participation. The reality of life for most composers – most artists, indeed – is a freelance one, with all the accompanying financial and time pressures. I have lost count of the conferences I have attended that have included discussion about composers and new music, but composers themselves have been absent or at best represented by one or two people. Covering these costs has meant we have had to make savings to other parts of our programme, not an easy decision at all, but we made a judgement that this advanced listening exercise was a priority.

Which leads me to my second point. Listening – really listening – to what these talented freelance artists want to say, and taking its implications on board, is a challenging and sometimes chastening experience. Frankly: it’s easier not to do this, and to continue operating under a set of assumptions and beliefs about what’s best for composers (for which they should be grateful). Dig a bit deeper, and it begins to look as if the classical music sector lacks belief in new music’s value, ability to speak to audiences or relevance.

Back to the conference. Topics discussed included artistic practice, collaboration versus individual work, finding an audience, having an original voice, career progression (or lack of), stereotypes, the language of new music, money and funding, competitions, productivity and the importance of listening. We listened and learnt.

  • Why is it, for example, that so much contemporary music sounds the same? The composers in the room thought that competitions and commissioning bodies sometimes favour a prevailing style (and were too often quite weighted towards consideration of who has studied with who, who is on the panel, and personal relationships) – and that properly ‘new’ work should sound unlike anything else.
  • Competitions with entry fees should be banned.
  • Why is it that the people who make the art don’t have the financial stability of the people who administrate it?
  • We heard numerous examples of how the funding system as a whole does not work in favour of individual artists. Rarely does a funding body focus on who people are as composers, how they make their work and what conditions are therefore optimum for great work to be created. Artists can get funded to develop, and then told that because they have received support previously, they can’t have any more. The sometimes lengthy decisionmaking time can stamp out a creative spark. Writing 250 words on a form about ‘how will this benefit you’ is obvious and irritating to a composer who just wants to compose a piece.
  • Most of the money is controlled by a relatively small number of people and there is an endemic lack of transparency about how decisions are made about who benefits.
  • What does being an ‘emerging composer’ mean and how do you become ‘established’? There was a strong consensus in the room that ‘emerging’ can mean ‘not paying properly’ or not investing in an individual. (It reminded me of a conversation I once had with a composer friend who defined the three stages of most composers’ careers as Emerging, Struggling and Dead.)

The composers shared questions they had been asked, once they had told people of their profession. These included: “do you write for old people then?”, “do you have to have a weird name to be a composer?” “I thought all composers were dead and with a beard.” And, underlining that casual sexism is alive and well in music: “Composing with bowed vibraphones is girly. Why do all you girls do it?”. From a tutor: “If I just had all guys in the group it would be geeky. Girls make it more interesting.

Unsurprisingly, money and fees was a major topic. Sound and Music’s Commissioning Report (published last year and on our website) highlighted the issue of low commission fees, and this was brought home strongly, along with an impassioned debate about the expectation of doing work for free and whether there needed to be a Non-Payment Manifesto for composers to sign up to: no more unpaid commissions, no more unpaid conferences, no more unpaid showcases. As one composer memorably put it: “People consume more music in their day than milk. But they’d never expect to get their milk for free.” Who decides what music is worth, and how? Are we a sector which knows the price of everything and the value of nothing when it comes to new music?

I’ve made the conference sound quite downbeat. It wasn’t; it was filled with laughter, kindness and camaraderie. Moreover, each and every composer present had bright and keen insight into the primary importance of communicating with an audience; of creating a connection or spark between composer, performer and listener. They understood their vocation in creating music – and opportunities – for others. They also shared tips on negotiating and contracts. By default, through constantly having to promote themselves, respond to rapidly shifting contexts, seek different avenues of support and working tirelessly to keep themselves going, there is an entrepreneurial spirit that gives me great hope for the future.

We just need to keep listening. As one of the composers commented: “What you made happen today, never happens.”

This article was orignally featured in Classical Music Magazine February Issue. http://www.classicalmusicmagazine.org/

6 thoughts on ““I thought all composers were dead and with a beard” – Susanna Eastburn on our second Composers’ Conference

  1. But all the issues addressed in your bullet-points have been clear for 30 years! and some people have been saying these things for 30 years, like me for example, and no doubt getting a reputation for being awkward and negative. “Keeping listening” is all very well but the situation described is endemic, and nothing new, and nobody in a position to do anything about it ever seems to do anything but make sympathetic noises. What is going to change now, after all this time?

  2. Small point, but farmers are known to be under immense pressure from supermarket chains to sell milk for less than it costs to produce. So perhaps an inappropriate example!

  3. Thankyou for all this. One things raises a question with me (I have written music, had it performed, and received some recognition as a composer, for the last 40 years or so) – to quote: “properly ‘new’ work should sound unlike anything else”. If this were true, we would never be able to recognise any composer’s style (“individuality”?) at a first performance of a new piece by him/her. Surely a new piece may (and will?) use the voice of its creator, whether or not if he/she is already well-known?

  4. I wonder what on earth is meant by “all new music sounds the same”. If we talk about new music composed for the classical concert hall it just does not – there is an excitingly broad spectrum of styles, aesthetic, aims and approaches.

    Many of my colleagues are frustrated that funding bodies think that really new music must explode out of traditional performance spaces (where music goers are used to hearing music) and paradigms and not accept that it is part of a rich and varied culture – that of notionally western classical music.

    It is so hard to apply for funding for a concert series or to allow a composer to write new music that fits the set-up that performers and concert-goers are used to. I am not a musical ludite – most of my work combines electronics with instruments and language is certainly not pastiche, it is progressive and new. But it is, on paper, straightforward in the sense that it is designed for the concert hall. This type of work (that makes up the vast majority of what composers want to do) is incredibly hard to find funding for.

    Where new music sounds the same is in the work that is self consciously pushing the envelope – often site or event specific (so can’t add to the repertoire) using bespoke instruments and focused on performative aspects more than purely musical. It is toward those sort of projects that the majority of funding seems to go. It is understandable as a panel will find it hard to judge the difference between applications that basically say “I will write tremendous music that can be performed marvelously within the given time-frame”.

    I have won funding for projects that I have specifically altered the proposal to include bells and whistles that audiences and performers don’t want and that often cost more simply in order to win over a selection panel.

  5. There are reasons why competitions might need to charge a modest amount of money for entry fees…
    One thing I would add, though, is the problem of Calls for Scores where composers are expected to write a new work on the off chance it then gets selected and performed. This requires a huge commitment from the composer with no guarantee of anything in return. A better way of doing this is to ask to see a portfolio of existing work and then select the composers you want to work with from that.

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