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 decision–making 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/