Critics, musicians, howlers - who would want to be a composer?
Given the life of hard work and scant reward, it’s good to see that young composers today still want to try
Why would anyone want to be a composer? It’s an incredibly demanding calling. It’s badly paid, save for a select few. It’s under-appreciated in the majority of cases, at least in the eyes of the composers themselves. And the ratio of work to quantifiable reward is crazily off the wrong end of the scale. Would you want to have to copy out the score of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger, let alone write it? My printed copy runs to over 820 pages, and weighs in at over four pounds.
Or would you be happy to suffer the neglect of Shostakovich’s favourite pupil, Galina Ustvolskaya, whose work was far too radical for the Soviet authorities to support? She started composing in the 1940s, and her output, or at least the number of works that she released, was small. But it wasn’t until the 1970s that her pieces began to get premières in the same decade as they were composed. Most of her early works had to wait 20 years or more for a first hearing.
And it’s not just obscure figures who have suffered. Schubert would have had to live decades longer to hear some of their greatest pieces performed. And the value that contemporaries placed on Beethoven’s output can be gauged from the extraordinary prices achieved in the posthumous auction of his effects.
But people still want to compose. More than 100 scores were submitted for the Crash Ensemble’s Free State concert this year by composers “from or based in Ireland”. The Irish Composers’ Collective never seems to have a shortage of works to fill its monthly concert slots. And student ventures seem to be thriving, too.
It was a concert by the students of the Kirkos Ensemble at the Royal Irish Academy of Music on Friday that set me thinking about what it takes to try and set yourself up as a composer.
The technical apparatus of composition is formidable. It’s not enough to be able to imagine your music in your head, or to perform it with reliable consistency on an instrument. You have to be able to translate it into notation.
And, although there is technology around that can streamline this process, and even provide short-cuts to problems of instrumentation, those short-cuts have themselves thrown up a whole new range of problems. In particular, there’s the question, can a computer-synthesized version of a work for a large number of instruments actually be trusted? The biggest challenges lie elsewhere. There’s the fundamental matter of dealing with musical material, of being able to recognise what material is likely to be useful, and what it’s likely to be useful for. You then have to manage that material, process it, find a form and structure so you can create a viable piece out of it. And you have to do all of this in a way that will be alive and interesting for other people.