Critics, musicians, howlers - who would want to be a composer?

Tue, Dec 18, 2012, 00:00

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.

Let’s imagine you’ve got all of this in order. You’ve had your moment of inspiration, you’ve overheated your brain and figured out exactly what to do with your ideas. You’ve finished working out all the details, you’ve fixed all the glitches, and you’ve reconciled yourself to the fact that the first version you completed is actually the best, and the time spent on the others will just have to be put down to experience.

You’ve been a model worker. You’ve checked with reference books, your teacher, and with experienced professionals that everything you’ve written is safely within the bounds of possibility, and there’s nothing in your finished score that will trigger derision when you deal with performers in rehearsal.

It’s an important considerations. I’ve been at composition workshops and masterclasses where the bulk of the time has been spent on presentation, even basic notation. Bad or awkward notation is a barrier for any performer, and it sends out a message of un-professionalism that’s to be avoided. Young composers can be guilty of howlers such as leaving their scores bare of markings for dynamics or expression, of writing notes or combinations of notes that don’t exist on particular instruments, and notating effects that they’ve culled from a textbook, but which aren’t practical. Such howlers will be remembered and talked about by performers for years.

If you’ve avoided all these pitfalls, then you’re ready to deal with performers who might play your piece, and to seek a forum in which it might be performed.

You may find yourself going through a rehearsal process and dealing with the fact that the piece doesn’t sound at all like you imagined it would.

Is it something the performers are doing, or is the fault yours? And if you’re lucky enough to get a public performance, you’ll have to deal with audience responses. After that there may even be the publicly-expressed views of critics.

As I said, why would anyone want to be a composer? Well, the good news is that people still do. There were eight in Kirkos’s programme – Sebastian Adams, Anna Clifford, Robert Coleman, Janes Deasy, Eoghan Desmond, Edgar Grunewald, Galen Mac Cába, Bill McGrath – all of them current students at the RIAM and TCD.

There was nothing radical on offer, nothing that said any of these composer were eager to move away from patterns set by their seniors. But there were a few musical gestures that seemed worthy of further exploration. What will happen in the future is anybody’s guess. It will all come down to matters of tenacity, temperament, making it into a productive sphere of influence, making it through the pitfalls of life. Genius, as Edison explained, is 1 per cent inspiration, 99 per cent perspiration.

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