in Contemporary Music?
THE HEART OF THE MATTER
by David F.
Is contemporary music in a state of crisis? Answers range from 'certainly' to 'possibly'
to ' not at all'.
I would like to contribute some
points to this continuing debate which,
if not altogether original, are ones which
I think do not receive the attention they
Colleagues, I believe the fundamental debate is not about style
or language, and that the solution is
not about marketing or education. Maybe we all need to invest time and energy
examining the traditional reasons why
artists have always tried to express themselves,
be it by music or any other art form. It may well be that contemporary music
'is in crisis' but maybe the real issue
and solution is not just about educating
the listener or consumer, but, to ask
'who is to blame?' Have we lost sight
of the reason why we are composers?
Music publishers have invested a substantial financial amount in
contemporary composers, which is an admirable
commitment to the future of 'classical'
or 'art' music. To publish and market a new composer,
or indeed a new piece, requires not only
a lot of financial nerve but also a high
level of artistic and cultural bravery. Music publishers work in a unique environment. They run a business, have to balance
the books, and all investment has to be
justified. Also traditionally a country's
cultural heritage was entrusted to their
ability to develop and nurture the best
of new composing talent. Not only do they have to be able to recognise a new and
exciting voice, but they also have to
try and predict future stylistic developments
and to 'publish for the future' not just
for 'the now'. Get it right - and the country
can draw on a vast reservoir of creative
talent. But get it wrong - and we become
a rubbish dump for mediocrity and the
inane. Into this arena, fraught with pitfalls and potential for mistakes,
I believe, publishers have always tried
to bring a certain amount of expertise
and honour - protecting their artists
from the financial complexities of modern
society, ensuring universal copyright
is registered and investing time and money
into the partnership. All right: they are running a business for profit - but
composers must appreciate that it can
a very risky business indeed.
But are publishers getting it right? At no other time in the history of art music has the consumer been more educated, more knowledgeable and
had such easy access to a wide range of
musical styles and genre. From teenager
to granny they all have experience of
dramatic orchestral tapestries through
the medium of films and television. Given the popularity of the film Lord of the Rings, for
instance, you have to acknowledge that
a whole new generation has been exposed
to an experience of the drama and excitement
generated by a large orchestral canvas,
the very building blocks of classical
or art music. I believe the general public has taste
and more importantly, 'instinct' and can recognise great
classical music regardless of the style
or uniqueness of the voice - providing,
that is, the composer has talent, is skilled
and wants to communicate.
That does not necessarily mean
writing in a traditional style and not
developing your own voice, but rather
holding fast to those elements that reward
the listener and performers. In my view, however, publishers have often
promoted composers who lack these essential
ingredients and, most importantly, the
indispensable ingredient of 'heart'.
Performers and audiences, I believe, should be rewarded by those
emotional elements in music which make
us all 'more than we are'. Recently I was in the foyer of my
local music college when a young man approached
and showed me a score. He was at great pains to point out
that he had studied orchestration for
years and that 'that in itself was a great
But orchestration is not about
what is learnt, but what is needed. The arrogance and sheer blindness of his approach distressed
Too many of our young musicians
think that composing comes from learning
rather than, as I believe, directly from
I did not disillusion the young
man but left him to the mercies of academia,
to which, I am sorry to say, publishers
also too readily succumb.
Even in merely financial terms,
for publishers to ignore the educated
judgment of today's consumers is surely
There is a whole industry of academic pretentiousness that has
been nurtured and cultivated by the contemporary
music establishment which is, in my opinion,
a million miles away from the motivation
and philosophy of composers from past
Having cultivated the weed you
have little choice but to try and justify
Is it not better to cut your losses
and acknowledge that music, as all art
forms, has to communicate if it is to
There is a vast worldwide market
for good classical or art music if it
communicates - that is, has drama, energy.
Some of the diet that has been served in the last forty years does
nothing but alienate a consumer who instinctively
knows the quality of the real product,
regardless of the style. How often has music that is
questionable been commissioned and consequently published, and
what turns out to be its one performance
defended on the grounds that 'the language,
and style are so new that it is bound
to be difficult for audiences to appreciate'.
That statement may have been true
for Beethoven's day but not for today's
highly educated audiences with their access
to a vast information highway.
I was once shown a score by a leading contemporary composer and
the lecturer who was praising the work
pointed out its great beauty of line and
phrasing - and that the written score
'alone was a work of art.' I happen to be a tuba player and
pointed out that the orchestration
was such that no matter how much counterpoint
and beauty of line existed on paper, to
write for tuba in its topmost register
as the composer had done meant that all
the listener would hear was that instrument's
rather tiresome honking quality.
This remark was met by great derision and incredulity that I should
question the composer's 'genius'. (For me the genius would have been the player who could
have played such high notes molto pianissimo
in order that the other woodwind instruments
might be heard.)
Of course composers have to stretch and challenge both performers
and an audience.
Nobody writes harder music than
I (ask any of the ensembles that have
commissioned works from me), but music
is much more than a technical exercise.
You cannot learn to be a composer!
Composing is a talent that you
develop, an instinct you follow, in fact
a matter of the heart -
the very ingredient which provokes
the 'special response' from performers
and their audience. Years ago I suffered a lot of jealousy
and criticism from so-called more experienced
musicians, who just did not know the meaning
of the word 'instinct'. Consequently their music lacked heart: it might be interesting
and have fascinating textual colour, but
if it lacks a soul what justifies its
Or am I missing something here
and does a higher spectrum of a musical
stratosphere exist somewhere that is apparent
only to those individuals who appreciate
the most extreme 'Avant Garde'
If so please tell me: I am willing
to study and learn if you can convince
me of the validity of your secret!
How can you align a contemporary piece of art music (that may repeat
a similar phrase over and over again, or a vast ever changing sound
world where dissonance is piled on dissonance with no perceptible, and
I underline the word perceptible, logic
to the gradient), with the dramatic vivid
orchestral colours of a film score? True - to anticipate a reply - 'one is absolute music
and the other is wallpaper' (pretty sophisticated
wallpaper, too, I might add!).
The tragedy is that, in today's
climate, the essence of heart and soul,
traditionally found in all music is now,
in the wallpaper, not the absolute, and
worse - the consumer knows it.
I accept that a lot of good contemporary
music has been written and published in
the last few years.
The media and general public however
tend only to remember the disasters.
The good pieces may be played more than once and even enter the
repertoire, but the bad pieces merely
reinforce the impression that art music
has lost touch with its source and is
now part of the self-indulgent world of
the elitist musical establishment.
Please note - before you form a
lynch party - that this is not necessarily
my opinion, but what I believe is a public
perception, rightly or wrongly, provoked
by the music of contemporary composers
in the last forty years.
No one has more respect for the BBC than I. It has, for years, fought
a rearguard action to maintain standards,
trying always to support what it believes
is music of the highest calibre.
Radio Three, traditionally, has
supported, broadcast and commissioned
the best new pieces especially from young
talent. Many established English composers, past and present,
owe their success to the patronage and
support of the BBC. Working under, sometimes impossible
financial constraints it has tried to
bring to the public attention music that
it considered to be of the highest visionary
and artistic worth.
However there lies the rub.
It is what it perceives to be worthy
and contributing to an ever-evolving musical
Get it right - and English music maintains its place on the world’s
cultural stage Get it wrong - and a cultural
desert will emerge.
The responsibility is immense and
one that must surely weigh heavily on
its management's shoulders.
To be fair the BBC has had considerable experience and a proven
track record but in todays musical environment
there are many more factors and unknown
social variables. I believe that they
do need to keep in touch with public taste
and interest and not always consider it
can dictate the evolution of the language
By the nature of both reputation
and cultural heritage, it has to walk
a tightrope of academic and artistic validity.
Sometimes I feel in the last forty years it has stumbled, and as we all know it is the stumble that provokes the gasp that the crowd remember.
The Proms festival is a tremendous celebration of the BBC's efforts
on behalf of classical music and English composers. I for one appreciate and stand in
awe at its courage, though sometimes I
also worry that a number of the pieces,
commissioned and performed, are only remembered
because of their provocative and controversial
sound world and not for any artistic or
emotional merit. I sincerely hope my worry springs from naiveté and that on
this occasion my assessment and instincts
Despite all the criticism Classic FM has done much to generate
and raise public perception of classical or art music. It is true that it does not
play vast amounts of the more avant-garde contemporary music, though
I do understand that as much as 40% of
its output is devoted to music by living
Classic FM has also been accused
of reducing the listeners' attention span
by concentrating on something akin to
a menu of musical snacks, that is, of
cheapening the product by presenting it
in an abridged format. The fact that this approach is more in
keeping with the marketing philosophies
of today's society seems to be of little
consequence to the critics, who question
how a person can perceive or value the
artistic merit of absolute music if you
just broadcast a fragment of its totality.
Maybe, having spent years researching
and evaluating the potential product,
the academics, from their perspective,
have a point.
It would be much more rewarding and aesthetically pleasing to listen
to a complete string quartet, than just
one movement. However we live in a consumer environment
and to market a product, no matter what
its artistic stature, you have to employ
the elements that are psychologically
common to that society.
Musical snippets, for instance,
feature prominently in today's advertising
campaigns. Consumers may not realise they are hearing
classical music, or know the composer,
or be able to name the piece, but are
we entitled to criticise Classic FM for
employing the same principles in their
I personally believe they have simulated and encourage a tremendous
potential for our product as contemporary composers, much more
than we could have ever dreamed possible. I am reminded of a certain football club which plays
Prokofiev's music just before the beginning
of the game. When a London ballet company visited
the town’s main theatre to perform
Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet it was amazed
to find the venue had been sold out three
months in advance. I do not know the percentage of
football supporters in the audience but
the previous visit, the year before, had
not been very well supported.
Coincidence or not?
It would be interesting to find
out; and, by the way, one of the club’s
best selling CDs is apparently a recording
of that very piece.
I personally believe that Classic FM has made a tremendous contribution
to the public acceptance and understanding
of classical music with its
intellectual and emotional demands. If I have a criticism it may
be that sometimes they seem to allow air time choice to be dictated by
the marketing requirements of their advertisers,
but hell! - they have to live, and you
cannot have everything.
Which brings me to the record companies. I suppose an apt description
of the individuals that run 'the majors'
as they are known, would be 'tough cookies
with hearts and pockets of gold'. I do
believe they live on different planets
from those of composers or indeed artists. However in their defense they have
to operate in an environment where judgment
and instinct are paramount. Like music
publishers they have to anticipate public
taste and demand. Get it right and the financial rewards
are reasonable - and I stress the word
reasonable. Get it wrong and the financial pressures from their masters
Most A&R people I have had dealings with have been very genuine
and committed musicians. They
constantly have to pick their way through
a diplomatic minefield, dealing with composers and performers who
may have very fragile egos and who may
have very little understanding of the
With the best will in the world
you cannot justify investing thousands of pounds in a product if your instinct tells
you there is going to be a limited return,
no matter how much you believe in the
I remember the head of marketing of a major record company kept
the recording I had sent him of my first symphony. He had kept it, said his secretary 'because he liked it so much'; unfortunately he and his team did not
consider it to be of significant commercial
value to market. Not much consolation for the poor
composer who had invested so much time
and effort in the project.
The record companies, like most of the music publishers, are at
the moment under siege.
The only way they can compete against
the thousands of composer-publishers and
small record labels is to invest a considerable
amount in marketing and tap into their
network of world wide sales, distribution
and returns. However they run the risk of becoming
victims of pirating and copyright infringement,
with their product posted on the web for
any individual, ie thief, to download
free of charge. The more successful they are, with
the marketing of a product, the greater
the danger of piracy. Is it any wonder, considering the risks
involved, that most are reluctant to gamble
on a new composer or more importantly
a new musical style or language. I personally
have a lot of sympathy for their position.
True, they may have their successes but I also bet there is a lot
of gnashing of teeth over the many failures we do not hear about.
I may have lost money over the recording of my first symphony,
but it was my work and I believe in its
artistic merit. This amount in any case
would be a fraction of the cost a major
record company would budget and risk on
a new composer or piece.
I hope, at the very least, that
artists will always try to be fair and
see both sides of the coin.
I also believe the record companies have
to accept some blame, and are to a certain
extent responsible for their own predicament
with regard to classical music.
There is a limit to the amount
of return, no matter how popular a Mozart
symphony may be, if the product market
is shared with countless other recordings
on of the same music.
This practice of over-recording
has saturated the market and restricted
the investment in new blood and new products. Any manufacturer will tell you this is a recipe for disaster.
You have to continue to develop
and improve your product if you hope to
maintain consumer interest.
To be fair having witness public
and media reaction to contemporary music
over the last 40yrs and the extremes of
stylistic language used can we blame the
reluctance of what are essentially business
ventures to invest in a product that has such adverse public and hence consumer
perception and reaction. (Even the most
optimistic of composers would have to
admit there would be a limited financial
return and demand for a recording of a
certain piano piece by John Cage)
Mention of John Cage brings me finally to my fellow contemporary
composers. One of the great privileges
of my life was to spend so time on the
board of The British Academy of Composers
and Songwriters. I will just never cease to be amazed
at - and hopefully never forget - just
how much time, energy and generosity of
spirit my fellow composers, both popular
and classical, gave in defense of the
music of their member composers and musicians.
These individuals who work so hard for
the rights of artists and composers regardless
of the cost or drain on their own creative
resources and energy cannot be praised
What is it that makes them work so hard and so long to defend and
promote the worth of British Music and
composers? Certainly no financial gain,
as I know all gave of their time freely,
and in some cases, this unselfish commitment
went on for years.
I believe it is nothing more than
a belief in the rightness of what they
do as composers - a generosity of spirit
that fuels a desire to help and support
the value of British music and creative
endeavour regardless of its genre.
I never witnessed one moment of envy or jealousy from these talented
individuals - just a wholehearted commitment to the work of their
fellow writers. Therein lies
If all writers and composers have
such integrity then the journey to producing art and music that has
worth will be revitalised.
I do not pen the words 'Brotherhood
of composers' lightly. I believe passionately
in the integrity of my fellow musicians
and artists. The world needs our vision
more than ever.
The real music and art will survive
and be triumphant, because it contains
those elements that are at the core of
the human spirit.
A crisis in contemporary music? Audiences and performers will always eventually recognise integrity and the beauty found in music that
reflects the soul of its creator.
No government, agency, tyrant,
social ignorance, greed, prejudice, corruption,
analysis or scientific theory can stand
against that universal truth.
You may say that artists, writers
are mere dreamers; but it is this
belief in the higher ideal that touches
all, to replenish and revitalise society.
To each his own, all to have their
place, each to contribute, in his or her own unique way, to the elements
that make us 'more than we are'.
(My thanks to Adrian Smith for his assistance as editor and
Arthur Butterworth and Mike Briggs as advisors.)
- "The Divine Aesthetic"
Biography of David Golightly>
© 2003 Modrana Music Publishers ltd