Responding to the debate about composers and their fees

There is a lot of debate in the digiverse at the moment, following a survey reported in Sound and Music into the shockingly-low fees afforded to composers (read the Guardian digest here). I have engaged with a composer on Twitter about this, in the light of which I feel an important distinction needs to be made.

It is crucial, I think, to distinguish between those who consider themselves to be composers, and those who see composing as an adjunct to other activities they undertake – teaching, performing, lecturing – alongside their composing.

For the former, composing is their calling – what they do, what they have to do – and, because of the poor fees afforded by commissions for their work, they have to engage in other activities simply in order to make ends meet, and to sustain and support their first imperative: composing.

For the latter, activities such as teaching, performing and lecturing are equally as important as – or perhaps, in some cases, more important than – their composing. This isn’t a criticism, by any means; no-one who has seen the amount of administrative bureaucracy surrounding working in education can say otherwise. But it is important to establish the difference; supplementary activities supporting composing, or composing as one of several tasks.

For those for whom composing is a necessity, it is certainly true that it’s not possible to devote a life to writing music without considerable support from elsewhere; grants, family, etc. But for those who compose as an adjunct to, rather than in spite of, other tasks, it’s not quite the same thing. And those who do earn money around their composing aren’t quite in the same boat as those who strive to earn from their composing alone. The latter isn’t possible. Either you are a composer, or a lecturer/teacher/performer who also composes. Not both; it’s a question of priorities, of the imperative governing what you do.


New sea pictures: David Matthews premiere at the Proms

Ravishing – that’s the only word that can describe David Matthew’s A Vision of the Sea, which was given its world première at the Proms on Tuesday night.

David-MatthewsInspired by the sound of the sea off the coast at Matthew’s home town of Deal (a series of watercolours made by the composer during the writing of the piece can be seen here) the piece has occasional nods to Debussy’s similarly south-coast-inspired La Mer in its skirling harps and strings beneath a trumpet melody, combined with aspects of Britten’s Sea Interludes. Matthews’ orchestral pallette ranges from the drama of battering timps and growling brass to the lone echoing clarinets, imitating the call of sea-birds. The piece is a tone-poem in the Sibelian tradition, relishing a range of cascading effects as it captures the changing hues of the sea. And whilst the piece occupies fairly safe tonal territory, it does display Matthews’ post-Romantic leanings to great effect.

Listen online until Tuesday on iPlayer here.

The Mozart Effect: who cares ?

Look, I fear we may have our priorities in the wrong place with all this talk of the ‘ Mozart Effect’ and the supposed scientific research in support of / contradicting the idea that playing classical music to babies will develop certain neural pathways, will improve cerebral connections or empathetic emotional understanding.

20130304-195755.jpgEvery so often, some Worthy Boffin either propounded or rails against the view that a baby’s development can be greatly enhanced if classical music, particularly the music of Mozart, is played to them. What strikes me about all this is that it isn’t important At All. When we are concerned with how we can programme our children through the use of music, we have perhaps lost sight (or, more pertinently, sound) of what music can bring.

As a professional musician and parent, I can say with complete conviction that it’s not the supposed cognitive-enhancing possibilities of listening to music, or the more developed emotional empathy with others that music can assist in developing that interests me, or that I want for my children from music. What I want is for them to have the opportunity to experience music for themselves, to listen to a wide variety of music, from Minimalism to Miles, and find out if there’s some that they like, and for them to have the chance to explore more of it if they do. I want them to learn to play an instrument or to sing so they can find another creative pastime, a social activity in which they can participate with others if they enjoy doing so.

I’m not interested in attempting to programme my children into wunderkindern through exposure to pieces from the Austro-Germanic musical tradition, in the hope that they develop superior synaptic connections in order to make them better children, if such a thing were actually possible. And for anyone who’s seen A Clockwork Orange, surely that way madness lies…

So, let’s just forget all the bullshit about the enhancements that the Mozart Effect is supposed to offer, and just allow our children to enjoy music for themselves as a creative pastime, rather than as a conditioning tool for the betterment of their cerebral performance. Music is not, and should not be, about making ‘better’ babies, or assisting in the development of certain physiological capacities that will improve children. Music can do many things, not least of which is to offer fertile ground for lots of utter crap to be talked by lots of idiots.Get a grip, everyone…

Shock revelation: music article contains 90% horseshit

In a shocking moment of revelation, it has been shown that a piece of music journalism contains approximately 90% horseshit.

Investigations into a recent article by Norman Lebrecht have proved conclusively that much of what passed for factual information in the writing was in fact actually horseshit.

20130210-141033.jpgIt is widely expected that investigations being conducted into other articles, not just those by Lebrecht, will reveal the widespread use of horseshit in music journalism, whereby reputable music critics have been contaminating their product with groundless supposition, specious arguments and pure horseshit. The additional use of tripe and bollocks is also suspected.

“It’s a bad time for horse-based product contamination across the country,” admitted an entirely fictional government spokesman in a pretend interview, “and consumers are losing confidence in products they thought they could trust.”

The culture of music criticism is holding its breath in anticipation of further revelations.

How to open a jazz solo: Frelon Brun

Although I’ve known and loved Filles de Kilimanjaro for more years than I care to admit, it was only recently that the gem of a phrase that is the opening to Davis’ solo on ‘Frelon Brun’ has struck me.

CBS, 1968

The album itself represents a point in Davis’ career as he was changing from the more modal explorations of his second great quintet (with Wayne Shorter on sax, Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter, bass and Tony Williams, drums) to the embracing of electric instruments and paraphernalia that would form the basis of albums from Water Babies (itself a collection of studio session ‘leftovers’ from 1967-68) through to In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew. Filles marks a transitional moment, yet is full of the trademark devices that characterised Davis’ approach from Kind of Blue through to Silent Way.

The fourth track on the album, ‘Frelon Brun,’ is characterised by a shuffling percussion punctuated by a decisive rising-sixth figure in the bass and left-hand of the keyboard beneath a sparse melodic line in trumpet and saxophone.

Once the skeletal melody has been played, there’s a short section where the accompanying textures move to the foreground, before the trumpet solo begins. There is a pleasing symmetry in the way it ascends a scale of Bb major, beginning and ending on the fifth degree of the scale, and then peaks briefly on the sixth, hops and skips back down to the starting note, and then does a short decorative burst as it settles.

There’s also a wonderful way in which Davis repeats the skipping rhythmic figure of the first four notes, but misplaces the primary beat such that what began as a downbeat on the second beat of the bar begins the next four notes as an upbeat; the downbeat therefore falls on the first beat of the bar, turning the last two notes into an iamb (to borrow a poetic term) and a feminine ending.

Listen for yourself, as the solo starts at about 45 seconds.

Click to enlarge

The phrase shows the truth of the maxim, ‘Less is more;’ the simplicity of the arch-shape, scalic ascent and rhythmic repetition combines to create a striking opening gesture to Davis’ solo.

Sign of a masterpiece: Mallet instruments, voices and organ

I’ve known Steve Reich’s hypnotic Music for Mallet instruments, voices and organ ever since my second year of college, when someone in the sixth form made me a recording, together with Six Pianos, Large Ensemble and Vermont Counterpoint, which pretty much defined my musical love ever since. That means I’ve known the piece for well over … *coughs, mumbles into hand… years; it’s gone through most of the recorded formats I can think of – cassette, CD, mini-disc, mp3, DVD – and yet I am still hearing new aspects of the piece when I listen to it.

This may, of course, be due to several factors; different recordings have different values, perhaps highlighting different lines or patterns compared to others; seeing the piece performed means the ear can be draw to different lines by virtue of the eye being drawn by some aspect of the visual spectacle; and listening in the car, immersed in the sound emanating from speakers fore and aft, is a very different experience to listening through headphones.

Album coverBut I’m still being surprised and delighted by the discovery of patterns I hadn’t heard before, textural shifts I’d not noticed, harmonies that are altered by suddenly hearing a new pedal-point or sustained note. There’s a wonderful, deft live performance by Alarm Will Sound, broadcast as Reich at the Roxy that I’ve watched often, which showed me new material by my watching the performers in actin and highlighting certain textural aspects I hadn’t discerned previously.

It’s often said that one of the signs of a masterpiece, in any artistic medium, is the work’s ability to sustain the repeated experience and yield new elements. If this is true, then Reich’s piece stands as an example of just such a work.

Facebook, how little you know me

Regular readers will know that my taste in music is unabashedly modern.

Facebook just suggested, under ‘People You May Know’ – Bob Chilcott.

I nearly died laughing…

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