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Music Composers Unite!

This is one of the most common questions that I have been asked over many years. If anyone else has had difficulty in giving an adequate/eloquent response may I humbly suggest the answer is here - see the link.

If anyone asks in the future you could save this link to pass on - it saves a heck of a lot of explanation.

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I detect a large tongue in Lawrence's cheek...

I agree, there is a lot of great new music out there. But the fact is, Beethoven sells tickets. New music, for the most part, does not. Orchestras can't afford to put on too much new music.

I specify a bpm for my music because that's how the software works. I believe a 20-30 range might just be too wide. But it's still a ballpark figure. If I specify 80 bpm, how do I know it won't be performed by an orchestra at 84? How do I know it won't speed up or slow down 5 - 8 bpm, or more? And do you know what? I'm fine with that. Yes, I have a vision for how I think the piece should go. But out in the real would, things are different. And they should be. I've had the opportunity to direct some of my own pieces. It's an eye-opener for sure.  

Lawrence, I remember your Beethoven period. You prefaced each piece as a practice/learning experience, and still got strange comments. As good as they were, they were your take on his style. Someone else's take would be a lot different. Years ago, there was a composer here who wrote in a late Baroque/early Classical style. His music was well thought out, well crafted, and really good. He replicated the form so exactly that, there was hardly an original idea in his pieces. No surprises. I could tell what was going to happen next. 

So should we throw out Beethoven? Trash the Mona Lisa? I don't think art and music go out of style.

For what it's worth, I heard the 5th performed by David Zinman recently. It totally blew me away. Almost as good as Harnencourt's take. With Beethoven, conductors really have their work cut out for them. Especially that piece. Any new rendition better be phenomenal, otherwise what's the point? And it was. I found myself nodding my head and saying, yes, not only his best symphony, but probably the best period.


Let's consider a football analogy.  How many football coaches write their own play book?  Virtually all of them.  How many composers write their own music?  Well, there's John Williams...John Williams, and don't forget John Williams.  Previously there was Leonard Bernstein, then Gustav Mahler and Hector Berlioz.  Beethoven tried to conduct, but was lousy at it.  Before that there were chamber orchestras where conducting consisted of starting a beat and giving the final cut off.  Even I can do that.   Because composing is so difficult very few conductors compose and thus do not perform their own new work.

How many football teams recruit.  Virtually all of them and they constantly innovate new plays into their play book or steal from their opponents.  How many symphonies recruit?  All of them recruit new musicians, but very few recruit composers and new music.  They are content to perform from a 200 year old play book.  I concede that conductors are not jerks.  They are just lazy (jerks).

Although, David makes the point that not all conductors are of equal talent.  Most of them require hearing a good recording to make a decision about performing a new piece.  Honestly, the old midi recordings weren't much better than trying to plunk out a score on the piano.  If this is true, we should have a plethora of new music given the improvements in sound from DAWs and programs like Note Performer.  I hope this new era in better sound for composers ushers in a new era of new music.  I'm not holding my breath.

Thanks, Lawrence.

I think that the difference between football and concert music is that football is a viable money-making enterprise. Plus football is pretty simple. Two groups of guys face off on each other. Sure, there are plays that they go by. But often, once the ball is snapped, the play is stopped or otherwise falls apart. 

As for needing a recording to evaluate new music goes. I don't know, I've watched discerning music directors go by what they can tell from a score only. 

I do wish I shared your optimism abut recordings of new music. 

Lots of food for thought here.  I find myself nodding in agreement to the point where I'm going to need a heat bag to soothe my aching neck.  Corny joke aside...

Virtually every genre of music outside of popular, suffers from a delayed proliferation and public acceptance.  It's simply due to the lack of viable marketing/brand/image building that composers can't harness to their advantage.  And that's because, as Bob pointed out, art music is not a viable money-making enterprise, and so those influencers/promoters that could generate interest and demand for new music, don't invest the energy to do so. 

In the context of the concert music world, symphonies struggle to exist as classical music is hardly en vogue...this is why they increasingly promote video game concerts, movie soundtrack nights, and for the classical enthusiasts, Beethoven's 5th.  The name on the marquee is all that matters.  And for that name to have recognition, it either has had to have come from 200 years of marketing (ie. long-dead composers) or from mainstream entertainment (ie. video games and films).  

Why living composers struggle (and yes, I'll speak from my own experience and not put words in others' mouths), is that they can't separate their art from business.  I attended a conference where they interviewed orchestral musicians and asked them how they could increase audiences...the majority said that if they could improve the quality of their performances, more people would come.  This illustrates the bubble musicians live in...audiences couldn't differentiate between the vast majority of professional orchestral performances/interpretations anymore than I could identify the difference between brands of whiskey.  Entertainment is personality/image driven, and classical musicians by and large are among the last to "get with the times".  You need larger than life personas, larger than life performances (which explains the Hans Zimmer epic orchestration which everyone wants to copy today), and hype that convinces the general public that they're witnessing something big.

As frustrated as I personally am at the constant struggle to capture the attention of conductors, ensembles, etc. to perform music by living composers, I accept the inherent risk associated with trying to keep the house full without the pre-requisite "names" on the program.  That said, I think every orchestra should spend some time incorporating a small selection of new music on their programs (many orchestras do this already).  Even with this, there will always be far more available music than can reasonably be programmed.  Oh, and "new music" obviously has incredibly different connotations.  Modern/academic music has always been in fashion for performers more than for audiences (I know, I spent my life coming from an academic performance background, until I moved away from the "hardcore atonal stuff" as I wanted a chance to survive in music).  At the other end of the spectrum, living composers completely sounding like Mozart (wondering if Bob's reference to a composer that posted here was Wayne Peppercorn?) will always have a hard time being accepted as anything other than a knock off of the original.  So, at the end of this little rant, I don't really know what else to say, other than the struggle has and probably always will exist with each new generation of composers.  Lay the groundwork now for the fame that will come to you in 200 years :)




Your  final sentence is another form of the old adage: ‘the only good composer is a dead composer’.

C’est la vie, n’est ce pas!


There’s another adage I’m beginning to grasp also: ‘English humour doesn’t travel well - particularly to the US of A’

I think Longfellow said it best about English humor > "when it's good, it's very, very good, when it's bad, it's horrid" - BTW does anyone know what Beethoven is doing right now?

I suspect he's now decomposing, Gav...
...go on, someone had to say it.
Composting would also have been an acceptable answer

Longfellow (he was quite tall) wasn't actually talking about English humour when he wrote:

There was a little girl,
Who had a little curl,
Right in the middle of her forehead.
When she was good,
She was very good indeed,
But when she was bad she was horrid.

I mentioned something in a post on CF that Winston Churchill once said when a woman accused him of being drunk (bearing in mind he had a speech impediment which made him slur the letter 'S').

'And you madam are ugly, but in the morning I shall be shober'.

I have a feeling this didn't go down too well - it could be construed as unpleasant - but I think it's a good comeback to someone who was ill-mannered herself in making the initial comment. Incidentally, it's reported that the (English, 'upper class' (as construed in the 1940's)) woman understood the irony and genuinely laughed at Churchill's quick wittedness.

In truth I have often heard that English/American, American/English humour doesn't travel well (we don't even spell the word the same way). I found this on the internet which goes some way to understanding the issue (not that I agree with it in it's entirety):

Why do Americans fail to understand (mainly British) Ironic statements?

(by Melanie Kenney, Ecologist, mycophile, and tinkering enthusiast)

Yep! It’s cultural. I’m half French, and the French also appreciate irony, but I’ve had trouble integrating irony into my every-day life (outside of intimate relationships) in the United States because of cultural barriers that make irony a hard sell in most places outside of New York. I’ve put some thought to the matter, and here are my conclusions:
Ironic statements are usually made either deadpan (no facial expression indicating a joke), with a slight grimace or angling of the head, or with a very slight vocal inflection, or with an eyebrow raise. Americans are generally not primed to pick up on implicit humour, so it’s very easy for them/us to misunderstand an ironic statement presented in these ways. They aren’t used to paying attention to irony cues, so they usually don’t understand. In the United States, humour is usually fairly explicit; a joke is told with a punch line, or the humour has a very physical or visual element to it (think slapstick) that marks the statement or depiction as a joke. Even if you don’t “get” it, you understand that a joke was made.
Secondly, American humour is fairly earnest; it’s considered risqué or bad form to make statements at something or someone’s expense, which is fairly standard when it comes to irony. Combined with the fact that American humour is presented explicitly, you end up with a sort of void of understanding among most Americans when they’re confronted with small, ironic statements that are a little bit deprecating. Such statements aren’t expected, and therefore aren’t on Americans’ “radar.”
We can also think about it in a different way. “British” irony requires a tacit understanding between the person making the statement and the person(s) receiving. Mutual understanding presupposes a certain set of shared values and a basic capacity to perceive subtext, neither of which are sure bets in the US. Ironic statements aren’t totally absent in the states, but few people pick up on them because our methods of humour function as reinforcement of a totally different perceptual habit.
Furthermore, unless among very close friends, Americans like to maintain a veneer of “niceness.” Irony is not “nice.” Never mind that in cultures where irony is common, it’s taken as a given that ironic statements aren’t Serious Jabs, so people are not so easily offended, or appreciate the joke too much to bother taking it personally. In the US, however, to make an ironic statement in company that you don’t know very well might be construed as mean-spirited, or, if someone else among the company also appreciates the joke while it flew over the others’ heads, it creates a dynamic in which some people are included (those who caught on) and others are excluded (those who didn’t). This makes Americans very uncomfortable.
These are all rank generalizations; inclusion/exclusion in regular conversations (especially in company of mixed gender) is very common in the U.S., but seldom on the basis of humour alone.

Have any of our American cousins come up against this problem themselves I wonder?

Incidentally, I sincerely hope I haven't offended anyone on CF by quoting Churchill, or in any other way for that matter.


Interesting, because in America we tend to think that it's the Brits that maintain a veneer of niceness. Right now many Americans out and out don't like each other, and aren't shy about showing it. This seems to be especially true on social media where one can hide their identity (though not a requirement) and the humor is especially harsh. 

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