A composer's place in society

Let me preface topic with this:
I personally don't believe that there is a right wrong answer to any of these question, just curious as to what you, my colleges, feel on this topic.

The role of the composer in society has changed considerably since Mozart's and Haydn's time. From conversations I have had with various composers through out my compositional career one might get the impression that it has gone either for the better or the has gotten worse since the 1700s. With the rise in independent thinking among the art community at the turn of the 20th century, we left the common practice period behind. And with the rise experimentalist composers also left the idea of pleasing the masses behind. Thus the role of the composer changed from some kind of entertainer or servant ordered to make music for various events to almost an independent artist of some kind. Composers still, however, find ourselves in a patronage like system whether it be working on film scores, popular music, ect. And from what I have gathered from these conversations there are very mixed feelings about this.
On the one hand, there is much opposition to writing music that appeases a mass public, regardless of the manner the music was composed be it film or concert. The audience should not a factor in the compositional process.
And on the other hand there is much opposition to music that isn't public friendly be it opposition to atonal music to complete denunciation of experimental music to be considered music. They feel that music is for the enjoyment of an audience and if you fail at that then you have failed as a composer.
So I ask you directly....


As a composer what do you feel your role in society is? What do you think any composer's in general role in society is, if there is one?


Discuss composer place in society:

Here are a few optional questions that I would like you to think about while you post to this topic;


Who do we write our music for?

Is it selfish to write for ourselves in a musical language all our own?

Is it wrong to write in a musical style that isnt accessible to the general public or the common man?

As composers, are we the suppliers of new music to the world much like a chef is to food, entertainers of the public, or artist for ourselves and who ever might fancy us, and why?

Here is an interesting lecture on this topic with a different spin that might help you understand kind of the direction I trying to lean the topic to:
The Role of the Composer in Contemporary society

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Replies

  • The way around the debate of being too esoteric or too popular/selling out is for the composer to pitch his works at the intelligent music listener.

    I class the intelligent music listener as somebody who is reasonably well informed about music, has the patience to listen to extended works and the good judgement to recognise musical interest when he hears it.

    If we try to aim our works towards this "ideal" we've probably fulfilled some artistic integrity; we've not sold out completely and on the other hand not alienated our listener by writing an hour's worth of intellectual squeeky gate sounds.

    I just wish more modern composers would hit this middle ground.

    Too many write write the squeeky gate variety and opine that to do otherwise would be selling their soul MTV.
  • So, what I am gather, and I am simplifying your response just a tad, is that you take the more and Thomas feel that a composers role is more or less a utilitarian position, much like a chef. ( a chef role being that he/she main purpose is to provide food, but they can still maintain a level of artistic freedom as long as the food is edible).

    But let me be the devil's advocate here and ask you this;
    what about the composers whose personal taste, regardless of academic and public, is that of the bizarre? A composer who truly enjoys avant-garde music and equally enjoys writing it.
    And what about the small percentage of music goers that also crave avant-garde music? Much like in the cooking world, we wouldn't find ourselves eating pigs brain, monkey eye balls, and snake testicles, however there is a market for that and many people, be it a very very small percentage of the population, truly enjoys that sort of stuff.
    If this small portion of the population desires the same thing we desire to compose, do we forsake them for a "middle ground"?
    And
    Isn't selling out, not matter how much artistic integrity we maintain, still selling out if you had to sacrificed any part of your true artistic ambitions to meet the needs of a particular audience?
  • Well if you're artistic integrity begins and ends with the avant garde, then writing music for the averagely educated listener is selling out, yes.

    But don't expect to attract anything more than a dozen people to your concerts, and if you're folk consitute the majority, don't complain when audiences are put off by the prospect of contemporary works in recitals.
  • Tyler,

    I'm not entirely sure of your point or at least of the contention of your point. I mean if people want to write avant-garde music for an avant-garde audience then that's great. There's nothing inherently wrong with any of it (writing esoteric music, using your own musical language).

    However what I tend to see is avant-garde composers complaining about NOT having an audience or funding to perform their works or more exposure ... well unfortunately that's what you get for being esoteric. Whilst you can complain about people having reduced attention spans or simple tastes or whatever, the simple fact is that no one has a right to demand attention for this.

    The problem with the composers turning their backs on the audience (in terms of writing for their own sake) is that the audience (and thus history) turns its back on the composer. In my opinion, the film composers of the time are likely to be remembered longer than a lot of concert hall composers these days simply because they are more in the public eye, there is more informational generally available about them.

    I don't really have an answer to the initial question Tyler but it is an interesting question and hopefully will stimulate interesting debate.
  • I will have to disagree with you on two points.

    I dont know what it is like in your part of the world, but from what I hear in America (especially in places like New York, Chicago, Austin, Seattle, ect. (cities with a large support for the arts)) I find that avant-garde composer are the complete opposite. Most like the small number of devoted fans and the almost underground nature of it all. I also find that there fans dont just run in teens to twenties, but instead run around the 500 range and more. I know I went to see Songs of Ascension by Meridith Monk in New York and it was a sold out show, not only that but it was a touring show that was traveling around the country. I lest her as a example because she is considered one of today's avant-garde composers. Most people, even in the general music community, will never hear about her, nor will you here her music on the radio or see her concert broadcast on television. However she has a large following, not a massive following but a large devoted one.

    I also disagree that history is turning its back on the avant-garde composer. If anything history has shown us that it doenst take in to consideration how popular they were as a factor of if it will remember them. Of course that also largely depends on where you look. John Cage, Any Warhol, and e.e. cummings isnt largely known through out the world, nor did they completely capture the public's eye during their time, but ask the people who are in their fields (be it music, art or poetry) and they can tell you who they are.
    As far as film composers, most people will only remember about three, John Williams, Han Zimmer, and Danny Elfman, that is because their fame is attached to how successful the films they scored where. Their recognition is largely based on association to another persons work. Most people are completely clueless about anything else they have done outside those films. Most dont know that John Williams has concert music, in fact most dont even know that he score films before Star Wars. That doesnt stop their legions of fans however. Their level of fame is usually the common way of associating success (e.i. numbers of fans = level of success)
    This begs the question:

    In the spirit of this simulating debate I ask all of you guys;
    Is it the quantity of audience and fans that we have that matters, or is it the quality of the audience and fans that matter?
    (keep in mind, in a perfect world we would have the choice of both, however this is far from a perfect world and usually we are given one to choose.)

    James Semple said:
    Tyler,

    I'm not entirely sure of your point or at least of the contention of your point. I mean if people want to write avant-garde music for an avant-garde audience then that's great. There's nothing inherently wrong with any of it (writing esoteric music, using your own musical language).

    However what I tend to see is avant-garde composers complaining about NOT having an audience or funding to perform their works or more exposure ... well unfortunately that's what you get for being esoteric. Whilst you can complain about people having reduced attention spans or simple tastes or whatever, the simple fact is that no one has a right to demand attention for this.

    The problem with the composers turning their backs on the audience (in terms of writing for their own sake) is that the audience (and thus history) turns its back on the composer. In my opinion, the film composers of the time are likely to be remembered longer than a lot of concert hall composers these days simply because they are more in the public eye, there is more informational generally available about them.

    I don't really have an answer to the initial question Tyler but it is an interesting question and hopefully will stimulate interesting debate.
  • Avante Garde for its own sake is fine; let people listen to this stuff if they want to enjoy it/ pretend to enjoy it (for some).

    I have a problem with Avante Garde or even just most "new" music in a recital.

    The order of many (but maybe not most) recitals is historcal based. So in many piano recitals I have heard a bit of Mozart, followed by Chopin, a few Rachmaninov Preludes and then the New work.

    "this piece was commissioned by the Arts Council of Great Britain [presumably no small fee at taxpayer expense] and is premiered here tonight".

    And too many times what has followed is a collection of fairly random sounding chords, followed by a few melodic ramblings in no key that I can detect, with a liberal sprinkling of "silences" between notes.

    I can count on one hand the number of times that a new piece has really has any appeal to most people there (I re-iterete, eductated music lovers who have taken the time and effort to attend a recital).

    Because this has happened too many times, even the educated music lover has, in many cases, a deep seated distrust of new works and contemporary music. And these are not closed minded philistines who like rap and Lady Gaga, but lovers of music.
  • Interesting points there Tyler. Nice to see a different point of view. Particularly interesting and gratifying to see the audience for avant-garde music in places in the US. From what I'm seeing (and this may only be my perception) at the moment in UK and Europe there seems to be something of a rejection of late 20th Century writing in 'modern classical' but then this kind of rejection has been common in previous elements of musical history. Also this might be down to differing definitions of "avant-garde" music. Also I'm tending to see a lot of areas of classical music now trying to lure audiences back (to the concert hall or listeners to classical radio stations) and so the easiest way to do that is use well-known orchestral music which more often that not means film music. So in some ways in the UK classical music is becoming more mainstream but it's doing so by using well-known orchestral music.

    I don't really see your point about the film composers. Whether people remember John Williams for his concert pieces, for his films or even for his early jazzier tv work as Johnny Williams they will remember him. The simple fact is that the popularity of other forms of entertainment will increase the fame of the composers. Heck I wouldn't be surprised to see videogame composers being more famous in history than concert composers. I'm not making any judgement call as to what is right or poetically just, I'm merely stating what I feel to be fact. Certainly judging by the 20th Century, "pop culture" is extremely well documented and recorded. Heck I'd say John Williams may even by the most recognised modern orchestral composer. We here might be able to name plenty of avant-garde composers but seriously does the man in the street know any?



    Tyler said:
    I will have to disagree with you on two points.

    I dont know what it is like in your part of the world, but from what I hear in America (especially in places like New York, Chicago, Austin, Seattle, ect. (cities with a large support for the arts)) I find that avant-garde composer are the complete opposite. Most like the small number of devoted fans and the almost underground nature of it all. I also find that there fans dont just run in teens to twenties, but instead run around the 500 range and more. I know I went to see Songs of Ascension by Meridith Monk in New York and it was a sold out show, not only that but it was a touring show that was traveling around the country. I lest her as a example because she is considered one of today's avant-garde composers. Most people, even in the general music community, will never hear about her, nor will you here her music on the radio or see her concert broadcast on television. However she has a large following, not a massive following but a large devoted one.

    I also disagree that history is turning its back on the avant-garde composer. If anything history has shown us that it doenst take in to consideration how popular they were as a factor of if it will remember them. Of course that also largely depends on where you look. John Cage, Any Warhol, and e.e. cummings isnt largely known through out the world, nor did they completely capture the public's eye during their time, but ask the people who are in their fields (be it music, art or poetry) and they can tell you who they are.
    As far as film composers, most people will only remember about three, John Williams, Han Zimmer, and Danny Elfman, that is because their fame is attached to how successful the films they scored where. Their recognition is largely based on association to another persons work. Most people are completely clueless about anything else they have done outside those films. Most dont know that John Williams has concert music, in fact most dont even know that he score films before Star Wars. That doesnt stop their legions of fans however. Their level of fame is usually the common way of associating success (e.i. numbers of fans = level of success)
    This begs the question:

    In the spirit of this simulating debate I ask all of you guys;
    Is it the quantity of audience and fans that we have that matters, or is it the quality of the audience and fans that matter?
    (keep in mind, in a perfect world we would have the choice of both, however this is far from a perfect world and usually we are given one to choose.)

    James Semple said:
    Tyler,

    I'm not entirely sure of your point or at least of the contention of your point. I mean if people want to write avant-garde music for an avant-garde audience then that's great. There's nothing inherently wrong with any of it (writing esoteric music, using your own musical language).

    However what I tend to see is avant-garde composers complaining about NOT having an audience or funding to perform their works or more exposure ... well unfortunately that's what you get for being esoteric. Whilst you can complain about people having reduced attention spans or simple tastes or whatever, the simple fact is that no one has a right to demand attention for this.

    The problem with the composers turning their backs on the audience (in terms of writing for their own sake) is that the audience (and thus history) turns its back on the composer. In my opinion, the film composers of the time are likely to be remembered longer than a lot of concert hall composers these days simply because they are more in the public eye, there is more informational generally available about them.

    I don't really have an answer to the initial question Tyler but it is an interesting question and hopefully will stimulate interesting debate.
    A composer's place in society
    Let me preface topic with this:I personally don't believe that there is a right wrong answer to any of these question, just curious as to what you, m…
  • I think the role of a composer is a muchly underated role in contemporary society. But to stick strictly to the topic in question (and not to be led astray into what exactly a composer does for society) I will answer you questions thusly:

    1. We write music for whomsoever we please. We may write for ourselves, or those who are close to us. Or perhaps (if we are lucky)we may write for employers. It should be admitted that any composer who would not compose for their own pleasure, as well as for business or money, is probably in the wrong profession.

    2. I think it is somewhat selfish, because music- for whoever it has been written- should be within reach of those who would enjoy it. I think it rather cruel that someone would write music knowing that there are people who would enjoy it, and expressly ensure that those people cannot read it. Writing music for yourself is all well and good, but you can write it for yourself in a way which will allow other people to experience it. But finally, I will say, if you do choose to do this, then no one can really stop you...

    3. Is it wrong? Of course not! Because while the general public, are... well the general, they are not everyone. Someone needs to write unusual music for those who enjoy it.

    4. I think that as composers, we are both suppliers of new music to the world and artists for ourselves and whoever might fancy us. When someone offers us money to write a piece of music, it is our duty to do as they ask. Then we are suppliers of new music to the world. When we are simply sitting with a pile of manuscript and a piano, then we are artists for ourselves and whoever might fancy us. Obviously, the are some composers who are only one, or only the other, but the ideal composer is equal quantities of both.
  • I haven't read through the responses, but my response (from my own standpoint) is that, I compose, first and foremost, for my own pleasure. I compose because there is music in my head, that if not let out, will explode my cranium. Beyond that, I have a desire to be a film composer. I have loved film music since I was a wee lad (yes, it was John Williams and his (in)famous "Star Wars" scores that ignited this passion), but truly, I'm a movie fan, and I have an intense desire to write music that serves to enhance moving images. I will say without shame that I'm a huge fan of Hans Zimmer (I think he ushered in a new era of film scoring, much in the way the John Williams did in the late70's/early 80's by reviving the Wagnerian "neo-romantic" style).

    The place of the composer in society? We create art. Period. Some may like it. Some may loathe it. We create. We serve the role that any artist does in society. We create what is beautiful to us, and hope that others find it pleasing as well... but at the end of the day, if no one else finds it appealing, it's still great to us.

    -Andrew

    *edit* BTW, Tyler... I don't merit John Williams, Hans Zimmer, and Danny Elfman (or anyone else's) scores based on how well the movies did, I base it on how well the scores are written... these three men have blazed a trail through the movie industry, and rightfully taken their place as kings of the hill... not because of box-office numbers, but because they wrote great music. Do NOT confuse money with artistic talent...
  • I compose, first and foremost, for my own pleasure. I compose because there is music in my head, that if not let out, will explode my cranium.

    There are two schools of composing, the one as colorfully described by Mr Wonders, where one must write or create an incendiary emination from the noggin, and one where sone sort of external formulae is used within a structure, sometimes very rigid to create. Both are works of art, to be sure, but which one better communicates better? As was mentioned above, the latter of these two relies on a devoted small cadre of devotees to a particular composer to achieve its goal, and the other -- the exploding head method which both Mr Wonders and I employ, requires something in a piece of music to click with people in general in order to obtain a wider audience. I would rather use my music to tell a story then to sit down with a piece of graph paper or pair of dice to create sound structures. As to specific messages and politics? One who solely focuses on politics can in the end alienate the people he is trying to attract. Better to extrapolate with known themes and create someting new. Make a message more subtle. For Example, I use Greek Mythology as a backdrop to someof my music, but I sometimes create a new work based on known characters... If you look at either Helios the Charioteer` or `Dialogue of the Muses`... Neither of those stories is part of the classical mythological melieu. However sometimes I do follow the old stories (prety much) in works such as `Pandora`, or `Hercules and the Learnean Hydra`. It depends on the situation.
    Each composer must find their own way, but as in any art, the goal is to communicate, and with sounds architectures, we must be mindful to the fact that the more people who are willing to listen, the better, and thus any message gets to more people

    Andrew Wonders said:
    I haven't read through the responses, but my response (from my own standpoint) is that, I compose, first and foremost, for my own pleasure. I compose because there is music in my head, that if not let out, will explode my cranium. Beyond that, I have a desire to be a film composer. I have loved film music since I was a wee lad (yes, it was John Williams and his (in)famous "Star Wars" scores that ignited this passion), but truly, I'm a movie fan, and I have an intense desire to write music that serves to enhance moving images. I will say without shame that I'm a huge fan of Hans Zimmer (I think he ushered in a new era of film scoring, much in the way the John Williams did in the late70's/early 80's by reviving the Wagnerian "neo-romantic" style).

    The place of the composer in society? We create art. Period. Some may like it. Some may loathe it. We create. We serve the role that any artist does in society. We create what is beautiful to us, and hope that others find it pleasing as well... but at the end of the day, if no one else finds it appealing, it's still great to us.

    -Andrew

    *edit* BTW, Tyler... I don't merit John Williams, Hans Zimmer, and Danny Elfman (or anyone else's) scores based on how well the movies did, I base it on how well the scores are written... these three men have blazed a trail through the movie industry, and rightfully taken their place as kings of the hill... not because of box-office numbers, but because they wrote great music. Do NOT confuse money with artistic talent...
This reply was deleted.