Thursday 17 July 2014


There is only one measure of success for a composer.  And it is impossible to prove.

Success is:  performers you don't know deciding to play your piece.

Look carefully, and you will see that most performances in the world today, including the very visible, very high profile ones, are the result of direct personal connections.  At the highest levels, they are often compounded by business connections (friends being managed by the same company, for example.)  Or they occur because one set of managers talks to another set of managers.

Is that success?  Of a sort, certainly.

But real musical success happens when you send a work on its solitary way into the world and somewhere, performers who don't know you personally decide to play it.

Why can't you prove it?

Because you simply never know what wheels there are within wheels.  You may see a list of performers who just did your work and not know any of them, but that doesn't mean they don't know someone you know.  You can never know if one of your friends was responsible for the connection.  Perhaps one of the performers was a student of someone you know.

Of course, that doesn't take away from the fact that people who don't know you decided to perform the work anyway.

The extension of this definition of success is being asked to compose a new work by someone you don't know.  Someone has either performed your existing work or knows it somehow, and wants a new piece.

It happens.

Saturday 12 July 2014

a little depressing, perhaps.......

I have been trying, over many years, to put together some kind of coherent understanding of music, composition, life, etc., and have never been able to do so.  Somehow, there is something elusive happening.

I believe I have completely grasped one important concept:  to be an interesting composer, first you have to be an interesting musician; to be an interesting musician, first you have to be an interesting human being.  Composition (all art, for that matter,) is a by-product of life.  You need a life to create art.

Composition, solitary as it is as an act, is inextricably interwoven with the world around it.  Much as some of us deny it, when the work is going well, life seems better, and when the work is going badly, life seems difficult.  As I have gotten older, this has become less and less true, but there is still a strong element of it present in my life.

But here is where it gets complicated.

It really doesn't matter whether or not the work is going well or badly.  It really doesn't matter whether or not our lives seem better or worse because of our work.  It really doesn't matter what we think or say about music, what we sacrifice to or gain from our work, or even whether or not we are "successful".

"Music" is only three things:  writing music, performing music, and listening to music.  Everything else "about" music is not actually music itself.  Whether or not the music we write is any good is completely beyond the control of any external reasoning, thinking, planning, expectation, philosophy, or technical control.  You can write music with any agenda you wish to engage.  But there is absolutely no relationship between your agenda and the quality of the music you write.  Composers with agendas (if you think about it, almost exclusively a phenomenon of the 20th and 21st centuries) have written some very good music and some very bad music.  Composers with agendas have come and gone; some have made lasting statements, and most have vanished completely into the mists of time.  Just like composers without agendas.

Rich composers have written some great music, and poor composers have written some great music.  Composers who lived a long time have written some great music, and composers who died young have written some great music.  Debauchers and saints, arrogant bastards and generous mentors, starving artistes and fat cats, all have written both great and bad music.

I have seen many composers obsess over the importance of their work.  They lose sight of the fact that the process is more important than the product for them.  Composition ceases to be about music, and becomes about some kind of agenda, or, worse, an act of high vanity.  The next performance, huge applause at the end of the work, money, a recording, all become more important than the music itself.  Proving that their aesthetic is the "one true" aesthetic, proving that they are right and everyone else is wrong, proving that they and they alone have the secret of music, these are all agendas that have nothing whatsoever to do with music.  Music is wordless.

I know of one composer (long gone) who refused to teach or perform, because it compromised his work as a composer.  He took his wife with him on his lifelong voyage.  They died in absolute poverty.  His music has vanished.  I have seen his name once in the last 10 years.  I wonder if that would have been enough for him?