Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Sponsoring New Music

Dear Music Lover,
I would like to canvass your interest in an idea; as follows.
I am struck by that fact that I enjoy the chamber and orchestral music of the 16th to 19th centuries more than I enjoy the music of the 20th and 21st centuries. I know that the inventiveness remains, and the desire to create and enjoy new music is as vigorously alive today as it ever was, for we see it in the pop and folk music fields. And I am quite aware that there is deeply serious and hard-won music being written by numerous contemporary composers, and that institutional and national sponsors are doing what they can to keep flowing the stream of new music. But I do not enjoy listening to it. Maybe if I wanted to spend an evening reliving the agony of the second world war or the anxieties of psychic disintegration I would find what I wanted in modern music; but I don’t. I want to dance, sing, romance, be roused and relaxed as mankind has enjoyed for the previous thousand or more years. It is devastating to conclude that we go to concerts primarily to listen to the music of dead composers.
It occurred to me that what we have lost, since the First World War, is the commercial force of the buying public, that great number of perfectly ordinary folk, bourgeois and aristocratic, who used to buy printed music or sponsor compositions. (For the European aristocracy of Haydn’s time were perfectly ordinary folk who just happened to be rich. Prince Esterhazy liked to sing round the piano with his wife and daughters and Frederick the Great liked to play his flute to the company after dinner.) From Beethoven to Rachmaninov, composers were able to support themselves without patronage simply from the sale of printed music or concert tickets. Provided they wrote music that people wanted to play and to hear. However, the composition of music is today paid for by relatively few individuals; one or two wealthy donors, or government grants, channelled through panels of experts (who may themselves be contemporary composers). If the music of the renaissance could be said to have been written, played, and listened to by amateurs, that of the baroque was played and enjoyed by amateurs but written by professionals, while that of the romantic 19th century can only be played by professionals, but was still enjoyed by the amateur public. Today, we have reached the point where contemporary music requires a well-trained ear for its appreciation, and reaches only a very small (essentially a professional) audience.

I am therefore suggesting a mechanism whereby the ordinary, concert-going, public can vote (with their money) for the newly written music that they enjoy. Something like this. Members of a “Newcastle Society for the Sponsorship of New Music” (NSSNM) would pay an annual membership fee of £50, and would get a CD (costing £10) containing some 60 minutes worth of new compositions in a variety of genres. After listening to the disc they would be asked to direct the remaining £40 of their membership fee to go to the compositions they wished to sponsor. (It would be hoped that some members would donate considerably more, especially if they were particularly taken with a work.) At the end of the year a local orchestra might be prevailed on to incorporate one of the works into their repertoire if suitable material had been submitted; perhaps the annual “Newcastle Overture”.

What do you think? Would you enjoy participating? Two hundred members would raise £8,000, minimum; 1000 members would raise £40,000. Advertisements would be needed to draw in suitable contributions (which would have to retain copying and performing rights). The secretariat would have to advertise, collate, copy and circulate the discs. Maybe a grant would fund that for a trial period of 3 years. I would appreciate your comments, (particularly if you are enthusiastic).
Yours sincerely,

9 Thenford Road, Middleton Cheney, BANBURY,  OX17 2 NB, UK


gishzida said...

What we call classical now was "pop music" then... it was intended to invoke and / or evoke the emotional response you have come to understand as pleasant.

Yet to say to all "young composers" that they should consider building their compositions only of the pre-approved materials of their forefathers is to insist that times, materials, society and musicological vocabulary does not change.

They do.

How does "classic Classical" convey "meh" or "teh" or "D'oh!"?

That is what new music aims for... yes and sometimes to tweak the noses of those who have become too self satisfied and have turned to face the past rather than face the future.

You need not worry that "your kind" of "classical pop" will disappear. It won't... Consider John Williams or Henry Mancini. Their movie scores are neo-classical, filling the mind and heart with their directed emotion.

The thing you should really fear more than classical music dying for lack of composers is that classical music and its production will become some corporate monolith's "Intellectual Property".

That is more likely to happen than classic music dying.

I've been writing music and lyrics for 40 years.. about 10 years ago I discovered what I felt was a nice playground: a multi-track DAW, live instruments, loop samples and melodic noise.

For a composer, music is the means to convey to another the aural vision they have conceived...

For a pop musician, music's whole purpose is to play what the listener wants to hear and get paid.

For me the journey never ends. The promised land is somewhere in that land called tomorrow.

AuroraGlorialis said...

"If the music of the renaissance could be said to have been written, played, and listened to by amateurs..."

I find it hard to believe that the musical genius of renaissance composers like Josquin des Prez (who, following classical Greek values, set up the music-emotion paradigm that is still in use today), Guillaume DuFay, and Claudio Monteverdi can be boiled down to the uninformed and simplistic titling of "amateur." Furthermore, the statements that follow complete an argument that makes vast and unstable logic jumps; this is an unfortunate weakening to a post that I think makes some valid arguments.

As a young classical musician, I worry that mine is a dying art. Having studied the roots of western music, I look at the present and worry that classical music of today has lost itself in its own haze of self-awareness.

But, I still firmly believe in the power of the abstractions of (classical) music, which I see as unparalleled. And in this respect, I think that your argument looses sight of the possibilities music has for expanding our repertory of thought.

I believe you're right in that innovation has become too primary an objective in modern composition. Innovation should be borne from a musical idea and not the other way around.

Our focus must then be shifted to the origin of the musical idea. Is it fruitful (both practically and aesthetically) to write purely to please an audience? For whom should music be written? And this theme, which I believe you hope to bring to the forefront, is where I actually think your argument falls apart. Music that transcends, that is seen as great, and remains timeless seems unlikely to be composed for a demographic audience. Rather, to triumph, a piece of music must communicate an idea (not necessarily novel, but) that is unique and speaks to the human condition.

It is in this communication that I believe many modern composers lose sight of a piece's purpose. In the act of declaiming an idea, so caught up in its own innovations, contemporary pieces actually obfuscate a musical idea for the sake of being new. That, or the music is a shell—no musical idea to speak of wrapped in a husk of modern musical rhetorics.

And with this in mind, "catering" music to suit an audience would only further the self-awareness that injures modern music. It would in essence make classical music a contrivance, derivative or artificially new.

So I think we must ultimately accept that the music-makers should be the only ones to make music or risk the dilution or degradation of musical ideas thereafer.

Ian West said...

Occidentis made some daft remarks, for sure, and Glorialis makes many good points; Josquin des Prez was hardly an amateur, and the thought of levelling down to a 'Classic FM Hall of Fame' is appalling. The thinking behind the 'power of the abstractions of (classical) music' deserves expansion (possibly by e-mail). I suppose a 'market' system operates successfully in literature; many will buy popular books and be entirely satisfied. But that does not impede the production of 'Good' books, which are not that hard to publish, or to discover. There is more to say (possibly by e-mail).

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