The Beat Goes On

Young composers are still gripped by the urge to make music, and now to break down cultural barriers

James MacMillan

Why do people want to be composers today? I’m asked this a lot, and may even ask it myself sometimes. Not that I have had any doubts about being a composer. Ever since I was a boy of nine years I’ve wanted to write music, and was encouraged, even then in the knowledge that there were real, living composers just a few hundred miles away. Benjamin Britten was very much alive in the late 1960s when I first felt the urge, and it wasn’t long before I was seeing his works on television and hearing them on the radio.

But there has always been a feeling that what we do means inhabiting a periphery on the edge of a periphery. “Classical” serious music is meant to be a minority interest, or so we are told, and new music is “difficult” even for people who are into music and perhaps prefer the “museum culture” rather than the “living culture” aspect of the art form. I’ve heard the tales of discouragement all my life but they haven’t made a blind bit of difference. From “you’ll never make any money” to “you’ll inhabit an island of non-communication,” all the warnings have washed over me in ineffective wave after irrelevant wave. I have lived all these years with an obsessive thirst to write music. It’s what gets me up in the morning and what I’m thinking about before I drift off to sleep.

And every other composer I’ve met is the same. I spend a lot of time now travelling the world, conducting, but also teaching. In recent years I’ve met young composers in Pittsburgh, Shanghai, Amsterdam and Chennai, and everywhere in between. They all seem gripped by the same urge. Some might fall by the wayside as financial priorities kick in, but the best of them will continue regardless.

Nevertheless, I have noticed that the kind of discussions they have has changed since I was their age. We used to obsess over stylistic and aesthetic questions; the young ones today, much less so. We used to pursue the elusive goal of originality and novelty at all costs, imagining new ways of organising sounds in terror of being regarded as old-fashioned and reactionary. The young ones are happy to absorb a lot in the widest musical environment, the popular music of youth culture especially. In Chennai they wanted to write for film first and foremost, but knew that a classical “conservatoire” training was indispensable. In the US some are already making money out of creating music for computer games and playing in jazz and rock clubs, but are intellectually au fait with the claims of modernism, which they think of as passé.

A bitter and strangely petty article appeared last year in the Guardian (where else?) by one Philip Clark, headlined “Where have the great composers gone?”, in which he slagged off all the living composers he didn’t like. A response from Susanna Eastburn, chief executive of Sound and Music (a leading UK organisation for new music) and former artistic director of the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, was more sensible, but both missed the point that much contemporary music has long since left behind the ghettoes of Huddersfield and London Sinfonietta concerts and transferred to the mainstream.

But Ms Eastburn did quote the composer Shiva Feshareki whose criticism of the peevish Clark seems spot-on:

It’s simply a different time. We live in a world where we are constantly sharing ideas. There is a place now for so many different types of music and also collaborations between different types of people on an international level. Do we really care about who is a “great” composer? Or do we care more about how we have more fluidity now, and that we have access to more perspectives, which means art can positively impact the lives of a wider variety of people?

The aspirations of the new generation of composers seem very different too. When I was in my twenties the gold standard of compositional advance was a commission from the London Sinfonietta and acceptance by the London New Music crowd. I remember a composer who had an important position as a “composer in residence” in a regional organisation telling me he was desperate to get back to London to pursue his place in the “Ollygarchy” (composers championed  by the conductor Oliver Knussen). How things have changed. There are many different and diverse ensembles who now make up the British new music ecology, and there are so many other great champions of composers nowadays, at home and abroad, reflecting a much wider range of stylistic perspectives.

Even the “London Sinfonietta sound” has changed. In its early days this was a disparate ensemble of spindly solo virtuosi, and many great composers of the 1960s and ’70s avant garde wrote for them. But it might have become dated, and composers began drifting off into their own customised sound worlds. Technology obviously featured in some of this, and in the new ways of disseminating this music. But they also rediscovered an awe of the traditional orchestra and choir. Some of the best young composers are building a repertoire of big, bold works which are being performed and broadcast by British orchestras such as the LSO and choirs such as Harry Christopher’s crack ensemble The Sixteen. Jay Capperauld, only in his late twenties, has had works commissioned by the BBC, the RSNO and The Cumnock Tryst. Alissa Firsova has written music for The Sixteen, now commercially recorded. Their discussions about new music aesthetics and personal styles are refreshingly relaxed and eclectic, but are bound to get them a severe ticking-off from a Guardian music critic some day soon. I tell them not to worry and recount my own scolding from a Guardian writer who, when I quoted Roger Scruton in a pre-concert talk, described this foolhardy heresy as “perilous”. For whom? For me? Was this meant to be a threat? Ideology and political posturing has contaminated the waters of new classical music too much in the past century, especially in mainland European centres like Darmstadt, and in the Academy generally. What I see now is younger composers putting aside the irrelevant, the pointless and the extraneous and focusing on the music itself, casting a wide net for their inspiration and motivation.

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