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23 October 2017

Composers vs people who compose - who cares?

Rhys Gray Image: Rhys Gray  
© Peter Mathew

Tasmanian composer Rhys Gray responds to Gordon Kerry's article 'There are composers, and people who compose', published last week as part of Resonate's new article series. See also: Jim Denley's article 'We Compose'.

More articles in this series will be published over spring and summer 2017-2018. The AMC is calling for new, bold and positive definitions and redefinitions of the word 'composer' in our contemporary context. We invite you to respond to these articles with your commentary, here in Resonate, and on social media.

I totally agree with Gordon Kerry's article - there is a difference between composers and people who compose. The difference is that composers are people who decide that they want to call themselves composers, and people who compose are people who do not apply that label of 'composer' to themselves, for whatever reason.

I'm not sure who is meant to be targeted by the supposed insult of being a 'person who composes' - people who have retired and would like to dabble in the arts? Young people who are trying to earn a crust while composing? People just looking for something to do on a Sunday evening before they head back to work the next day? I'd like to ask: who cares? The only qualifier that matters is whether the art produced is good art, i.e. if it serves its purpose (whether that be being a new and original concept, or simply a soothing soundtrack for babies to listen to), and every listener gets to decide that for themselves. The local high school needs a new tune to play, so a composer (or 'person who composes') writes for them. I would like to ask, what's wrong with that? To imply that the composers of day-to-day music assume that all music is created equal is the most fallacious argument one could level against it.

Why would one be so concerned with what label a person that has written a piece of music applies to themselves? If it is a heralded work of genius and they decide that they are a composer, this is absolutely normal. If they choose not to apply the label, then they are an oddity, but it is ultimately inconsequential, as the work persists no matter what they call themselves. If the works they produce are passed over without notice and they labelled themselves a composer, then they are simply an unsuccessful composer. If they did not apply the label to themselves, then they have committed the terrible act of having fun. I have never been forced at gunpoint to listen to a sub-par piece of music, and the quality of the work will inevitably speak for itself, with the cream rising to the top. If you feel threatened by amateurs, there is only one person responsible for that, and it is not the amateur.

I'm somewhat perplexed by the mention of these no-names being non-threatening options for presenters; I'm not sure if I've been listening to the same Classic FM or attending the same concerts as this author, but from what I've experienced, the majority of music is the big names of Beethoven et al. The minority of composers programmed, those who write new music, are nine times out of ten the established composers who write full time, not the no-names. The occasional jar of lightning from someone that does not compose full-time is bound to happen, but it follows logic that the compositions that are worked on as a full-time job are the ones that are most polished and meritorious of being broadcast.

While career changes are rare, it's not unheard of. Brett Dean changed from violist to composer, why can't Dr Neighbour, retiree? The only difference is Dean's prior experience in music. Janacek was in his 60s when he began to accrue attention, Bruckner started composing symphonies in his forties, Franck was 56 when he published his first symphony. To gate-keep against those interested in the arts is to contribute to the death by a thousand papercuts.

Yes, having your profession ridiculed stings, but I would suggest welcoming them into the arts with open arms; once Dr. Neighbour sees the depth and complexity that art requires, they would surely realise their error. I personally reduce accountancy to magic that happens in Excel, but I know that it is far more than that. It is a textbook example of the Dunning-Kruger effect, where people with no experience in a subject overestimate their abilities and underestimate the depth of a field due to them not having the experience in the subject to know better. It comes not from a place of malice, but simply of ignorance. I suspect the crux of the article is that people who supposedly erroneously label themselves 'composers' are unaware of how tough 'real composers' have it. The only way to combat the Dunning-Kruger effect is to teach them.

I totally agree, 'to compose a work of substantial scale, be it something for the stage or a large-scale instrumental or orchestral piece, or, I daresay, a complex work for electronics, requires skill, patience, experience, and talent'. The thing is that none of those are qualities exclusive to full-time composers. Somebody that does not produce art full-time can still be good at art- somewhat reminiscent of people being unable to divorce the artist from the art. The art can, in fact, stand alone, separate from the character behind it, and their employment status does not make a piece inherently better or worse. Do I need to bring up Charles Ives, who devised the concept of estate planning insurance, which is still used today, while ALSO being an incredibly influential modern composer? And does the implication that you have to be full-time as an artist to be any good apply to performers as well? If so, then pack up all your toys, community ensembles, because apparently you'll never be any good, never mind the fact that there are many reasons why you might create art, such as for enjoyment, or for personal growth. And if that does not apply to performers, I would suggest that you get off your high horse - composition is difficult, but to imply that one could reach professional standards of performance part-time is a little offensive - perhaps another victim of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

One could unpack the article into several of the largest questions that plague us. What is art, and what constitutes good art? Who gets to decide that? Why? I would reply in a similarly unproductive fashion that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Then, I would point out that while we have been dissecting some 'person who composes'' work, trying to decide if their art is valid, they have been composing, labels be damned.

I would suggest that anybody who labels themselves a composer should feel confident enough in their compositions to not need to attack the amateurs, part-timers, and retirees as being illegitimate - after all, those are just people who compose, right?

Further links

Rhys Gray, composer (Facebook)

Rhys Gray is a composer and performer based in Hobart, Tasmania, and is a 2017 graduate of the University of Tasmania with a Bachelor of Music in Composition. He is an advocate for holistic musician health, education, and the proliferation of new music. His own music has been performed by the Australian String Quartet, the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, and the Sydney Symphony Fellowship. When Rhys is not working on new music projects, he fills the time bushwalking, playing with his cats, and perfecting his scrambled egg recipe.


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gatekeeping and papercutting

I thank Rhys Gray for his thoughtful and forthright response to my article.

I suspect we agree on rather more than he might imagine. We seem to agree, for instance, that as I noted the distinction between full- and part-time composers was ‘recent and arbitrary’, and that, as I also noted, my colleague’s ‘division between “composers and people who compose” might be overstating it.’ We certainly agree that, as he puts it, what ‘matters is whether the art produced is good art, i.e. if it serves its purpose…the local high school needs a new tune to play, so a composer (or “person who composes”) writes for them. I would like to ask, what's wrong with that?’

Ask away. Nothing. Nothing is wrong with that, which is indeed why I said ‘students [of composition] that end up teaching may be called upon to write music for didactic purposes’. We agree on that, and by extension, that there are numerous contexts in which a new work composed by whomever is handy is a desirable thing. I also made a case, as does Gray, for the benefits of composition for the mental discipline the activity offers, for the understanding it gives to one’s performance and/or enjoyment of other music, for the sheer joy of doing it. Oh, and personal growth. Gray therefore misrepresents me in suggesting that I ‘attack the amateurs, part-timers, and retirees as being illegitimate’ or that I imply ‘that you have to be full-time as an artist to be any good …and that one could [I think there’s a ‘not’ missing here, by the way] reach professional standards of performance part-time.’

I have no wish to ‘gate-keep’ against artistically inclined retirees or anyone else, let alone inflict ‘a thousand paper cuts’ on them, whatever that means. The reference to my painterly neighbour wasn’t to ridicule her wish to make art – in fact we were all very encouraging of that: the point was merely to illustrate a pervasive idea among non-artists that no experience is necessary to become a ‘great artist’, and that greatness can be achieved by a sheer act of will. Gray, I think, seems to understand this when he says that ‘it follows logic that the compositions that are worked on as a full-time job are the ones that are most polished and meritorious of being broadcast.’

Had I not been constrained by a word limit I would have been able to say that the piece I heard at the regional music camp was very beautiful and affecting, more so because the composer had come to music so recently and that, as I say, is a rarity. Gray’s roll-call of late bloomers – Franck, Bruckner, Janáček – by contrast, is a red-herring. In all cases they were schooled in music (as indeed, and however eccentrically, was Charles Ives) and they were active musicians throughout their lives: none of them rose without a trace.

Gray suggests that the crux of the article is that people are ‘unaware of how tough “real composers” have it’. It’s not that, but I reiterate that there is a growing amount of concert-hall music – that is, music written for and performed by professional ensembles – composed by performers that relies more on the celebrity of the player than the inherent interest of the work. That does offend me on behalf of all the composers who do strive to create music that is original, but whose access to performance is restricted as a result.

I genuinely wish Gray a long and productive career, but can guarantee that along the way he will discover that his idealistic belief that ‘the quality of the work will inevitably speak for itself, with the cream rising to the top’ is not borne out in the complex circumstances in which we work.