28 July, 2014


Maybe I’m a classical composer after all

How it feels to realise you’re part of the system you thought you opposed

I suffered a huge shock recently when I realised that I might actually be a classical composer after all.

To be clear, when people ask what kind of music I write I do tend to say something about ‘classical’. This is because I can never really face going into great detail about what constitutes a generic divide in music (and who would be interested anyway) and my working methods tend to share most with ‘those kinds of musics’. That is, I work to commissions, tend to spend many months on one project and write largely notated music that is realised in performance by other people, a process which brings me into contact with ensembles, concert venues and conductors. But I was always sure that I wasn’t really a classical composer. I thought of myself as a bit of a renegade, moonlighting as part of the classical world but in fact not really fitting in and, at least in my dreams, working to dismantle it from the inside.

Perhaps this is because the first question people always ask me on hearing that I’m a composer is, “can you play all the instruments?” And my slightly sheepish answer is always no. I only really play one instrument and to my constant shame I am fairly rubbish at the piano. But I always considered this as a sign that I was part of the new guard in classical composition; problematizing the idea that composers have to be piano virtuosi with talents in all the traditional areas of music.

That I listen to Four Tet and Arctic Monkeys as well as Gyory Ligeti and Rebecca Saunders had to mean I wasn’t really part of the old, tired and increasingly insular classical world.

I also saw myself as opposed to both the notion of a high/low art divide and the great deal of snobbery that abounds in classical music. Again I considered myself a product of our (post?)- postmodernist era in which music has been democratised and a plurality of influences are interwoven through a process of de- and re-contextualisation. That I listen to Four Tet and Arctic Monkeys as well as Gyory Ligeti and Rebecca Saunders had to mean I wasn’t really part of the old, tired and increasingly insular classical world.

And of course I am a female composer. Anyone who takes even a cursory glance at the last 500 years of Western classical music will notice that it is quite literally an all-male affair. History is littered with the corpses of female composers physically prevented from making music and it is only in the last few decades that the tide has begun to turn. As a result, I consider myself something of an outsider, taking part in the rituals of classical music but secretly plotting to tear down the foundations of patriarchy on which it stands.

All of this has formed an important part of my self-image as a composer and, until recently, confirmed the idea of myself as a secret classical music dissenter. But lately two events have conspired to make me question all this, encouraging me to reconsider whether I am actually much more institutionalised that I had previously thought.

All of this has formed an important part of my self-image as a composer and, until recently, confirmed the idea of myself as a secret classical music dissenter.

The first involves a recent performance of a piece of mine. It was a very intricate piece exploring acoustic beating – a psychoacoustic phenomenon which occurs when two sounds with very similar frequencies are heard at the same time. Since the human ear cannot discern these different sources as distinct sounds, it reconciles them as one sound within which rhythmic movement occurs. The piece was part of a concert programme featuring new works of poetry and a piece for beatboxers. This sounded great on paper – a night of new music! – and seemed like a great opportunity to share my work with a new, young crowd. In reality, however, it was really hard work. Throughout the piece, people in the audience were talking, getting up and walking around and leaving the room to get a drink. This situation made it really hard to focus, and in essence, my piece was all about focus, encouraging the audience to hone in on very delicate sonic fluctuations. The audience’s behaviour stayed fairly constant throughout the night and this was fine for many of the pieces. However, it struck me – and many audience members who came to speak to me at the end – that my classical piece, requiring focus, reflection and total silence from its audience was completely out of place in this atmosphere.

The second involves hearing one of the worst pieces of music I have ever had the misfortune of encountering. I like to think of myself as not especially judgemental of music – it all has its place – but sometimes you come across a piece of overly produced, techno-lite tat made in half an hour by an arrogant fool, and judgement is absolutely acceptable. The worst part was finding out that said piece had been written for a TV show and would probably make the creator thousands of pounds. I wanted to cry. It made me wonder what the point of it all was. If music that was so demonstrably bad was worth so much, then why on earth do I bother spending months on a single piece just for a tiny (and lets face it, dying) audience to politely applause and then all go home.

In fact, rather than opposing classical music from the inside, perhaps I have been quietly institutionalised into believing in many of the key tenets of the high/low art divide

Both of these events have transpired to make me question my previously conceived ‘outsider’ status within classical music. In fact, rather than opposing classical music from the inside, perhaps I have been quietly institutionalised into believing in many of the key tenets of the high/low art divide: that I would prefer if audiences wouldn’t talk or loudly leave the room in the middle of a piece, that I value craft, effort and time, that I feel fairly disgusted at the financial set up of the industry, that I think music should be innovative and challenging rather than boring and predictable, that I think some music is just plain bad, all point towards the notion that I am in fact an old-school, classical music dinosaur.