Don’t believe the hype: some brief reflections on ‘greatness’

i want to respond briefly to Philip Clark’s article ‘Where have the great composers gone?’, as i both agree and in some ways completely disagree with Clark’s unique blend of perspicacity and polemic. When i was an undergraduate, there were frequent references to and discussions about the notional ‘path’ of becoming a composer. This path, put simply, involved getting some notable performances at music college, attending lots of new music concerts in order to make useful connections, and then—the ultimate goal—to get a publisher, supposedly the compositional equivalent of obtaining tenure. During my Master’s degree, this had evolved to the point where most composers agreed that being allied to a publisher was quickly becoming a pretty old-fashioned idea, due partly to the development and ease of typesetting and self-publishing/promotion, and also due to the fact that, by now, the majority of the larger publishing houses were assimilating more and more mainstream music to ensure their profit margins, reducing their desirability to those of a more avant-garde persuasion. During the last few years, i’ve heard repeatedly from published composers (by those same largest publishing houses) about how indifferent, unhelpful and for the most part worthless publishers are to them, and i personally don’t know a single composer for whom getting hitched to a publisher has even been considered for their list of career aims.

i mention all this partly because Clark repeatedly indicates, correctly, that the idea of ‘greatness’ is inextricably intertwined with the world of publishing hype, but more because this evolving outlook brings to earth with an almighty crash the naïve notions from my undergrad days that were implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) concerned with the goal of becoming an ‘established’ composer, and one day, with a favourable wind and no small amount of luck (and/or nepotism), maybe even a great one. Perhaps those notions were once vaguely realistic–or, come to that, real—but i doubt it. Composers surely don’t seek greatness, however that’s defined; indeed, speak to many composers privately about their aspirations and experiences, and what you encounter most often is a kind of humble gratitude that their work is being performed at all. Delusions of grandeur, even aspirational delusions, don’t even come into it. And a good thing too; there’s surely something a little odd—and, i believe, misguided—about the desire for greatness, whether that desire comes from composers themselves or from their audiences and commentators. Clark speaks of the glory days of the Huddersfield Festival, when one could hear the music of illustrious figures and occasionally even rub shoulders with them (or, in Clark’s case, stand behind them at an ATM), but speaking personally, every year during HCMF i get precisely the same thrill from being able to engage with music—and, almost always, the composers—that i deeply admire and who, to my mind, are important artists making not insignificant contributions to the development of our craft from a huge variety of perspectives. From the last few years i would (off the top of my head) single out Naomi Pinnock, Aaron Cassidy, Dai Fujikura, Maja Ratkje, Jakob Ullmann, Laurence Crane, Liza Lim, Jonty Harrison, Peter Ablinger, Wieland Hoban, Brian Ferneyhough, Christopher Fox, Howard Skempton, Anna Þorvaldsdóttir, James Dillon, Simon Steen-Andersen, Eliane Radigue, Monty Adkins, Hèctor Parra, Chiyoko Szlavnics and, yes, even Jürg Frey who, unlike Clark, i would—and did—recognise when i saw him.

Are these composers great? i can only find myself wondering whether that question is even remotely relevant. Certainly, some of those i’ve just named i regard as among the most compelling composers working today. But the very fact that i named so many of them (and that list is absurdly short) underlines the fact that there is a very great deal of fantastic, significant, far-reaching and long-lasting music being composed today, and while i don’t necessarily want to equate ideas of greatness with elitism, seeking to apply the word ‘great’ inevitably starts to limit the field and, thereby, limit the music. For me, and i suspect for many others, both composers and audiences, what’s more to be celebrated is the diversity of angles from which musical expression now comes and the concomitant multiplicity of compositional triumphs. Composers don’t face, as Clark contends, an “existential crisis”; composers are doing what they’ve always done, navigating their own way forward both with regard to their own development and to wider threads of compositional (and extra-musical) thought. Some may find this diversity disorienting or even disheartening, but to my mind it’s that very diversity that i consider to be genuinely ‘great’. This is surely more meaningful than the kind of nostalgic wistfulness that yearns to slap the epithet on one or two figures for special lionisation. Let’s leave that to the publishers, and let’s all remember not to believe a word of it.

Posted on by 5:4 in Comment

13 Responses to Don’t believe the hype: some brief reflections on ‘greatness’

  1. Ian Pace

    ‘Composers surely don’t seek greatness, however that’s defined; indeed, speak to many composers privately about their aspirations and experiences, and what you encounter most often is a kind of humble gratitude that their work is being performed at all. Delusions of grandeur, even aspirational delusions, don’t even come into it.’

    This is true of some, but certainly not all. I can think of many composers not only with delusions of grandeur, but total ruthlessness when it comes to getting ahead.

    And there still exist established festivals, concert series, and so on, which are the route to career success. Many think about how to ‘play the circuit’, and this can inform many of their compositional decisions. I see too few genuine attempts to think critically and creatively about musical possibility, and lots of people trying to negotiate their position in the bigger scheme of things.

    • 5:4

      Thanks for this, Ian. You’re right, of course, and i wouldn’t want to suggest that composers never consider strategies to improve their chances. We’d all be foolish if we didn’t! But i’m speaking generally about my experiences with composers who are, in my view, achieving compositional ‘greatness’ without that necessarily being perceived (from the perspective Philip Clark’s talking about) as ‘great’. i’m grateful not to have had much contact with the composers for whom “total ruthlessness” is their modus operandi! But do you regard this as the primary reason for the lack of “genuine attempts to think critically and creatively about musical possibility”?

      • IAN PACE

        I would say that there are now a few reasonably well-trodden routes towards achieving recognition and success, either through the festival circuit or academia (or alternatively producing highly commercial music). And many young composers who are thinking primarily in such terms, yes. I wouldn’t want to deny that Stockhausen, Nono, Cage, Xenakis, Kagel, Lachenmann, Ferneyhough et al themselves played various games – everyone has to, to some extent – but a good deal about new music was less established, with fewer orthodoxies, than now.

        I encounter lots of work nowadays which is sonically relatively nondescript, but accompanied by lots of flashy extra-musical things, or a lot of verbiage. But not enough stuff which really does something interesting with sound. These are generalisations, for sure, and there are notable exceptions, but I do think the chances of some really strong compositional personalities receiving exposure are less than they once were, unless the individuals concerned have enough independent wherewithal to make it happen that way (and that is another huge consideration – the extent to which success as a composer depends upon independent wealth).

  2. Chris L

    You and I must have been reading the Clark article at the same time! I was toying with adding the following link to the discursive mix there, but, as I’ve all but given up on commenting in the Guardian (owing to the tiny-mindedness of many of the parties involved), decided to add it here instead (in the hope that one or two enlightened Guardian readers may follow your link):

    A rather disappointing effort from Clark in many respoects; he’s capable of much better. To wit, this

    • 5:4

      Thanks Chris. i don’t want what i wrote to seem too sour towards Philip Clark’s article–he’s one of the few music writers i’m still able to take seriously! As i said, some of what he wrote i agree with; this is just a bit of colour and clarity to add to what i perceived as the greyness of his stance, which surprised me, as he’s usually able to hit the nail on the head with a force that no-one else seems to want or have the courage for. This article in particular; it staggers me that no-one else has bothered to write something so direct as this, considering how painfully obvious it is.

      • Chris L

        Wow! One to file next to his Barlow/Lloyd-Webber-trashing in the piece I linked to! Maybe the title is a shade too Liebowitzian for its own good, mind – we all know how posterity has treated the latter (“Rene who?!“). And personally I don’t react that strongly to Jenkins: if anything, my response is marked by an absence of strength (i.e. I find his stuff, for the most part, utterly unmemorable).

        Re: your previous post, we may have to agree to disagree about Ustvolskaya, particularly if, as your comment implied, I’m making incorrect assumptions about the buttons her music is aiming to push. I’d urge you at least to skim-read that thesis, though – it makes a very compelling case for saying that, while it may be similar in effect, Schnittke’s use of pastiche is very different in intent from Shostakovich’s desperate lashing-out (in the latter’s very best music) or spikiness-by-numbers note-spinning (in far too much of the rest, including, IMHO, vast swathes of the almost-universally-revered string quartets).

  3. Philip Clark

    hi Simon, I do wonder if you’ve slightly got hold of the wrong end of the stick about some of this. I think it’s really very sad that composers of the quality of Fox, Finnissy, Ablinger & Dillon, and some of the others you mention, aren’t celebrated more enthusiastically + commissioned lavishly. But given the music they write & the current culture in which it has to exist, the sort of acceptance that Tippett/Birtwistle enjoyed in previous decades is unlikely; as always in these sorts of argument, it’s the surrounding & infantile culture that needs addressing/fixing. Not certain I’m with you about all humble composers avoiding delusions of grandeur tbh; there is a certain type of composer who consciously writes ‘designer’ masterpieces. And far from advocating we slap epithets on a handful of ‘Great Composers’, I’m suggesting we need to dicth all those ideas (and the sort of identikit music implied) and let the diversity you identify properly shine through. Personally, I’m very happy with speculative & exploratory sounds that make one think music is in a fragile & vulnerable state – especially as some extraordinary things are emerging from the debris. (btw, I’ve written this on my iPhone and can’t scroll back to read what I’ve written – I hope it all scans.)

    • 5:4

      Hi Philip, i wanted to write not so much a corrective as an alternate angle on it, as IMHO your article comes across with a tone of grey melancholy that perhaps undermines what you’re trying to emphasise. i’m certainly not stating that all composers are humble–we all know figures unlike that!—but i’m speaking generally about my experiences with composers who are not particularly loftily regarded yet still have achieved considerable smaller-scale success. There’s greatness here, despite appearances. As i said at the start, i do agree with some of what you’re saying, but the tenor of your article sounds more like a lament for lost ‘greatness’ than a positive affirmation of embracing a new kind of outlook. But i guess in some fundamental issues we do, in fact, agree?

  4. Philip Clark

    well, I do feel genuinely melancholic about the status of ‘those with something to say’ in our society – not just composers – & make absolutely no apology about that. And, actually, I think my sign-off para is a positive affirmation. But, yes, I think we’re in general agreement.

  5. Franklin Cox

    I hope it’s not untoward of me to offer a comment I made on Ian Pace’s Facebook thread:
    I think there are problems with the article, but I don’t have a problem with the critic’s ambition. It’s nice to see a talented imitator such as Ades basically dismissed from consideration as a major composer, which I wish more critics were sensible enough to do.

    What I think is missing, though, is a more forceful analysis of the problem. Why aren’t publishers putting out the music of more original and daring composers? Why are festivals so tame and backward-looking?

    I think there are very original composers out there, but I’ve been pointing out for about 20 years now that the last place you’re likely to find the best work is in the big festivals.

  6. Franklin Cox

    I hope I may expand on this point. I’ve been performing a solo recital of quite adventurous works for solo cello on and off for about a quarter century, including works by Richard Barrett, Roger Redgate, Klaus K. Hübler, Marc André, Emmanuel Nunes, Brian Ferneyhough, Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf (along with some “oldies”–Ben Johnston, Carter, Stuart Smith, etc.) and myself. I’ve performed various versions of this recital well over a hundred times throughout the world, and for most of this period I was the only person who had most of these pieces in his or her repertoire. I think this is a pretty substantial cross-section of some of the most original voices in my generation.

    Pretty much all of the invitations to perform have come from recital series, schools, and so forth. Not a single one of the main festivals of new music was interested in this program. As far as I am aware, most of this repertory has not been performed at these festivals by any other cellist, either.

    All of this goes to support my point that there is tremendous, original, ambitious music out there, but you’re probably not going to hear it at the big festivals.

    • 5:4

      If only someone had made those points already. Oh wait…

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