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 Thorvaldsdottir, 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.