Why I’m not applying for my dream job

A few days ago, I spotted on Twitter a link to an advert for what is basically a dream job for me – web editor for the Tate art galleries. I’ve wanted to work for the Tate for ages, and to work on their website would be great. But there’s a downside: it’s full-time and permanent… and turning up just as I’ve decided to take three months off to focus on my music.

So I fretted for a bit, then decided to take a poll, so I put my dilemma up on Facebook and the response was overwhelming: apply for it! And to a certain extent they’re right. If I had a proper job now, I wouldn’t hesitate. If I weren’t also a composer, I wouldn’t hesitate. But most of all, if I weren’t planning on using the next few months to start to set myself up in a position where I wouldn’t need a proper day job at all, I wouldn’t hesitate. But.

So of course the next question is ‘why not apply and see what happens?’.

I’ll start with the fuzzy-hippy-wafty stuff. First up, it feels wrong. It feels like a diversion from a clear path that I’m supposed to be following. I’ve felt like this about jobs before, ignored it and regretted it. Second, I don’t know about other people, but most years I have a pretty clear feeling for what the general mood of the year will be – and I’m often right. This year feels very strongly like I need to keep myself as flexible as possible – like I’ll need to turn on a dime and be ready to take off at a moment’s notice. These are things that full-time, permanent work doesn’t play well with and the combination could mean either letting down my treasured employer and damaging my future prospects for working with them, or not doing things which may be important in either my career or personal life – not entering a high-profile call for scores, not being able to be with my mother when she has her cataracts operation, that sort of thing. This is a year that will be full of opportunities, some of which may require swift action, and I don’t want to miss a minute of it. Nor do I want to let others down by doing so. Which means a different approach is needed.

So enough of the fluffy stuff because there are more concrete reasons too. I’ve had full-time permanent day jobs before but never in my life have I done a full-time permanent job and been able to maintain compositional momentum. I’ve never even really been able to maintain compositional equilibrium – sooner or later my technical skills go backwards and after a while I find I’m not writing at all and to try to do so takes a mammoth amount of willpower. I wasted 10 years of my life like that and it’s taken another 5 to get back on track. I don’t want to waste another minute.

Part of the reason I’m planning to not have a day job at all for the next three months is that I’m signing up for individual composition lessons at the local university. After Durham, I’m really keen to start a Master’s degree soon, so I wanted to do some lessons again to remind me of what it was like to have to check in with work every week, to get some solid feedback and hopefully to also be able to stretch my compositional thinking and improve the work I’m doing. To make the most of this experience requires a goodly amount of spare time in which to compose and think and generally experiment with ideas. I’m also planning on exploring a number of alternatives for income-generation which don’t involve me having to spend 5 days a week in an office – ultimately I want to be able to mix up my day between composition and paying work to create a satisfying and profitable whole. I don’t expect to be supporting myself within three months – that would be stupid – but I do hope to have set some things in motion and hopefully be earning just a little something that I can build on.

I guess if I applied for the job I could resign myself to just working like a demon for a year and doing everything, but I’ve burnt myself out like that before – did it last year, in fact – and the thing that always suffers the most is the composition because there’s no one but me holding me accountable for doing it. And that’s not how I want it to be.

One of my goals for the new year was to ‘be more selfish’. I don’t mean that I’m not sharing my packet of chocolate biscuits with anyone, but instead to put my stuff first. To work out my priorities and work towards ensuring that they are unshiftable priorities, not something that gets pushed out of the way as soon as something that pays comes along.

There may be tightening of belts. There may be darned socks. But I’m absolutely determined that there will also be music and satisfaction and lots of it.

Follow up: The digital dimension: 1a. Programme notes

I am delighted to say that I have been proven to be ignorant and behind the times. Yay!

My last article on programme notes – being oh-so-long-ago as it was – ended up sparking a bit of a discussion on Twitter which has revealed – thanks to the very knowledgeable @frindley – that approaches along the lines of those I outlined are already in use all over the place. It seems that the UK (or at least the concert-going parts of it that I frequent) is rather behind the times even by selling programmes and that many organisations are now giving away programmes and putting all sorts of notes online too. Apparently orchestras all over the place are embracing programme notes as a way of educating their audiences and helping them enjoy the music more, and that the sort of daunting analytical programme note which sparked the whole debate is becoming a very rare beast.

Well, hallelujah, I say. I couldn’t be happier to have been proved out of touch. I won’t rabbit on about it because I’m bound to say something foolish, but as a couple of examples, have a look at the online programme notes produced by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra (who also give out free hard-copy programmes) – loads of meaty but readable and helpful content, barely any ads (unlike many paid-for programmes I see) – and CityMusic Cleveland which does a nice line in audio snippets to illustrate the text and gives details of the recordings used too (if this link fails – it looks like it might be season-specific but I couldn’t see an archive – try going to their homepage, then choose Program Notes under the Concerts menu item).

As an additional item of interest, relating to my suggestion that online programme notes could be part of a pre-concert programme purchase option, @frindley tells me that in her organisation, while audiences responded well to the idea of pre-purchase (of hard-copy programme books), they didn’t act on it – I guess this isn’t hugely surprising, given buying behaviour on the web (generally cagey) and traditional patterns, but it’s an interesting snippet nevertheless – it’s good to know when something’s been tried and hasn’t worked just as much as when it has worked. And if the trend towards free programmes continues, it ceases to be a relevant option anyway.

So there you have it. I’m out of touch and orchestras the world over are embracing the digital dimension. Wonderful!

Is your local orchestra or other ensemble being innovative with their programme notes in some way? Tell me in the comments!


The digital dimension: 1. Programme notes

This started out as one post, proceeded to get very rambly and a little bit ranty whereupon I realised it was actually two posts fighting against each other. This is the first part, which I hope will be better behaved now it’s on its own.

A few days ago, Killing Classical Music posted an interesting article entitled Scoreboards in the concert hall – Another solution to classical music’s problem. It looks at the issue of how people unfamiliar with a piece of music can ‘keep track’ of it during performance in a concert hall, with particular reference to the sorts of vague analytical landmarks beloved of programme-note-writers. A follow-up post appeared yesterday.

The problem as I see it, reading Greg Sandow’s original posting of Michael Oneil Lam’s original post (yes, that made my head spin too) is not with the concert, not with the performance or the venue or the repertoire, and certainly not with the listener. The problem is with the programme notes. Mr Lam writes:

My biggest gripe about modern orchestra concerts is that I lose my place so easily. The program notes talk about an “icy interlude in the high strings indicating a modulation to the subdominant;” but even if I understood what a subdominant was, the violins are nearly always playing and they always sound high to me so I have no idea when the particular segment referred to by the program notes actually occurs.

My reading of this is that because the programme notes are pointing out all this stuff, he feels he ought to be looking out for it, so his concert experience is actually ruined by desperately trying to keep track of what he’s been told is important, rather than sitting back, listening and (hopefully) enjoying himself.

The big concern I feel, reading Mr Lam’s post, is of how intimidating these sorts of programme notes must be for novice concertgoers. How much of a dunce must a non-musician feel when they’re told to look out for this icy interlude doing something they have no clue how to interpret? No wonder classical music is termed ‘elitist’ by some! I don’t agree that a concert scoreboard, visible to all, is the way to go – listening to live music is a very personal experience and while it may work for some, there are many (me included) who would be so distracted by such a thing in a concert that it would ruin the whole experience. However, I do agree that something needs to be done to not alienate audience members, and especially audience members who are being brave and giving something a go that they don’t fully understand.

So to me, revising this traditional approach to the programme note seems an excellent place to start.

A clarification: I love programme notes. I love analysis. I think analysis can play a very important part in really getting to grips with a piece, but in the current day and age of recordings vs live performances and ensembles desperate for increasing audience sizes – which inevitably means recruiting new audiences made up of people who are largely unaware of classical music and music theory, I think the concept of the analysis programme note is a little outdated as a tool for general use in the concert hall.

And so I started to think about how programme notes could change. And because I am an internet junkie and a web developer as well as a composer, I started thinking about how ensembles could value-add, tackle the problem of audience development and make the physical programme more useful to audience members of all levels of musical understanding by linking to content in the digital domain.

Point: those who specifically want analysis during a concert are likely to know they’ll want it beforehand

Point: if those people aren’t overly familiar with the music or with music in general, then they’d probably get more from quiet reading of said analysis, possibly with a recording, if available, well before the performance they’re attending, rather than a quick 30-second skim through it as the lights go down

Point: those who don’t want it possibly aren’t buying programmes?

When I put all these points together, it makes me think that changing the approach of concert-space programme notes can only be a good thing. I would suggest that the printed programme could offer more easily digestible information than it often does now – most emphatically NOT dumbed-down, but information that’s more appropriate to the context of a darkened hall and only a few brief moments in which to find out what you’re about to listen to. Who the composer was, what were the circumstances surrounding the work’s composition, the general character of the work and its movements, how does it fit in with the rest of the composer’s output – contextual stuff to give a little solid ground to aid the actual listening that’s about to happen.

I think this would make the concert experience a lot less stressful for those who aren’t familiar with analytical terms. And if programmes are providing actual information that the audiences ensembles want to draw in can understand, then those people will feel more comfortable and hopefully come back to another performance.

More appropriate programme notes would also mean that the audience will be actually listening to the music, not worrying about having missed the super-special oboe theme because they couldn’t work out where the euphonium fanfare happened.

Mr Lam uses a phrase “With increased engagement comes increased memorability” and he’s absolutely right – however, he equates “increased engagement” with “tracking the current progress of the piece”. I think this is a mere technicality – it’s ticking off landmarks in a guidebook.

There’s a wonderful line in the film A Room With A View where the parson is telling a story about a father and daughter who visited Rome: “Say, papa, what did we see in Rome?” “Why, Rome was the place where we saw the yellow dog!”. This totally sums up the issue at hand – the tourists did everything they were supposed to, saw everything in their Baedeker guidebook, but the only thing that stuck was a dog of an unusual colour. The dog was what engaged them, not the Sistine Chapel or the Colosseum. Analytical landmarks in a piece are the Sistine Chapel and the Colosseum – they’re great landmarks, beautiful themes, heartbreaking chord progressions, but if you only tick them off and don’t emotionally experience them, then you won’t engage with the work. Only by really listening to a piece will you engage – and that’s when you’ll find your yellow dog.

But what about that analysis that I’ve so heartlessly culled? Head back up to the first two points I mentioned – I believe that the majority of people who actually want analysis will probably know they want it in advance. And if they know they want it in advance and can probably get the most of the concert if they have it in advance, then why shouldn’t they have it then? Put the general contextual notes into the programme – put the analytical notes online. I can see several benefits to this:

  1. Online presentation of analysis means it doesn’t have to be crammed into whatever space is available for that piece in the programme. Instead of cutting the data down to fit the space, there is room to present whatever is needed to make the analysis followable.
  2. More space means there is also the possibility of including snippets of score or audio clips, both of which aid comprehension, especially for newcomers to analysis
  3. It is possible (resources allowing) to provide different levels of analysis for musicians and non-musicians – for those who want as much detail as possible and for those who just want to know a little bit more about the work.
  4. If audience members want to take the analysis along to the concert, they can print it out and do so.
  5. From a financial perspective, the ensemble can leverage the online space as well as the print space of the programme – selling advertising space, promoting recordings with direct links to buy, or offering visitors the option of signing up to a relevant email list. To avoid the potential problem of concertgoers printing off the analysis and then not buying a programme, make it part of a programme pre-purchase deal.

I personally would love to see a day where detailed programme notes available online – or scores or continual ‘scoreboard’ updates – could be used in a concert hall during a performance, on a personal device like a mobile phone, Kindle or iPad – but I suspect that’s a way off being commonplace (although Mr Sandow’s follow-up article gives interesting descriptions of attempts at this sort of information already tried) simply because backlit devices are disturbing to others in a dark concert hall.

Obviously there will be some who will disagree with me – not everyone has access to the internet or a printer, home-printed analyses in a concert may rustle and disturb other patrons, who wants to do ‘homework’ before a concert? and so on. It’s possible that the time is not yet ripe for this approach, but Mr Lam’s idea has me thinking that instead of fretting about audience numbers but continuing to do things the same way we always have, we should be generously embracing the opportunities that digital provides and seeing what happens. As Mr Sandow says in his follow-up post:

I’m concerned that too much discussion of the future of classical music is speculation. “Oh, no, if we do X, then Y and Z will happen, and that would be terrible!” When in fact nobody knows, because X hasn’t been done.

Until we try a new approach, we can’t tell what will work. And until we wholeheartedly take a risk and throw some time/money/effort at making a new approach work in the best way possible, we can’t really tell how it will be received.

Music and silence

After Gorecki’s death a few weeks back, one obituary in The Guardian gave a wonderful quote:

If you can live without music for two or three days, then don’t write – it might be better to spend the time with a girl or with a beer.

This was the answer he would give students who would ask him how to write music or what to write. And an excellent response it is – fun and to the point. But lately I’ve been thinking about it a lot and I actually think that my response would be different. My response would be “If you can live without silence for two or three days, then don’t write”. I frequently go without listening to music for days at a time, not because I don’t want to listen to music but because I’ve not got enough silence in my life and if there’s more sound piling up on top of the sound that’s already causing chaos in my head – even if it’s music, and even if it’s music I’ve chosen – then I pretty quickly feel like I’m going insane. Without regular, large doses of silence, my brain frazzles and I can no longer find myself in my own head.

And I know I’m not the only one. Back in 1958, the wonderful Australian composer Peggy Glanville-Hicks wrote,

‘It is apparent that leisure and silence are absolute prerequisites for composers if they are to engage fully the many forms of awareness involved in creative activity. This leisure and silence have become the greatest luxuries in the modern world, and composers less than any other group in art or science are able to command it.’

True leisure and silence have become incredibly rare, and even more so in the half-century since PG-H wrote those words. Of course a love of music and a need of music are of vital importance to anyone who would compose music – but I would venture to say that a love of, a need and respect for silence comes even before that.

If you would like to find out more about Peggy Glanville-Hicks, read my article, Peggy Glanville-Hicks: A lifetime’s search for leisure and silence at minim-media.com

A new approach for composers

Today I discovered a new site from the American Music Center via their ever-fabulous New Music Box. It’s called Meet the Composer Studio and it’s a fan-funding site along the lines of Kickstarter or ArtistShare. The difference being that (naturally) the projects on the site are all by American serious-music composers. MTC have chosen, in collaboration with performers who will perform the completed works, six composers in three US cities to complete commissions for the projects, which can then be funded by fans – from $5 for a personalised postcard from your composer up to $5000 to be the Lead Commissioner of the new work and everything in between.

I love the idea of fan-funding. I love that composers (and, indeed artists of all types) can move back to a position of interaction with the people who actually listen to their music. That a commission doesn’t have to be down to one person alone, as with historical models – it doesn’t have to be the result of a particular ensemble finding the money to fund a new work, or an individual who has the money to pay for new work finding the composer who needs that funding. I like that even if you don’t have much cash, you can be part of helping to fund new art. Obviously, MTC is in its first iteration and the model is new, but sites like Kickstarter have proven that the model can work, and I think for contemporary classical music it’s a fantastic approach – in recent times too many composers have had to make the incredibly hard decision of whether to compose without financial reward or to wait for a commission, or to not compose at all.

The other aspect I find interesting about Meet The Composer Studio is that the transactions suggested aren’t simple “money = new music” transactions. The model is encouraging the composers to provide bonuses for investors. Most of the composers are offering an option for a signed CD, signed score, a lesson with the composer, some of them offering more social options – dinner with your chosen composer. And the higher the investment amount the more of these bonuses are included. It’s a real expansion of the traditional funding model, and one that’s more in keeping with a world where social networks can enable personal connections even with people you’ve never met. The downside to it is that the composer has to work harder for their money – it’s not as simple as being paid for composition – but it takes advantage of other aspects of the composer which are marketable – the hand-written score, a composer-drawing, personal contact. Self-promotion is by necessity becoming more inventive.

The composers are also providing blog posts, audio and video posts as the project progresses, which should provide a very interesting document of different composers’ creative processes. I can’t wait to see how successful this project is and how feasible this model might become to perhaps replace the day-job as a composer’s main source of income.

Notes at last

With every new piece – and doubly so when the piece has a deadline – I go through a period of trauma when ideas are starting to bubble, but there’s no notes to write down. The longer this goes on, the crankier I get. Finally, of course, notes appear and are captured on the stave, and then the real composition can begin, but it’s a fairly fraught time when they’re there but not there. Today I got notes for the quintet, ending a tense few days. It’s not really been too long this time, but the deadline factor and the inevitable socialising of having parents in the house, which makes it hard for me to really focus, made it seem an absolute aeon. In truth, it’s really only been since Sunday though…

On Sunday I went to the Tate Modern with the parents and Djelibeybi, where my Da pointed out a group of Cy Twombly paintings I’d not seen before that he didn’t think much of but which totally blew me away. They’re not much to describe: Oatmealy-coloured giant canvases with swirls of red paint that’s been allowed to drip down the canvas. Strange how something so simple can be so powerful.

Standing in the middle of these three paintings, I could feel a warmth emanating from them. And the more I looked, the more I saw. Ultimately they came to resemble a thicket of fiery willows. On second viewing on Tuesday, the bright red made me think of thorns and blood and violence – while still with the exciting, secure warmth of the original viewing in place. They set off a chain of thought which ran through concepts of enclosure – groves, fences, hugs, safety, security, claustrophobia, containment, standing stones, panic, contentment. I don’t think any painting has ever elicited a response in me of such total contrasts – certainly not simultaneously.

Gradually I thought my way through all these conflicting ideas to come up with a concept for the piece. It seemed to me that I was really facing two concepts – one where the enclosure was a secure one – warm and soft and safe; the other where it was a form of containment – hard and cold and unyielding, resistant to any attempt to breach it. I started thinking about how to approach this in music and thought a bit about whether maybe the piece should be in two movements – one expressing each approach, but basically felt that this seemed a bit ‘wet’ and also that the safe and secure piece would be likely to be both a little dull and also stylistically unmatched to the other movement. Last night, after thinking about all this on and off for most of the day, I came to a vague conclusion that the piece should perhaps be a single movement, approximately expressing movement from safety and security to entrapment and panic and how easily something benign can seem suffocating.

So today’s notes are fairly tame and – at the moment – they seem almost characterless. When I put them down this morning, they just sort of fell into place but it all seemed a little directionless. This afternoon though, I started listening to The Viola In My Life by Morton Feldman, who was recommended to me by a friend on Twitter, and I’m beginning to think that the judicious use of whitespace in the opening could be very effective in this context.

Not entirely sure what the next step will be. I’m feeling a need to do a lot of reading and listening at the moment – I’m more than halfway through John Adams’ autobiography Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life, which is just awesome – I think it’s one of the best composer biographies/autobiographies I’ve read because it focuses so much, not just on the music, but on the process of creating the music and the way his thinking changed as he composed each new piece. It’s absolutely fascinating. I’ve also started reading Mark Rothko’s The Artist’s Reality which has been on my shelf for a while, and suddenly passionately wanting to start in on Alex Ross’s The Rest Is Noise too. Sadly there are not enough hours in the day…

On starting up fresh

I’m just beginning work on a string quintet for the CoMA Midwinter Composers Workshop I’m going to be attending in Durham in January and it’s highlighting certain parts of my compositional process that I think are gradually solidifying. The last piece I wrote, Deconstruct: Point, line, plane, had a very clear ‘research’ phase, and I think it helped immensely with the piece constructing itself solidly once I started putting notes down – I had a very clear feeling for the colours, shapes and concepts that I wanted to explore before I ever started in on the notes: I knew I wanted it to be to a certain extent about contrasting colours, to play sound against silence or quasi-silence, I wanted to explore the varied sound qualities of the ensemble – as solo instruments, in groups and as a whole – and I’m looking to work on the process I developed for that piece to see if it will work also for this one.

To start with, the request for a string quintet threw me a little because the application form said string quartet or string orchestra work, so I’d been thinking in terms of a standard quartet formation, but now I have to give some thought to the richer bass possibilities of an additional cello. I found listening to be a vital part of working on Deconstruct: Point, line, plane, just to get the sound of the ensemble into my head, to get a feel for combinations of instruments and just get my brain in the right mode. With the additional cello, I felt that my assortment of string quartet recordings, while tonally similar, of course, wouldn’t really give the right feel for the registral and textural possibilities of the enlarged ensemble. So I went shopping today 🙂

At first I wasn’t really finding anything and I was getting frustrated (note to self: it probably would have helped if I’d looked up composers who have written string quintets before I went rather than just mooching about HMV). The only thing that turned up seemed to be multiple versions of the Brahms string quintets, which at first didn’t hugely appeal to me – I’ve never really got Brahms. It’s that whole Germanic-Romantic thing. I veer more towards the French-20th century end of the spectrum – but they kept showing up! It was like he was following me. But French music didn’t feel right for this piece, for all that I’ve been listening to a lot of Fauré lately. Anyway, finally I had a small flash: Mendelssohn? And LO! Mendelssohn wrote not one but TWO string quintets (which I’m listening to right now – gorgeous!). Then the Brahms cropped up again and in a Mendelssohnian context, he kind of made sense, so I’ve taken the plunge there too, which led me on to thinking of more recent composers who might have something useful to contribute… which took me off to the Martinu section where I discovered a disc of, admittedly not quintets, but a Martinu sextet coupled with a sextet by Schulhoff, whose music I’ve not encountered before but who sounds interesting.

I very much doubt that this will be the end of my listening (especially as I’ve since discovered that Frank Martin and Milhaud both wrote string quintets) but I found it interesting, sort of watching myself from a distance, how clearly I knew what I wanted for this. My usual suspects were pretty much all out of the running – this piece seems to want to be faintly Germanic, which is an odd feeling for me. But it was very clear – my brain knew what it wanted to be fed, and it didn’t want anything else. So now to sit back and enjoy my research – it’s certainly starting well – this Mendelssohn is so light and lovely it’s almost French…