Acknowledging musical influence: A useful habit

Yesterday I read (yet another) great post by Nico Muhly – this time he was talking about influence and how “journalists ‘call out’ influence as if it were some secret, unspeakable sexual perversion”. Obviously, Muhly has way more experience of journalists than I do, but I entirely agree with his point of being ‘fully transparent’ about our influences.

I’ve always liked Muhly’s approach to influences – he wears his as a badge of honour and in a way I feel it’s a bit like how pianists are so proud of their tuition lineage – you know, when they learn from a teacher who can trace their teachers all the way back to Beethoven. But in the case of a composer, being upfront about our influences is not just about lineage – it can also give a useful point of reference for understanding and enjoying our work.

In the article, Muhly creates a list of some of his influences, and the way he writes shows how important these composers are to him:

When I map out the emotional structure of a piece on a single piece of paper, I think of John Corigliano. When I put a sforzando accent on the and of 4 if in 4/4 time, I pour one out for Christopher Rouse. When I use certain chord structures, I know I’m taking them from Stravinsky. When I do a crazy multi-instrumental smudge of harmonies and their aggressors, I wish Boulez would come over my house. When I use certain harmonic modulations and motoric gestures, I thank, and sometimes email in advance homage, John Adams.

All this gives a really clear impression of whether you might like this person’s music, so you can make an informed decision about whether to listen or not. I’m all for trying out listening to stuff you might not like – simply because you might learn something, and that something might be that you actually do like it – but with so much new music out there to listen to, it does help to know what you’re getting yourself into.

I’m going to take a little turn here into the world of web development, which many of you will know is my dayjob. Part of what I do is to help people optimise their sites for search engines. Long gone are the days when you just wanted as many ‘hits’ as possible; it’s now widely acknowledged that the better approach is to get fewer hits, but more relevant ones – for those visitors to be actively interested in what you have to say. So the information you provide about a piece – including your influences in writing it – helps to set people’s expections. Manage expectations and you’ll get a better response – maybe not as many plays, but an overall more positive reception.

We should never be afraid of turning people away if what we do makes it easier for our music to be found and heard by its ‘right people’, and I am convinced that being upfront about our influences can help with that.

The usefulness of being clear about your influences can also help people who are trying to programme your music. One of the best concerts I ever went to was a Britten Sinfonia concert where they were premiering a new commission by Nico Muhly (Impossible Things) and the whole programme was constructed around this piece and based on key influences on his music and it was amazing – just like stepping inside his head! The programme started with Purcell and Tippett, then Britten and Steve Reich, so that by the time we got to the new commission you could clearly hear all these things going on in the new piece. I can’t imagine a better way to make a new piece easily comprehensible – especially to a non-specialist audience – than by presenting it in the context of older music that has influenced it.

Composers need to stand up and be proud of their influences – to do so is not only honest but helpful. As Muhly says, “We are all wearing the cloaks of influence all the time, and we should all, as composers, proudly announce the labels on these vestments.”

How do you approach your influences? Do you acknowledge them when you write or talk about your work? Share your opinion in the comments!

A career in composition: The composer as chimera

Lately I’ve been reading Erin Kissane’s interesting book on content strategy as part of my continual quest to understand how to create more effective websites, both for my own web endeavours and those of my clients. Kissane likens content strategy as a field to a chimera in that its origins come from so many areas to create something new (albeit without actual lions, goats or snakes).

Reading this, I was reminded of how much my own practice and career as a composer – and that of pretty much all my colleagues – resembles that chimera. I’m the first to admit that I’m a freakish mishmash of interests, skills and goals.

One of my favourite-ever movie quotes comes from Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Holly asks Paul what he does:

Paul: I’m a writer, I guess
Holly: You guess? Don’t you know?
Paul: OK. Positive statement. Ringing affirmative. I’m a writer.

But I suspect for a lot of us, while the artistic focus is ever-present, we spend so much time doing other things that the “I guess” is almost obligatory. I know it is for me. When the Tate videoed me for their Creative Spaces blogging project, I had to email the director afterwards in a panic and ask him to edit me – I realised that every single time I’d said “I’m a composer” I’d immediately followed it with the words “and web developer”. I’d got so much into the “I guess” mentality that I had terrible trouble producing the unqualified ringing affirmative: “I’m a composer”.

What do I mean when I say that I’m a chimera? Well, there’s the usual assortment of random influences that go into my compositions: the visual art influences, love of poetry, historical obsession with minimalism and ongoing obsession with Erik Satie. There’s the adoration of Stravinsky and a newly acquired tentative fascination with modernism. There’s the limitations brought about by my problematic relationship with traditional harmony and deeply inadequate aural skills. And so on. But what I’m really talking about is the vast number of additional roles a composer takes on just to make their work and get it out there. Here are a few of mine:

  • music copyist
  • designer
  • publisher
  • web developer
  • writer
  • promoter
  • marketing person
  • statistician
  • performer
  • recording engineer

Many of these are common to most composers these days, I suspect – to a greater or lesser extent, we’re all involved in promoting and sometimes publishing our own music, in running websites to get ourselves found and tell people what we’re doing. If all you’re doing is writing music, then chances are you have an audience of your nuclear family and dog.

In my own case, I’m actually a professional in a few of these fields, for better or worse – I hold a design degree, I’m a former copy editor and proof-reader, I’m an accredited music copyist with the Music Arrangers Guild of Australia and I’ve been designing and developing websites for creative types and corporateland ever since leaving uni in 1996.

Don’t get me wrong. I love doing most of this stuff. I really enjoy tinkering with my website and making the experience better. I like writing blog posts and making my writing as effective as I can. I gain a lot of pleasure from laying out a score well so that it can (hopefully) sit comfortably alongside scores from ‘proper’ publishing houses. But there’s no doubt in my mind at all that if I didn’t have to do all this stuff, there’d be a good deal more time for writing notes.

Portfolio careers are normal now, I would say, for most composers. If you’re serious about your composition, then they have to be because at the very least you have two jobs, and many of us will put any strings to our bows that will enable us to keep writing.

So what’s my point here? I think the point is probably one mostly for composers (or artists of any sort) who are just starting their career. If you love your art, you need to be prepared to work at a lot more than just that art, but you also need to stand up and be counted as an artist and not let yourself be taken over by the other stuff.

Positive statement. Ringing affirmative. I’m a composer.

Testing assumptions and breaking through resistance

Resistance is a nuisance. One of the hardest things in the world can be working out the best way in which to kill off resistance and destroy the excuses we make to not do things we really want to do. This week I discovered that testing assumptions can make an excellent starting point for doing just that.

I’m currently using my dayjob knowledge to explore a bunch of different options to discover how I can best use the internet to promote my music & that of other composers. I read a lot of stuff around this topic to give me ideas – marketing blogs, sales training, productivity articles and so on. Somehow I ended up on the list of Ramit Sethi, author of a book and website called I Will Teach You To Be Rich. Now, I have low expectations of what “rich” looks like to a classical composer, but I find that these sorts of blogs are often very good for productivity tips and marketing and can yield some real gems.

Last week yielded such a gem. Ramit linked to a post on testing your assumptions. His point was that assumptions can hold you back from achieving your goals (e.g. you don’t enter a competition because that ensemble only commissions [insert style you don’t write in] music).

And, golly gosh, he’s right! My work on Carrion Comfort has made me increasingly uncomfortable with my approach of only working on one piece at a time. I’ve been working on it for six months now, and at times it starts to feel like a bit of a chore because there’s no getting away from it. I wondered how my friends who have multiple pieces on the go most of the time manage it. I thought about why I’ve always been a compositional serial monogamist and I came up with the following answer:

I worry that if I’m not working only on one piece, my concentration will suffer and the music will turn out to be crap.

Right there: three big fat juicy assumptions sitting in front of my nose, blocking my way

  1. I assumed that I wouldn’t be able to focus on more than one piece at a time
  2. I assumed that what I created under such circumstances would be crap
  3. I assumed that it actually mattered if they were crap

Well, piffle!

  1. Won’t know until I try
  2. Won’t know until I try
  3. Doesn’t matter (unless everything I write if I’m working like this does turn out to be crap, but again – won’t know until I try)

There go all my excuses! So I am now resolved to get a second piece underway as soon as possible. I did try to jump right in but kind of failed – the film score that’s come back from the dead needs a different cut than the director’s sent me and he’s away; and the recorder quartet needs the catalogue of the Tate’s recent Miro exhibition to get me back into it but I’ve had to order it online and am still waiting… so I need to identify a new new piece and THEN jump right in.

What assumptions are holding you back right now? Think you can destroy them? Let’s take a leaf out of Ramit’s book: post your troublesome assumptions in the comments then let me know how you get on with blitzing them in the next couple of days!

Egg the Seventh now on SoundCloud

Well, I’ve been working hard playing around with Logic Pro and am happy to say that the result is a shiny new recording of Egg the Seventh, the waltz movement from 2 x 4 – a set of two-part inventions for piano or harpsichord – is now up on SoundCloud. I’m working on the other three pieces from the set and they should hopefully go up gradually over the next couple of weeks.

Until then, I hope you enjoy this one!

Connecting through the score

The starting point for this post lies in discussions I’ve been having with Simone O’Callaghan on her use of two-dimensional barcodes (QR codes) to expand her print artworks into the digital dimension. It’s got me thinking about how we composers could use this technology to improve on the standard print-score-or-audio-file offerings which to my mind limit the options we have for promoting understanding of our music.

QR codes provide a link to a particular web address. You use the camera on your phone (or your laptop’s webcam), together with a decoder app such as i-nigma: Scan the barcode via the app and it will take you off to the website. No typing required, just snap and go.

It would be an easy matter to set up a dedicated page or site section for a piece containing extra information which might be useful for people looking at a score and have that content accessible via QR code. The question is, what information or interaction could be provided that might help listeners understand more, and encourage performers to take the plunge and perform our work?

I came up with the following fairly random list. Some things are eminently achievable, others a bit wacky and out of the realms of probability but I wanted to try to stretch the idea as far as it would go and see if any of the ideas sound feasible to implement in the here and now.

Most basic, requiring only initial posting and subsequent updating. No real interaction:

  • Link to a recording of a piece, which can then be updated as better performances occur and are recorded
  • Provide recordings/scores of variant versions of a piece which might provide insight for users preparing a performance or interested in the process
  • Analysis and full programme notes for the piece – content that is more detailed or longer than is appropriate for brief front-of-score notes, but which may aid with understanding the work.
  • Pre-recorded rehearsal parts (e.g. the piano part for a song cycle, orchestra part for a concerto) for download to help with learning the piece and help amateur players create a performance even if they don’t have access to other performers.
  • Pieces requiring tape parts could have the performance-quality tape part available for download in a variety of formats, whether as the primary method of distribution or as a backup for a physical CD version
  • Information about performances and recordings, both archived and upcoming

Slightly more advanced, requiring more active/regular participation from users or the composer:

  • A forum where performers and listeners can raise questions specific to that piece, which the composer can respond to. This then provides a further resource for future visitors
  • Updates to the score or variants may be produced based on forum feedback or to respond to specific requests. These new versions can then be uploaded to the site.
  • A list of blog posts relating to the creation of the work – for me, I track my work on pieces most days I’m working on them via One Creative Thing. I don’t always go into a lot of detail, but possibly some of it could be useful and could give a good idea of what else was happening at the time to influence the development of the work. Many composer-bloggers will talk about their work in progress to a certain extent and simple tagging of posts with a composition name can give an opportunity to easily provide a list like this.
  • Ability for site users to list a performance of a work

More advanced and probably cloud-cuckoo-land, requiring a full community using and connecting through the system:

  • Users able to upload audio/video recordings of their own performances of a piece. I can see this being of most use to amateur performers in terms of feedback on their performance – but it could also then be a great resource for the composer, who could then contact a performer who produced a particularly good interpretation and ask to use their recording on the public site.
  • Performers connecting with each other: Sort of a personals column for musicians – “I’m a flautist in London and I really want to play this piece, but I don’t know anyone who could play the viola or piano parts – anybody interested?”

Not sure whether I’ll actually do anything with this yet, but I’m thinking about it…


Do you know anyone who’s doing something like this? Is there anything you think might be useful in such a system? Let me know in the comments!

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.