Making contemporary music relevant


There was a palatable air of tension in the room as one of the other students confronted Leo, our business practice teacher, about the idea of a business plan. “I just don’t understand how this will help me be a better musician” seemed to be the undercurrent of his question. It’s not the point though.Making contemporary music relevant

I’ve been going to different entrepreneurial talks and courses for a few years now. I did a course in Trinity about monetising your research, one in UCD which was trying to get people back into the workforce and another at the So Percussion Summer Institute which was more focused on the arts. I got into them as I’m interested in building a business from my work as a musician.

It’s a hard idea to fathom, the idea of being a professional composer.  Where does your income come from how do you get to write for ensembles and what else do you need to do so you don’t get in trouble with tax and other red tape. I’ve been taking a course called Building a Successful Professional Practice at Conservatorium van Amsterdam to try to answer some of these questions or at least point me in the right direction. We’ve been brain storming ideas for concerts and performances and working out business plans and thinking about our image and the way we present ourselves as professionals. The thing that’s stuck out me since I started doing the course is the idea of creating a vision. In this context a vision is something which we aspire to, a bordering on impossible ideal which is at the very reaches of what someone is capable of. And it’s this which has day dreaming about since we first discussed it.

It’s related to something I’ve been thinking about since I got here, Why do I write music? It was a question I got asked on my first lesson with Richard Ayres, and it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot. What is it that drives me to make music? I still can’t really answer it but I feel like a vision is part of it.“Everybody likes classical music, they just don’t know it yet.”A why for me to strive towards. A goal outside of myself which serves some greater good and which I can dedicate my life to.

The idea of a vision also galvanised its self around the things which I don’t like about music.  There are lots of thing which I don’t agree with in the way music is presented, and tons of aspects of the concert experience, in particular, which I think could be better. The one I hear a lot and from talking to other people think is on the zeitgeist is the idea that contemporary classical music doesn’t have to sound terrible. There was a wave of music from serialism through the present day which defined it’s self as deliberately exclusionary. Nothing more typifies this than Milton Babbitt’s’ essay “Who cares if you listen?” I’ve never read the essay, I tried to recently but got bored of his self involved diatribe quickly, but this idea exemplifies the idea that music is the province of the intellectual elite.

As individuals we were asked to think what our vision could be. Leo gave the example of Benjamin Zander a conductor who’s vision is summed up as “Everybody likes classical music, they just don’t know it yet.” It’s an equal part optimistic vision of a better tomorrow and almost unassailable challenge. It reminded me of a thought Ailís Ní Riain once expressed in an interview about her music. She talked about how serial music was used extensively in film scores during the 60s and no one batted an eyelid whereas the same music played for a pop audience would cause uproar. “It’s the context which allows the person to open up to the music not the music itself, and it’s my job as a composer to find that context.” I think she has a point.

I decided that my vision is to “Make contemporary music relevant.” I want it to be music which plays a more active part in the viability of our society, that exists as part of the conversation instead of a cloistered art form. It’s an ambitious vision, certainly slightly contentious as the wording and the multitude of meanings which could be taken from the phrase could conjure up, but I think it’s time and it’s doable. I’m certainly not the only person who I think is working towards this vision and I take great comfort in this. The road is steep but I’m in good company. Viva la evolution!