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Letter to the Editor

Keith Bramich on the 'Two Camps' debate

On March 15th, Basil Ramsey published an article 'Two Camps' inspired by correspondence received from Peter Billam, who replied in a letter published here on March 25th. In his original article, Basil split composers into two groups: those who work according to 'the dictates of the precious spark within' and 'composers whose every note is carefully placed with an eye to effect and accessibility in the market place'. Peter, in his reply, persuaded us that many composers don't actually fit completely into either group, citing Bach and Schubert as examples.

For what it's worth, I'd like to add my two cents worth. Izaac Walton wrote 'Lord, what music hast thou provided for thy saints in heaven, when thou affordest bad men such music on earth!', and my natural tendency is towards those exhibiting the 'precious spark' (those who act as a vessel through which the heavenly music appears on Earth, whether heaven is vertically upwards or somewhere within oneself) and against those 'cashing in' on any available opportunities.

The workings of the Almighty and of the human (and in particular composers') subconscious are, however, rather mysterious, and isn't it possible that someone with a direct line into heaven and an eye for making a quick buck is likely to clear the table (or at least to survive where others won't)? I'm not suggesting some kind of split personality, but only that, human nature being what it is, the pure golden flow might sometimes undergo a subconscious but local 'modulation'. (The word 'subconscious' is important because the composer mustn't lose any self-esteem by feeling that (s)he is bending to the whims of the marketplace.)

Perhaps it's none of our business, as listeners, exactly how a composer writes, or how a particular piece was conceived. What is important is our perception of the music, whether in absolute form, or relative to the political and commercial frameworks from which it emerged and in which it is performed. Sadly, most of us are unlikely to form a balanced and unbiased opinion of contemporary music, and it is time (and not the current marketplace or the whims of the public) that will tell.

Peter argues that the methods used to pay composers over the past 50 years have not been successful - that commission fees and university employment have little bearing on popularity, whereas novelists are payed royalty fees for their book sales. Royalties are paid to composers, of course, for performances and recordings, but perhaps what is wrong is the financial imbalance between the commission fees and the royalties. Would composers like smaller commission fees and larger royalties? Somehow I doubt it - the royalties tend to arrive a year or so after a performance, and composers, perhaps even more so than the rest of us, have cash flow problems.

I wish Peter success with his e-commerce scheme for composers, and I wonder if he might have more success selling CDs (or downloadable files) of his music than scores. For every person willing to buy, learn and play a new score, there must surely be a thousand or more lazier people who would click, download and listen to a performance of a new work.

With best wishes, Keith Bramich, April 8th 1999

Basil Ramsey's postscript

The question of payment to composers for their work is important whatever camp they may find themselves in. My contention of a difference in outlook between composers remains, and I do not think that any of them would hesitate in defining their aspirations. After all, composers need to learn their craft, and its use thereafter is conditioned by their desires in relation to performance. The composer who uses an experimental style has a pretty clear idea where performance might be sought. The composer anxious for good sales and widespread use of his or her music misses the target if the music is short on general appeal, and equally at risk if (s)he misjudges the standard of difficulty.

Read Peter Billam's original press release.