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Provocative thoughts from Patric Standford

Maturity and skill

In very many ways life is too easy for younger composers now. There is a form of liberality in the teaching of music that suggests disciplined learning might hinder the flourishing imagination and thus deprive audiences of journeys into hitherto unexplored and magical realms of sound that the unleashed vision of the creative spirit can bring to fruition. But where musical composition is concerned I make a sharp divide between inventiveness and ingenuity. The erratically uncontrolled invention of a stream of ideas is being mistaken, at quite an early stage in a composer's development, for composition. On the contrary, it is easy to have ideas, and it must be presumed that encouragement is being given to the assumption that having ideas is being a composer by teachers, talent scouts, performers, agents and publishers, who themselves are uncertain as to the disparity between composed and improvised music. Ingenuity on the other hand involves the selection of a good idea from a series of sketches (itself a process of choice that requires creative perception, as the invaluable sketchbooks of Beethoven demonstrate) and the application of astute and conscientiously acquired skills to mould potentially fertile ideas into coherent musical statement and discussion.

In the hands of skilled musicians who have good cause to be composing, and the patient craftsmanship to build fresh work from old materials, music could well thrive. But acquiring these skills is hard work. It is far easier to blunder through with cobbled nonsense, and use the time saved to pour contempt upon traditional skills and argue the excuses for a superficiality which might conveniently be called modernism. And it does a disservice to seriously well crafted music to rush young composers too quickly into high profile commissions, performances, broadcasts and recordings when they should be encouraged to remain far longer at the drawing board polishing their craft.

The enthusiasm now with which the apprentice is given responsible tasks and placed in situations requiring a level of thought and skill they have not yet attained is reckless, yet professional performing organisations are pressed to appoint young associates to fulfil a series of projects that have, in the end, very little musical value. Encouragement is vital, but it should be within a balanced context which clearly separates support of the acceptable novice from the public presentation of mature and skilled work. The problem could well be that we have lost the ability to distinguish between either of them, and go the easy way for superficial and marketable celebrity. We do it to cheese and wine too. It cultivates a taste for the immature.

Copyright © 22 July 2003 Patric Standford, Wakefield, UK


From: Paul Sarcich, UK

How amazing to see words like craftsmanship and maturity being used in a discussion of composers today. Does anyone know how we could force every university music department and arts council in the world to read Patric's piece until they have it off by heart?

From: H Marenstein, USA

While I can't agree with Mr Stanford's statement that coming up with ideas is easy, I do concur on the frustrating lack of development of craft coming from a lot of young composers. It used to be known as technique.

As a conductor of new music, I constantly deal with young composers. While I am often impressed by the level of talent, I very rarely encounter a composer who has a thorough knowledge of counterpoint, harmony, thematic development, and all of the other tools that provide comprehensive structure to music. Though these are skills that take years to master, their rudiments are essential to the composers'ideas taking on life.

Those who dismiss this thinking on the grounds that creativity is repressed ought to look back at the teaching of Nadia Boulanger. She was insistent on the above-listed skills and then some. Could anyone argue that Madame Boulanger's students were lacking creativity? Quite the contrary. Those who develop solid technique are then liberated to do what they wish with their ideas more competently. Just as a clear baton technique enables a conductor to effectively convey his or her intentions to an orchestra without too much explanation, a developed composition technique does the same for the composer in relation to the listener.





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