THE COMPOSER'S CONUNDRUM?
ALISTAIR HINTON comments on
Gordon Rumson's recent article
Although Gordon Rumson makes some interesting and valid points in his article The Composer's Conundrum, there are a few that might benefit from further consideration and, in some cases, some minor challenges.
The first and perhaps most important is that, in seeking to draw a rational conclusion about the business of sending out scores, Mr Rumson decides that it must somehow be subject to some kind of 'rule'. Given that every composer has a different attitude to this kind of thing and would place different emphases on it, I cannot perceive this as conforming to any such 'rule'; some composers are blatant self-publicists, others are the very opposite and there are many tens of thousands in between. It is indeed true, as Mr Rumson opines, that if scores and/or recordings are not put in front of people, composers' music will not be heard, except in cases where the composer is also his/her performer. Reading between his lines, his statements that 'composers sending out their scores is just crass' and that it 'may be viewed as a form of begging, of stooping to low levels of behaviour ... even below busking' seem to be intended as a rueful reflection of the attitude of some others to this kind of thing rather than representative of his own beliefs, but what should we think about this? Assuming that we are specifically considering unsolicited rather than requested mailings, on what basis can this be regarded as 'crass', 'begging', etc? If we must accept that it is so, are we therefore obliged to regard such 'advertising' and promotion in the same way in relation to other kinds of invention, or is musical composition some kind of 'special case' and, if so, why and on what basis? Those who keep the products of their imaginations -- musical or otherwise -- under wraps can only risk doing themselves and the rest of society a disservice.
Mr Rumson's citing of the cases of Telemann, Liszt, Alkan, Koechlin and Johansen (and, given Johansen's and Luening's association with the 'Busoni circle', he might as easily have added Busoni himself) are indeed salutary and there are, of course, many other such examples; after almost three decades of involvement in the music of Sorabji, I believe that I can reasonably claim not to be unfamiliar with this situation! These, however, are artists of the past and it could be argued that matters are easier today yet at the same time more problematic. As Mr Rumson implies, the rôle of the publisher is less powerful than once it was, now that technological advances have enabled composers to self-publish; there may still be no easy substitute for major music publishers' vast promotion and marketing machines but there are not so many such publishers any more and those that have survived are not having a particularly easy time of it. Whereas the expense of self-publishing and distribution is not small, at least those composers who opt for this route have as compensation the fact that, whereas those who are published by others forego a proportion of their performance, recording and sales royalties to their publishers, the self-published composer can keep all of those to him/herself. On the other hand, the problems of deriving a living from composition have hardly abated and a majority of composers supplement it with teaching; nothing wrong with that in principle, of course (and there are undoubtedly some very committed and gifted teachers among composers), but one inevitable consequence of this is that increasing numbers of composers teach increasing numbers of students, thereby flooding the world with more and more composers who, by dint of their sheer numbers alone, will inevitably find it ever harder to derive a living from their work. That said, the situation for the composers whom Mr Rumson mentions (and many others too numerous for him to mention) is in some ways far better today, in that vast swathes of previously unperformed and unknown music is now available on CD (even if still far less widely represented in public performances), yet the end user's purchasing power and available listening time has not risen (and indeed could not possibly rise) in proportion with this; is such music information overload a bad thing?
Whatever one may say against the internet (and most of what can reasonably be said against it relates only to its misuse), the fact that composers can now set up websites to provide information and advertise their wares internationally can surely only be a good thing in principle; yes, this costs money, too, but then so does sending scores around to publishers, performers, etc (and the cost of such website maintenance can in any case be reduced by not using the site as a direct selling tool -- in other words, the site can advertise scores, recordings and the like but point the viewer in the composer's direction to make the purchases rather than sell them from the site).
But is this self-advertising and self-distribution really widely regarded as 'crass' and inappropriate? It is indeed a relatively recent phenomenon, but I must admit that, in my own experience, most people whose opinions I have counselled on it seem reasonably sympathetic to it, especially given that publishers alone simply cannot deal with a situation in which every day brings even more swathes of music than the previous day. It is less direct and 'in your face' -- not to mention a great deal less onerous -- than sending specific scores to specific performers, publishers or broadcasting organisations and it can have a useful permanence.
One problem that besets composers is the activities of those who display arrant disregard either for common courtesy or the interests of others by wilfully scanning, uploading and distributing (or otherwise making available for download) scores and recordings over which they have no rights; the 'arguments' that some of these people will put forward in defence of this is that (a) they make music better known than it would otherwise be and (b) such material has the right (in their arrogant opinion) to be in the public domain from the outset. The first such contention is all very well in principle, but not only does it risk compromising the composer's already slender ability to make a living from his/her work and discouraging record companies from recording more of their work through having the results of their labours and expenditure stolen, there is also precious little evidence that it does anything to elevate the composer's profile by generating an interest that boosts the legitimate sales of such scores and recordings. Is there a way around this? Well, in the sense of preventing it, obviously not, but there are better ways to approach it; the pianist Fredrik Ullén, for example, has posted some sample extracts from the edited score and his own recordings of Sorabji's 100 Transcendental Studies (with the permission of The Sorabji Archive), the idea being to generate that kind of interest without giving too much away.
Rather than inveighing against publishers as such, I merely seek to put certain matters into a current perspective. I agree with Mr Rumson that the nature of some publishers' advertising can at times be less than tasteful or appropriate, but then publishers are just as obliged as the composers to function in a market-forces-driven world where PR is king and profiteering the only viable alternative to failure, so, like the composers, they have to promote and sell their wares or they will go bust and their composers will go unheard. I do not, however, believe that anything that a publisher does, well or badly, need necessarily discourage composers from sending out their scores to performers, broadcasters or anyone else, nor do I accept that doing so is either 'crass' or generally regarded as such. The initial decisions as to what might happen to each composer's music are his/hers alone to make, at least to the extent of the kinds of effort that are made to try to ensure its availability to performers, record companies, publishers and the listening public. Is the composer's life an easy one? No, of course not! All the more justification, then, for composers to take all reasonable steps to ensure effective circulation of their work and, provided that they refrain from aping some of those worst excesses of certain publishers' PR agendas to which Mr Rumson draws attention, the public will surely come to accept (if it has not done so already) that there are more legitimate and acceptable ways than one of getting music from the composers' desks to the listeners' ears.
Copyright © 24 April 2009 Alistair Hinton,
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