THE COMPOSER'S CONUNDRUM
GORDON RUMSON has some bad news
about creativity and self-promotion
Recently, I took it upon myself to send some of my compositions to a few performing musicians. As I did so, it occurred to me that as a performing musician myself, I rarely receive unsolicited free copies of any composer's music. Generally, composers are extremely generous in sending scores if requested, but in my experience they don't send works cold to musicians.
Perhaps there is some unspoken code of conduct to which I am not privy, and I have been rude in sending scores. I recall sending a score to a local pianist, who I accounted at least a good acquaintance and he sent it back with a brief note of thanks (as a sentence fragment scribbled on the bottom of letter I had sent).
Now it could be that I just write lousy music, and that remains a possibility for me, but this surely does not apply to other composers. There are many excellent composers out there. But free unsolicited scores are a rarity.
Thus, the prospect remains that the sending of free scores out to performers is 'just not done.'
Is it a simple rule of etiquette? Is it just that way?
Or maybe there is a vast conspiracy of publishers to prevent composers from doing such a thing: the only authorised distribution of sample scores is to potential reviewers in magazines and music journals.
Or, and this is the most embarrassing, is sending scores just the most blatant act of shameless self-promotion possible and self-aware and properly educated composers never do such a horrid and repulsive thing?
I rather think that's it.
There have got to be rules and this is one of them.
Composers sending out their scores is just crass. It may be viewed as a form of begging, of stooping to low levels of behaviour. It's even below busking.
But, then how are composers supposed to get their works known?
It is not unusual for composers to write massive amounts of music and for it to take years, decades and even centuries for the works to get performed. I do not jest.
There are probably hundreds (okay, thousands) of works by Telemann that were not performed between 1750 and 1960. Until just recently it was probably possible to easily select music by Charles Koechlin for world première. Alkan's music vanished for almost a hundred years until Raymond Lewenthal dredged it up. Even today, the vast bulk -- probably 80 percent -- of Franz Liszt's music is infrequently performed, while we hear yet another Second Hungarian Rhapsody. The list of living composers whose works await première is almost endless.
Sometimes it's just that people don't know that the music exists. A number of years ago I read that Otto Luening was a member of the Busoni circle in the 1920s. Since Gunnar Johansen was also there at around the same time, I wondered if they knew each other and what Luening might have known about Johansen's piano playing and compositions. Luening very graciously wrote back and said he hadn't known Johansen in Berlin, but he did think that Johansen had composed a couple of sonatas for piano.
Indeed Johansen did create sonatas for the piano. Five hundred and fifty of them. That's what I said, 550.
It took 550 works to register as a couple. Since they weren't published or widely distributed when recorded they hardly made it on the radar.
Ah, you say, have them published and performed. But in order for either of those two to happen, the work must be somewhat known. Somehow. By someone.
Then composers should send their works to publishers for possible publication. But a few experiences with that will cause a slight problem. Most publishers request a recording of the composition, which implies a performance, which implies that the composer sent the score to someone who played it ...
This is probably why composers in the past have always been performers. At least they could start the process.
But if a pianist bothered to write a symphony, or quartet, she'd be out of luck. There is one team where the wife is the composer and the husband is a performer. Guess how many works she has written for him?
Emerson knew the problem which figures in his comment:
'Each work requires a writer and a publisher.'
It is for this reason that so many composers buy a computer, engrave their own works and establish publishing companies for them.
Sadly, the best efforts rarely repay themselves and many musicians still look askance at the self-publisher.
It's called shameless self-promotion to set up a web page, print up brochures, and send out sample scores. It just looks crass and unbecoming.
It's so much better when a big publisher with a large advertising budget sets up a web page, prints up brochures, sends out sample scores and buys advertisements in major magazines.
Yes, right, it's so much better that way. At least the promotion is not self-directed; it's done by some advertising graduate locked up in a cubicle in some big organisation.
And of course, the promotion is not crassly done; ever professional and always appropriate.
Actually, no it's not. The vast bulk of advertising is rude, ('BUY NOW!'), repetitive, glitzy, repetitive, sexified, repetitive and did I mention, repetitive.
Musicians are sold as tarts if they are young and beautiful, wise sages if old and decrepit, and when one reads the copy for the performer or composer, it's as if he were anointed by Mozart himself and has been heard in every venue on the planet.
And it works. Careers are made by this means and people buy the CDs, the compositions and the hype. We live in an advertising world and if it is not advertised, it doesn't exist. That's right, it does not exist at all. This is because if we do not receive the message in the form which we are accustomed to, the message is not perceived.
This explains why composers don't send scores. They are not aboard the big advertising machine as it rumbles into homes around the world and it is pathetic and lame for these sad sacks. It's as if someone offered a ride on a donkey across the Alps while a passenger jet soared aloft.
The advice then is this: don't bother sending your scores out (or tapes of yourself as a performer). It's pointless. Get aboard the advertising machine as fast as possible and make sure you are in one of the upper rows. Otherwise, save your time and energy, or exert it on your creativity. Then hope you are rediscovered by someone about a hundred years after your last parting.
Copyright © 23 April 2009 Gordon Rumson,