October 1999


obsessed with consuming?

Those of us fortunate enough to possess a reasonable degree of social perception know that the society we live in is obsessed with consuming, that people will quite happily part with their money and consume almost anything, however useless, if it’s marketed well enough. I myself once felt seriously tempted by a heated ice-cream scoop (batteries not included) which appeared in an Innovations catalogue, billed as a vital labour-saving device for the modern kitchen. The world had no need of such an absurd implement, of course. The only reason that it was made was to make money for the company that made it. That’s commerce for you.

But the same thing is happening in the world of new music. New pieces are being created simply because someone, somewhere is willing to pay for them. They might be attractive on the outside (the ice-cream scoop was designed to be easy on the eye), and they certainly affect a seductive user-friendliness (“operation is simplicity itself...”). But they open no new vistas, say nothing deeper than the shallow, ask no questions, risk causing no offence. They are entertainment, pieces of frippery, though often the craftsmanship they display is of itself brilliant. It’s no coincidence that many such pieces are composed for American orchestras, which depend largely on the support of rich, conservative individual patrons, but which also need to be perceived as promoting new music. It’s also an increasing phenomenon here.

Nothing wrong with a good old-fashioned piece of sizzling entertainment, you might say, and intrinsically you would be right. Does every piece of contemporary music have to be deep and meaningful? Of course not. The danger comes in the masquerading, when something of little import is presented in a context which suggests that it is in fact something substantial, with something original to say for itself. Works of immense outward ambition whose composers, sometimes blessed with huge reputations, throw hastily together, believing that making a sonic effect - often a sonic effect that has a suspiciously large element in common with the work of greater, older masters - is enough.
One can imagine the scene in such a composer’s studio. There’s a yearly planner on the wall. Such and such a symphony by tomorrow. Such and such an oratorio by the end of next month. Oh, and the little matter of the flute sonata due in a fortnight’s time. The clock ticking away. The days rushing by. Our composer has to get down to the job immediately. There’s no time to step back, to consider or reconsider, to make false starts, delete, throw away, reshape. No time to reformulate an attitude, a sensibility, to be influenced by a new stimulus, to be genuinely inspired. Simply prestigious commission upon prestigious commission. Simply a job. Bit like being a journalist really.

Prestigious commissions bring in money, and we all have to make that. In the absence of a national pension scheme that would allow our creative artists to create without the burden of having to worry about how to put the bread on the table, it is difficult to make the case that composers should feel duty bound to risk the sackcloth and ashes option, composing only when they have something to say. The rest of us know that being professional means being at least mildly avaricious, and as lazy as we can manage. But it happens that I do know one or two composers who will not write a single unnecessary or hasty note, and who, if they have no piece to write, will simply not write it. They may be generally less prolific than our superficial superstars, but funnily enough everything they do write seems somehow worthwhile. They don’t care about what the critics might think either (though they are ready to learn from the rare perceptive comment), because their vocation is a true one, and matters more than approbation or ambition. They are saints.

Stephen Pettitt

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Previous articles:

September 1999
spnm welcomes Joanna MacGregor.

July/August 1999
Spectrum 2 - miniatures for piano.

June 1999
Hoxton Hall New Music Days.

May 1999
Bath International Music Festival is 50.

April 1999
Who is Georges Aperghis?

March 1999
On frost, birth and death

February 1999
Keeping busy...

January 1999
Now that's what I call contemporary!

December 1998
Forty years of madness?

November 1998
To plug in or not to plug in?

October 1998
No, honestly it is a cello

September 1998
Composing for film

July/August 1998
New music on old instruments

June 1998
Blue sheep of record companies

May 1998
spnm looks to the future

April 1998
New Music 98 in Manchester