The Open Mind - a necessity for the modern composer


When I introduce myself as a composer, reactions vary wildly. It can go all the way from enthusiasm about my field to a sudden scepticism, as if I’ve just something oddly suspicious. Many composers of this day and age, after all that has happened in the last century in terms of music, will have experienced such extremes of reception when introducing oneself. I often find it better to say that “I’m a musician”, because it feels to me as if I’m not coming off as being pretentious or whatever adjective of superiority one wishes.

This phenomenon applies, also, to when I’m talking with new colleagues in the profession. The same, but slightly magnified. A great many musicians, speaking from personal experience, have some beef with contemporary music – this can be either through plain bad practice (like asking string players to double-stop on the same string for example) or being demanded atrociously difficult things (Ligeti or Ferneyhough, anybody?).

This piece, however, is not a complaint about contemporary music.

I must confess that, before I went to music college, I was rather closed minded about many aspects of contemporary music. What Trinity Laban is very good at is introducing oneself to many curiosities of the contemporary music scene. You’re suddenly in a scene where you’re surrounded by other composers, both young and upcoming, and the experienced world-wise mentors teaching everything and anything about John Cage, Stockhausen, Conlon Nancarrow, and much besides.

As a result, to stay in a mindset of “good and bad” composers isn’t really all that helpful when one is working with those that are the genesis of tomorrow’s music – your contemporaries. Instead, one generates an attitude of exploration, and mutual understanding of each other’s works.

This mutual understanding is something that I’d quite like to be shared in not just the music world, but also the whole artistic melting pot that is our world. Suffice to say, however, it isn’t.

Perhaps it is an unattainable fantasy. People are people, after all, and opinions vary as the seasons do. Fans of Richard Wagner will remain so, and some will be fond of Marmite no matter how many others turn their noses up at it.

So, where does this leave us? In my mind, it’s not a dead end. One can’t have universal acceptance, but one can ask for open minds. If not from one’s audiences, then from one’s fellow musicians and composers. This is no time to go alone, especially in a world that values connection more and more. Branch out, and work with one’s fellow composers, rather than just sharing an ambition.

Long live the open mind!

#contemporarymusic #article

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© John Sturt 2020