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Shiva Feshareki: New perspectives (©Alex Zaleuska)


Why do people want to be composers today? I’m asked this a lot, and may even ask it myself sometimes. Not that I have had any doubts about being a composer. Ever since I was a boy of nine years I’ve wanted to write music, and was encouraged, even then in the knowledge that there were real, living composers just a few hundred miles away. Benjamin Britten was very much alive in the late 1960s when I first felt the urge, and it wasn’t long before I was seeing his works on television and hearing them on the radio.

But there has always been a feeling that what we do means inhabiting a periphery on the edge of a periphery. “Classical” serious music is meant to be a minority interest, or so we are told, and new music is “difficult” even for people who are into music and perhaps prefer the “museum culture” rather than the “living culture” aspect of the art form. I’ve heard the tales of discouragement all my life but they haven’t made a blind bit of difference. From “you’ll never make any money” to “you’ll inhabit an island of non-communication,” all the warnings have washed over me in ineffective wave after irrelevant wave. I have lived all these years with an obsessive thirst to write music. It’s what gets me up in the morning and what I’m thinking about before I drift off to sleep.

And every other composer I’ve met is the same. I spend a lot of time now travelling the world, conducting, but also teaching. In recent years I’ve met young composers in Pittsburgh, Shanghai, Amsterdam and Chennai, and everywhere in between. They all seem gripped by the same urge. Some might fall by the wayside as financial priorities kick in, but the best of them will continue regardless.

Nevertheless, I have noticed that the kind of discussions they have has changed since I was their age. We used to obsess over stylistic and aesthetic questions; the young ones today, much less so. We used to pursue the elusive goal of originality and novelty at all costs, imagining new ways of organising sounds in terror of being regarded as old-fashioned and reactionary. The young ones are happy to absorb a lot in the widest musical environment, the popular music of youth culture especially. In Chennai they wanted to write for film first and foremost, but knew that a classical “conservatoire” training was indispensable. In the US some are already making money out of creating music for computer games and playing in jazz and rock clubs, but are intellectually au fait with the claims of modernism, which they think of as passé.

A bitter and strangely petty article appeared last year in the Guardian (where else?) by one Philip Clark, headlined “Where have the great composers gone?”, in which he slagged off all the living composers he didn’t like. A response from Susanna Eastburn, chief executive of Sound and Music (a leading UK organisation for new music) and former artistic director of the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, was more sensible, but both missed the point that much contemporary music has long since left behind the ghettoes of Huddersfield and London Sinfonietta concerts and transferred to the mainstream.
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