On Being a Composer – Part I: Professional Jealousy…

January 6th, 2017

www.phillipcooke.comWith there being a reading week at the university where I work I have finally carved out some time from a frenetic start of the academic year to write down a few thoughts, something reflective and practice-based for a change. I’ve recently been mulling over a few things in my head, a few things on what it means to be a composer in 2016 – nothing earth-shattering and certainly nothing about the diminishing role of classical music in society or the post-Brexit artistic wasteland we are heading towards – mainly things to do with how I feel about writing music and the interactions I have in my day-to-day artistic life. I thought I’d try to do three over the next week, some of which may strike a chord (no pun intended) with other composers, some of which may only be pertinent to me. I thought I’d begin with something that is felt be everyone (other than the very few who are pure of soul…) – professional jealousy.

What got me thinking about this topic was an episode of the popular UK cookery show Great British Menu that is currently on TV – in this tried-and-tested format three professional chefs from each UK region (NE England, SW England, Scotland etc) cook a menu each week for the chance to cook a part of a huge celebratory meal for royalty or politicians or war heroes – something like that. It’s obviously great exposure for the chefs and can lead to more book deals, TV shows and fame that celebratory chefs no doubt crave. However, in the episodes I was watching something really struck me – the chefs were genuinely excited by the food the other chefs were creating, they were interested in the techniques, the apparatus, the concept and most importantly, the taste. This may have been a forced interest for the sake of appearing like a well-rounded individual on national TV, but I got the distinct feeling it was a real interest in the art of the other chefs – it was genuinely edifying to see.

Now, you may be thinking ‘what does this have to do with being a composer?’ and on the one hand, absolutely nothing at all – composers are lucky enough to have a primetime TV show where we can pat each other on the backs – however, it got me thinking about my relationship with other composers, or more specifically the success of other composers. I’m going to put my hands in the air and admit it, I’m human, I get jealous when I hear of other people’s success (and with the rise of social media it makes it much easier to access other people’s success) – not always, and to varying degrees of pain, but I do get jealous – it’s human nature. But it got me thinking about why? Why get jealous? Do other people get jealous? Does Harrison Birtwistle get jealous?

I started to unpack this a little – is it purely jealousy with composers of the same generation and experience level as me? This could be true, the cold fingers of jealousy don’t restrict my airways as much when I hear about much-lauded composers in their 50s, 60s or older winning awards or huge commissions, but does it happen with composers in their 30s, or (God help me) composers younger than me? What was interesting about the cookery programme was that this was largely chefs of the same generation and status commending each other. I’m just not convinced that would happen in Great British Concert or whatever fatuous title the mythical programme would be given.

This was put in focus by listening to Oliver Knussen on Composer of the Week earlier this month – a great composer and one of the major driving forces in British contemporary music of the past 40 years. He went to great lengths to express how he needed to interact with other composers, to learn from them and to perform their work – I found this magnanimousness lovely to hear but this was coming from someone at the very top of the tree, a ‘mover-and shaker’ who has fingers in all the pies of contemporary music; whether he needs to interact with other composers is irrelevant, it is other composers that need to interact with him, for the good of their careers. Would Knussen be so magnanimous if the power relationship was the other way round?

Certainly I think it is absolutely fine and above the level of jealousy for composers to laud the achievements of those a generation above – Howells (born 1892) would state how seminal hearing Vaughan Williams’s (born 1872, so 20 years older than Howells) Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis was for his compositional career. Julian Anderson (born 1968) has written a saintly analysis of Knussen’s (born 1952, so 16 years older) harmonic writing and its influence and so on. This is commonplace – but are there many examples of composers lauding the influence of composers of their own generation – composers who are going head-to-head for the same opportunities? Maybe there are.

I think it probably comes down to the marketplace and the fact that there are more people going for opportunities than there are opportunities – it’s dog-eat-dog and perhaps there isn’t time and space for composers to be respectful of each other’s abilities and the focus is on how did that person get the opportunity and why wasn’t it me? Whatever the truth is, as a group of practitioners, it appears to me that composers are riddled with jealousy, envy and over-ambition in a way that I don’t see with say…chartered accountants? (I jest).

I’ll finish with some examples from a friend of mine (who is also a composer) who runs a music commissioning company. Once when suggesting to a composer that he had found him a commission, the composer became intensely suspicious – ‘why would a fellow composer actively seek work for another composer’ was his words. Another time in a similar situation with a different composer, the composer accepted the commission then contacted the interested party directly to undercut the commissioning company. This is the sort of thing you encounter, it’s no wonder jealousy is so prevalent.

Maybe I’m wrong, maybe it’s just me? Or maybe I’m right, but then who is going to admit they are wracked by jealousy every time they hear about their contemporaries’ successes? It’s not right, but it’s human.

PAC

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