Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Composing memories

A particularly fascinating correspondence thread attached to my recent post about contemporary symphonies leads me to the following, in the wake of a comment about how audiences have been alienated by modernism. It's not just audiences that have been alienated.

I used to be interested in composing myself, believe it or not. Once, at high school, I was put into a corner at the emotional equivalent of gunpoint and instructed to write a setting of Psalm 150. It was to be part of a theatrical presentation on the theme of Music and Revival that the school was putting on to celebrate the opening (by a minor royal) of its new hexagonal theatre. I did it, somehow, and it came off rather well, mainly because the theatre had a beautiful resonant acoustic, the group performing were up in the balcony and the opening phrase had a nice arch to it which, especially in the dark, made a reasonably OK impression. The headmistress liked it and wrote me a glowing reference, without which I probably wouldn't have got into my university so easily (incidentally, that was 1983 and systems have changed here since then).

So I trotted off to college thinking I might try composing - until I discovered a few things about the composing scene. First, it was entirely male dominated. I did have one female friend who refused to be put off by this and went for lessons with one of the place's resident eminent composers, but it was very clear, very fast, that we were not welcome in the clique - meanwhile, the place was full of arrogant little s**ts (male ones) who thought they were the next Beethoven and strode around the music faculty saying things like 'Prokofiev's rubbish'. But the attitude towards music that did not match accepted party lines - into serialism/modernism/systematic crafting evident only on paper and never to the ear - was the most destructive element. I well remember one friend - an extremely talented fellow - coming round for tea and saying, thoroughly perplexed, that his professor had just told him that he thought too much about the way his music sounded.

I doubt that I'd ever have been suited to life as a composer, but the fact remains that I've never set note to page again even though, at least in student days, I probably could have (if to no great effect) had the climate been just a little more encouraging to those who weren't male or super confident or inclined towards serialism/nasty noises. I once heard that someone in this university, in the 1960s, had submitted a cabbage as his composition portfolio. I can't say I blame him. At least you can eat a cabbage.