On Being a Composer – Part II: A Respected Profession?

January 6th, 2017

www.phillipcooke.comFor the second of my trio of blogs on being a composer I thought I’d turn to something that probably affects all composers, and something that I have a serious hang-up about – whether being a composer in 2016 is actually a respected profession? And I’m not going to turn this into some sort of polemic about the perceived ‘usefulness’ or the creative arts, or whether it was better in 1900 or the marginalisation of ‘classical music’ – rather how I feel about writing music, the interactions I have with the wider public and whether there is an understanding and actual respect for the profession of composer today.

A couple of things got me thinking about this topic, the first of which happened last year whilst introducing a piece of mine before the first performance. The piece was a specially commissioned community choir piece to be performed outside, there was a good sized audience and a general buzz of interest for this unusual performance. I walked into the performance space and thanked people for coming, mentioned the benign weather etc – all the usual things – but before I talked about the work in earnest I referred to myself as ‘the architect of the piece’. Nothing particularly unusual about that (the piece was concerning space and environment) but it was the subconscious use of a profession other than composer that struck me afterwards. And that hasn’t been the only occasion when I’ve done something similar – I’ve called myself an ‘organiser’, an ‘artist’, I’ve been ‘responsible for the piece’ or I’m the ‘brains behind a work’ – but never the ‘composer’. I wince when people call me a composer. It’s easier in higher education to define yourself, you can hide behind a job title – ‘lecturer in music’,’ academic’, ‘I work in a university’ – the list of synonyms goes on.

Now, I’m not sure if my problem with this is entirely personal, societal or a bit of both – certainly the role and perception of the composer in wider society has changed dramatically since the war, maybe since the death of Benjamin Britten in 1976. I’m making a sweeping generalisation here, but I’m guessing the majority of the public couldn’t name a living composer, some might not even be aware that composers exist and write music for the concert hall, opera house and church. This isn’t necessarily a problem (though it doesn’t really help…) but it highlights the status and respect that the composing profession has in the world of work and maybe explains some of my reluctance at proclaiming my profession. I remember seeing an article a few years back (which I couldn’t track down today) which had composer as one of the top 10 least respected professions (you’ll be glad to know banker was top…) – I can’t remember the details of it, but ‘usefulness to society’ and ‘awareness by society’ were some of the reasons (though to be fair, no composer I’m aware of has ever caused a worldwide financial meltdown). It was grim reading.

The profession of composer has always been unusual, bespoke, intangible – even in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries it would have been unlikely for the wider public to have many interactions with composers, or to have strong opinions on their ‘usefulness’ to society. However, one imagines that there would have been more respect for the profession, people could see how the composer’s role fitted into a wider socio-cultural hierarchy. Perhaps it’s just that people today can’t see composers, can’t hear their work on a regular basis and can’t imagine what a composer does and where he/she might do it. This certainly isn’t the case for visual artists (gallery, art fair), filmmakers (arthouse cinemas) or architects (erm…buildings…) to name a few other creative professions – for the vast majority of people, writing music means writing pop songs, film scores or computer games – widely disseminated, mass media outputs. This has certainly been my experience when I’ve admitted my profession, people just assume you write film music, or orchestral backings for pop songs – occasions they have personally experienced orchestral/choral music that didn’t sound like Mozart or Bach – they are often surprised when you state that you ‘don’t write that sort of music’, there is often disbelief and a questioning of ‘why wouldn’t you try’?

Perhaps some of my hang-up is down to how exactly I make my living – 90% of my income is from my university job, the rest from composing and related endeavours – perhaps if it was 100% from composing I would feel different, though I would still be living with my Mum, which wouldn’t be ideal. Certainly James MacMillan didn’t have a problem with calling himself a composer when I talked to him about this issue, but then why would he – he’s probably the UK’s most successful living composer – I’m not. Maybe it comes down to exposure, maybe because my work isn’t performed somewhere in the world every night and day I feel a charlatan? Maybe because I’m not universally known within the profession I feel a fraud? These might be bigger psychological issues for someone to deal with further down the line, but not every composer can be as successful as MacMillan, but then I’m guessing most call themselves ‘composer’? I don’t think the public’s awareness of the profession is going to change for the positive in the near future, so it’s something all composers need to deal with – maybe composers should be proud of what they do, there are hundreds of professions that are virtually unknown to the wider world but people don’t make a song and dance (so to speak…) about them – maybe we are being too precious? Maybe it’s just me…


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