On Being a Craftsman or Artist?

September 22nd, 2018

Earlier this year I was proof-reading a new book on the Welsh composer William Mathias, a composer for whom I have a great amount of respect. Amongst the many things that struck me about this book was the continued reference to Mathias as a ‘craftsman’, someone who ‘would have been happy to have put a brass plate outside his studio with ‘composer’ on it, much as the lawyer or dentist do in their professions.’ The idea of the composer as a craftsman really got me thinking and got me assessing my own work and my own difficult relationship with the profession of composing – it also got me thinking about the perceived pejorative connotations of this term and whether one can willingly use it in a positive and constructive manner.

There is a quote from WH Auden (which is also mentioned in the book) that goes: ‘A craftsman knows in advance what the finished result will be, while the artist knows only what it will be when he has finished it.’ I guess this sort of sums up the relationship between these two assumptions – on the one hand you get what you asked for, on the other you have enable something into being (whether it is quite what you wanted or not). I always imagine the term ‘craftsman’ applies to woodworkers or stonemasons, that kind of thing. Someone you might go to for a new set of stairs in your house – you might want nicely crafted, unique stairs, but ultimately, they must fit the space in your house and provide the function – it is no use if the craftsman comes back with something beautiful and ground-breaking but doesn’t get you from floor one to floor two. I’m being facetious, I realise, but there is some truth in this – originality and the finger-prints of individuality are to be encouraged, but not at the loss of functionality and similarity to the initial design.

The author applies the term ‘craftsman’ to the outpouring of Mathias’s choral music in the 1980s, with many pieces, all very similar, all baring the mannerisms and gestures of the composer, but all perfectly tailored to the needs and wants of the individual choir. For many composers, this stance is an anathema – the idea that a composer would put aside total artistic control and freedom to create something to a prescribed list of ‘dos and don’ts’ and ultimately to produce something akin to what they had already composed is unheard of. It just isn’t art. It’s not what a true artist does. The commission (commissioner?) enables a work to exist, not to provide parameters and stipulations, to hinder and limit.

Now, there are many composers we can think of who compose very similar pieces again and again with very little variation (though I don’t think that Mathias is entirely in this category) and with seemingly little interest in ‘furthering their art.’ It’s not just composers, there are loads of artists, architects, pop stars etc – I even stumbled across a funny gallery of a well-respected actor basically doing the exact repertoire of facial expressions in a whole career of films. Is there anything wrong with this? Is there anything wrong with someone saying, ‘I want a Composer X anthem for my choir, and it better-well sound like Composer X? Would it be disingenuous on the part of said composer to provide something that sounded completely different? If you went to a joiner and asked for stairs but ended up with a bookcase you probably wouldn’t be happy…even if the bookcase looked like stairs (I may be digressing now).

I guess this all comes down to my personal feelings on the matter – do I consider myself a craftsman or an artist? Well, I’m not sure. Maybe a little of both. I’d like to think that each work I create does something different to my other pieces, but these differences might be very subtle. I’ve certainly accepted commissions to write something like a previous piece of mine, or to fit a clearly prescribed brief, or to work within constricting parameters that often had me banging my head against a wall, longing for more freedom. But I like to think all my works are ‘crafted’, all with the same amount of hard-work, thought and care – does that make me a craftsman? I think it does. Everything I send into the world has my fingerprints all over it, but it has the same attention to the individual needs of those who enabled its creation as a cabinet maker or artisan baker. I think I’d be happy to have a brass plate on my door, but maybe one that said, ‘music writer’, rather than ‘composer’. But that’s a different story.


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