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No Labels, No Rules, No Fear

January 7, 2011

Tom Service, BBC Radio 3 presenter and Classical music writer for Britain’s “The Guardian” newspaper, has my dream job.  His blog is one of the handful I follow religiously, and I often find myself quoting him in conversations or referring to smart things he’s written… as though mentioning Tom’s opinion gives mine some weight with people in the Classical know.  (*smile*)

This past October, Tom gave a lecture at “Sound” – Northeast Scotland’s festival of new music – entitled “So long, and thanks for all the noise: 2010 and the end of musical history”.  The transcript can be found here for all of you who are interested in reading it:

I won’t pick it apart, but here’s my personal, very abbreviated version of what he said:
Classical music, as we have known and defined it, is over.  Gone.  Done.  The future can no longer rest solely on the shoulders of the past greats, which makes the path ahead for “contemporary classical music” nebulous at best, and fraught with critics (most of them coming from within our own camp) too weighted down by musical baggage and locked-in ideas to give new music the breathing space it needs and the permission to stand on its own two feet without apology. 
Similarly, today’s composers most often find themselves cornered by contradictions and criticisms from every side and risk giving into the temptation of bowing to the ideological DNA of other contemporary classical voices, as well as giving into the fear that ultimately keeps them from exploring new musical languages to find and develop their own voice.  They become, essentially, a watered-down rehash of what’s already been said and done.
What’s required, Tom concludes, is fearlessness.  Fearlessness for the new generation of composers to make the music they know needs to be made.  Fearlessness to find their own ways to getting it out there.  And fearlessness to upset a few people.  “No labels, no rules, no fear.”

That’s a bit of heavy paraphrasing on my part, but generally it’s what stuck with me once the words settled.  Despite being a critique on “new music” and the avenues it has taken/is taking, the article ends up being, as I hear it, an optimistic challenge to a new generation of composers.

Taking Tom’s lecture, and putting it side by side with this article posted yesterday, also from “The Guardian” (is it me, or is the active dialogue about ensuring a future for classical music sounding most loudly from their side of the water?), I’m finding a lot of encouragement to ignore the nodders who voraciously bob their heads when the subject of Classical’s demise comes up.  Articles like these remind me that the fat lady isn’t close to singing yet.

PS.  Check out Tom’s blog for a tantalizing preview of an upcoming BBC Radio 3 broadcast about his visit yesterday with Arvo Pärt.  Dang, I want this guy’s job!!!

2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 18, 2011 8:11 am

    Great post – I enjoyed it very much. Wasn’t it John Cage who once said something like “the only critique I will accept is another piece”. Meaning, if you don’t like it, show me how to do it better. Composers need to put the blinders on and not pay attention to negative critiques of their work. They can be debilitating. At a master class one time, a composer said, I’ve realized it doesn’t matter what they write about you, it just matters how much they write about you and how often. Even bad reviews catch the interest of others, and may make them want to check out a concert.

    Keep up the good work.

    American Composer Ralph Kendrick

    • January 30, 2011 5:27 pm

      An old acquaintance from Hollywood used to always say “there’s no such thing as bad publicity”… which doesn’t seem to be a particularly comforting thought for composers who tend to leave pieces of their soul smattered throughout the notes they write. The critiques are an occupational hazard, I suppose, but if it’s not the critiques, then it’s the self-doubt that’ll do you in. And blinders can only do so much where the latter is concerned. As a composer, what’s been your experience? Do you find there are enough knowlegeable avenues of support in the general “new music” community to see you through to the next piece, and the next, and the next?

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