Composers need to feel the love hard and often. They need you to understand that their work is important and why. Paranoia and delusions of self-grandeur are an accepted occupational hazard. The world of modern composition is like grubby party politics: a dirty, self-serving, are you with me or against me, self perpetuating racket that has sucked in more than in its fair share of unhinged egos, bores with nothing to say and narcissistic shits.
Being a recovering composer myself – what I had had to say suddenly didn’t seem worth saying and I’ve been clean since 2007 – I know the pressures. Your desk becomes an isolating, reality-warping hellhole as your big idea doesn’t cut any ice in the wider world. Emails don’t get returned. All the good gigs go to Thomas Adès and Mark-Anthony Turnage anyway. You might be master of your own sonic universe but people’s apathy and indifference comes as a shock. What to do? Well, you go a bit George Galloway. You crank up the rhetoric of what little you have to say. You analyse where you think you went right in earlier pieces and push those gestures to the fore, whether the content justifies it or not. Your language is downgraded to a catalogue of maximum impact soundbites. Sustaining your sorry existence as a composer becomes more important than music. Creatively, you’re toast. (Which is why composers who manage to negotiate a pathway through this minefield of careerist accommodation to keep their art somehow pure and decent deserve nothing but admiration.)
Hard sell music, etched around dependable expressive contours designed to hit dependable emotional targets, is everywhere. But on the cover of The Wire this month is a composer who writes music that’s hardly there. No careerist minded composer who aims at quick gratification by pinning your ears to the ground would call their piece Disappearing Musics. Jakob Ullmann, though, writes quiet music because quiet sounds intensify listening: “we hear better because we make an effort to hear better,” he says. Ullman’s music disappears to the margins: voices and instruments become unstable, notes crack, pitches waver, technical absolutes crumble.
Riding waves of indifference, his music getting more vaporous and faint the less it was excepted, Ullmann managed to keep going throughout the bleak 1980s. And yet his music remains implacably composerly. Even the tiptoeing whispers of his 1999 Komposition Fur Streichquartett are underpinned with hidden urgency and direction. Ullman’s message: this is my piece, this is what I have to say, you must listen.
But there’s a difference between music that is hardly there and music that doesn’t even want to be noticed. Some music allows itself to be composed only grudgingly – how did it come to this, you hear it ask; or, to put it another way, a certain type of composer holds composerly egos in such contempt that anonymity is the only avenue left open. A recent release on the Metier label made little sense until I twigged that the composer of Set for Piano has tried to reduce his own identity to a footnote. Eric Craven gives himself equal billing to pianist Mary Dullea – who ‘realises and performs’ his piece. Set for Piano is an anti-title. It is the pianist’s job to decide about tempo and dynamics; even in the final piece to shape phrase structures from out of Craven’s freeflow of notated material. The music’s untreated, naked tonal gestures are oddly timeless, leaving you guessing about when the piece was written – questions that are left stubbornly unanswered.
Anonymous minds aren’t likely to give accounts of themselves and Craven’s motivation is left tantalisingly hanging. Another recent disc has made me wonder if compositional anonymity is becoming a trend. In The Wire 348 I reckoned that a new release featuring small ensemble music by Walter Cardew has “an intriguing air of music trying desperately hard not to be noticed.” Cardew, son of Cornelius, knows more than most about living with a composer and their ego, and his miniatures are secret, introverted and aloof, gestures closing the form down, never opening it up.
Flirting with anonymity can be a perilous business though. Taken literally, it can become a powerful identity – ask Banksy or Eleh. But the airs and graces, vanity and opportunism, self-obsession and sense of entitlement, of composers have been dragging music down for too long. It could be worth taking notice of the music they don’t want you to notice.