Canadian Composer and Arcade Fire band member, Richard Reed Perry, 2014.

Canadian Composer and Arcade Fire band member, Richard Reed Perry, 2014.

It’s fascinating to me that while staring down the apparent collapse of the publicly funded industry of commissioning and academia, there has been a surfeit of articles that recognize how the purpose and role of the composer has evolved, with some doing very well. Perhaps this is cause to reexamine our scope of definitional validity, and recognize the ways that the idea of the composer is currently going through a period of upheaval and renewal?

I believe the question of what a composer is today rests on what basis a composer – a practitioner of sound-art – is capable of accurately reflecting our contemporary rituals and life experiences. With this in mind, I will share three examples of who I think is renewing the idea of the composer for the public, and leading a way forward for this particular kind of artistic profession to find better appreciation.

I find the examples to follow share a few key traits: – centrality of the recording over the written score as the central text; – the liberation of instruments (over ‘the emancipation of dissonance’); – technological innovations across every aspect of the creative process.

Consider, in this context, the idea that the contemporary composer most resembles what one thinks of today as a designer.

The sound product the composer produces is the “specification of an object, manifested by an agent, intended to accomplish goals, in a particular environment, using a set of primitive components, satisfying a set of requirements, subject to constraints.”[1] In other words, thinking of the composer as a designer exposes certain elements that have led the old paradigm of the professional composer into apparent irrelevance. The public does not understand why it is important to commission composers, especially when the common tools of their trade often involve instruments, rituals, and other cultural constraints that seem antediluvian in the context of current technologies, left unleveraged – for the sake of nothing, it seems.

The term designer might seem a strange term to apply to the composer at first, thanks to our visual culture. However, the failure to recognize that the same constraints and particulars ought to be kept in mind by the composer as a designer is perhaps a reason for the failure of the average composer of our time – obedient and faithful to certain conventions of the past for the sake of arcane, academic approval – to be recognized by the average listener. Meaning is obscured.

Some composers have used a technology to influence the substance of the message – though the origin point is very human. Consider the recent record release by Ottawa-native composer Richard Reed Parry, “Music for Heart and Breath” on the Deutsche Grammophon label. This collection of music, marketed under a “classical” label, was all created with the assistance of stethoscopes. The album represents an instance where a high-concept idea, assisted by a supposedly extra-musical technology, coalesces in a uniquely human record, side-stepping the effects of non-live performance that are adverse to an artistic suspension of disbelief through the listener’s constant awareness of the semi-aleatoric means of its creation (the individual performers’ heartbeats).

Consider also Imogen Heap’s recent record, Sparks – in particular, the recent BBC Proms premiere “The Listening Chair.” This is literally a living work; a condensed aural biography sectioned by stages of her life experience, and will be appended to as she ages. “A composer – or maybe an astronaut…this is what I’m going to be,” Heap sings. Many parts of the record were shaped by a pair of Mi.Mu gloves, a brand new technology designed to transliterate the natural movements of dance and gesticulation into musical sounds. The concept of inventing one’s own instrument to create the sounds one needs is, of course, nothing new. But it’s become an increasingly rare ambition, and a largely forgotten yet vital component of the composer’s creative practice.

Lastly, I ask the reader to consider the work of Eric Whitacre, self-professed “fifth member of Depeche Mode,” wholly in favour of the idea that there are plenty of pieces left to be written in the key of C, placing considerable time and energy into his Virtual Choir project, leveraging that tremendously long tail of the internet and bringing the singers of the world together.

The contemporary composers cited have come from successful backgrounds creating accessible music. Perhaps there is a lesson there as well. Is it inherently wrong to please a crowd? It takes a lot of talent to do so. As a composer earns the trust of their audience, they can proceed to take later artistic risks together alongside this audience. A relationship with the audience is critical in all of these cases. Artspeak, lengthy self-congratulatory biographies, the upholding of academic approval… these things never enter the equation, and for good reason.

These are just three examples of an explosion in the art music world, showcasing high concepts executed extraordinarily well, in fully leveraging contemporary technologies, creating works for contemporary listeners. This is the way forward, and the proof is both statistical and emotional.

The composer is dead. Long live the composer.


Curtis Perry is a musician with a broad-ranging career, punctuated by work as a composer for orchestra, film + television, and chamber ensemble; written reviews and editorials for internationally recognized and well-read publications such as I Care if You Listen; and diverse experiences in music education. He is currently a masters candidate at Carleton University, pursuing an MA in Music and Culture with a specialization in Digital Humanities. He is currently Executive Director of Ottawa New Music Creators, the National Capital Region’s only organization wholly committed to the sustainable production of new music.

[1] Ralph, P. and Wand, Y. (2009). A proposal for a formal definition of the design concept. In Lyytinen, K., Loucopoulos, P., Mylopoulos, J., and (Robinson, W.,) editors, Design Requirements Workshop (LNBIP 14), pp. 103–136. Springer-Verlag, p. 109 doi:10.1007/978–3–540–92966–6_6.

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19 Responses to What is a composer, today?

  1. Sound Art and composers as designers are great new thoughts for me. Also I was unaware that commissions and academia are in jeopardy. Thanks for this post. The ircpa is planning workshops in April on copyright rules for composers, Let’s continue the conversation of this post in April. Ann

  2. The article reads confusingly to me, after a long composing career. Sorry you feel you must follow current fashion by bad-mouthing academia. Public support of the arts is part of public support of education: don’t we want an educated society aware of the arts? I note from your biog that you have a Master’s degree from Carleton: who do you think supported you in achieving it if not the Ontario taxpayer? John Beckwith.

  3. Curtis Perry says:

    Hi Dr. Beckwith,

    I apologize if these ideas offend you. I admire your work – I went to the CMC from Ottawa to specifically analyze and present your work for a post-tonal theory class in 2010 in my undergrad.

    It’s not academia itself that I am necessarily disparaging, but rather the role of the composer in engaging the public. Indeed, what I am suggesting is that the composer should make their art accessible to the public, and acknowledge their role as a public servant. So I argue that the gist of my conjecture is actually the opposite of what you posit.

    I do not have a Master’s degree from Carleton. I am pursuing one next week, and I am very grateful for the opportunity. I am also Executive Director of Ottawa New Music Creators. I invite you to see the season I have prepared at – full of opportunities and performers that respect academic music and musicians. Without me, this season of new music would not have existed.

    So I am very offended by your idea that I don’t respect academic music culture, when I wrote this article for free, I write other pieces generally promoting contemporary music pro bono, and I spend countless hours of work – for free – developing and administrating ONMC. So I hope you could at least consider my reasoning as to why, perhaps, academic composers are in decline in wider society.

    I’d love to interview you for a future article, in fact, if you are so inclined. Perhaps we can develop a solid counterpoint to this piece of opinion.

    With deepest respect and admiration,

    Curtis Perry

    • M. Villeger says:

      Dear Curtis Perry (are you related to the other Perry?), your post is very worrying.
      “Indeed, what I am suggesting is that the composer should make their art accessible to the public, and acknowledge their role as a public servant.”
      What’s next? Compose from 9 to 5, 5 days a week but not during statutory holidays? Oh and I forgot have a social responsibility to make people “happier” too?
      “As a composer earns the trust of their audience, they can proceed to take later artistic risks together alongside this audience”
      Composing by referendum soon… To earn my trust, a composer -or any artist- has to have something to say first & foremost and then say it his/her personal way. Schnittke, Mantovani or Bacri got my attention not by pleasing me but through intriguing me.
      The three composers you selected for your post are all about marketing/communication/media coup.
      “This is the way forward, and the proof is both statistical and emotional.”
      And if numbers do not lie, those who do not like it, will, by hook or by crook… As No. 6 would say in The Village: “Be seeing you”

      • Curtis Perry says:

        Hi M Villeger,

        Thanks – good perspectives. Unfortunately, I’m not related to Matthew Perry, though he is also from Ottawa.

        I would say my three picks here do intrigue me, personally, and I do believe they are saying something in a personal way. But you’re right that they have some great marketing support. I am indeed suggesting that composers might do well to intentionally write for an audience.

        Thanks for reading, and be seeing you.


    • I’m not “offended.” I just don’t like to see the academic sphere depicted as “arcane” or, as we so often read, removed from the “real world.” And I don’t agree that composers who happen to teach are becoming less numerous, which is I guess what you mean by “academic composers in decline.” How far does the observation that composers are akin to designers get us? Haven’t composers always been designers, in the sense that they look for ways to give shape & form to sounds? I would enjoy talking with you some time. JB

      • Curtis Perry says:

        Hello John,

        Thanks. Well – to be arcane is not a bad or good thing, inherently, but of course there is the negative connotation. We are tasked with conserving a vast corpus of knowledge that is and ought to be preserved. My conjecture was simply that I wonder if indoctrination can discourage certain creative avenues.

        Clearly, as we both know, this is not the case. Indeed, even in the article – at least Parry and Whitacre are tied pretty deeply to their respective university educations, and Whitacre is a lecturer in the UK.

        How far does the composer-designer relationship get us? I think that’s worth pursuing further, precisely because composer have always been designers – practitioners of sound art – and the definition has narrowed over time in some circles (let’s say, with the strictures of the orchestral writing tradition). To intentionally blow that definition wide open again invites some creative thinking, as I demonstrated in my piece – instrument-building and the incorporation of truly innovative technology. “Innovative” is a world that has experienced dilution from overuse, but I really mean this word in its truest and fullest sense.

        By academic composers in decline, I would like to refer to this article:

        Consider also, for one thing, that I haven’t seen a single piece of new music in this year’s season schedules for the TSO or the NACO.

        Let me tell you something else – when I sat looking at your work – one of the pieces happened to be “Blurred Lines” – in 2010, the staff at the CMC laughed when I said I was conducting serious, important research. I’m sensitive to this. It is serious and important, and I felt I was connecting with an important part of Canadian music. So it saddens me greatly when I see you’re denigrating my foray into this exploratory thinking that posits a way forward to get more people to discover the vast array of music available at the CMC.

        In fact, the title of my upcoming column here on Musical Toronto pays tribute to a piece – “Lines of Enquiry.”

        My hope is readers at MT may come to like my work, and perhaps appreciate the diversity of opinion, experience, subject and inquiry I plan to bring to it.

        An email you may reach me at is if you would like to talk.

        Best wishes,


  4. I find this article to be badly researched and poorly thought-through. Given the expansion of the contemporary new music audience in the past 2 or 3 decades, one could argue that the opposite is true. I’d say there are more new music composers working today than ever before. I also take issue with his reference to a composer being “a practitioner of sound-art”. Sound art is a genre, not a term to describe musical composition. One would not say, for example, that a painter is “a practitioner of abstract expressionism”, unless they are an abtract expressionist painter.

    Also, the argument that composers should try to please a crowd is simplistic. Most of the great music that I admire was initially composed and performed in obscurity, where the composer had no desire whatsoever to please a crowd.

    • Curtis Perry says:

      Hi Gordon,

      Certainly, there are two sides to this story. If the contemporary new music audience has expanded (do you have any numbers…?), I can’t really say this is the case from my observations here in Ottawa.

      This being said, if it has expanded, why should the contemporary composer who is pure in their pursuit of art care at all, as you say? Why do you note this?

      Is it possible that some composers do care to please, and some don’t, and it’s ok to be both and neither in various scenarios? Is it ethical, even?

      Truthfully, Gordon, I could have catered to these views that place the pursuit of art and the desire to follow an individual artistic vision above all else, but I am fascinated by the examples I cited because they appear to represent a hybridity of stylistic, aesthetic, and sociological goals which can serve to entice new listeners to the kind of artistic work that pure art music composers do.

      Sound art is not a genre, and neither is classical. These are qualifiers, not genres. I understand this challenges the entire classification of your oeuvre, but this is the premise of my argument, and indeed it doesn’t work should you reject it. But your rejection is mere opinion, as my conjecture is also an opinion, of equal validity.

      Perhaps you would like my review of Jesse Stewart’s recent performance at Chamberfest on I can deal in relative obscurity. I do it every day. You can expect a review of eldritch Priest’s “Boring Formless Nonsense” in a future article. I have just contributed a survey of the contemporary music scene in a future “Zoom In” piece that the Canadian League of Composers puts out on occasion.

      I happen to contain multitudes, Gordon. I have personally chosen to challenge the group-think and easy deference to obscurity that “art music” composers cleave to. I have offered a contrarian argument because I am an intellectual, and I challenge you to at least consider the same.

      I understand it is much easier, however, to insult the writer.

      Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to championing the obscure and experimental composers and performers in Ottawa. Not why I do so, given the “encouragement” I receive. We can’t all be as successful and famous as you, but we must carry on.

      Now – please think before you disparage the writer next time.


      Curtis Perry

  5. Hi Curtis,

    I apologize for insulting you, and I do find the work of the composers in your article interesting of course. I don’t have any statistics to cite to back up my argument that the new music audience has expanded over time. You might not observe that first-hand in Ottawa, but I can tell you that in my travels I have seen evidence (yes, anecdotal) that it has.

    Sound art is indeed a genre. Is jazz a genre? Punk rock? Techno? I think these terms are more than just qualifiers.

    I’m not saying that a composer or artist who works in obscurity doesn’t care about reaching a broader audience, what I mean is that the pursuit of reaching that audience should not necessarily play a large role in their practice. Every composer or artist has to promote their work in order for their career to succeed, but intentionally crafting your work to appeal to a large audience doesn’t strike me as an approach that I would recommend.

    How many people attended the premiere performance of Cage’s 4’33″? How many people liked it at the time? How many people attended performances by Maryanne Amacher or Jerry Hunt?


    • Curtis Perry says:

      Hi Gordon,

      Thanks. I happen to entirely agree with you on the order of motivations for the composer of art music – I guess I just wish more people would be compelled to seek out these works.

      I think these people exist – it’s a matter of building audience and presenting artist who, in my opinion, toe the line between art and pop. It’s a hard problem, as you know – or maybe it’s not a problem at all, which is also certainly a valid perspective.

      I assure you that I will be exploring a variety of viewpoints and subjects in the future here at MT, and my hope is that I can capture, among other things, some reviews of premieres that may or may not end up being historic, – as Archer, Cage, and Hunt have ended up being – but are worth relaying to a broader audience so as to compel them to seek out their own unique listening experiences.

      I am thrilled to have people such as yourself, who I admire, reading. It’s a new experience for me. Thanks again.


  6. Dear Curtis,

    Your article neglects to consider the increasingly complex spheres of influence within in which your sampling of ‘today’s composer’ is immersed. Speaking as someone who has taught undergraduate composers in a university music faculty for over ten years, I think I can say (with some degree of authority), that today’s composer is immersed in an increasingly diverse and eclectic musical world – yet one that still has many roots in the 20th century classical music tradition. To be sure, many of the distinctions between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art are becoming blurred. Not only is this due to the widespread influence, availability and diversity of recorded music, but also because of the increasingly hybridized nature of training in the humanities. Today’s young composer listens not only to Radiohead, but to the many ‘academic’ composers who have influenced and inspired Radiohead’s creative members. Today’s young composer listens to the ambient, generative music of Brian Eno but also recognizes that his compositional methods, techniques and generative systems were the direct result of his studying the work of John Cage and Stafford Beer.

    As with Eno and the members of Radiohead, each of your three ‘composers of today’ have benefitted not only from the elevated status and privileges of access granted to those who achieve notoriety or celebrity in the popular music industry, but (perhaps more significantly) they are all beneficiaries of a formal ‘academic’ education. Imogene Heap studied at the BRIT School for Performing Arts & Technology (Croydon, South London). Richard Reed Perry studied at Concordia University (Montreal). Eric Whitacre studied at the University of Nevada and then at Juilliard.

    I would also suggest that if you were to re-situate your three ‘composers of today’ within the context of ‘academic’ electroacoustic music (instead of an orchestral music context), they would appear less as ‘innovators’ and more like ‘celebrity borrowers’ of other people’s technological developments – many of which were developed within academic institutions. Any composer or artist, for example, who uses Max/MSP or Pd software for their compositional work (and your three ‘composers of today’ certainly do), owes some degree of acknowledgement to the software’s developer, Miller Puckette, who is himself a member of the academic world (University of California San Diego) and an active composer of ‘academic music’.

    Beware the spheres of influence and dependency lurking within your subject. Innovation is the result of someone seeing further into the future while standing on the shoulders of others.


    • Curtis Perry says:

      Hi Richard,

      Thanks – this is a well thought out and researched comment I can get behind. These words ring very true to me. I would not, however, “beware the sphered of influence and dependency,” but point out that these composers have successfully bridged their academic education to independent careers, and that’s something to be celebrated. I would contend that staying firmly entrenched in the academy is something to be equally wary of.

      It is especially true that any composer does not work in isolation – especially in the world of electroacoustic music, but in most contexts. There are countless programmers, as you note, contributing to the advancement of electronic music every day. One of the composers I write about, Imogen Heap, has written extensively about her collaborators in the media. I admit my article could have expounded on this fact.

      It’s true that I could have expanded upon these points, and it’s even clearer to me now that the subject demands more than ~900 words – however, I see no essential fault in my conjecture – and this is what it is, conjecture and arguably a fresh point of view.

      I’m considering also your point about “celebrity borrowing” – seen the new record by Steve Reich? “Radio Rewrite” borrows explicitly from Radiohead. Here’s a so-called academic composer guilty of celebrity borrowing.

      Although, I would not call it guilt so much as the natural exchange of ideas, and I would suggest that these “celebrity composers” have something original to say in their music that may very well be borrowed in the future by academics, if it hasn’t already been.

      Lastly, I ask you to reconsider the term “young composer.” Like “woman composer,” it implicitly acknowledges that the adjective is necessary in the face of some standard, hegemonic idea of what a composer is. Is Heap a “woman composer?” Is Richard a “young composer?”

      No, because these terms are horrible – patronizing, destructive, and place artificial ceilings on what sound artists who happen to be in particular social demographics can achieve, and unnecessarily places them in comparison to some presupposed standard of who a composer is.

      Thank you for writing. Good thoughts, and good context.



  7. a fascinating read! Curtis, thank you for the post, and to all the commentators many thanks for the thoughtful responses! You’ve given me lots to consider this (early) morning, I am thrilled to see such debate here……

  8. Alex Polley says:

    I must first begin by stating that I am a colleague of Mr. Perry’s, beginning in Carleton’s MA in Music and Culture program this week. In response to his article, What is a Composer, today? I agree that the Canadian music industry must change in order to endure. Indeed, accessibility to government grants has become increasingly difficult due to competition and academia continues to provide greater funding in the fields of science and technology, as opposed to the humanities.

    In order to thrive, one of the most important factors that composers ought to remember is the audience; the group of people who pay to listen to music new and old, and has expectations which we should at least attempt to meet. Even Classical composers such as Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven recognized their music needed to remain aesthetically pleasing so that they could continue composing. Certainly all three aspired to have continuous work which required many happy patrons. Of course they experimented throughout their music, but they had to do so in a manner that still filled theatres and concert halls.

    The examples that Mr. Perry provides- Richard Reed Parry, Imogen Heap, and Eric Whitacre- have all achieved success by not only pleasing their listeners with dissonant/consonant contrasts we have come to expect, but by intriguing their listeners through experimentation that many composers today and in the past century have sought with zeal. These three have also experimented with modern technology in order to either create new sounds or in the instance of Eric Whitacre, to involve the audience in the creation experience with his virtual choir. These composers have achieved success not solely because they are arguably “good composers,” but in part because they ensured that their compositions remained within the sphere which audience members can still enjoy.

    • M. Villeger says:

      Your comment on funding reminded me a NewYorker cartoon in which a painter sits in front of an empty canvas and says something like “Now that I have funding, I need to find something to say…”
      You conclude with “These composers have achieved success not solely because they are arguably “good composers,” but in part because they ensured that their compositions remained within the sphere which audience members can still enjoy.”
      Let’s be careful because if we keep going for numbers, soon audiences might start to feel being challenged even by massage background music…

      • Alex Polley says:

        M. Villeger,

        Yes composers should challenge their audience, and no they will never please everyone. However I also like to eat, have a roof over my head, and maybe even take a warm shower. These require money, which ought not necessarily come solely from government grants. Instead we can further involve an audience who will pay to listen to our music if only we at least try to make it likeable.

        No, we do not need to “dumb down” the compositions, but we must recognize that there are those outside of our realm of musical intellectuals who do have an opinion (and the cash to support us). In fact, I believe that the public should be educated in musical theory and form and receive other formal musical training, however these topics are not necessarily within school curricula in all provinces (the maritime provinces and a couple of others excepted).

        Sincerely and with all respect,

        Alex Polley

        • M. Villeger says:

          Thank you for your reply. I would argue that great music is hardly intellectual as, regardless of the style, its impact is visceral first. Composers in the past had chances to conduct, write incidental or/and film music and pursue their art.
          As for education, I agree with you and can only regret that our public broadcaster appears to have a long time ago renounced its mission. The quasi absence of late XX century music in our remaining, dwindling classical programs is proof of this cultural obfuscation. So is also its treatment of classical artists and their production should they not fall into the producers pet categories. Will this change?