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LINES OF ENQUIRY | What is a composer, today?

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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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