You’re not alone: being a composer in the age of social media

If your idea of a composer is one of a lonely, garret-dwelling, wine-swilling, isolated, tortured soul, responding to the sorrows and joys of the world with music that “means” something, and hoping that enough people like it to pay him some pittance to stay alive to write the next piece, then only some of this is true.

For example, there are MANY women composers.

As for the rest of the image above, the most inaccurate is the fact that we as composers work in a lonely vacuum, toiling only with the noises in our heads, thinking that what we write is the final word in how the music should be played – or interpreted.

The fact is, we all have something to learn with each piece we write. Not only that, if we are arrogant enough to think that our written ideas are to be played exactly as notated, without us considering the limitations the instruments for which we are writing, then perhaps we deserve the silence that follows our usually noisy announcement that we have completed a new work.

Writing for a specific instrument, or a specific player, requires specialist knowledge. I’ve been guilty, as have others, of writing impossible double stops for string instruments, impossibly fast mallet changes for percussionists, impossible fingering patterns for pianists etc. etc. and it occurs infrequently enough that I can feel I know a few things, but often enough to remind me that I don’t know everything (and what a cashing bore I would be if I did!).

I’ve been fortunate enough in my compositional career to work with some extremely talented (and patient) performers, who see in me and/or my music, something worth encouraging. I’m grateful for this. A recent example of bringing work to patient fruition is my collaboration with brilliant American violist, Brett Deubner.

This work began to be written in 2009, when I met Brett, through a mutual acquaintance, over Facebook. We spent quite a long time discussing an idea I had to compose a piece in memory of my friend, Daniel Pearl, who was murdered by the Taliban in 2002. Daniel had played, among other things, a violin, so I’d been planning to compose a violin concerto. Brett suggested a viola concerto as it is was what he played and was interested in promoting as an instrument. He also suggested that the piece be performed by viola and winds, which would allow it to stand out a little from the rest of the repertoire.

And thus, the piece began.

Upon its completion, it proved hard to get a wind ensemble to play it, but, finally, The Grainger Wind Symphony in Melbourne wanted it, and I was able, in 2011, to bring Brett out to Australia to play it with Grainger. He took the work back to the USA and had a difficult time persuading some of the ensembles there to play it until The Omaha Symphonic Winds gave the US premiere in 2012. In all this time we were in contact, making small changes to improve the work, making it easier to fit under the fingers, sorting out better tempos, and a number of other technical and artistic considerations came to the fore, as the piece, a kind of mashup or traditional Irish, Middle Eastern, and modern jazz music kept being polished.

After going through it one last time, the piece was ready for its first professional performance, in Costa Rica. The winds players of the Orquesta Sinfónica de Heredia not only gave two, superb performances but also recorded the work for their upcoming CD. It was tremendously exciting to know this was going on, with me half a world away and with no input other than the notes that everyone had already received. Even more so than when a piece of mine is premiered with me in the audience, it was an exercise in trust and friendship.

The video below is the outcome of several years of Facebook, email, Messenger, Skype and telephone communication, all to knock spots off the piece, or share the excitement and frustrations of creating a new work with a friend from the other side of the world. You never work alone if you don’t want too. It is worth listening to those who may know better than you. You should always assume that someone else does indeed know more than you – about everything; it’s a good way to learn.



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