Thursday, May 10, 2012

A Statistic for Composers

I think it was Robert Graves, the English poet, scholar and historical novelist (he wrote I Claudius which was made into a very successful TV series) who described the activity of poets with a metaphor. A poet is like an oyster into whose shell a grain of sand has intruded. The oyster, in order to ease the irritation, slowly encloses it with layers of nacre and the result is a pearl. Yes, the implication is rather narcissistic if viewed unkindly. But there is no reason why many readers cannot enjoy the final result. Music composition used to be more widely social than this and there are several reasons for that. All a poet needs is a sheet of paper and a pen and a little time to contemplate. A composer needs a lot more: performers willing to learn to play the music, a concert impresario willing to schedule a performance, a suitable concert venue and above all, an audience. Much of this is still available, but the audience seems to be fading away. This is brought home by a statistic revealed in an interview in The Guardian with the composer George Benjamin. Here is the relevant excerpt:
When we meet he is in some despair over a statistic related to him by his publisher concerning the Performing Rights Society. "The PRS is responsible for collecting all the royalties for all types of music in Britain, and the royalties involved are immense, something like £600m a year. And, apparently, the whole of classical music within copyright – so from Strauss and Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Britten, through till today – is responsible for only one third of 1% of those sums."
He opens his eyes wide and waits for the statistic to sink in. "I'm not talking about difficult or challenging contemporary music, I'm talking about the last hundred-and-so years of music, including Bartók and Vaughan Williams and Messiaen and Copeland and Gershwin and so on. I know it's a dry, statistical fact, but it does say something. It says that, for a huge number of people, classical music is just closed: it's a very peripheral activity within our society, I fear."
One third of one percent... Including all the 'classical' music written in the last 100 years. I suppose that must be accurate, because all of classical music has been estimated to be about 3% of the whole music business. The whole interview is worth reading as it traces Benjamin's career from the early days when he was caught up in the heyday of the avant-garde, studying in Paris with Messiaen and exploring the world of microtones. But he ran into a wall and his early productivity fell drastically. As he says:
"At the end of my teens I felt rather lost. You see, you're free as a composer today, which means that a huge amount is possible – a colossal, terrifying amount. You write one note, and there's not only 12 other notes (or more if you write in microtones) for the next note, but you think of different registers and timbres. The choices multiply to the billions within a few notes and, obviously, that's impossible to work within."
As Taruskin points out, a large part of the avant-garde project was maximizing resources. In that sense it followed on certain aspects of 19th century trends. But maximizing resources to what end? I was in a seminar once on experimental music and a composer had presented a piece he wrote for percussion in which the rhythmic structure was derived from the irregular overtone structure of the percussion sounds with a mathematical transformation. Once I thought I understood how that worked I asked, "that is the syntax, but what is the semantic?" I meant, ok, I see how the grammar works, but what is the meaning?

I think audiences go to concerts and listen to music not so much for the delights of the structure, but for the thrill of the sounds and their expressive content. This was the iceberg on which the avant-garde foundered. The structure was everything, the expression nothing, or incidental. Let's hear some of George Benjamin's music. Here is a piece from 1980, when he was twenty years old, a setting of the poem "The Snow Man" by Wallace Stevens for soprano and chamber orchestra. I chose this same poem for a very modest song for voice and guitar.

Here is a more recent work from 1998-99.


What sort of listener can enjoy this music? One with a sensitivity to the sounds, familiar with the 'language' (music isn't a language, but it does have a kind of grammar to it), with the ability to focus on the long-term structure and development and do so in an interrupt-free environment. Given all this, it should be quite possible to listen to this music with real enjoyment. The problem is that there are very few listeners these days possessing these qualities! According to the statistic, one third of one percent in fact. Not of the population as a whole, but just of that part of the population that seeks out and enjoys music.

So if you are a composer, I think you need to be asking yourself, what do you want your music to do? Who do you want it to reach? And how in hell are you going to compete with Lady Gaga? Or Mozart? This is the result of a multi-media, iPoded world of an infinite variety of music.

Perhaps all a serious composer can do is, like the oyster, enclose a few grains of irritating sand with a few layers of beauteous nacre...

UPDATE: Just minutes after posting this, I ran into some information that says that the numbers aren't nearly so bad for classical music. Well, good! Andy Doe at Proper Dischord points out that:
Page 5 of the IFPI‘s  2010 Digital Music Report says the digital music market was worth $4.6bn, or 29% of total trade revenues. That means the global recorded music industry was worth $15.9bn, not $12bn. These are wholesale numbers. Total retail numbers are almost exactly 50% higher.
The article estimates classical music’s share of the market to be 0.3%, or $36m. This is even less accurate. You have to pay to see the IFPI’s 2010 genre figures, but Music & Copyright show similar numbers here. They put classical music’s share of the global market at 5.5%, or $1.4bn retail (2009 wholesale numbers here).
He is critiquing a different article than the one I quoted from above. But no matter. I like 5.5% much more than I like a third of one percent.


Nathan Shirley said...

Working out the syntax while completely neglecting the semantics- that's a very good way of describing the problem with so much modern (or not so modern now) "classical" music.

Aesthetics aren't part of the equation.

Some people have learned the lesson and are beginning to follow their ear when they compose, but so many of these ears have long ago atrophied.

The more composers follow their ears the better their music will get. Audiences have long ago turned their backs on modern classical music, and who could blame them? It will take time, and some truly great music to bring them back.

Bryan Townsend said...

I used to be a real advocate of contemporary music of the bloop bleep, flutter, plink-plink variety. You know, "pointillist". But the further that time recedes, the more I wonder what I saw in it. There is a distressing tendency for all that music to have an identical aesthetic effect -- and not a pleasant one!

Bryan Townsend said...

Do you know that scene in "Green Card" where Gerard Depardieu sits down to the piano and, apparently, improvises an avant-garde piece? Hilarious and very disturbing if it occurs to you that even after he plays, we still have no idea whether he is a composer, or just faking.

Nathan Shirley said...

Yes that is a funny scene, only because it's so true.

Stravinsky is one of my favorite composers, but his life and music baffled me for a long time. I could never understand how such a great composer could have gone so wrong. To me he really represents what happened to classical music, where IT went wrong and why. He was very self conscious and always wanted to stay on the cutting edge of music. He was amazingly creative and talented and studied with one of the best from the older school which he mastered. He then transformed that style into something completely new and wonderful...

Well, I can't see a quick way to sum up this comment so I'll stop. But basically Stravinsky set a trap which he himself eventually fell into, and this perfectly reflects what was happening to classical music every step of the way.

Oedipus Rex is my last favorite of Stravinsky's works, and I think in some ways the tragedy of Oedipus is not unlike the tragedy of Stravinsky, and of all classical music. If I were an academic, I might turn the idea into a book!

Bryan Townsend said...

Two books that I think offer some clues to what is a very gnarly historical problem are _Art: A New History_ by Paul Johnson, in which he talks about the transformation of art into fashion by Picasso, among others. In music, the book to read is the last volume of Richard Taruskin's _Oxford History of Western Music: The Late 20th Century_. Impossible to summarize here, but there is the same tendency to constant innovation. It is interesting that current artists such as Damien Hirst are so successful in material terms, while even a very popular composer like Philip Glass earns far less, I'm sure...