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Sonic Broom: 
The Composers Talk Back!


When I was first contacted about Sonic Broom-my first brush with the broom so to speak - the questions seemed simple enough. Why do you compose? Who do you compose for? The first of these-'why do you compose'-I've always been a bit suspicious of, for the mere fact that someone thinks this question is worth asking, implies there is something peculiar or purposeless about the activity. 

If I had been faced with that question I probably would have been tempted to say that like J.S. Bach-who also had too many children-I compose because I need the money. On one level there is truth in this, for next to an impending deadline, there's nothing like running out of money to sharpen the mind.

But on another level, this is absurd, for if I was in composition simply for the money, I wouldn't have lasted in the business 20 minutes, let alone 20 years. No, there is some mysterious, compelling force that makes us put pen to paper in what has got to be one of the most challenging, frustrating, yet ultimately rewarding activities humankind has devised.

The other question-'Who do you compose for?-is deceptively curly. You would think it could fetch a one word response, but for a freelance composer it is not that simple.

Firstly, you have to be true to yourself as a composer. If you are not, there won't be any job satisfaction, and believe me, there are easier ways to be bored and earn money at the same time than composition.  Secondly, you have to be able to please a performing organisation and its audience, for if you don't, you won't hear talk of that magical word-commission. Thirdly, and here's the real crunch, you have to be able to please absolutely everyone all of the time, for you never know who is next going to be sitting on the Creative New Zealand panel that determines whether you get cash to go with your commission. 

Actually, that's not quite true about pleasing everyone, for the one type of person you won't find on an Arts Council panel is a member of the general New Zealand public. You'll usually find fellow composers, academics, performers, critics-anyone but a representative of the actual audience you are writing for.

Well, there it is. If you've ever wondered how long a speech by a freelance composer could last without reference to 'The Great Provider', that 'filler of begging bowls', Creative New Zealand, you now know. The answer of course is not long, for the organisation looms large in our art form, where alternative sources of income are rare.

Now I have a lot I'd like to say about Creative New Zealand, and some of it is even factual. But like Helen Clarke when push comes to shove, I find myself wanting to speak in its favour rather than singing along with the demolition chorus. I guess my view on Creative New Zealand is a bit like Winston Churchill's view on democracy. You know the one: 'Democracy is the worst form of Government, except for all the others'. 

I've ranted and raved along with the best of them over the years about the Arts Council, and would like to reserve the right to continue to rant and rave because with all the practice I've had, I've got quite good at it-but I do have to say, the current Creative New Zealand system of assessment seems as fair as it has ever been.

If I could make a single complaint, it would be that the system doesn't encourage long-term, full-time commitment to the Arts. Having funding available directly to individual artists only on a project-by-project basis is great if you want to dip in and out of the Arts from another source of income. But if you're committed to full time practice, it can make for a precariously piecemeal existence and virtually impossible to plan ahead. I can't help wondering how different the arts funding system might have been had it been designed by full-time practising artists.

Well that's almost half my time gone already and I feel I've barely got going.

For instance I've been itching for a while to have a decent crack at what I consider to be the most negative influence on creativity today, even if it does mean I get parboiled, grilled and toasted by other members of this panel. I'm referring of course, to the dreaded 'i' word-innovation. Not, I hasten to add, the innovation with a small 'i' that we all used to know, love and cherish, but innovation with the big 'i', the word that has become an artistic movement in its own right-'Innovationism'.

Believe me, I have no wish to ignite Style Wars 3. I'm acutely aware that trying to slip a comment against innovationism through this forum would be like trying to slip daybreak past a rooster. What I'm really wanting to say can be framed positively. One of the wonderful things about this 'Sonic Broom' is that it seems to be a celebration of the diversity of New Zealand composition. And isn't that really what creativity is all about-individuals exploring their own byways, rather than having a common goal thrust upon them?

I think what really concerns me with this renewed 'worship of the new' is that when I started composing in the 1970s, the biggest challenge was to find an audience-any audience at all. The excesses of the avant-garde had essentially wiped out our public, and to a large extent the interest of performers as well.

Slowly over the intervening years, composers have won an audience back, and I don't know what this means to anyone else, but to me it feels marvellous. Someone out there actually wanting to listen to what I am writing-wow, a feeling to be treasured. I would hate us to lose this in the name of 'newness'. 

In Christchurch, we have a couple of critics known locally as Tweedle-doe and Tweedle-dell. Both have been reviewing since the mid-Jurassic period and both, I am convinced, are born-again innovationists.  Tweedle-doe rides a very high horse and Tweedle-dell, well to be honest I'm not certain what sort of horse he rides.

Anyway, what I've observed over the 30 years they've been taking potshots at my work, is a correlation between particularly Tweedle-doe's reaction to a composition and the number of performances it subsequently receives. Of course it's early days, but you guessed it, works that receive a peppering from Tweedle-doe are more likely to receive further performances than works that receive his approval-and vice versa. In fact I'm thinking of investing in a stamp to overprint 'as roasted by Tweedledoe' on certain scores as a means of increasing their chances for longevity.

So what is going on here? Why should a good review, figuratively speaking, amount to a kiss of death for a work, and a bad review be a passport to longer life? The question is rhetorical, for as anyone who has ever tried to make a living out of creative endeavour knows-that's pretty much the way its always been.

Consider this: A busy critic can attend up to possibly a hundred concerts a year. An average concertgoer might take in four or five. Under these circumstances, how likely is it that the critic will carry the same perceptions and interests as an average concertgoer? Obviously not very. Incidentally for the record: in case anyone thinks I'm being cruel to critics, in a former life, I too was a member of the music police. 

As you've probably gathered, the issues that dominate my life and work as a composer, tend to be pragmatic, and not surprisingly. With four young children to feed and clothe from my earnings as a composer, I have to retain a focus on the practical. 

Part of the excitement for me of being a composer over the years has been the challenge of taking a traditionally not-for-profit hobby and turning it into a not-for-profit career. Whether I've compromised my soul artistically to achieve this I'll probably never know. It doesn't feel like it-though of course Tweedle-doe may well argue otherwise.

On a purely academic plane, it would be fascinating to see how my style as a composer might change if financial considerations were taken out of the mix. But that's only likely to occur if I win lotto and if I do win lotto, the even more fascinating question is-would I still compose?

Like Charles Ives, I know I've left behind an unanswered question or two, so in my remaining few seconds, I'll attempt some quick responses. 

Why do I continue to do what I do? On some days I have absolutely no idea. On other days I do know - it's because I love it. I am addicted to the creative act. If it wasn't composing, it would have to be something else with creativity in it. 

How do I see the role of the New Zealand composer in the current social and cultural climate? Personally, I'd have been happier if role was in the plural-roles. I think we have a number of roles that can only be filled by ensuring we have composers with a diversity of expression and of course a range of weight or 'gravitas'. Heaven forbid we become a nation of light composers or heavy composers or too-much-of-any-one-thing composers. 

Finally, ideally, how would I want things to be if I could initiate change? 

This reminds me of a song I once wrote called 'Gardener's Heaven' that had words in it like 'Up here it only rains at night/the compost has a perfumed smell/there's not a dandelion in sight/the weeds have all be sent to hell'. Great for a while, but if you really are a gardener, probably quite boring in the long run.

The same may well be true of composer's heaven, but in the spirit of this forum, I shall endeavour to answer the question with honesty and with gravity. 
Decree Number One: In my freelance composer's heaven, all Arts Council employees would receive the same salary as the Arts Council offers to artists, and would have to compete for this salary in the same way the Council obliges artists to. Experts predict this should result in the single most rapid improvement of conditions for artists in the history of Western civilisation.
Decree Number Two: In composer's heaven, all critics would be banished of course, unless they agree to psychologically corrective treatment, whereby they would learn only to review works for what they are, rather than for what they are not. Failing this, a really repentant critic may stay providing he or she learn to write only unadulterated praise.
Decree Number Three: Any arts administrator caught using the words 'excellence and innovation' in the same sentence, shall be compelled to listen to the complete works of the avant-garde-repeatedly.
Decree Number Four: No-one present at Sonic Broom shall take any of what I have said more than half seriously, and to those who are still awake, thank you for listening.


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