GETTING PLAYED David Canter recalls the experience of hearing his compositions performed for the first time and the relationship of amateur composers to their compositions.
When contemporary music pulls away from the complexities of Boulez and Stockhausen and embraces the democratic ideas of Cage it opens the way for a much wider involvement of people all forms of music making. Any mix of people with varied musical talents, most of whom have never stepped inside a conservatoire, can compose and perform challenging ‘experimental’ music. That was the idea behind the establishment of COMA, a national organisation set up specifically to enable amateur musicians to participate in contemporary music making. I had been dabbling in musical composition for some time, without any formal training, when a friend who had heard about COMA suggested I get in touch with them. I did that over ten years ago and I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say it changed my life. The core of COMA’s activities is its Summer Schools, where leading composers and performers, such as Michael Finnissy and Joanna MacGregor run seminars and perform but all with supportive and sensitive awareness that those they are working with, although often extremely competent, are not virtuosi. My very first experience of composing a short piece of music and having it played by a professional ensemble was so unexpected that I noted my reactions at the time. I felt that it was rather like a first date in which the relationship between the composer and performers has all the anxiety and excitement of wondering what will happen when you are alone for the first time with a prospective lover. No amounts of clandestine tuition from friend who’ve done it before can quite prepare you for the tumult of emotions brought on by the real things. In my case the performance by the Gemini Ensemble took my breath away. It was the unexpected detail that was so astounding. A simple arpeggio that seemed too predictable on the page soared on the ‘cello. A clarinet riff, which always felt clumsy when I played it, had just the right whimsical effect when professionally performed. For everyone else in the audience this seemed to be just another performance, but for me it was my first chance to get played. But although it was very exciting, I realised afterwards that no performance would ever be quite as I imagined it. The players always make it much more and a little less than the fantasy performance in the composer’s inner ear. The supportive atmosphere showed me that even my piece six bars long could sound like a symphony when played by Michael Finnissy. As part of the COMA ethos I realised that music composed today is never right or wrong. It can achieve its objective or fail. It is never ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but ‘works’ or doesn’t. It is not a branch of mathematics or church ritual in which particular calculations or gestures are ruled out because of logical impossibility or canon law.
I soon saw that this gives the composer an enormous amount of freedom. This freedom opens up the possibility that a composition is a fascinating reflection of the composer, possibly more so than in the past. Even the most minor piece of music can reveal a great deal about what the composers feel and think about themselves. This is the opposite of what has been claimed about the music of today, that is has only a limited emotional vocabulary. The opposite is the case: because the formal properties of music are limitless, the works have to be drawn from the person themselves rather than from any template. Musical jokes can be seen as ways of avoiding the task at hand. More commonly people set their inner conflicts to music and, unwittingly, we enjoy their resolution of them.