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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.      


Getting Played  

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