Decomposing on the city streets

Will Upton discusses the down-and-dirty economics of music

The number of down and outs on the streets of Oxford is disconcerting and a constant reminder of the precariousness of privilege. I myself was brought down to street level by a wayward paving stone recently, and got up to find someone frighteningly reminiscent of a famous British composer I met recently taking the opportunity to ask me for spare change. Our new culture secretary, Maria Miller, might have appreciated the irony of the situation; she recently described her job as to teach artistic organisations to get better at asking for money.

The idea of a composer begging on the street does not sit well with our ideal. As a country we have an ambivalent attitude to Art for Art’s sake; we love the idea of the autonomous, bearded, belligerent composer slaving away at an original work in a garret, but in general we do not like the result, or that the state often has to pay for it. But I wonder what effect this government is going to have on our imaginary model of the creative artist.

One thing Miller’s statement did was to give new meaning to the dreary refrain the arts must learn to stand on their own two feet, conjuring the image of a dog taught to beg or a dolphin balancing a ball on its nose. Often the talent to manipulate sound does not come hand in hand with a gift for self-promotion; we might soon be getting used to a new generation of slick, suited, yuppie-type composers with the business acumen of Sir Alan Sugar and the creativity of Justin Bieber. These are obviously stereotypes, and many talented composers have no trouble selling their wares, but I can tell you that talent is not a pre-requisite for success in the world of musical funding. I am not saying that composers should be immune from market realities, but the hidden message in Miller’s statement is that the responsibility for funding bodies to identify musical substance is to be shirked.

One positive outcome is that the day might soon be gone when, after the premiere of a new work, one can expect to see the composer waddle onto the stage in socks and sandals to deliver a few mumbled words and a shambolic bow. The downside is that artistic merit cannot be judged on the grounds of how successful a composer is at marketing a musical concept.

In a week when it was revealed that the majority of people want to have Frank Sinatra singing My Way played at their funeral I was asked to collect favourite pieces of music from some great musicians and composers. Ironically, the song would be a good comment on many of them who would probably be better off, happier and with more work and fewer failed relationships had they done things any other way. Musicians need egos, albeit not necessarily on the George Michael scale; they need self-belief, especially if they are working in contemporary classical music where the rewards are slim. Increasingly they also need a good sales pitch and a trendy idea. If you travel the Art for Art’s sake route, there are very few places where you can attract a reasonable audience. However, if we abandon it, we might as well end every funeral with My Way.


Will’s Weekly Recommendation

Last week I recommended Takemitsu’s Garden Rain, the most enigmatic of my suggestions so far. The piece sounds remarkably static to ears untrained to follow musical lines that have no perceptible goal. In Garden Rain one is treated to a subtle shifting sound world that invites one to listen to it from myriad perspectives. This week my recommendation is one of my favourite pieces of music: Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question.

PHOTO / Bob Farrell