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Where have all the composers gone?

Author: Prof. Adrian Walter
Published in Ming Pao on 2 July 2014

While we still celebrate those outstanding creative individuals who can compose music for the concert hall the industry now offers a broader range of opportunities for those skilled in the craft of composition. Someone with such skills is able to ‘craft’ music for a particular end use, be that for a music library, adverts, computer games or one of the many of areas of demand within the creative industries –the musical equivalent of a graphic artist.

The later part of the nineteenth century saw the rise of the artist as ‘hero’– the performer who could transcend physical limitations and whose god like prowess became the source of legends. As the twentieth century progressed so too did the demand to specialize and define yourself by that specialization.

We now celebrate Johann Sebastian Bach as a ‘star’ composer but in his own time he was equally respected as an organist and improviser, as a manager – a jobbing muso! The same story can be repeated for Mozart, Rossini, Mahler, Rachmaninov and Prokofiev. These were highly versatile creative artists and performers, who were also adept business people, entrepreneurs and arts managers.

While we celebrate the genius of Mozart he also spoke the common musical language of his day. There are many little known names who were contemporaries of Mozart who created large amounts of new work for an ever demanding market place. Who has heard of Johann Christian Cannabich composer, director and creator of hundreds of works including symphonies, concerti and occasional music? Much of which indeed influenced the work of Mozart. By taking the ‘star’ out of their temporal and social context we loose the true sense of a thriving creative industry in which many versatile creative artists are involved.

Two great impediments to the 21st century creative mind are the concept of the ‘star’ and the concept of specialization. Two attributes deeply embedded in the modern psyche. The idea of the ‘star’, the competition winner, have more to do with contemporary celebrity culture and business imperatives than creativity and artistic excellence or broader industry demands.

How do children learn to use language? They write stories about the family holiday, their sister’s wedding, the trip to the beach. Are we imagining by asking our children to do such activities that they will become Nobel prize winning authors? What more natural way for a child to use their newly acquired language and communication skills than to use them creatively as a way to express themselves and to explore and understand their worlds.

We need to reclaim the creative space within our educational programmes. We need to see composition again as a creative process for all young music students to explore. The time for specialization and the market to support such specialization has passed. As well as ‘composers’ we need those skilled in the ‘craft’ of composition – versatile, adaptable and creative young artists who are highly skilled but not limited by the specialized nature of that skill.