Death of a Medium

Roger Doyle

Death of a Medium

Composer Roger Doyle on the death of a beautiful art form.

At the end of each year, newspapers, magazines and the media in general ask people what they thought were the best arts events of that year, whether in film, music, literature or theatre, and I find it slightly absurd that there is one branch of the arts where the public does not express the slightest interest in any thing new that happened, in fact, probably never even experienced anything new at all that year. Yet this public is happy to recount fond memories of new versions of very old art as their highlights for the year. Am I talking about Japanese Kabuki theatre? No I’m not. What can it be?

Let me continue my analogy. Imagine somebody being asked what the most memorable event of the year in the film world was and the answer being a new print of Citizen Kane, or somebody interested in literature saying a fantastic leather-bound edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses, or a pop music fan ecstatic about a recently-discovered recording of an early Elvis or Frank Sinatra song. You see what I’m getting at here? What group of art-lovers could live in the past like this? The classical music crowd! Ask them what their favourite events of the previous year, or any year, were and it’s always: a lovely new recording of Mozart’s flute concerto played by so-and-so, or a Mendelssohn symphony conducted by so-and-so, or that Chopin concert at the RDS with that wonderful Russian pianist.

In ‘The House of Classical Music’ lives ‘The Performer’ and ‘The Conductor’. In this fictitious house they live in sumptuous apartments with three bathrooms and large music rooms, and give wonnnnnderful parties in huge dining-rooms. Far away from the noise, in a damp, cramped basement lives ‘The Composer’. You know, they’re the ones who write all the music. There is no heating and the bedsit has just enough room for a table upon which there is music manuscript paper, a felt-tipped pen, and the remains of uneaten stale bread (bear with me here, I’m exaggerating for effect).

Every so often a message is sent to a composer requesting a new piece of music, not because anyone wants to hear it, but because it is state policy to commission a new work every now and then. After a few weeks or months, the dishevelled composer briefly appears at one of the above-mentioned dinners, is insulted, and crumbs are allowed to fall from a nearby table. It is considered an honour for a composer to be asked for a new piece, therefore crumbs are small. The new work is under-rehearsed and is thrown in with Tchaikovsky and Brahms, leaving the audience totally flummoxed. ‘Anyone who doesn’t like Brahms is not a real musician’, is an oft-heard remark. The work is quickly forgotten and is roundly dismissed in the papers.

This modern day ‘House of Classical Music’ bears a resemblance to a similar house that an unfortunate composer by the name of Shostakovich lived in in Stalinist Russia. On 28 January 1936, Shostakovich was undergoing an ordeal of criticism and condemnation that followed the publication of the [change ‘the’ to ‘his’? – I presume he wrote it?] Pravda article ‘Chaos instead of Music’. His true artistic motivations had to be masked and he had to conform to an idealised vision of art, music that had to be nationalistic, popular and understood by everyone. Now, in the twenty-first century, a kind of neo-Stalinism pervades market forces which insist that ‘..if it was any good we’d all be listening to it’. Broadcast and print media join in and the public are fed on a diet of ready-made ‘art-pills’ that have to be swallowed whole (no chewing), are sweet, and that are easily absorbed into the system.

Things were not always like this in the House of Classical Music though. We read much of the celebrated composers of the seventeenth to the early twentieth century, with their patrons and eagerly-awaited new works. Even as recently as 1913 (is that recent?), Stravinsky was carried through the Place de la Concorde in Paris on the shoulders of admiring fans after the premiere of The Rite of Spring (he had escaped through a window after fist-fights had broken out in the auditorium). Those were the days. Composers lived well in the Parisian House of Classical Music.

Nowadays, apart from the ample quarters of the conductors and the performers, this house has been given over to a large museum, tilled with endless performances of the ‘Old Masters’, ‘Your Hundred Best Classical Tunes’, ‘Favourite Opera Arias’, Nutcracker Suite, the RTE Proms, and so on. Concert-promoters, and radio and television, continually wheel out this music from a bygone era and have in effect bolted the door against the new.

Just down the road from the House of Classical Music is the House of Literature. In this house things are different. Almost every room is inhabited by a writer – and nice rooms they are too. Nearly all these writers are getting published, are recognised and respected. They appear in the papers with large interviews and intelligent reviews. There is a writers’ museum but it’s in a different building (Parnell Square, actually). The occupants of the House of Painting are equally well-off, with good income coming from successful careers. But what about the poor composers? Is there anything they can do about their plight?

I am a composer, as you may have guessed, and have experienced with my contemporaries most of what I’ve been talking about, in less exaggerated terms of course. In recent years though some of of us have been elected to Aosdána, a Government body that honours creative artists who have made a major contribution to the arts in Ireland. Those artists elected may apply for a stipend which may be granted upon receipt of financial statements showing that the potential recipient is in need of financial support. About 50 per cent of Aosdána members receive this cnuas, including me, and it is no exaggeration to say that it has saved my life, and the lives of many of my fellow artists in music and other disciplines.

There is also the Contemporary Music Centre, which I use all the time, and which is an information centre – housing scores, CDs and brochures of Irish composers, as well as having a web-site and e-mail. It has also made two CD compilations promoting Irish composers’ music. Both are generously funded by the Arts Council, and, in the 1990s, the composers themselves from their cold bedsits formed a composers’ agency to pester organisations abroad such as publishers and record labels and international press. There are also dedicated groups like Concorde and the newly-formed Crash Ensemble who perform new works of mainly Irish repertoire. So why do I call this essay ‘Death of a Medium’?

Let me tell a story here. As a young composer of twenty-two I won a composition prize organised by the Dublin Symphony Orchestra, part of which was that they would give my work called 4 Sketches a performance. I was very involved in ‘being a composer’, with my beard and long hair, and was steeped in stories of the lives of composers I admired – Debussy and Stravinsky – and imagined myself now taking those first steps towards an international career. In my head I was living in a world of one hundred years ago where structures were in place for composers to succeed. I’ve already mentioned Stravinsky in the Place de la Concorde, but Debussy also became a very known figure mainly through the fiercely divided response to his opera Pelléas et Mélisande. There was a huge following for classical music then and new works were the norm. It was vibrant, alive.

I thought that the Dublin Symphony Orchestra concert would be an ‘event’. I was thrilled at the sound of the orchestra playing my very own work and imagined in my innocence that I would meet the people who mattered in classical music, that I would be recognised in the street, interviewed in the papers, and that notice would be taken generally of my work – a commission or two coming my way.

Now, it is one thing to come to grips with the discovery and control of your own artistic language and to try to be artistically honest with your self, but it is hard, devastating even, to realise as you go along the road of being this thing called a ‘composer’ that the structures I spoke of that existed one hundred years ago have completely disappeared. Audiences have diminished, the world has exploded and changed forever, and all that is left after the dust has settled of a once-living culture is a strange sealed-off limbo world playing the same pieces over and over again. It took me a while to realise that a composer’s career gets stuck in limbo too.

The tragedy is that most artists I know still hope to be ‘discovered’, believing that the quality of their work is enough to make the breakthrough. I suggest that they walk away from the House of Classical Music and try something new. It’s difficult to come to terms with the fact that you’ve trained for more years than a doctor to achieve musically what you are now achieving, yet reap none of the benefits for all your work even after twenty years of composing.

The road I’ve taken is slightly different to the one taken by my composer colleagues. At the same time as my 4 Sketches was being performed I was becoming interested in tape recorders and electronic music. (When RTÉ was to broadcast 4 Sketches on the radio it substituted a boxing match instead at short notice.) Later, on scholarships to Holland and Finland, I studied the technology involved in recording studios and electro-acoustic music. It clearly hasn’t all been bleak – those scholarships changed my life. For instance, after my year in Holland I had enough music and money saved to bring out an LP of my work. I went to a factory in Amsterdam and said ‘please make me five-hundred copies of this’. So I came back from Holland with my first LP under my arm – Oizzo No (‘I don’t know’ in a thick Dublin accent).

My output over the last twenty years has been almost exclusively in the recorded medium. I compose straight to tape in the wonderfully uncharted territory of electro-acoustic music or, nowadays, computer music. So uncharted that RTÉ radio once broadcast a work of mine backwards!

Unlike recordings of music, which, as somebody once said, is like going to bed with a cardboard cutout of Brigitte Bardot, a CD of my kind of music is the event itself, not the recording of the event. I believe this is an empowering thing for a composer. You don’t need to convince anybody to perform your work, as in the classical music situation, and if they perhaps do perform your work, you don’t need to wheedle somebody to make a good recording of the performance. My work is made for CD as a writer’s work is made for the novel. Prior to this, a composer’s work was made for the concert-hall as a writer’s work was made for the stage (needing interpreters to bring it to life).

The CD is an artefact like a book. In order to make all this work a composer needs a studio. At the tender age of thirty-nine I finally had enough money to set up a small recording studio, due in part to receiving the cnuas. That was twelve years ago and those twelve years have been my most productive and most creative. Last year I released my magnum opus, Babel, on a five-CD set, the result of ten years’ work, celebrating musical language in all its diversity.

I am only giving this biographical information to give you some idea of the escape route I’ve taken from the dreaded House of Classical Music, which is in need of urgent repair if not major renovation. It needs electricity for a start! I had a work broadcast (forwards) on (the then) FM3 that was commissioned by the Santa Monica Museum of Art in California. At the end of my piece (for uilleann pipes and electronics) the announcer said: ‘Yes, you are listening to FM3’ – the subtext being: ‘Those lunatic composers. Sorry about that, but we have to broadcast one every so often’. How different the air of California is to the stale air in the House of Classical Music.

Recently I’ve been doing a small bit of teaching at the Music and Media Technology course in Trinity College Dublin. The post-graduate students are incredibly opinionated, confident, talented and open – all at the same time. They all inhale technology as they breathe. As they inherit the twenty-first century I would advise them to steer clear of the routes taken by their predecessors, namely, pestering the National Symphony Orchestra, the National Concert Hall, the radio stations and so on to play and commission more works by Irish composers. I say leave them alone. The people in charge are probably feeling so bad about not doing anything – give them a break. My advice to composers in their twenties is to stay away from the NSO, RDS and radio stations - they don’t want you there (Lyric FM has recently been making an effort).] Form dedicated performance groups. Give concerts in venues not associated with classical music. Record your music. Make use of technology as it becomes cheaper and more powerful. CDs can be made at home now – you don’t even have to go to a factory to get them made. Sell your work on the internet. Pick a European festival of contemporary music and go with your scores printed from your computer and a bag full of one-off CDs made at home. None of this is that expensive. Enter every competition you are eligible for. Find out what schemes the Arts Council has for composers. Compose great music but don’t expect anyone to recognise its greatness. The music on its own will almost never make you a career.

Most of that is fairly obvious. You still haven’t been interviewed in the papers and if a critic came to a concert you and your dedicated musicians gave, you probably got a bad review. Moreover, you’ve been to an all-too-rare concert of major works by an Irish composer and noticed the lack of attention given by the media – whereas weekend sections of the national newspapers devote pages and pages to local writers, painters and film-makers of all ages.

What to do? The bookshops are full of works by Irish and international living writers whilst the record shops mainly cater for the under-sixteens. Imagine walking into a bookshop where the children’s section dominated. A few years ago the Contemporary Music Centre was housed in Liberty Hall and somebody made the suggestion that all us composers should jump off the top to our deaths as a great career move. Being dead, we could all automatically qualify for greatness.

I mentioned in passing that a group of composers in the 1990s dragged themselves out of their freezing bedsits and formed an ‘agency’. This is true, but with great regret I have to tell you that this agency has now been disbanded. It was called Composers’ Ink and since I was largely responsible for its coming into being I will tell you what it was and could have been. It was set up by five composers in 1997, each contributing a few hundred pounds in order to get an office, a second-hand computer and a part-time administrator. Its main objectives were threefold: firstly, it would try to find work for its members by contacting international publishing houses (there is no publisher of contemporary music in Ireland), record labels, ensembles, festival directors, film producers, and so on; secondly, as a publicity and PR agency it would try to raise the public profile of its members; and thirdly, it would co-produce public events, concerts, and multimedia extravaganzas.

An agency like ours had a huge amount of work to do to try and reinstate composers and the perception of their work in the public’s mind. We obtained for ourselves a shared office, which was symbolically like moving out of the House of Classical Music and into the bright vacant House of New Music. A much smaller building of course, but airier. Given time, an agency such as this could have expanded its membership, employed full-time staff, and gradually become a focus for international music activities. I had a daydream fantasy of calls coming in from all over the world saying such things as, ‘Your website really caught our imagination. We’re interested in commissioning an Irish composer for a spectacular outdoor event in the ruins of Pompei. Can you recommend someone?’ or ‘Can you please tell Roger Doyle that because of the sensation his Babel has caused as a result of your efforts, our label is interested in offering him a deal we think he will be very interested in’.

It wouldn’t have taken long for word to get around internationally about such an agency. I believe we have the composers of quality to sustain it in all age groups. After being in existence for about six months Composers’ Ink received a small revenue grant from the Arts Council on condition that we spent the money on concerts. Furthermore, we obtained a small capital grant from the Arts Council towards office equipment. We were, needless to say, very excited. In September 1998, we held a weekend festival of three contrasting concerts in three different venues that received good press coverage. ‘Composers in Control’ was the Irish Times review heading. ‘Composers’ weekend a success’ was the Evening Herald review headline. ‘Ink from New Wells’ was the title of a Sunday Tribune feature on the group. In January 1999 the Arts Council discontinued its support with no explanation. We dug into our pockets again and struggled on for a few months. In spring 2000 our application was again turned down. We disbanded.

Getting back to the ‘If they are all so good, why don’t we know them’ syndrome. The days are well gone when the worth of a work of art was enough in itself to make it well-known. Nowadays you need ‘the oxygen of publicity’, as Margaret Thatcher once called it. On the one hand you could say that there is so much artistic activity vying for the attention of a confused public that we need to ram products down their throats in order to help them decide how to spend their spare cash – and the organisations with large advertising budgets available for this are doing a terrific job (sometimes, it would seem, independently of the quality of their product). On the other hand, it’s obvious that if you find yourself without the support of a body with access to publicity (like RTÉ in the case of composers) the public will probably have already spent their hard-earned money on the well-publicised concerts. Even if they happen by chance to hear about one of our concerts, it won’t have the stamp of quality that advertising seems to guarantee.

The knock-on effect is that audiences, through sheer volume of choice, will gradually lose interest in the new and swim in the waters of the familiar forever, bolstered by the media, resulting in such grotesqueries as the ‘Coffee Concert’ and ‘Dinner Classics’ that I’ve heard on Dutch and US radio. Music to eat by. Music to calm road rage. Music to overhear while shopping.

This grisly death of a beautiful art form is unique to classical music. Furthermore, the longer the public leaves it to attend concerts of new music or hear CDs of same, the more distant they become from it. As time passes the music changes too and before long the public will be even more alienated and understandably probably won’t like what they hear. For many, going to a concert of new music is akin to the first experience of cinema one hundred years ago. Audiences were terrified and couldn’t understand simple plots because there were ‘edits’, and edits don’t happen in real life. As people became more familiar with the syntax of this new artform they came to like it. I believe that as the public become less familiar with the syntax of new music, their views on quality, inevitably, will be mostly inaccurate, as they will, through habit, be expecting the sweet pill to take with dinner.


First published in JMI: The Journal of Music in Ireland, Vol. 1 No. 1 (Nov–Dec 2000), p. 5.

Published on 1 November 2000

Roger Doyle is a Dublin-based Irish composer working in electronic music.

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