Composing by Numbers

Composing by Numbers

People plus music: it’s a simple formula for compelling television programmes, but why does screening creativity in music defeat even the most imaginative producers and directors, asks Christopher Fox.

Sometimes I meet people who I don’t know and they ask me what I do. I tell them I am a composer and then they say, ‘But what’s your music like?’ It’s a hard question to answer; what is any music like? It’s easy to say that it’s mostly for small ensembles, or that it tends to be broadcast late at night on classical music radio stations; what’s much more difficult is to talk about how it sounds. Hardest of all with any music is to explain why it might be enthralling, moving, lame, powerful.

If I’m bad at this sort of explanation mass audience television is even worse. Programmes in which musicians perform and programmes about music history all work well enough, but screening the processes of creativity and critique in music seems to defeat even the most imaginative producers and directors. We are regularly offered programmes in which painters, poets, playwrights and sculptors are filmed making their work, with attendant commentators interrogating its meaning, but almost nothing about the making of new music. So when a pair of BBC programmes came along in the summer of 2009 claiming, but failing, to do just this it was even more frustrating.

What made Classic Goldie especially lamentable was that its ingredients were so promising. Goldie is one of the most innovative and charismatic musicians of the last two decades, creator of dark, complex drum’n’bass epics, and the BBC had commissioned him to create a new work with the cameras there to record the process. The right ingredients, but the wrong recipe; the main protagonist in Classic Goldie was never allowed to do what he does best. It would have been fascinating to watch Goldie making a new track and to hear him talk through the process by which he refines the sonic materials of his music into the tracks which eventually emerge. Instead he was given six months and a couple of classically trained minders to create a piece for choir and orchestra for the BBC Promenade Concerts.

The result demeaned almost everyone involved. The BBC obviously lacked conviction in their commission: would a ‘proper’ composer have been given so little time to create a new piece? And why schedule it for something called ‘Evolution! A Darwin-inspired extravaganza for kids’, rather than in one of the main evening concerts? Goldie’s minders, the choral conductor Ivor Setterfield and composer Anna Meredith, were well-intentioned but ham-strung by the requirement that Goldie should communicate his compositional intentions to his performers in staff notation, even though he can’t read music. Did anyone think about other ways of working, perhaps an extended series of collaborative workshops? There was no evidence that they had.

Sessions in which members of the orchestra demonstrated what they could do were embarrassing too – all they knew were bits out of the repertoire (tellingly, one of the more up-to-date being the horn player’s bold display of the hand-stopping glissando from Britten’s Serenade) and their ownership of these fragments seemed about as intimate as a factory-worker’s relationship with her bit of the production line. As time passed the principal subject became Goldie’s mounting anxiety. He knew how he wanted his music to sound but not how to use notation to achieve it. In one of the most poignant scenes he tried to explain the richness of the sounds in his head and was told that he would have to find them on the piano. His minders looked on bemused as he desperately crashed at the keys.

And why Goldie? Because in 2008 he had been one of the stars in the BBC’s Maestro, a series in which celebrities were taught the rudiments of conducting and then put in front of a series of compliant ensembles to try them out; it was like watching sheep doing their best to make the shepherd look good. In popular culture the role of the conductor is the most potent metaphor for the hierarchical structures of classical music, but Maestro was no more a series about music than Big Brother has been a series about surveillance. The real subject of both is the construction and manipulation of screen personalities; Goldie was exciting to watch because of the disparity between his abundant musicality and the conventions of orchestral conducting and, most important of all, because this disparity periodically triggered volcanic rages, the stuff on which reality TV ratings are built.

Yet it doesn’t have to be like this. As a boy in the late 1960s I got a sense of what being a composer might be about from Music Now, a documentary series on BBC Two which introduced the music and personalities of emerging composers like Peter Maxwell Davies, John Tavener and Cornelius Cardew. It changed my life and in idle moments ever since I’ve day-dreamed documentaries in which my music became the subject. Much more recently the BBC Four series Sacred Music managed to explain not only how Perotin was able to invent counterpoint but also why this was such an achievement; the explanation made the music sound even more extraordinary. Yet Sacred Music’s approach was deceptively straightforward: good presenters, who knew what they were talking about, and great music, given a hearing.

People plus music; it’s a simple formula for compelling television programmes, but in Classic Goldie the music never had space to speak, boxed in, like its makers, by the mis-match between Goldie’s creative personality and received ideas about how classical music is supposed to come together. My worry, particularly in the United Kingdom of Crossover and Celebrity, is that we will get more Classic Goldie and less Sacred Music. I suspect that at the heart of the problem lies a fundamental lack of trust, not only in television’s capacity to inform and its audience’s capacity to be informed, but also in music itself.

Perhaps music has been so thoroughly commodified that programme-makers no longer believe that musical creation is anything more than the assembly of a collection of presets. Add a different voice and an unfamiliar personality to an existing song and you have the X-Factor; introduce Goldie to some orchestral and choral effects and he will make ‘classical’ music. Or perhaps programme-makers are wary of revealing how real music is made for fear of upsetting an audience comfortable in its delusion that putting notes into sequencers is composing and that playing along to Rock Band is performing? Whatever the reasons the consequence is that younger generations today, their lives saturated in music, probably know less about its making than any of their predecessors. ‘What’s your music like?’ It’s on iTunes.

Published on 1 December 2009

Christopher Fox is a composer, teacher and writer on new music.

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