Composing for Amateurs: a Professional Opportunity

me for SLIDE

This article was first presented at the Making Music conference in NovemberĀ 2006 held at the RNCM, under the title “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad World of New Music”. It was subsequently published inĀ the February 2007 edition of SPNM New Notes.

Composing for Amateurs: a Professional Opportunity

Having written a work for chorus and orchestra which won a British Composer Award and was premiered in front of an audience of 15OO, CHRIS LONG argues that professional composers should forget about outreach and take advantage of the fantastic opportunities that can come with writing for amateurs.

Why is it the ambition of the majority of composers to write for professional ensembles? Why is amateur music making, apart from some notable exceptions, largely bypassed by the contemporary music making world? Of course, there are some organisations which actively promote amateur music making. Both COMA and Making Music, the representative organisation for voluntary music societies, actively promote new works.

However, when it comes to young and emerging composers, the professional commission remains the holy grail. And yet the soul of British music making is the thousands of voluntary musicians, from various professions and walks of life, who come together to make music, often paying subscription fees for the privilege. Surely the dedication and passion for music embodied in such societies and their audiences should make composing for them a primary aim for today’s composers, rather than a stepping stone to professional commissions.

What makes a commission from a professional ensemble more desirable to a composer than an amateur commission? The most obvious musical reason would be the higher technical ability of professional performers and the creative freedom this brings. There may be other reasons; a higher commission fee, prestige and publicity, or a sense of working at the cutting edge. However, composing for amateurs does not necessarily mean that creativity music compromised.

If we ignore the influence of a conductor or artistic director, the only musical difference between amateur and professional ensembles is technical ability. And when it comes to amateur music making, it is surprising how many highly experienced musicians are involved in amateur music making.

Of course there can be huge variations in the standard of amateur musicians, but this should create positive compositional challenges. Technically difficult music is not necessarily good music, and, if desired, it is possible to achieve complex results through relatively simple means.

I would like to share an experience that has changed my opinion of amateur music making and has changed the course of my compositional activities. During 2005 I took part in the Adopt-a-Composer scheme funded by the PRS Foundation and run by SPNM in association with Making Music. Each year the scheme pairs up six composers with six voluntary music societies who then embark on a year long collaboration that results in the performance of a new work. I was paired with the City of Birmingham Choir.

When beginning this project I was asked to compose a 15-minute work that would open a concert at Symphony Hall. The other work on the program was Verdi’s Requiem and the CBSO were to accompany (which just goes to show the variety of voluntary music societies, from such high profile ensembles down to small ensembles and youth groups).

My initial concerns were with technical ability. Yet this became less important as I grew to know the choir and to attend rehearsals and performances. Once I had established limits of vocal range, the subject matter of the music, and it’s communication to both performers and audience, became my main concern. There were some technically tricky moments, but the openness of the singers and their determination to get it right along with the expertise of conductor Adrian Lucas dispelled any reservations I may have had.

Did I compromise my compositional process? No. I composed differently, with a different focus and a different outcome I mind. Did the quality of performance detract from the music? Quite the reverse. On performance night there was a sense that we were in this together. We didn’t know how an audience who had paid to hear Verdi would react to a contemporary work. As one member of the choir put it, ‘they have come to be entertained’ and the pre-concert talk was aimed at doing this, a vital influence on the audience’s perception of the new work.

The reaction of the audience was overwhelming and stands as one of the highlights of my composing career to date. It was all the more moving when many audience members I spoke to admitted to never having listened to, or even having actively avoided contemporary music.

Amateur musicians understand and respect their audience and work to ensure they remain faithful. Yes, the repertoire of the average voluntary choral society is, by necessity, reserved. Over the Christmas period concerts serve up a staple diet of Handel’s Messiah and candlelit renditions of favourite carols. Such concerts provide much needed revenue. They are also demanded by their audience, often being highlighted in the calendar of local communities. Contemporary music audiences have long been on the decline, yet, in amateur music-making composers have the opportunity to reach new audiences, to challenge, to excite, and to become involved with people and communities who care passionately about music. If composers neglect the amateur music making world, they also risk bypassing potential new audiences.

So what have I learnt from the Adopt-a-Composer experience? That spirit, commitment and passion can be as equally important as purely musical concerns, that ‘amateur’ does not mean a lack of quality, that there are new audiences open to the challenge of contemporary music and that working with voluntary musicians who are passionate about the challenge of new music can be more uplifting than working with professionals.

Chris Long, February 2007