Is this my last choral work?

My recently completed works, Songs of Fear and Aftermath were performed by ROCS on Saturday. It completes an evolution of choral writing on my part. Initially most of my choral writing was quite separate from my songwriting, with a small overlap being my non-song a cappella things, and the odd silly song (Lucky Person, arranged for choir and concert band, 2001). If I consider the 3-year intervals of the Choral Composition Competition and its predecessor, I moved from setting a contemporary poet in 2004 (Pomes, now Antipomes), to the IP mess that occurred following Pomes leading me to set long-dead poets in 2007 (Daffodils, Who’s in the Next Room?), to setting a poet friend’s poetry in 2010, since I prefer working with contemporary text where possible (Rocks), and dabbling with setting my own very short text (The Dream), to an extended composition on my own very short text in 2013 (Moments), to this year’s long work set to a substantial text of my own that is partly an evolution of my songwriting.

This work brings together various threads of my art. Songwriting is there in Naiveté Stripped and Echoes of Fear. A small amount of beautiful a cappella is there in the movement Realising Vulnerability. I’m famous for rounds, and Echoes of Fear was written for one singer with a looper originally, and therefore effectively builds up like a round. Realising Vulnerability also continues an idea I started exploring with Moments, which is the building of a phrase over multiple iterations. They are a modern and more serious take on the “cumulative song” idea (eg. Twelve Days of Christmas).

Naiveté Stripped also explores the use of vocal flexibility as substitute for instruments, with the use of “dn” for piano or acoustic guitar substitute, and “wom” and “daw” for more sustained, possibly synthetic instruments. I’ve been exploring a cappella arrangements of songs originally written with instrumental accompaniment for the last five years, with the infamous “dn” syllable first appearing in my 2012 arrangement of Still Alive.

Desiring Invisibility musically continues my work from Missa Prima, in which the rhythms are very much driven by the text, leading to varying meters throughout the verses. Like many of my works, it is modal, but I extended myself more, by incorporating modulation to “related modes” in the verses.

World Cloud draws on my research in information retrieval and computational linguistics and puts it into a field I have intended to dabble in for years, which is data sonification. It isn’t quite a true data sonification, as I made a few aesthetic decisions that weren’t completely determined algorithmically, but it’s very close. My previous pieces to be influenced by information retrieval were Plummet (2000), which used the search results of the query “plummet” from a corpus of literary works as its text, and Shazam (2011), a catch with surface text about music information retrieval.

Another thing I’m famous for is catch writing, and a small number of choristers also know of my tendency to put phrases into a part that won’t be heard by the audience, but make sense to the singers of the part. I first did this in Water Songs (2011). You’re Like Water, has the melody line sing “There’s no way I can make you stay”, while the tenors sing “There’s no way I’d stay”.  Drowning, in the original SAT song cycle version, has the main melody sing “I’m drowning in an ocean of you”, while the tenors sing “I’m drowning you”. Likewise, this work has hidden messages for those who know how to look and listen.

Related to the idea of different messages being sung by different parts, is the way I constructed Desiring Invisibility in particular. I was somewhat influenced by Theodor Kipen’s game, in which those who chose male characters for the game were oblivious of the rest of the game. But it is also like a duet between two characters in an opera or musical, in which they are both expressing their own thoughts and oblivious of the other character’s. Partly due to the needs of the work, and partly a nod to the varied and ambiguous genders of modern choir tenor sections, the tenor line swaps gender here and there, in terms of which character it joins.

I have been quite driven by this work since January last year, and after completing the conducting of the entire concert repertoire in the dress rehearsal in front of the judging panel on Thursday, and knowing that the programme notes were done, I felt a sense of relief, that my work has been done. It’s out there; it’s been heard. I have no great desire to write more choral works after this, although this doesn’t mean I won’t. But I feel as though the work I was meant to write has been written. Due to the difficulty of the subject matter, it was a miracle it could be performed at all. (New composition milestone: making a singer throw up during rehearsal). It may be that only certain movements will be performed more than once. I can see Hope having a life of its own, being sung in support of the traumatised and marginalised in society. I will continue to perform Echoes of Fear occasionally on looper during gigs, and probably Naiveté Stripped when I do a gig at a keyboard, as that is how that song started. Then maybe one day someone will write a paper on the work.

A word of warning to those who believe they know what the text is referring to. It cannot be taken completely literally, as, like with my songwriting, text tends to have a life of its own, going in unexpected directions. The emotions are as true as I can write them though.

Money for Nothing or Nothing for Something

A friend of mine recently blogged about preferring to give away her music, and not supporting current copyright laws, as it favours record companies over artists.  She gets lots of performances of her compositions worldwide as a result.  That’s great, and everyone has a right to make their own decisions about their intellectual property.  My personal view is different.

For quite a few centuries of Western history, there have been people employed as artists and musicians.  For the majority of that time they were employed by nobility to compose and perform.  Painters and sculptors were commissioned to paint portraits, create sculptures and so on.  The money wasn’t great, but it was possible to live on the income of an artist.   Later artists had to support themselves as best they could.  I’d like to highlight a couple of examples.

Bach is known to have neglected the duties of his day job in order to complete his great works.  Imagine what additional wonderful works we could have had if he didn’t need to balance his composition time with other duties.  The balance between composition and other duties is far worse for modern composers, some of whom I dearly wish had more composition time in their lives.

Mozart died fairly young as a pauper, with intermittent support from patrons and commissions during his short life.  Imagine what he could have produced in a longer life.

Schubert supported himself with teaching (and from what I recall, his heart wasn’t really in it).  He was already prolific and accomplished.  What else would he have produced?

There is a movement amongst musicians to establish a “musical middle class”, and I support this trend.  This refers to musicians who are not top of the charts or amateurs being able to earn a decent living, sufficient to have a home, vehicle/transport and raise a child.  Usually this involves having a combination of income sources from gigs, album sales, sheet music sales, merchandise, downloads, sync licensing and teaching.  My own music income has come from the following in descending order:

* music lessons

* sheet music sales
* album sales

* gigs
* live performance returns

* singing competition prizes

* downloads

* busking

* streaming income
If I were more active, then gigs, busking and conducting/teaching would probably be a larger portion of that.
A new trend that is worthwhile is what I would call the micro-patron, made possible via the internet on such sites as Patreon.  Historically a patron would support an artist completely.  Now, we have a system where many people can support an artist a little bit, allowing the artist to continue to provide new content for general consumption.
I’ve written about streaming income before.  I was amused at dafuq’s recent article on living on your spotify income.  It reminds me of those poverty awareness campaigns where you try to live on $2 a day.
Other ways I’ve known artists to survive and still be artists is through the dole.  I recall artist acquaintances referring to it as “government arts grants”.  It is certainly the easiest type of grant to get, particularly given the huge reduction in government spending on the arts in recent years.
Some people say that artists need to suffer in order to produce great work.  The “starving artist” is a much stated cliché.  While I agree that suffering can be inspiring, the suffering doesn’t need to be of a financial nature.  In my case it is more to do with my inner life, and I’m sure that’s the case for other artists who use their suffering as input to their artistic expression.
For now I’m not giving up my day job  (which has its own intellectual rewards), but I’m also not giving up the dream of earning enough from my artistic endeavours to cover my costs and labour.