Friday, 19 June 2015

Q&A With James Francis Brown on Amateur Music Making Part 2

In a two-part blog Robert Edgar, questions conductor Tom Hammond and composer James Francis Brown about the world of amateur music-making.

Part Two

James Francis Brown talks about amateur music making from the point of view of the composer. He has written numerous works, at varying levels of difficulty, for both professional and amateur ensembles.

Rob Edgar: Do we need new music for amateurs? Isn’t there enough music to choose from already?

James Francis Brown: I’m bound to say ‘of course’! But the relationship between the contemporary composer and the amateur musician is in need of restoration.

When the creation of music is divorced from the natural, sociable inclination to share and enjoy art, a void is created – a void that’s often filled by academic and pseudo-intellectual justification. Popular music purports to solve the problem (by drawing attention to its supposedly democratic origins, I suspect that rampant, consumerist marketing somewhat overstates this claim) but the world of classical music experiences a rather masochistic identity crisis – Isn’t it supposed to be challenging, difficult, baffling to our sense of taste? Aren’t we betraying some sort of creative integrity if it isn’t ‘difficult’?

Amateur musicians are central to this state of affairs – not fighting a rear-guard action. Perhaps they don’t realise how significant they are in this respect.

RE: Are there different technical requirements when writing for amateurs?

JFB: It’s worth remembering that the word ‘amateur’ means ‘lover of’ - but the word was rapidly adopted, in most disciplines, as a euphemism for limited technical ability. There is a basic, even prosaic, reason why music of, let’s say, the classical era is within the reach of amateurs and why much 20th century music is technically problematic. The fabric of most music is made of patterns – to put it simply: scales and arpeggios. These patterns are deeply inculcated through years of practice and tend towards a reflexive relationship with tonality which is no bad thing to those, like me, who believe that tonality is capable of infinite renewal.

I don’t mean to slight the more complex musical utterances of my friends and colleagues but the expression ‘horses for courses’ seems apt here. We may all reserve the right to express complex and difficult imaginative concepts but with due regard for the ability to bring these ideas to successful fruition.

RE: Is it somehow easier to compose for amateurs?

JFB: If we acknowledge the fundamental technical apparatus of music as described above, there will be those who warn of compromise and predict an inevitable slide into kitsch and cliché. This is indeed a concern; simplicity has always been close to the danger-line. But therein lies the challenge – to save simplicity from vulgarity is a wonderful thing. Britten and Stravinsky could do it and there are those who certainly can today, though it isn’t necessarily an easy thing to do.

Here many critics (by no means all) lurk with intent. The prevailing attitude amongst those critics who condescend to attend premieres given by amateurs is to demand the near impossible, to expect striking innovation both technically and idiomatically. The discontent when confronted by, for example, a clearly stated tune is palpable and there is an extensive lexicon of put-downs at their disposal. But very often, they miss the transformative, cumulative effect of the kind of music that needs to be ‘lived with’ before its true promise is revealed. This effect applies to simplicity as well as complexity.

RE: Is there a need for a different, perhaps ‘lighter’ tone in music for amateurs?

JFB: It’s all too easy for composers to hold a patronising view on this. I regard myself as an amateur in many areas of music but only really in the sense of proficiency, not assimilation. Perhaps it’s a false question; we may all enjoy the ‘simple’ surface of a Mozart piano concerto whilst sensing its vast hinterland of emotional subtlety.

One small but important point – very little contemporary music is written with what we might call the ‘whole family’ in mind. Unsurprisingly, families attend local concerts and this is rarely the case with professional performances. Much recent music is obsessed with a kind of existential angst or gloom, often well-expressed and necessary but it surely cannot be the entire picture. Expressions of Joy, exhilaration, even gentle states like tenderness contribute a vital part of the pleasure in concert-going. Let’s not be sniffy about it.

Rob Edgar: How can we safeguard the future of amateur orchestral and choral music making?

James Francis Brown: Part of the solution lies with composers themselves. As a composer, I maintain that we ought not to feel intellectually ashamed to write clearly, simply and memorably when the circumstances call for it.

Critics next. Please lighten-up! Innovation or freshness, call it what you will, is as likely to come from a well-nurtured amateur environment as from the ‘laboratory’ of the professional contemporary-music arena.

Finally, to the amateur musicians, their families and audiences: Don’t be passive. Seek out composers with something to say - but we all need to remember that tastes only develop and mature through exposure to the unfamiliar.

Hear the Redhill Sinfonia perform James's Clarinet Concerto on th 4th of July. Watch James's Vlog here

More information on James can be found on his website.

Read Part 1 here

1 comment:

John Hawkins said...

Excellent and vital stuff!

Some cultural changes make life more difficult for players and composers:
• Grammar and syntax are up of grabs and the emphasis on originality means that learning one thing does not necessarily lead to another (I think Coco Chanel said something like 'Anyone who thinks they are original has no memory')
• The crisis in printed music publishing and distribution makes it harder for amateurs to get well-made sheet music (as opposed to A4 printouts) also for publishers to make a living (a vicious circle)
• Teaching and learning music is difficult and learners need some peer-group approval which may not be there now the assumptions of value are gone ('I want to be a celebrity' doesn't quite work)
• Chromaticism is challenging, and minimalist music can be seriously unrewarding to learn alone
• The visual arts (it's all linked) are going through a 'non-skill-based' phase (except in digital art, which is very skill-based!). Perhaps self-directed, rather than outward-directed goals are in there somewhere?

I have always liked writing for amateurs but, like you James, do want at least some tonality and the sense of direction it gives on large and small scales, so I find writing for amateurs hard but a good 'fit' - it may be my age of course!