A word in your ear – the composer’s in the room

This week I attended a preview event in North London featuring instrumentalists from the newly formed Tyresias Ensemble, conducted by Dimitri Scarlato.

The performances weren’t especially of note, largely because the venue – a wood-panelled room inside the Burgh House Museum in Hampstead – was a little on the intimate side, making some of the playing more exposed than the musicians would otherwise have liked.

But the intimacy of the event made for an authentic, immediate, and thought-provoking experience. Even more so when conductor Dimitri Scarlato introduced a composition project he’d recently been working on entitled ‘Colours’.

A funny thing happens when the composer of a piece of music is in the room: it suddenly becomes something infinitely more human.

We’re used to composers of commissions being invited to the stage and taking a bow after a premiere. The convention benefits critics who strive for objectivity, but it doesn’t necessarily help the audience connect with something which they’ve almost certainly found challenges their assumptions or expectations. Raw emotional reactions usually fill the rational void. Those who lack curiosity usually shuffle out of the auditorium bemoaning the fact they haven’t heard any familiar tunes.

But when a composer introduces his creation, then sits down at the piano with his colleagues and proceeds to play a work in progress, a new energy is unleashed – one of positive regard.

Scarlato’s music – especially in the fourth of his ‘Colours’ included in the video above – echoes the some present-day musical fashions. There’s a whiff of John Adams, Karl Jenkins, and Piazzolla. A flat video (like a radio broadcast) doesn’t especially reflect the live experience, nor the impact his work had. If anything it emphasises how the work either needs musical development or a different production. But the fact that he was there, introduced it and aligned himself with it in performance makes it of interest. He’s dared to do the thing he’s done. How do we react to it?

An analogous anecdote might help illustrate the point I’m making.

When I worked at the BBC, a team member and now valued friend played in a band. Towards the end of my time there we would spend routine one-to-ones discussing a video she was producing – one that accompanied a track she had written for her band.

I’ve attended one gig at a venue she plays at and holds dear. It wasn’t my kind of place. The garden area was nice, but inside it was sticky underfoot and when I attended there was a pungent smell of bleach almost everywhere. I attended to support her. Musically, it wasn’t necessarily my cup of tea.

What impressed me about her was her awareness, and most important of all her determination. She may not have been sure that the thing she had created would fly, nor that everyone in attendance would enjoy it. What was important to her was that she did what she did.

I think we lose sight of that kind of creative endeavour. We overlook the sacrifice and the risk taken by creative individuals ready to take the plunge.

In the ‘traditional’ concert hall environment the premiere of a work with those kind of influences would almost certainly be dismissed for not being daring enough, or not pushing the boundaries far enough.

Yet, the results of creative process are as much for the audience as they are for the individual responsible for the creation in the first place. A new composition is a reflection of the composer’s musical preoccupations, their proficiency communicating narrative ideas, and the strength of those originating narrative ideas.

To pass judgement on the quality of someone’s creative output when they’re in the room (or indeed if they’re still alive) makes the criticism a reflection of the listener’s bias, ignorance and insecurities.

Shouldn’t we all be doing (at the very least) the decent thing and paying due respect to those who have had the idea and then dared to realise it?

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