When composers can’t hear their own compositions

By Felix Salmon
September 11, 2011
Nico Muhly has a fantastic rant about the way in which professional orchestras make it effectively impossible for composers to actually listen to their own pieces, after they've been played.

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Nico Muhly has a fantastic rant about the way in which professional orchestras make it effectively impossible for composers to actually listen to their own pieces, after they’ve been played; the most pungent comment on his post comes from fellow composer Jeff Harrington, who says that he’s never heard a piece that he wrote for two great musicians who have played it 30 times.

The problem here is not that the pieces aren’t recorded — they are. Rather, it’s that the recordings are digital. Because they’re digital, they can be copied perfectly, and distributed widely, with great ease — and that’s something that orchestras are very scared of. They make good money from their digital recordings, and they don’t want to risk unlicensed recordings being found in the wild.

This is a pretty short-sighted view. Nico Muhly isn’t asking orchestras to let him put their recordings online; he just wants to be able to listen, privately, to what his piece sounded like when it was actually played by humans in a concert hall. But in fact it wouldn’t do any harm to anybody if that recording turned up embedded on his website. People who listen to it there would be much more likely to buy the official recording if and when it appeared. Either way, Muhly’s main point stands: composers will write significantly better music for orchestra if they can hear what it sounds like after they’ve done so. And not just composers, either: the same is true for soloists, as well.

In general, it’s depressing and unsurprising to discover that orchestral unions are even more hidebound and reflexively negative, when it comes to the digital world, than record labels. They look at the world of digital music as something to be scared of, and to say “no” to as loudly as possible, unless and until someone comes along with a big bag of money and pays them to say yes. It’s the same zero-sum mindset behind the Authors Guild’s opposition to Google’s attempts to make their work much easier to search for and find.

Google Books was only ever going to encourage more people to buy more books, yet the Authors Guild insisted on hobbling it and extracting as much money as they could from Google before allowing it to go ahead. And making it easy for people to listen to new music online is the best possible way for orchestras and composers to build a new fan base and long-term audience — but instead the orchestras are fighting that which is in their own best interest.

Orchestras suffer no losses if people listen to their sounds outside the concert hall where those sounds were originally performed. In fact, they benefit: anybody who listens to those sounds online is someone who might become a fan and subscriber. But the unions don’t think that way: they just know that they’re paid for performing in the concert hall, and they’re not being paid any extra if and when that performance appears online. And so they’ll oppose any attempt to get it there.

I’m not sure what the best way around this problem might be, but I fear that it’s part of the reason why the extremely vibrant new-music scene has relatively few pieces for full-scale orchestra. They’re hard to write, expensive to perform, and then impossible to distribute in recorded form.

If the artform does survive, I suspect it will be thanks the one group of composers who regularly do hear their music recorded — soundtrack composers for film and TV. So, Nico, is Hollywood calling? That might be one solution to your problem.

(Via the Browser)

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