Who are we writing for?

Big hitter - Mark-Anthony Turnage's 'The Silver Tassie'

Big hitter – Mark-Anthony Turnage’s ‘The Silver Tassie’

One of the things that worries me about contemporary music is the audience we are aiming it at; not just the bums on seats, but the longer term too. Who do we actually expect to listen to the stuff?


Some years ago I had a piece in a lunchtime concert at a festival focussing on contemporary music. Many of the other composers were at the concert, so if you took them away and their families you were left with few audience indeed. Were we simply writing for ourselves, a sort of composers club, or had we a vain hope that one performance might lead to another. Isn’t there a danger that some areas of contemporary music might become such clubs? If we are writing for a notional public audience, where the hell are they and are we sometimes deluding ourselves? And does it matter?


18th century composers always worked for hire, but this changed in the 19th century with the concept of the artist working for themselves (or their soul). The 20th century brought serialism, modernism and the idea that music might be good for the audience and needed work, it was somehow improving for them. For years it was almost a badge of honour for composers that the general public did not understand their music.


Nowadays we are more plural and more tolerant, but I think that composers sometimes lose the sense that music needs to be performed. Some might disagree, but surely even those writing the most seriously complex music have a hankering to hear it performed. Is it enough, however, to perform it in a cold church with a handful in the audience or just to perform it to the composers’ peers?


There are composers who write only for the small group of people who naturally understand, and others composers simply respond to a commission and don’t worry about anything further. I respect these, and admire them. The classical music world needs them but this is not a good model for everyone.


Put quite simply, contemporary classical music needs audiences because we need to pay for it, and because music only really lives when it is being listened to. Performing a new piece should not be a favour or a sideline, it should be the main event. Now, contemporary classical music is popular, witness the many people who turn out for big name events. A few years ago Mark-Anthony Turnage’s opera The Silver Tassie was a surprise hit for ENO, with queue of people waiting for return. Turnage had not aimed to write a ‘popular’ work, it had just caught the mood. But no matter how much we may enjoy the widespread acclaim the music of Philip Glass, John Adams, Steve Reich and their ilk receives, popular is still something of a dirty word. Yet we need it.


Contemporary music might attract audiences for big names, but try putting on something finely crafted yet not known and you will see the limits of this wave of popularity. We composers need to think about who we are writing for. Not to write down, that is normally a recipe for disaster, but to think about who our ideal listeners area and to worry about them, just a little. If we write a work of new complexity then we should not have unreasonable expectations, but we should worry who might want to listen to it, perform it or pay for it. Sometimes we have to come out of our study or music room. At the ISM’s recent conference, Making Music Work, we heard Rebecca Driver talk about how ‘Good musicians gives performance’ did not sell concerts. Composers have to remember that ‘Good composer writes piece’ is probably not enousgh to bring an audience either.

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  1. demerararecords@yahoo.co.uk'
    Neil March
    April 21, 2015 at 1:29 pm Reply

    Interesting article which asks many of the same questions I’ve been asking myself for some time. Having studied for mmus and PhD in an environment weighed down by the baggage of 40+ years of attitudes developed in Academia that may appear noble and, according to those responsible, ‘radical’ but which increasingly look, at best, jaded and out of touch or, at worst, elitist and smugly defended by an almost exclusively white intelligentsia content to preach to the converted, I feel we have to find a balance between the desire to postulate original, evutionary ideas and engaging the curious, persuading them to listen to new music. That does not mean reverting to Classical Pop or making offensive attempts at phony nostalgia by reinventing the brutality and oppression of medieval England as something gentile and civilised. But it perhaps does mean trying to make music that is exciting, energetic, intriguing and sometimes beautiful (not in a twee way) as well as dark and not mistaking complexity and intellectual weight for creativity. I am minded to quote Lutoslawski (who came somewhere close to such a balance in his 60s/early 70s works) who, when asked about his aims when composing, replied “I write music that I should like to listen to”. That seems to me to be a good starting pount provided that what you like to listen to isn’t music that places intellectual ferocity and academic acceptance over music that is fresh and invigorating to an audience that is open to new ideas.

  2. claygold@post.com'
    clay gold
    April 21, 2015 at 8:27 pm Reply

    Contemporary composers and promoters need to remember that their audiences are also contemporary and so classical type concerts which demand the audience sit and pay attention in earnest often don’t work. Bar style events, informal, with drinking and chatting and people standing, moving, may work better. See Nonclassical(.co.uk) for a successful model of such events. Contemporary music is thriving, you just have to use your imagination. Present it in exciting ways. Remix it. It’s 2015. You have a new audience, stop using 19th century methods of performance!

  3. claygold@post.com'
    clay gold
    April 21, 2015 at 8:30 pm Reply


  4. Robert Hugill
    April 23, 2015 at 3:32 pm Reply

    Bar style events are an interesting model, and I have been to some very lively such events. But there have been occasions when some audience members got rather bored with the music, and the background hubbub was too much for the rather quiet pieces. So it requires careful managing, and clever programming!

    With regard programming (Neil March’s comment), a balance is indeed needed. But I would not want to be without the more abstruse complex music, I feel that it is still needed also.

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