What support do emerging composers and sound artists really need to develop? Susanna Eastburn outlines the findings of a recent consultation.
The intrinsic nature of new music, as with all contemporary artforms, is that it is constantly shifting and evolving. What makes it so relevant and exciting is exactly what can make it difficult to navigate. Our work at Sound and Music revolves around helping audiences and composers navigate the complicated world of new music. By helping composers develop their artistic and professional practice, alongside bringing audiences together, we hope to create a world where new music and sound prospers. Providing support in an environment that is always changing requires a certain amount of flexibility. There cannot be blanket rules or tarring with one brush − what works best for one does not necessarily work best for all. There are certain topics and basic needs that cut across all forms of composition and sound art – and could indeed apply to other artforms.
At the end of 2012 we conducted a major listening exercise in the form of a public consultation. We opened our ears to composers, artists, performers, producers, audiences and other arts professionals to understand better what it is those we support want from us.
The biggest priority artists had for us, and this now forms our key guiding principle, is the support of emerging composers. As regular practice we listen and learn from the emerging composers who have experienced one of our residency programmes (Embedded and Portfolio). What comes out time and time again is the transformational experience of creating work with and for brilliant professionals, in brilliant professional contexts. By working with performers who have a genuine passion for new music and new work, it is possible to bolster the professional development opportunities we can provide and create mutually beneficial partnerships.
We have learnt too that these relationships need time and space to build if they are to have the most impact. We need to enable composers to experiment, take artistic risks and push themselves – to allow for the space and time for things to not go as expected. In new music, all too often composers are creating work for which there are many restrictions such as minimal rehearsal or production time. For emerging talent to prosper we must be able to nurture artistic ambition and not restrict it. By creating a truly expansive environment, which allows for risk-taking, we create the room for talent to flourish and in turn ambitious work to be made.
All too often composers are creating work for which there are many restrictions such as minimal rehearsal or production time
Composers told us about the new perspectives, professional networks and opportunities they have gained through international residencies and exchanges. As a result, we have extended our work internationally and this year we have launched the international Embedded Composer Residency scheme with Elektronmusikstudion in Stockholm. We are also bolstering our position as a member of international organisations such as the International Association for Music Information centres.
We have also seen that another key mechanism for composer development is through their peers. One of the ways we support this is through the Spotlight feature on our website. Through this a composer can select a work from the British Music Collection, our archive, and write an article on its importance to their work. This provides a platform for composers to share with their peers the work that is relevant and important to them, and could be for other artists. In turn, the Spotlight features allow our audiences to discover music through the eyes of the composer.
The common thread running through all this, for audiences, composers and ourselves as an organisation, is collaboration. The composers we work with talk about the value and mutual support they get from their peer network and how this can lead to surprising collaborations and cross-fertilisation. We see it in our audience members when they share and discuss their new music experiences. As an organisation, we look to create the best possible future for new music, but we cannot do this alone. By collaborating with a varied range of partners across artforms we can extend our reach and provide more opportunities for both our audiences and composers.
Ultimately, to prosper composers need a roof over their head and enough money to live on, and the time to dedicate to creating their work. Richard Sennett in The Craftsman talks about the need for 10,000 hours of time to develop advanced skill − and perhaps this is the hardest part of all. While we cannot give a living wage to every emerging composer, we can work to create opportunities for them to be composers, and offer a range of tools and other support to equip them for a vibrant professional life.
Susanna Eastburn is Chief Executive of Sound and Music.