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Essay: 'The digital self is omnivorous, even cannibalistic, devouring time, energy, creativity'

By Open Submission on January 25, 2014

Samuel Pepys
Samuel Pepys

A composer’s need to design and maintain an online presence has become a popular topic of conversation: classical music faces many challenges, and the current solution seems to be to make it hip, slick, appealing to a visual media culture hyperfocused on the internet.

Yet there is something paradoxical in this for composers: many (not all) composers are what they are and do what they do because they are not performers, in a pop-culture sense. Often we are awkward, shy, thoughtful, introverted, quiet folks who find self-promotion sits uneasily with the sincerity of what we do; excessive self-promotion can be seen as a cover for thin music, or at least a distraction from the real work. Nonetheless, to survive, we must brand and market ourselves to people who may know little or nothing about our music, and who may not have the time to listen carefully and grow to know us through our art.

Most young composers realize that in the 21st-century how you present yourself has become a vital part of who you are, and what you do; your image becomes second only in importance to your music. It’s hard to “brand” a creative voice that will develop across a lifetime; it’s hard to pin that butterfly to a domain name and a headshot. Creative identity now finds a second opportunity for agonizing and doubt: what sort of artist am I? One who lies about in the woods seductively holding… my computer? We’ve all seen that kind of artist photo. Should I drape myself over this piano?  If it’s a headshot and I smile, will they assume my music is tonal? If I don’t smile, am I by default a devotée of dissonance? If my website is spare, will I look zen and arty, or just lazy? And let’s not even discuss Facebook, that boneyard of regrets: old frosh photos and in-jokes that no “Like” of an Artist page will ever erase.

Today, our digital appearance is immediately equated with our artistic voice: a strange thought. As the end of my DMA looms on the horizon, it’s indeed time to build a better website and start thinking carefully about my professional persona. I’m increasingly aware that many people will “brand” me themselves, sometimes searingly, without ever hearing my music, because of how my public self looks.

I had a fascinating conversation on this subject with Rosemarie Umetsu, a couturier in Toronto who dresses an astonishing roster of glamorous star-clients from the international classical music scene. During a lovely afternoon at her salon, she brought me face-to-face with this idea of image-building, of branding. (She also got me into a fabulous green dress I would never have imagined could be so flattering: case in point.)  She asked me, flat out, that toughest question for a composer: “describe your music.”

“Describe your music” (which is usually followed by “ummmm” from most young composers, or a list of obscure influences) is really at the heart of this puzzling intersection of art and self-image. It has to carry through each level of public representation: if you are quirky, playful, then so should the colours on your website be. If your music is (like mine) more often lyrical than not, what image on a business card will suggest that to someone who has never heard you, let alone heard of you? How do my musical aesthetics translate into the text on an “About” page? How do I describe, in words, colours, images, the sensory and emotional experience that I hope to build? I’ve been told my music is both very spare, and very lush: how does that translate into a splashpage?

Often I find the best examples of self-representation in the digital age come from people in other fields: photographers, and architects, for example, have the websites I look to most often as models (yes, I’m finally rebuilding it). Classical singers, no surprise, seem ahead of the classical curve, in the way they use images to represent their voices – which are, like new compositions, easy to listen to online, and yet intertwined with their identities – as is any “compositional” voice. But composers are often loathe to go for “pretty,” as singers so often do with no shame. Again, if I smile in my photo, will you dismiss my music as “unserious”? Whatever that means?

And what can we really say about what it is we composers do? Online presentation of self can involve a deafening chatter: Facebook, Twitter, even blogging – all great methods of communicating, but what to communicate becomes the issue. As the estimable John Terauds said at his U of T guest talk last week: if you blog, you really have to do so regularly. And what do you say? “Awesome performance X coming up!” “Thank you awesome performers at concert Y!” Will it degenerate into mere trivia, or rise to the heights of Pepsyian journalistic immortality?


5 April 1668. Lord’s DayUp, and to my chamber, and there to the writing fair some of my late musique notions, and so to church, where I have not been a good while, and thence home, and dined at home…


Even Samuel Pepys struggled to keep up a blogger’s schedule! (He often went weeks without writing a word, then scripted backwards from memory. Now he’s on Twitter. Really.) Musicians, classical musicians, and classical composers depend on collaboration and listenership: we want to be nice (or at least to appear so). We young composers are grateful, we are honoured, we do appreciate the hard work of those around us. But if we say only that everything is awesome, we fade into the clamourous background. Indeed, many of us have little to share because we are composing, putting into sound things that are almost impossible to capture in the slippery notation of common words.

Often, established composers seem able to afford more consistent, honest blogs: with their careers more secure, they can be more open, take unpopular viewpoints, be critical, admit foibles. When you are young, you may hesitate to share a crushing performance, writer’s block, procrastination, an inability to finish (or start) a particular commission. Yet the balance of these everyday doubts with the joys of an elegant ending or a beautiful timbre or just the double bar line – that’s what’s interesting about the creative life and why we chose it.

In many ways the digital self is omnivorous, even cannibalistic, devouring time, energy, creativity, distracting artists into Narcissi, drowning out the important sound, the interesting sound: the music. Too little investment in this new vanity, though, and one will be ignored and again silenced. How we negotiate this new kind of performance will be a true test for new music. If we can make good music – music that has depth and resonance, that silences the chatter of our world while exploiting it in order to be heard – that will be the tough thing to learn. Like music, this is indeed a performance,  perhaps done best in a fabulous green dress. Well then: up, and to my chamber…

Cecilia Livingston
is a DMA composition student at the University of Toronto Faculty of Music

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