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Op-ed: The Compositional Voice and the Need to Please

By Open Submission on September 4, 2014


What is a composer, today?”, an article by Curtis Perry recently published on Musical Toronto, gave rise to some lively debate on an issue that deserves some further thought. In the article, Perry acknowledges, “the apparent collapse of the publicly funded industry of commissioning and academia,”  and asks that when composing, “is it inherently wrong to write music in order to please the crowd?” He also suggests that “the failure of the average composer of our time to be recognized by the average listener,” is a result of obedience to convention, and a desire for academic approval.

As an emerging composer, I find this line of thinking troubling for a number of reasons. First, it implies that in order to combat complex socioeconomic forces that are currently affecting cultural funding and academic resources, artists should be creating works that appeal to the masses. The idea being that these popular works would help regain the trust of the public in the funding of arts, colleges, conservatories, and universities.

However, the reality is that public funding is used to allocate resources for the benefit of the people in an effort towards a more equitable society, while academia is (ideally) an environment that strives for the unfettered pursuit of knowledge through research and experimentation. Allowing popularity to inform the decision-making process in either of these activities would seriously compromise their intended purpose.

Perry also implies that the current trend in the composition community is to frustrate the audience. But after a decade of attending contemporary music concerts, I don’t get the impression that composers are intentionally putting their audience off, even if a lot of the music would be considered challenging to the average listener. I am very fortunate to live in a city with an enormous amount of musical experiences being offered. My encounters with composers and musicians lead me to believe that there are as many reasons why someone creates music as there are people creating. Some do indeed create music to entertain and please. Others want to provoke, challenge, question. For some it is purely a need for personal exploration. And, yes, there are a few who I suspect are creating music simply to confuse people.

Personally speaking, when I compose, I am striving to explore an aspect of the world we live in through music. The instruments I write for are more likely to show up in crossword puzzles than pop albums. Sometimes, the sounds I choose result in music that is dissonant, complicated, and unlikely to please the masses. Because I’m mainly writing for instruments that have existed in their present form for a century or two, the average listener might find my music “arcane”. This doesn’t mean I am seeking to alienate my audience, nor does it mean I am seeking a seal of approval from academia. What it does mean is that I’ve given a lot of thought to how and why I want to express myself through music, and only afterwards do I put energy into seeking out audiences that will respond to it. Furthermore, I must be willing to live with the consequences that come with my decisions as an artist.

Perhaps the question composers should start with is this: “what is my compositional voice?” If this question—and not audience approval—becomes their primary consideration, it opens up a huge range of possibilities for music creation, which may, in the end, include the need to please an audience. And when audiences are urged to consider music that not only pleases, but also music that provokes, excites, angers, challenges, beguiles, confuses, frustrates, soothes, and inspires, then our concert experience becomes one that is bursting with ideas, a platform for many different views, and an inspiration for communities to hear the world in new ways.

As a final thought, I find it odd that Perry suggests the so-called failure of today’s composers is a result of their desire to get the thumbs-up from academia, while at the same time suggesting they should seriously consider pleasing their audience. Have artists really made themselves more relevant to contemporary listeners if they are merely seeking the approval of one group at the expense of another?

Beyond the hypocrisy of this rationale, there is a deeper concern. When art is born out of the need to please, there is an enormous risk that one’s voice will be compromised for the sake of financial gain, acceptance, popularity, or safety. In extreme cases where approval is the measure of success, the expression of the individual is warped or annihilated altogether. This was a very real struggle that Shostakovich, Prokofiev, and Gubaidulina all faced. What would their music have been like had they given over entirely to what Russian authorities expected of them? Would it have been expressive of their time? Would it have been meaningful or even relevant? Would they have composed at all? There is a silencing that occurs when motivated by the need to please. For artists and the society they live in, that is a far bigger price to pay than working in obscurity.


Chris Thornborrow


Chris Thornborrow is a composer of concert music, opera, and film-score. He is a DMA candidate at the University of Toronto, and the Co-Founder and Artistic Director of the Toy Piano Composers.

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