Lessons from Controversy

Recently I finished a piece I've been working on for the last few months called Choice Words which explores the ideas and motivations behind erotic FanFiction. A speaking piece that involves offensive language and descriptions of sexual acts; it is easily the most provocative and controversial work I've written. Whilst writing I've had conversations about why I am writing the piece, whether a composer should expect their work to be performed and the ethics of performers' rights. All of this has caused be to think about composition more generally and this blog is a reflection on the experience so far.

Firstly I believe that all music should, in a broad sense, be performed. This may be in concerts or synthesised, I've even written works where the 'performance' takes place in the mind of the person reading the score, but the piece isn't fully realised until this happens. Having said that,  no performer is obliged to do this and in writing Choice Words I was more aware of this than usual. But why are composers not always aware of it? Every piece I write requires the time, energy and talents of its performers. Every performer I work with deserves the knowledge that everything I ask of them has been thought through in complete detail - regardless of whether it is to play a 'simple' note, or speak an offensive word. Three questions arose in this process that I will now ask myself of future works.

1. Why?

There are two elements to this, which I think often have the same answer. Why am I writing this, and why should anyone perform it? With Choice Words there was an idea that I believed to be strong and raised important questions about language and cultural attitudes (an area that often surfaces in my work). Those who wish to perform it will likely do so for the same reasons I wrote it. The only addition is that I wrote it because if I didn't, I wasn't aware of anyone else who would cover the same area.

2. How?

Is this the best way to achieve my aim? Is music a better option that poetry, for example. Even then, is a melody using a major scale/an atonal cluster-chord/and text-score the best music to fulfil it. In writing h a controversial piece I had to be confident in the idea and able to defend it. Imagine if we always made sure our ideas were defendable, even the ones we know won't be questioned.

3. Presentation?

Choice Words has resulted in a score printed on off-white laid writing paper, 23x18cm, 100gsm. The font is Bookman Old Style. The pages were printed single sided and not bound together. Each of these choices was given great thought: what would it convey about the piece, how would it impact the performance? If I was writing a 'normal' score, I would have printed on A4 printer paper, using the standard settings in Sibelius. Why should all music not go through the same level of detailed thought?

In short: Why am I composing? Is this the best way to achieve that aim? Is this the best way to present my work? I suspect that these three questions will change how I compose.


PDF copies of Choice Words can be requested through the Scores page on www.david-may.co.uk