Free Range

Meet classical music’s DIY pioneers and learn how they're building sustainable composing careers.

Paul Nichols headshot
  • By Paul Nichols
  • 2 Jan 2015
  • min read
Anita Awbi chats to classical music’s top trailblazers to get the low down on building a sustainable composing career.

‘These days we can hear any sort of music at any time we want. Why on earth shouldn’t we be influenced by it?’ asks award-winning composer Kerry Andrew (pictured below). It’s an open ethos that has served her well so far.

The composer, performer and educator has just picked up another two accolades at this year’s British Composer Awards for a chamber opera based on her love of wild swimming and a community opera commissioned by Wigmore Hall.

Testament to her numerous talents and tastes, Kerry has also received high praise for her experimental folk project You Are Wolf (supported by the PRS for Music Foundation) and the Juice choral group, which performs original commissions from the likes of Anna Meredith, Mica Levi and Jim Moray.

‘I think we live in a world where musicians should be able to switch seamlessly – and happily – between various genres and regard them all with equal respect’, she continues. ‘There are simply less barriers than ever before, both in critical terms – The Quietus or The Wire might write about contemporary classical music or leftfield pop using the same language – and in terms of access to music.’

Kerry is not alone. It’s now almost passé to celebrate the work of classical composers who dabble in other genres. These days, it’s a musical rite of passage - mainly thanks to innovators including Gabriel Prokofiev (founder of Nonclassical, pictured below), Elysian Quartet’s Laura Moody and promoters including Blank Canvas and Rational Rec, who have consistently broken down barriers and paved the way.

Then there are proactive and provocative groups such as Bastard Assignments, who host gigs of their own music in other people’s houses and are unapologetic about their intimacy.

The DIY faction may well be small, but it’s exciting and robust. So what effect is this dissident activity having on the wider contemporary classical world? In a tight-knit community hit by general music industry malaise - but with added performance costs, commission competition and funding cuts - how are these cross-cultural excursions providing new opportunities for young composers?

‘There’s a new sense of fluidity, perhaps, that wasn’t always there,’ Kerry says. ‘I think it took me a while to realise that I didn’t have to just work in one area of music but there were many possibilities and I could just follow my nose. Who cares what anyone else thinks as long as you’re into it?’

Creative careers

The trend is visible among younger composers Kerry teaches at Trinity Laban’s Junior Trinity Saturday School and the Sound and Music Summer School; these are musicians keen to work across all areas, from classical music to theatre, pop to jazz, and who don’t see any borders and barriers between them. Most are now touting themselves as composer-performers too: not only are they creating music across multiple genres, they’re also performing their own work and the work of others.

Ivor Novello Award-winning composer Errollyn Wallen (pictured below), who forged her own cross-genre path back in the eighties, understands more than most the need for composers to work in this way to shape their own destiny. She kick-started her career by hosting events and performing her own works, and believes she’d still be waiting for her big break if she hadn’t taken the initiative.

‘Hardly any composers are plucked out and become successful overnight’, she says. ‘The composer has to take charge of their own path. You’ve got to work out what it is you really want to do. It doesn’t stop being difficult, but you need to keep making things happen for yourself.’

Sound advice

At a recent PRS for Music and Trinity Laban classical composers’ seminar, Errollyn joined forces with luminaries from across the classical community to offer practical advice to an audience of eager students. From upcoming composer Harry Escott, who’s just signed to Faber Music Publishing, to Alexis Patterson, Cheltenham Music Festival’s Manager, they outlined the key areas modern composers should get to grips with.

Not only do they need to innovate in their creative field, they must also be savvy to new income sources, collaborations and DIY practices. Those who are able to upskill are more likely to establish a fully functioning freelance career. The notion of the musical self-starter - which is, in many ways, a direct response to the challenging industry landscape - has been rattling around the pop, dance jazz and experimental genres for a decade or more. But it’s only just starting to gain traction within the wider contemporary classical community.

Alexis believes this is down to the fact that most classical composers still come through the conservatoire and university system. ‘The DIY ethic is less prevalent in classical than other genres: the "self-taught bedroom composer becomes next big thing" isn’t a story you really hear in classical composition', she explains.

'Most classical composers are still trained via traditional conservatoire or university routes so they’ve worked with orchestras and ensembles and been engrossed in that world - it’s a different musical landscape.'

That’s not to say things aren’t changing. Twenty-six year old composer Kate Whitley (pictured below) – who herself graduated from Cambridge University – has grasped the DIY ethic with both hands. On leaving the education system in 2011, she founded Multi-Storey with conductor Christopher Stark and funding support from PRS for Music Foundation. They launched the project later that year with a critically acclaimed performance of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring in a disused multi-storey car park in Peckham, South London, to an audience of 1,500 people.

She has been playing piano for most of her life, but only really got into classical music in her teens. Since her epiphany, aged 15, she’s been preoccupied with taking classical music out of concert halls and into more casual venues and unusual locations.

‘At the moment it does feel like a lot of people are making opportunities for themselves rather than waiting for commissions,’ she says. ‘It’s becoming more and more competitive so composers are forced to be entrepreneurial. That has drawbacks as well. There are many who might be really good composers but don’t have the right skillset to get their own projects off the ground or participate in the sort of things we do. It’s not a solution for everyone, but taking a DIY approach has completely transformed what I’m involved in.’

Cultural cross-stitch

Educational establishments and arts organisations across the country are beginning to put their weight behind the contemporary classical DIY movement. They realise that empowering the next generation of composers to have the freedom to shape the genre and carve out their own careers will help rejuvenate and future proof it.

From the Birmingham Conservatoire to the Sound and Music charity, they are expanding their remits to coach and reward composers who are taking risks. To this end, Cheltenham Music Festival runs an annual Composer Academy scheme, which provides a test bed for emerging talent. The immersive peer-to-peer week gives composers time to discuss ideas and share advice. Each event is followed by a feedback session, where they can air their thoughts and frustrations.

Alexis explains: ‘We need to encourage discussion around the funding application process, advice on getting commissions, recording your music, navigating contracts – all the things you don’t want to think about if you have music filling up your head. But you have to think about these things if you want to get your music performed.'

Over at Sound and Music, a national charity for new music, there are a number of schemes to support composer and artist development, partnerships, touring, network building and education. Its flagship programmes include Composer-Curator, British Music Collection and Embedder. It also provides comprehensive listings covering calls for work, awards, jobs, funding and commissions both in the UK and internationally. The charity’s schemes have been carefully tailored to address composers’ needs, and are based on the findings of a wide-reaching 2012 survey of the whole sector.

Meanwhile, its research from earlier this year found that two thirds of composers do not make a ‘significant’ amount of income from commissioned pieces - receiving an average of 2.65 commissions in 2013 with an average fee per piece of £1,392. But Sound and Music’s Head of Development Adam Cooper explains that most of the early career composers that pass through the charity’s doors go on to source their own major commissions and are more able to generate consistent work.

‘We encourage the composers to network as widely as possible because the sector is becoming much less boxed in – there are partnership opportunities all around the arts, some outside the arts sphere too,’ he says.

‘We are seeing a big cross-arts trend, so it’s important for composers to embrace this. We’ve had a composer installing sound art in forest clearings, we’ve got one who’s creating work in response to ancient museum objects, and we’ve placed composers in residence at archives. Increasingly, composers are creating works in response to new stimuli and it’s really exciting.’

Finance and funding

However composers are choosing to create and perform their work, the underlying financial pressures are never greater than when they’re doing it all by themselves. So how can composers fund their creative impulses and get their ideas off the ground?

There are a number of funding bodies, from the Arts Council to PRS for Music Foundation, that are committed to supporting contemporary classical composers, promoters, artists and entrepreneurs. James Hannam, Senior Grants Manager at PRS for Music Foundation, oversees the organisation’s popular open funding programmes, which supported 377 contemporary classical projects from January 2011 to December 2013 alone. He believes the DIY approach is fast becoming a reality for many in the classical world and aims to provide simple and straightforward access to funding that can help free spirits to flourish.

‘A reassuring statistic is that in our April 2014 funding round the majority of grantees were people applying to us for the first time,’ he explains. ‘We like to have fresh talent coming through and we like to ensure they’re getting their fair share of support. For us it’s all about supporting those who are trying get their ideas out there.’

Other notable opportunities include the Royal Philharmonic Society’s IdeasTap scheme for young filmmakers and composers, and the London Symphony Orchestra’s Soundhub. And, for emerging talent looking to break into screen composing, BBC Worldwide’s Music Publishing arm helps connect composers with TV producers, often giving lesser known talent the important break they need.

Screen composer Harry Escott (pictured below), who’s worked with stellar directorial talents including Michael Winterbottom, Nick Broomfield and Steve McQueen, urges all upcoming composers to grasp every opportunity out there, but cautions that they must ensure they’re getting the royalties their due - an area that becomes increasingly significant when scoring for national TV.

‘The lion’s share of my money, which I can actually buy food and pay bills with, comes from PRS for Music royalties – which I never in a million years imagined when I joined. It’s another important area that young classical composers need to know about,’ he says.

Power of promotion

Aside from career support, commissioning opportunities, funding and royalties, every composer can take a few simple steps at home to improve their chances of getting work. Although the idea of networking and self-promotion can seem incongruous to dedicated creators, it’s becoming increasingly important to use social media to help convey ideas, network, promote events and showcase music.

Several composers are top of the pile when it comes to creating a successful online presence, as a quick google of their names will prove. Brass ace Gavin Higgins has sourced great photography and good quality musical soundbites for his personal website while Aaron Holloway-Nahum, founder of Riot Ensemble, has a strong social media presence that helps him promote events. He’s also got a blog and actively shares other people’s work.

Alexis from Cheltenham Music Festival, who invited Aaron to attend a recent Composer Academy, says: ‘I think for some people, self-promotion grates slightly with the idea of a young artist who wants to be abstracted and free. Having said that, there are composers who are doing brilliant things with their social media and websites. It is definitely the little things that make a huge difference.’

Kerry Andrew, an active player in the crossover-classical scene, agrees: ‘Outlets are relatively slim for new contemporary classical music and the most positive attitude is to simply get out there and get things cracking yourself. It’s frankly a great way to learn on the job, developing marketing, fundraising and general business skills, none of which are to be sniffed at.’