“Firestarter”: The Cult of Prodigy in Contemporary Music

“Don’t give him that, you’ll just depress him” said my dad this morning, as my mother passed me the saturday Guardian opened to one specific article. Intrigued, I delved in. Ah, something about contemporary music! This is Relevant To My Interests.

So, it’s the Last Night Of The Proms tonight. As of time of writing, it kicks off in about 3 hours. Clearly I’m not going to get a ticket. But anyway, I’m not going to rant about my opinions on the event itself because I’d be here all day. Though, rest assured, I am of the opinion that the Last Night Of The Proms is quite lame.

But back to the potentially-depression-inducing article. The first piece in tonight’s is a short orchestral fanfar written by former BBC Young Musician Of The Year Mark Simpson. In an article written for the Guardian, the ubiquitous Tom Service writes enthusiastically about the 23-year-old. With a 1st from Oxford and a Master’s from the Guildhall, Simpson is the archetypal clean-cut Young British Composer, pictured casually among the music stands, dressed in a black shirt (top button undone) and salmon chinos. Clearly this is the new hand-holding-the-face when it comes to composer portraiture.

I’m going to try and avoid sour grapes. Obviously, it’s an incredible commission and I’d chew at least one of my fingers off to have that kind of exposure. But the article is emblematic of the Romantic notion of music-writing (which extends to the use of the word composer) that I have such a problem with. Referring to Simpson as a “prodigiously fast learner”, Tom Service’s usual emphatic style (as chosen Radio 3 Arbiter Of Modern Music) tends into the hagiography. Forgive me for extrapolating too much, but the language of his article (‘sparks’, ‘orchestral firecracker’, ‘ablaze’) conjures up the tired Beethovenian image of the composer-genius, furiously sketching out string passages at his desk; rapidly tearing up pieces of manuscript to fit all his Big Musical Ideas onto the page before they are lost forever.

[Personally I find the compositional process to be slow and arduous. Musical material fits together when you jam it in hard enough, in a process of trial and error that requires many cups of tea. But maybe that’s where I’m going wrong.]

Much is made of the music’s supposed difficulty. “There are a lot of notes and a lot of detail”, say Simpson, clutching his academic prowess like a shield aimed at populist criticism. But despite the acclaimed complexity, the piece, entitled sparks, is short. A fanfare to herald the opening of the last night. I can imagine the instructions from the appropriate BBC Executive now: “We’ll have just a few minutes of new music before we get to stuff people have paid to see. They’ll just have to buckle up and see it through, it’s good for you. Or something.” Although there’s little chance of it recreating the supposed riot and ensuing media storm that came out of Birtwistle’s commission at 1995’s Last Night.

Sad, really. Although is that good thing or bad? If it truly is Complex Music (so different from ordinary, Simple music), is indifference (because let’s face it, Complex music is unlikely to get standing ovations, even in 2012) better than disgust? I’ll leave that for others to decide.

And as for the title itself. That enforced no-caps thing, seemingly so common in contemporary music (I’m guilty of myself). Where does it come from? Modesty? Minimalism? In Simpson’s own words: “I’m really bad at titles, and a friend gave me this one and said it looked better all lower case”. Going out on a limb, I’d wonder whether or not it’s a reaction to digital press – enforcing a break in traditional style guide requires it to be written in italics. What that says about contemporary musicians, I don’t know.

Maybe I am just jealous. On the surface, we seem fairly similar. White, male, middle-class clarinet players who write music for some reason. But he’s got a Proms commission and I’m sat here on the internet writing about it. Still, I await it greatly, and it’ll be a damn sight more interesting than Pomp and Fucking Circumstance.


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About thmsbsh

Sound poet, gauche leftist, occasional clarinettist.

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