Composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies knows full well the challenges facing contemporary composers – so perhaps it’s not surprising he’s acting as ambassador for a new recording project giving up-and-coming composers the chance to get their music recorded and heard by a wide audience.
How did you get involved with NMC’s ‘Debut Discs’ project? As a composer one realises how difficult it is for young composers to actually get any kind of profile. I think it has become much more difficult since I was young, because for a start there are so many more of them now. When Birtwistle and Goehr and I were starting, in the 1950s, it wasn’t like that. I feel very much that Britain has so much talent in this field and that somebody, somewhere, has got to put a bit of loving care and trust into some of these very, very talented young people.
What do you think are the challenges for composers trying to make a name for themselves? There are commercial pressures, because everything these days seems to be part of the market – of the music industry – when I was younger it was a profession, it wasn’t an industry, and I think this can have a very bad effect. The choices of musical language are so infinite, from minimalism through to the greatest complexity, from tonal to modal to atonal, and you have to make choices at a very young age. You have to know, to some extent, what your direction is. I’ve seen this with young composers that I’m teaching – when I say teaching I think I learn far more from them than they do from me!
How important is it for young composers to get their music recorded? Having music which you can circulate like that is essential. A lot of them do this themselves on the web anyway and a lot of people these days are approaching music through the web rather than going to concerts. It’s a whole new game. Live performance remains essential but for so many people these days, their access to music is not through the concert hall.
So has the internet improved things for young composers do you think? I think it has, to a limited extent, but to really get notice taken of you, you have to burst out of that. Of course this does bring into question the whole role of publishers, and of record companies. To find a real publisher, which for my generation wasn’t that hard, is very difficult for so many of these young people. So many publishers have actually thrown established composers out in recent years: they say ‘no we can’t make any money publishing that sort of stuff anymore.’
Getting a piece performed once is difficult enough, but how can a young composer make sure that their music continues to be performed after the premiere? This is the difficult one. You can get one, perhaps two performances, but it’s very difficult to get a third and fourth… It’s very frustrating, particularly if you don’t have a publisher to circulate it around orchestras, choruses, opera houses. At least these days, composers can make recordings themselves, or have them made for them, so they can listen to the piece and learn from it, which when I was young of course you couldn’t. But you did have more chance of having more performances I think.
Are you glad that you forged your career in less challenging times? I think they were challenging, but in very different ways. Just to get your head above the general run of composers in those days was much easier, because there were far, far fewer of us. Commercial pressures make things very difficult for emerging composers today, getting a publisher is extremely difficult and getting third, fourth performances is very, very tough. So I'm very pleased that NMC have launched Debut Discs – best of luck to the whole project, I think it’s absolutely splendid.
Below, composer Huw Watkins discusses his work and his involvement in the Debut Discs project. For more videos about the project click here.