This is almost always the first question that you get asked after people discover that you are a composer, so it made sense to write a response to it as the first post on my new website. However, I’ve heard many composers describe it as the most annoying question they get asked, and I can see exactly what they mean! You want to give a straightforward answer but it feels very difficult to give one without it being meaningless.
It is precisely because it feels so meaningless that I dislike the term ‘classical music’ (see Alex Ross’ writing on the subject here or have a look at Julian Johnson’s book ‘Who Needs Classical Music? Cultural Choice and Musical Value’), yet I don’t have a preferred alternative because I actually dislike the whole notion of genres in music. Louis Armstrong famously remarked that there were only two types of music: good music and bad music, and I do think that the world would be a more interesting place without this obsession with labels and genres. Before they were a dying breed I thought it would be great to have a record shop that didn’t divide music into different genres but just had one massive A-Z section running around the whole store – imagine what discoveries you would make!
That said, unlike Louis Armstrong’s deliberately subjective take on things, I think we can make some objective distinctions between different types of music if we consider the roles of three central components: Composer, Performer and Listener.
When I was doing my Masters I was in a minority. Most of my fellow composers were writing music that didn’t involve one element of the above trio, namely the performer. Their compositions sometimes involved the recording of conventional instruments or other sound sources, but the resultant work was created on a computer and was a fixed product that could then be easily disseminated to a listener. This type of music has a tradition that goes back to early experiments with technology and composers such as Busoni, Russolo, Varese, Stockhausen and Steve Reich right through to some modern DJs and sound artists. The results can be infinitely varied and thoroughly rewarding to listen to. Nevertheless, this is not the type of music that I like to compose because I see the involvement of the performer(s) as an integral part of what I do.
In contrast, there is another identifiable type of music where the performer is central and it is now the most ubiquitous. It is music where the performer(s) and composer(s) are sometimes one and the same, but looking at where this is not the case makes things even clearer. Here, a piece of music may be written by a relatively anonymous composer (or often a team of them) and is then taken up by a performer. The performer is then the sole focus of the dissemination of this piece and, as with the first type, the work becomes fixed. This type of music is in many ways the other extreme to the first type since all the emphasis is now on the performer and the composer often fades into obscurity. But just like the first type the work becomes a fixed entity, the recording that is released. The performer might play a slightly different version when performing live, but the listener recognises that the original is the composition and anything else, including later cover-versions by other performers, is simply another version of this original and will forever be compared to it.
The third type of music is one where the work is to a greater or lesser extent fixed by the composer, but it is the performer who has the job of interpreting the music and communicating it to the listener. Each performer interprets the work slightly differently and listeners may have their preferred interpreter, but the listener recognises that no single interpretation is the work itself, as is the case with the second type. With this third type of music composer and performer play a far more equal role, and this is the kind of music that I write – I write music for people to perform. Each piece is different, for different performers and for different contexts, but always with the aim of communicating from the Composer, to the Performer, and through them to the Listener.