What's it like being a 21st century composer?

5 min read

What's it like being a 21st century composer?
We speak to three composers to find out what it really means to compose music in the 21st century 
Often, when we imagine a music composer at work, we’re swayed by the romantic notion of Beethoven or Bach passionately scribbling away at their piano in candlelight in throes of inspiration. In fact, it’s hard to detach the notion of a composer from some archaic, candle-lit, quill-pen fantasy.
So what does a modern, 21st-century composer look like? And what does he actually do? We speak to three—Christopher Gunning, Gustavo Diaz-Jerez and Ian Venables—to find out just that.


First and foremost, the composers admit that music came at a very early age for them and they can’t imagine doing anything else for a living. All three began playing instruments between the ages of four and 12, and were inspired by the music that surrounded them. “There was never any doubt that I would be a composer. For one thing, I was never really good at anything else; for another, I always had music in my head,” says Christopher Gunning.
Gustavo Diaz-Jerez and Ian Venables found their path towards composing through the piano, influenced by the likes of Ligeti and Penderecki and writing their first pieces (borrowing a lot from Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata”, laughs Ian) for the instrument when they were children. 
However, working their dream job is not without its challenges, all three admit. From maintaining a steady stream of ideas to constantly striving for originality, it’s creatively demanding and strenuous work that requires a hefty dose of optimism and discipline. Competition, as we’re surprised to learn, is also a major factor. “Having a premiere is one thing but getting further performances can be very difficult. Given the increasing numbers of composers writing today, all wanting a public platform, this is a real challenge. I am reminded of the American composer Ned Rorem’s amusing quip he made to me when he said that, ‘in New York there are more composers than cockroaches!’”, reveals Ian.

A typical day

So what does a typical day for a composer looks like, you might wonder? “My work as a composer involves me in so many different aspects of music on a daily basis: proofreading scores, giving talks, writing CD booklet notes, going to recording sessions, promoting performances, to mention just a few. However, once I do begin a new piece I get totally absorbed it and whole days can disappear,” says Ian.
Christopher, on the other hand, has a lot more structured daily routine, which includes carefully planned out windows for composing but is not devoid of little lulls and pleasures like walking his border collie in the afternoon or occasionally going to the cinema in the evenings.  
"I am not the kind of composer who can set the telephone directory to music when asked"
When asked about the amount of creative freedom they’re allowed in their work, the composers state that it varies vastly; while something like a concert work commission might allow a lot of it, writing a score for a film or TV drama can be much more limiting due to its creators’ own ideas.
Ian emphasises the importance of always maintaining a certain degree of freedom though: “I need complete freedom to decide what I would like to compose. Fortunately, when I'm offered a commission, the commissioners usually allow me enough latitude to decide the kind of work I would like to write. If the commission is a song cycle or perhaps a choral work then I insist on choosing the texts. I am not the kind of composer who can set the telephone directory to music when asked! I must have from the outset an emotional connection with the words.”

The evolution of the composer 

Fortunately, the modern composer’s work is nowhere near as restrictive as it used to be. Back in the past, beginning with Renaissance and Baroque periods, music had a very clearly defined social purpose, be it entertainment or social function, explains Gustavo Diaz-Jerez, and the composer had to adhere to the function the music was supposed to fulfil. As time went by though, the lines and limitations got looser.
“In the 19th century, the role of the composer as an independent, free artist was established.  In the 20th century, the breakdown of tonality empowered composers to develop new systems of composition which expanded tremendously our musical horizon. To me, this is similar to the Cambrian Explosion in biology, a period where most of the animal life we know today emerged,” says Gustavo.

Maurice Ravel 
So which past era would they like to work in if they could travel back in time? Funnily enough, early 20th century is everyone’s favoured period, with the composers citing lots of variety and major developments in the world of music as their reason. Says Christopher: “In France, you had Ravel and Debussy, Vaughan Williams and Holst here, and in Germany and Austria, Richard Strauss, Arnold Schoenberg and his two pupils, Berg and Webern. Simultaneously, jazz was developing in the US. This was undoubtedly the most notable period of musical development ever, and despite two World Wars, the arts flourished.”

The future of classical music 

Looking to the future of classical music and where it’s leading, the composers note several important developments as well as concerns that are on their mind. The growing number of listening platforms is one of the major ones. Christopher, for example, cites the big move from CDs to online listening, which, he worries, leads people to listening to music in the background rather than the foreground. Yet there’s a flip side to this phenomenon, as streaming services such as Spotify and radio stations like Classic FM do bring a wider listening public to classical music, optimistically observes Ian.
"We must champion the music of our time, especially the work of living composers"
The biggest and most worrying issue, however, lies in music education which is severely lacking at the moment—all three agree. “Unfortunately, in most countries, and certainly in Spain, basic primary and secondary education neglects music. Even at college-level, musical education involves mostly music of the past (roughly from the 18th and 19th centuries). We live in the 21st century! I believe this is a serious anomaly. We must champion the music of our time, especially the work of living composers,” says Gustavo.  

Where to begin 

If you’re not too well-versed in classical music, Christopher, Ian and Gustavo have some suggestions and list some of their favourite contemporary composers you should try. From Steve Reich and Henri Dutilleux, to John Williams and Lionel Sainsbury via Saariaho and Widmann, there’s plenty of exciting contemporary classical music you could dip your toes into.

Christopher Gunning’s Symphonies 2, 10 & 12 with BBC National Orchestra of Wales and Kenneth Woods are out now (buy and listen here)

Ian Venables’ Songs with Mary Bevan, Allan Clayton, Carducci Quartet and Graham Lloyd will be available from April 24

Gustavo Díaz-Jerez’s Seven Symphonic Poems can be heard on Maghek—a new album with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Eduardo Portal, available from February 28 
All albums are being released on Signum Classics
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