Sibelius Syndrome

Dear Student Composers,

Learn an instrument. Please. I beg you.

An instrument according to our friends at Google.

I think that phrase distils the essence of all my lengthy and repetitious criticisms regarding playing new works by tertiary level composers. (Not of course that it applies to everyone, it’s just a general observation.)

Here’s a term: Non-musician student composers!

Come. A brief search on the interweb shows this topic has occurred before in human history. Alas, a thread inviting discussion on the trend of composers who aren’t performing musicians quickly denigrated into semantics about whether a composer was technically a musician or not. My faith in humanity just dwindled a bit. Never mind.

But as someone who has had an interest in student works, including actively seeking them out, I find the same cliche factors and tendencies, ironically to do with ensuring that their music is ‘different.’ This seems to mean removing any kind of association from Classical music. To start from scratch. Unfortunately this tends to have the same effect as teaching piano by letting the student pfaff around aimlessly for an hour without music to make them learn how to play on their own. How organic.


Most disturbingly, possibly because of notational software, composers can sit back and put in dots without having to know or care about the realities of the instruments they write for, especially without regard to how difficult or easy what they have just written is.

A student composer loses my respect the moment they do any of the following:

1) In hearing musicians play their excessively awkward work badly, they have no clue if it was made up or not.

2) They give a meaningless instruction or a failed ‘advanced’ technique. “Pluck the string inaudibly”

3) The music written is excessively ‘copy and paste.’

4) Overly pretentious directions. Eg: “Tentatively like a harpooned whale” (Doubly so if they’re in another language. “Versuchsweise wie ein Wal harpuniert”)

A 'tentative' version of a great white shark. Made so by another (bigger) shark. P.S. I do not like the fact that this little 'tiff' happened quite close to where I live.

5) Notation is excessive and/or meaningless. Eg: Chords with lots of dots and accidentals that overlap for instance.

6) The writing is blatantly and consistently bad for the instrument. Particularly if it only explores a tiny fraction of it’s potential. It is true that many fantastic composers write/wrote awkwardly for instruments, and that’s the performer’s problem. But when a composer does it out of ignorance….

Ignorance is never a convincing excuse. Hence why learning an instrument would sort out most of the above points.

There will be times when the behavioural qualities of a punctured orca may be an appropriate direction, and in these rants I should stress that there can be a time and place for anything, but chances are if you’re still a non-musician student composer you won’t really be needing it until you know how just what a performer will think and do when they see your score. Perhaps the underlying problem is that as a student the dots only have to look good on paper and be argued in aesthetical rants not to dissimilar to this one, in order to make the composition lecturers happy.


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