Curation as a Third Possible Activity for Composers

Since we cannot be those who hold the door open for our own work, we should be a community dedicated to holding the doors open for one-another.

Written By

Aaron Holloway-Nahum

Various groups of people in conversations scattered around a room

Sound and Music’s Open Day for Composers (photo by Aaron Holloway-Nahum)

Recently, Sound and Music hosted an open day for composers in London. Individuals had the opportunity to raise questions and issues facing us as composers in 2015, and we then gathered in groups to discuss the ones that interested us. One of the groups was focused on this question: “Is it better for composers to spend time producing their own work or to apply to competitions/open calls?” These two activities represent the most likely career paths for emerging composers today, and
I doubt there are many composers reading this who do not spend a significant amount of their time and creative energy doing one or—more likely—both of these things. Compare this again, though, with a contemporary vision of a curator’s role:

[H]ave you ever been in a hotel with a partner and you’re going down for breakfast and you’re on the twentieth floor, and you ding the bell for the lift, it comes up and your partner is still in the room and so you try and keep the door open? …At the same time, there’s a guy down on the ground floor who’s dinging the bell and he wants that lift to come down to the bottom of the building, so there’s this pressure on. Now, when that’s happening, you’re trying to resist and your job at that point is to try to keep that door open for as long as possible….As a curator, I think one’s job is to hold that space open for as long as possible. It’s always trying to close in, to fill itself with stuff, and your job is to make a space available for an artist to work and to develop all sorts of relations to that space, which at the same time is always closing down.”[1]

Back at that Sound and Music conference, this question of our possible activity left me with a depressing and individualistic vision of our community. Here was a group of eighty (or more) composers, sitting in this small room, each trying to think up strategies to pursue their own work and achieve their own goals. The truth, though, is that it is virtually impossible for a person to be both the artist and the person holding the door open: you cannot be holding the elevator door if you are still in the hotel room getting ready.

So I continue to bang on my drum and say to all the musical organizations out there: we need curators! Since the current economy finds most organizations that could (and should) pursue establishing this role within our art form focused on other areas, it leads us to explore a third possible activity for composers. Since we cannot be those who hold the door open for our own work, we should be a community dedicated to holding the doors open for one another.

Imagine if, in that room of 80 composers, we decided that for the next three months we would not spend our extra energies (however much or little we have) producing our own work, nor would we expend it applying for our own opportunities, but instead we would look around our community—emphatically remembering that any room full of composers omits many of the most important people creating new music today—and set about creating spaces and opportunities for others who inspire and enthrall us. This does not replace the act of composing ourselves, of course. It could begin to move us, though, from our current situation where there never seems to be enough space or work, to one where there aren’t enough artists to fill all of the spaces that are being created.

It should also be pointed out that in music, one of the key elements of curatorship completely left to chance is that of research. I don’t just mean a knowledge of the current repertoire—which is always by chance, since repertoire is expanding too fast for any of us to really know more than a small corner of it—but a deep interaction with the most influential and innovative ideas of musicians as the platform from which this other curatorial activity is carried out.

Piles of musical scores somewhat in disarray on shelves.

Knowing the repertoire takes more than this.

For those interested in taking up some of these suggestions in your own practice, we should be equally serious about regularly reading this site as well as other new music journals and magazines (e.g. Tempo, Contemporary Music Review, and I Care If You Listen), other blogs from organizations, peers, and the relevant critics, as well as listening to podcasts (Meet the Composer, Relevant Tones, Tentative Affinities[2]). Placed alongside ongoing experiences of the live new music available to us locally, this reading, listening, and critical thinking informs the work we pursue, enable, and create ourselves.

When we say we are committed to knowing the repertoire that is being created today, we should mean understanding the ideas and motives of Raphael Cendo (for example) as much as we mean having heard and liked or disliked his music. To state this more clearly: curation requires rather more than someone of “good taste” (which really just means “someone who likes the same music I do”). It requires that we have people who have a wide and deep understanding both of music and what it means to be a musician in 2015. If this sounds like a role for an academic, it most decidedly is not:

[Curation] provides a platform for artists’ ideas and interest; it should be responsive to the situation in which it occurs; and it should creatively address timely artistic, social, cultural, or political issues. It could be said that the role of the curator has shifted from a governing position that presides over taste and ideas to one that lies amongst art (or objects) space, and audience. The motivation is closer to the experimentation and inquiry of artists’ practices than to the academic or bureaucratic journey of the traditional curator.[3]

The breadth of knowledge, founded upon solid research and a wide inquiry into the work of other musicians, is what allows for the true development of this practice. So, when we are looking for colleagues who “inspire and enthrall us” to support, this begins with, but is more than someone who writes good notes or plays their instrument well. It is everywhere seeking those who take responsibility for where new music is heading, and raises up musicians who see the development of our art form, and the implications of where we are going, as our collective responsibility.

Even with this vision of composers as curators, it must be said that there are aspects to the curator’s role that simply cannot be inhabited by the artists themselves. We urgently need, for example, to have a realistic and frank discussion about the economics of creating our work.
One of the things that is so precious about curators is that—although they are paid by the institution—they are expected to exist between institutions and artists: when they work properly, they ensure that institutions and organizations respect and care for the artists that populate their halls with art. Contrary to this, so much work—even work being carried out by the very best and most properly funded organizations in the musical community—is built in an “opportunity/exposure” model that is, in reality, exploitative and unsustainable.

We must be brave enough to point out that if the work cannot be financed properly it will eventually cease to exist, or devolve into a hobbyist pursuit. On the other hand, there is a learning curve to this, and there is an understandable and necessary mentality of working on spec as something begins. As a personal example with The Riot Ensemble, our first call for scores did not offer a commissioning fee. Our second call, run earlier this year, did offer a nominal fee for two commissions, along with money to cover travel costs for a third, collaborative piece. As we look forward and aim to grow, we are committed to raising these fees every year until they reach a level that is actually reasonable for the composers involved. Importantly, we are committed to raising the commission fees offered to this level before we raise the number of commissions.

The point is that it is our commitment to the ideas I have been laying out in these essays that leads us to this sort of thinking. An ensemble concerned with marketing or fundraising applications does well to squeeze six new commissions out of a small grant. The ideas of curation challenge this model and reveal it as flawed. At the moment, this is very much up to us. We should be concerned with moving forward in ways that ask these questions of each other rather than simply clamoring to fit into predefined spaces where the doors have already closed.


1. Andrew Renton, recorded from a talk in The Producers: Contemporary Curators in Conversation (5). BALTIC. 2002. pp. 11-12. (I am deeply grateful to Ed McKeon—who is currently studying for a PhD focusing on curation in music—for bringing this wonderful series to my attention.)

2. By the late Bob Gilmore.

3. Kate Fowle, “Who Cares? Understanding the Role of the Curator Today,” Cautionary Tales: Critical Curating, 2007.