Contemporary Music, Postgraduate research

Beethoven Was Wrong

PhD composer Daniel James Ross tells us about his new radio show dedicated to contemporary composers at UK universities…

Beethoven was Wrong resized

Beethoven Was Wrong is a radio show that I am making for the world’s first radio art station, Resonance FM. Below is a description of the show from the website:

“BWW is a radio show about contemporary composers at UK universities. Each week we visit a different music department and listen to pieces by staff and students, creating a musical map of the UK’s institutions.

With Beethoven the parts of a composition were defined by means of harmony. With Satie […] they were defined by means of time-lengths. The question of structure is so basic, and it is so important to be in agreement about it, that we must now ask: Was Beethoven right or […] Satie? I answer immediately and unequivocally, Beethoven was in error, and his influence, which has been extensive as it is lamentable, has been deadening to the art of music.”
John Cage, “Defense of Satie,” in John Cage, ed. Richard Kostelanetz (New York: Praeger, 1970):81.

Now, here at BWW we don’t actually think that Beethoven was wrong. However, the above quote by John Cage says a lot about the world in which contemporary composers find themselves. With access to scholarship and recorded music from all over history and the world, how do our institutions stay in the vanguard of musical expression? How do composers react to the twenty-first century? BWW offers listeners a glimpse into the fascinating world of the university music department.

The title of the show has been taken from chapter fourteen of the excellent book The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross.

BWW is written & presented by Daniel James Ross, lecturer at Morley College & PhD music composition candidate at Cardiff University.

The idea for this show first came to me around three years ago. I had graduated from the University of Edinburgh and moved back to London at the beginning of the “credit crunch”. As the “crunch” developed into a recession, it became harder and harder to find work. Finding myself with a fair amount of free time, I thought I’d better put it to good use and volunteer somewhere. I chose Resonance FM because I had always loved radio, knew some people who had made excellent shows for them, and fancied putting my sound engineering skills to the test.

A few months later I realised how much I was missing academia and elected to apply for a PhD. I knew that I wanted to study composition, but finding the right department was a challenge. If you have ever visited the websites of different music – or, in fact, any – departments they will all tell you pretty much the same thing, namely: “our research interests are broad, our department is internationally successful and our facilities are world class.” I was going to have to do some more research.

I visited the websites of different lecturers and composers working at the universities in which I was interested. Understandably, there is not a lot of music available for free streaming by contemporary composers and, being unemployed, I was in no position to endlessly buy CDs of music by potential supervisors. Of course, there was some music available on-line and I listened to everything I could.

Finding recordings of pieces by students was even more difficult. For the sake of brevity, I won’t go into all the reasons why student work is underrepresented in the musical world, but, suffice it to say, I had found a gap in the market. A radio programme that showcased music by staff and student composers from different universities around the country would be an excellent way of promoting new music and fostering inter-departmental collaboration.

In October 2014, I put out a call for works within the music department at Cardiff in order to create a pilot episode. It lasted half an hour and was broadcast on Resonance FM in one of their dedicated clear spot slots for one-off shows. A podcast version of the show can be found here. The following January, I got the go ahead to create an entire series of six hour-long episodes.

Creating the show has not been particularly difficult, as I know my way around a recording studio, but it has taken far longer than I originally envisaged. Collating six hours’ worth of material from different universities has taken a long time! However, it has been a great experience and I have met some wonderful composers and heard so many beautiful, interesting, inspiring, and moving pieces of music and sonic art.

The series is in the final proof-listening stage and should be broadcast within the next month or so. Keep checking the website for more details.

Daniel James Ross, June 2015

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