Theory versus practice? Sally Whitwell weighs in on what exactly being a composer is all about.

A composer’s life is a bit of a mystery to most people, I think. There’s a romantic notion of the starving artist in a garret, sitting at a desk with a pencil and manuscript, writing dots and squiggles on paper and throwing it out the proverbial window to as many musicians as they can find to perform them. It all seems dishearteningly futile to me, rather like adding water to the ocean with a pipette.

I mean, what’s the point?!

Each day, scrolling past on my social media feed, I see countless links described as ‘composer opportunities’. By and large, these involve paying a fee for the privilege of having a curatorial type read through your score to decide whether it’s worth them performing it. The whole exercise spends your time, your energy, your heart, as well as your money – and for what? More often than not, I find it’s just a long wait for rejection followed by zero feedback on the quality of your work. It’s demoralising, time consuming and, for most of us, ultimately ineffective. At any rate, this ‘desk composing’ is just too disconnected from my musical practise; I prefer to get my hands a little dirty by being a performer-composer.

I’ve always felt inspired by the tenacity of performing creatives. Historically, they’ve always been around, from medieval troubadours to Beethoven playing his piano sonatas; from Liszt performing his virtuoso compositions to the countless recordings of Stravinsky conducting his own works.  These days we have folks like the Philip Glass Ensemble, the Michael Nyman Band, Ludovico Einaudi (and friends) and also Zoe Keating with her cello and laptop.

These ‘indie’ performer-composers are such an inspiration to me that once I’d decided to give this composing thing a bit of a go myself, I thought I’d try to follow that kind of route. After all, who’s going to perform my music if I don’t perform it myself? No one. 

Early on, I went about getting my compositions out into the world in any way I could; playing intimate soirées of my music for friends in my shopfront artist studio, bartering accompanist services for studio recording time in a local community radio station, composing music for community and children’s choirs that I conducted and accompanied, slotting my own works into my solo recital programs. Like the aforementioned ‘composer opportunities’ this was still a heap of hard work, but unlike those opportunities, these ones came with some level of immediate reward. That is, audiences heard my music and producers saw me being proactive about getting it out there. All these hard yards, combined with the relationship I have with ABC Classics/Universal producers as a recording artist, has now led me to the not so indie opportunity of having an album of my own works released. I am super grateful for that, let me tell you!

A part of me would love to see the kudos enjoyed by singer-songwriters in the pop world similarly enjoyed by performer-composers in the classical world. After all, the popular music realm is awash with performing creatives – David Bowie, Regina Spektor, Tori Amos, Rufus Wainright, Lily Allen, etc – who enjoy a level of respect not enjoyed by ‘poptart’ mouthpieces. Closer to home we have Sarah Blasko, Lior, and the wonderful Kate Miller-Heidke, songwriter, opera singer and, as it turns out, an excellent opera composer too. What a wealth of DIY creative talent! Thus, perhaps the audience for what we classical performer-composers do is actually somewhere else? Is it really such a tragedy that performing/producing my own shows doesn’t qualify me for representation from the Australian Music Centre? Is it so terrible that the symphony orchestras aren’t knocking on my door offering me commissions? Is the Wigmore Hall really the right place for my music anyway? All I can really do as a creative is put it out there and see who bites!

I stay hopeful that all the people who engage in this self-generated indie way of working will help to bring new music to more people than would consider it in the first place. Since the days when most Australian music was evocative of desert/reef/rainforest landscapes, a great deal has changed around here aesthetically speaking, and it’s well worth exploring. I for one am proud to add my voice to this collection of new aesthetics.

Sally Whitwell’s new CD, I Was Flying is released May 15 on ABC Classics


Further Listening…


Download on iTunes: All Imperfect Things: The Piano Music of Michael Nyman – Sally Whitwell


Download on iTunes: The Good, the Bad and the Awkward – Sally Whitwell


Download on iTunes: Mad Rush: Solo Piano Music of Philip Glass – Sally Whitwell