Check out the Daffodils

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You probably think it’s a bit too early for daffodils, even in an era of global warming, unless you live in one of the more sheltered bits of southern England, but the Daffodil Perspective I am referring to today is a year-round phenomenon. Elizabeth de Brito’s fortnightly podcast is a cornucopia of classical music by those female and global musicians who were omitted from our education.

If you have ever said, ‘I’d like to programme more music by people who aren’t dead white dudes, but don’t know where to find it,’ Elizabeth is systematically providing the solution to your problem. She also offers consultancy services, so if you find listening back to several years of podcasts a bit much all at once, you may find paying for an hour or two of her time a more efficient way to bring yourself up to speed.

I learned about Elizabeth’s work when the Association of British Choral Directors advertised that she would be leading one of their regular webinars, and by Saturday when it came around I had subscribed to The Daffodil Perspective and started working my way back through past episodes. My listening for the journey to and from rehearsal is sorted for a good while now.

The webinar started with some tasters of recommended pieces, moved on to sharing resources for researching repertoire, and then developed into useful discussions about how to start the culture change to persuade ensembles (and in particular their committees who hold the purse strings) into exploring repertoire that is currently unfamiliar to them.

There was one bit of discussion that got started and needed longer to unpick, and which therefore I came away with a desire to blog about. The question arose as to how, when faced with loads of music you don’t yet know, do you identify which is any good?

Elizabeth suggested as a starting-point that amount of information available can act as a proxy for quality: if a composer’s work is widely available (published, recorded), and there has been a decent amount written about them, you can assume their work is good.

Now, I had a bit of ‘yes-but’ reaction to this. There are ways in which I agree with this proposition: in general if someone has made it in the music profession, that itself is a mark of competence, and especially if someone is from a traditionally marginalised group, they probably needed to be better than average to make it all. And of course, since doing something a lot is how one becomes expert, size of output can be a pretty good indicator of skill level.

On the other hand, I don’t think you can assume the converse. Just because there’s not a lot of information about someone, doesn’t mean their work isn’t any good. I have written before about the processes by which people who aren’t white dudes get erased from the history books after their deaths, leaving each new generation thinking they were the first to break into the profession. So to believe that amount of information about someone correlates with the quality of their work just compounds these acts of bad faith, leaving that work hidden.

At a practical level, of course, there is so much more music, and information about it, available than 30 years ago that someone programming a concert in 2022 doesn’t have to go scratting around into archives to find plenty of music by a genuine diversity of composers. Elizabeth is right on the money on this point - as well as doing a fantastic job of getting that information out of archives and into musicians’ heads where it is needed.

But I think allowing the discourse to be sucked into the discussion of ‘is this any good’ just panders to the terms of bad faith that were used to exclude these composers from the standard repertoire in the first place. It’s a question, after all, that only gets asked of female composers, or Black composers, or Asian composers, or inexpensively-educated composers. You don’t hear that kind of sniffy doubt being expressed about young men who were choral scholars at Cambridge, no, for them it’s all fawning over ‘isn’t it wonderful to have these Talented Young Composers coming through?’

Which of course it is, but it’s also wonderful to have composers from other backgrounds. Anyone who gets skilled enough to produce a body of work they can make a living from is going to be able enrich our musical lives as we perform and listen to their music. And, by the same token, all jobbing composers have their moments of slightly more ordinary material where there wasn’t time or energy to achieve sublimity. I’ve been playing through Mozart piano sonatas recently, and much as I love them, there are some bits that clearly got through on the ‘sod it, it will have to do’ principle familiar to anyone who has ever worked to a deadline.

As one of the webinar participants pointed out in the chat, it can actually be more useful to think in terms of: is this piece suitable for my ensemble, for the occasion we’re preparing for? and let the question of ‘quality’ look after itself.

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