Redefining Compositional Practices Under Contemporary Capitalism (Casting Light #5)

Casting Light” is a 10-part series that explores the often invisible inequities in contemporary arts spaces. Commissioned by ACF and I CARE IF YOU LISTEN, the goal of the series is to highlight the conversations that we need to be having more openly and transparently in order to build diverse, inclusive, and equitable artistic communities. Building on our commitment to anti-racism, a culminating collection of these articles and other resources will be shared for continued learning and dialogue. 

​​For as long as I can really remember, and certainly since being an ‘adult,’ I’ve experienced depression, fatigue, and anxiety. At times, my mental health has felt difficult to live with, manifesting as a heavy cloud of overwhelm.

My mental health has been specifically difficult to navigate within the context of being ‘a composer.’ The image of a composer who does the majority of their work alone, in silence or at the piano, seeing no distractions as they are struck by divine inspiration, feeling euphoric as they sit and scribble — is still stubbornly persistent in our institutional music education. Deep rooted ideas about what ‘correct’ or ‘good’ composing is — or otherwise, about how a composer works — have, within the mainstream anyway, not budged. It has become a truism, and so it feels silly to state, but this historical precedent for what a ‘composer’ is understood to be does a lot of damage to those entering the world of contemporary music in the 21st century.

Some demographic facts about this figure — white, male, European, upper class — are of course alienating. However, for me, it is the implications of being a ‘tortured genius’ that I find the most distressing, the most alienating, and the most stubbornly problematic with regard to how we think about composing and composers in the present day.

Photo by Sasha Freemind on Unsplash

Photo by Sasha Freemind on Unsplash

As I struggled with my own depression and fatigue, I didn’t feel able to sit and focus on composing for a long time. I often didn’t feel like I wanted to compose, or even that I was interested in it that deeply. What’s more, these feelings carried with them embarrassment and shame — surely I should feel grateful, energised, and inspired by the opportunities I was being presented with, many of which I had gone out of my way to apply for in the first place?

I know that these feelings about work or hobbies are fairly normal for anyone struggling with their mental health — but they felt especially devastating and confusing against the historical precedent for what a composer’s work should be, or how it should feel.

The ‘tortured genius’ trope, which is so often applied to historical composers, utterly effaces the body. Marxist Feminist interventions in the 1970s led the way for the recognition of unpaid housework as a key cog in the economic system of capitalism, and I think it’s fair to say that composers of the past probably had their cooking and cleaning done for them. This would have allowed them to focus on their creative work exclusively and fetishistically. This aligns perfectly with the philosophical framework of a mind-body dualism, where mental capacity is held to be a masculine trait, and therefore femininity, in oppositional definition, is attached to the body and ‘feeling.’

This framework arose from the work of Descartes in the 17th century, but it has pervaded how we have come to think about gender and work. Cartesian dualism has led to a situation where composer-geniuses are conceptualised as a mind only. We don’t really think about historical composers’ bodies, but surely their fingers must have hurt, their backs ached, from all the time they spent hunched over manuscript paper?

Photo by Dayne Topkin on Unsplash

Photo by Dayne Topkin on Unsplash

In the model of ‘genius’ which surrounds the imagined Western classical composer, the body is simply ignored, assumed to be bionic — or, in the same vein but expressed slightly differently, the composer’s mind deified further by its ability to subjugate the body’s needs.

I have become increasingly dissatisfied with the idea that assimilation would mean justice — assimilating to a traditional idea of ‘composing,’ or framework for what compositional ‘success’ is. So what do I do if I am a composer, but I can’t ignore my own body without making myself unacceptably fatigued and depressed? Or, what if, regardless of my own illness or wellness, I explored a practice of refusal to push my body to be productive?  What would a model of compositional practice which was inherently, profoundly, and radically accessible to anyone look like?

Considering refusal on a personal level, I looked towards practical, everyday mechanisms to manage my workload. I started drawing scores on an iPad, which made my physical process of score-making more flexible, more fluid, and less physically demanding. I became more and more enamoured with a practice of recycling ideas from project to project, reducing my research and development workload and rejecting the model of the ‘work’ as a discrete object which comes from divine inspiration.

Because I found score study and music analysis especially taxing, I explored how it felt to allow myself to create more intuitively, without the analytical justifications which we are taught are necessary to make work ‘good’ and legitimate. I leaned into collaborative projects, sharing labour with others and rejecting the premise that I had to be the originator of all the ideas for me to be a ‘composer.’

And at the same time as I was learning how to make my composing practice more accessible, the scholarship I was engaging with pointed me in the same direction.

Poststructuralist, feminist, and decolonial literatures encouraged me to understand that far beyond the superficially white, male, European image, many of the ideas which constitute the ‘composer’ and ‘composition’ are enmeshed in conservative and oppressive systems of thought. In addition to creating a problematically gendered image of the composer, the 18th century Enlightenment period is also when the concept of race as we understand it today was born. This context made the role of the composer as ‘master’ over ideas, music, and performers increasingly uncomfortable for me, resonating as it does with Enlightenment (and proto-capitalist) notions of hierarchy, meritocracy, and ‘individual liberty’ as something opposed to collective care and action. Poststructuralist interventions in the idea of authorship and power helped me to further dismantle the idea of the composer as a ‘genius’ or ‘master’ figure, arming me to question the compositional academy and to reject normative models of ‘value’ and ‘worth’ in my own work and the work of others.

Photo by Maxim Abramov on Unsplash

Photo by Maxim Abramov on Unsplash

Queer theory gifted me with ideas about how refusal to conform to ‘straightness’ can be generative, playful, and joyful. Sara Ahmed’s book Queer Phenomenology explores the idea of the body which is ‘oriented’ queerly, refusing away from ‘lines well trodden.’ Considering what this might mean not just in terms of sexual orientation but for a creative practice, I found this idea revelatory for considering the potential within slower, less ‘efficient’ or ‘productive’ ways of working.

Jack Halberstam’s book The Queer Art of Failure follows on from Brecht’s famous imperative to “fail better.” In resistance to the way that ‘failing better’ has been co-opted by entrepreneurialism to mean being more successful with every attempt, Halberstam wants his reader to embrace a genuine willingness to fail, “to lose one’s way, to pursue difficult questions about complicity, and to find counterintuitive forms of resistance.” I started thinking about what this would mean as a creative person — for projects to not come to fruition, for audiences to be ambivalent about work, for concerts to be messy.

This research led me towards the adjacent field of critical disability studies, where I began to find people talking about work and capitalism as a system of oppression which manifests in profound and debilitating ways within the body. Nowhere before had I found such a clear articulation of the oppression which encompasses the body, illness, and capitalism.

It became more and more clear to me that my anxiety and poor mental health are linked to life, and specifically life as an artist, under contemporary capitalism. It makes sense, really — having little reason to feel secure about my present career, or future, is profoundly exhausting and unsettling. This link now seems self evident to me, but I am continually surprised by conversations with peers and friends who are in the place I was in a few years ago: depressed and desperately disengaged with their work (even if it is the creative work that they ostensibly ‘love’), and on board with the past two years’ surge in popular anti-capitalism — but still feeling so disoriented that it is impossible to draw clear links between it all.

It became more and more clear to me that my anxiety and poor mental health are linked to life, and specifically life as an artist, under contemporary capitalism.

Of course capitalism isn’t the only reason people become ill, mentally or physically. But capitalism certainly does make it impossible to live well with illness. Whether that means engaging with (Western) medicine, ‘recovering’ in any sense, or simply living well — with space to rest and to live one’s life with mental, physical, and emotional dignity — capitalism is what often makes it impossible

This sense of a larger, collective problem has been especially important for me when considering how ableism and capitalism manifest for composers specifically. Composers often work at home and alone, in a way that can be very isolating. It can be hard to cope if composers do not feel deeply engaged with their work — if they seem to be failing to meet the standards set for them by historical precedent of what being ‘a composer’ looks like or means.

The most radical accessibility — where everyone, whatever their body is or does, could have access to music- or sound-based creativity — can only be found in a world without capitalism. This could look like lots of things from the top down — at absolute minimum, a generous system of universal basic income, an overhaul of housing, and ideally, the abolition of landlordism. Within the music community, we can’t achieve those things here and now, but I think we can look towards a better compositional ecosystem by enacting values of justice, liberation, and communality through our work and how we work together.

Moving past a neoliberal framework which individualises oppression and erases solidarity is imperative. Conservative concert programming, which gives space to one new commission from one ‘exceptional’ composer, enforces a culture of competition and meritocracy; as composers, I think we should focus our efforts instead on creating opportunities for each other, embracing roles as producers, conductors, performers, and audiences, as well as composers. Rejecting the idea of uniqueness or ‘genius,’ embracing and even reveling in the fact that we all influence each other and operate within a creative network rather than alone, can be very powerful. A genuine community of folks who are deeply invested in each other’s work means that those who are struggling — be that mentally, physically, financially, interpersonally — can be cared for. Strong communities are built by investing time, money, skills, or expertise without expecting anything direct in return; when we all do this together, it means that there’s a support network for the most vulnerable amongst us.

We can also ask ourselves — when we write music, what values do we reenforce? In how we conceptualise and how we frame our practice, it is easy to unwittingly reiterate ideas which stem from hierarchical and damaging ways of thought. But with critical awareness, we can regain agency over our decision making and choose to actively foster more radical and open values. In my own practice, this has meant a real focus on collaboration, flexible scoring techniques (like using text and graphic notation elements as well as less formal or fixed scores), as well as keeping projects open ended and rejecting the idea of the finished, sellable ‘product.’ I don’t think this criticality has to look like it does in my own practice, but composing and working together with an awareness of the flows of power which act on us as composers is, I think, the bare minimum in 2021.

In dreaming for better for composers, musicians, audiences and beyond, we have to focus our efforts on levelling profound challenges to capitalist logics. We can do that in the way we work, personally and between each other.


I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, funded with generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF. 

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