The whiter-than-white world of published British composers, and some wider thoughts

Following my last post on the British Composer Awards and race, I thought I would investigate figures for published British composers. For this I have drawn upon the catalogues of all but one of the major British publishers – Boosey & Hawkes, Faber Music, Music Sales, Peters Edition, United Music Publishers, Universal Edition and University of York Music Press. Reasons of time have meant I had to omit Schott Music for now, as their website does not separate out contemporary composers from everyone else from any era, whether composer or author, who has composed a work, authored an instrumental tutor, played a part in making an arrangement, and so on, producing a list with many hundreds of names through which to navigate. I have limited this study to living British composers – in the sense of being British-born or having adopted British nationality. I have also omitted composers who have only had the odd work published, the majority of their work being self-published. The following results emerge:

Boosey & Hawkes
10 living British composers, all white

Faber Music
There are five sub-categories:
House Composers: 14 living British composers, all white
Educational Composers: 16 living British composers, 15 white.
Film/TV Composers: 15 living British composers, 14 white.
Music for Now: 13 living British composers, all white
Rock & Pop Composers: 5 living British composers and two outfits, all white.

Music Sales
32 living British composers, 30 white.

Peters Edition
9 living British composers, 8 white.

United Music Publishers
9 living British composers, all white

Universal Edition
3 living British composers, all white (they have published some others in the past, who have now withdrawn their scores)

University of York Music Press
25 living British composers, 24 white.

Out of a total of 151 published living British composers, all but six are white. This constitutes a figure of 4%. Of those six, two are educational or film/TV composers. Only three British-born composers who are not of white origin are published. This constitutes a figure of 2%. According to the 2011 census, 12.9% of the British population do not belong to the ‘White’ category, so the ratio for published composers falls very significantly below that in the wider society.

I would not wish to single out publishers for particular censure, but would argue these figures are symptomatic of a deeper issue. From an informal survey to myself of published composers in other European countries, the situation is little different there, including in countries with significant ethnic minority populations. The world of contemporary composition (including, it would seem, more commercially-oriented composition) appears to be one of the ‘whitest’ fields around, certainly compared to some other artistic disciplines (compare published novelists, for example).

An argument I have already begun to hear since my last post is that which maintains that there is really little interest in contemporary composition outside of white communities (except perhaps amongst some East Asians) and so the current situation is merely reflecting the reality. But this is not so far from similar arguments relating to gender, based upon the fact that composition courses are frequently disproportionately male as well (certainly compared to courses in performance). That argument was the basis for complacency with respect to gender, and it is just as complacent with respect to race (and class, about which it is harder to come up with hard figures, but where I suspect the situation might be equally if not more problematic, and more so today than at a time when composers such as Harrison Birtwistle, Peter Maxwell Davies or Brian Ferneyhough were able to make a career).

In university music departments at which I have taught or guest-taught, there can (sometimes) be an ethnic mix not so far removed from that in the wider society, and on many courses students are required to study at least some composition. It should at least be reason for concern and questioning that such a tiny number of these ever emerge into the professional composition world. In other fields, there might be concrete action involving educational programmes to try and persuade some young people from minority backgrounds that such fields should not be perceived as essentially for whites-only, just as there have been initiatives to encourage women composers.

Furthermore, the fact that commissioning and programming policies, and principles of public subsidy in general, vastly favour musical work clearly located within white European art music traditions (as witnessed in terms of musical style, instruments used, type of concert settings employed and associated rituals, and so on) also serve to lend music traditionally belonging to the white middle- or upper classes a level of state-sanctioned prestige which is not generally available to other traditions to anything like the same degree. Something of this issue informed the petitions and counter-petitions about the commissioning policies of the organisation Sound and Music which took place in early 2012 (see this link for the original petition (speaking disapprovingly of how SaM ‘has pledged to
continue promoting ‘Electronic and Improvised; Noise and Art Rock; Notated and Modern Composition; Sonic Art; Multimedia and Cross Art Form; Jazz, World and Folk; and Alternative Rock & Dance’’ and this for the counter-petition).

The very concept of ‘classical music’ (a tradition in which, of course, I am myself as a musician and academic deeply emerged, and would hate to see fade from public life), as distinct from other genres and traditions (the term as used in the West does not generally incorporate other non-Western forms of musical high culture, which are sometimes elsewhere called ‘classical’) needs to be re-considered, and the relationship of new composition to this tradition similarly questioned, at least in terms of aesthetic priorities. In many ways the product of a variety of late eighteenth-/nineteenth-century trends – including nationalism and consequent need to frame national musical traditions, responses towards (and frequently against) the growth of mass culture as a consequence of expanding cities and new lower middle classes, decline in feudal institutions such as had previously supported art music – the concept of the ‘classical’ in music has deep resonances both of class and of race.

For music belonging to or relating to this tradition to continue to be something worth supporting and defending in a modern multicultural world, and it not to decline into something irretrievably archaic, requires in my view that we begin to address seriously the ways in which it has been connected to other forms of social exclusion and discrimination. There is absolutely no reason why musical work considered to be ‘art’ (as opposed to entertainment, for all the problems inherent in this opposition), in terms of being exploratory, challenging, demanding, aesthetically refined or otherwise distinctive, and so on, should be any more associated with Western high cultural traditions than any others – and the frequent conflating of the classical/popular dichotomy onto that of art/entertainment only serves to feed misapprehensions in this respect. But with a widened concept of ‘art music’, inevitably that more traditionally considered ‘classical’ may have to share some subsidy and other resources with work from other traditions – and the targeting of large sums towards traditional concert halls and series, opera houses, and so on, for new commissions, may also have to be rethought. To some extent this may be happening to a small degree (including with organisations such as Sound and Music), and musical education has for a few decades gradually started to catch up with major curricular questions for the discipline in a multicultural environment. But a wholesale re-negotiation of policies concerning subsidy and institutions would likely meet with fierce resistance from defenders of traditional notions of classical music, and probably indeed also from many musicians who personally benefit from the preservations of those values and institutions. I would however personally welcome and urge reconsiderations in this respect.

Once again, it is possible that I may have made a few errors in my data, and would welcome any corrections. I hope at some point to add some figures from Schott to the list for the sake of greater completeness.