In the following article, I introduce and set out the “curating composer” as a new role in 21st-century music making with a distinct set of practices. For over a decade, my way of making has seen artistic creation and curatorial processes converge, and it was in 2017 with the release of my second studio album, bloom (SWD, 2017), that I reached a point where I could define a workflow and draw out principles. What follows is a case study for how we might construct the role in a body of work I made with Plaid, Manuel Poletti, and Max de Wardener.
I want to show how a curating composer can make and distribute new artistic work using a mobile and networked creative and curatorial process. Let me unpack that statement by setting out some general principles.
The role is marked out by two principles that dovetail across the curating composer’s workflow:
Mutual exchange: the reciprocal relationship between creative and distributive processes
Mobility: the free movement between creative acts and the curatorial situation
The curating composer might choose to take the following position:
Networked: distributed structures where creative responsibility is shared between collaborators
It is my contention that music creators (and recreators) should be equipped with curatorial skills if they are to generate paid opportunities, sustain careers, and enable the artistic ecology that goes with it to thrive. I believe this playbook should be available (embedded in education pathways, for example) to a new generation to provide aesthetic, mediation, and entrepreneurial direction.
Since 2017, I have been doing just that with students and early-career professionals, and the data I have collected reaffirms the urgency of the task: 92% of the 27 composers I recently surveyed expect some of their work to come from DIY/self-producing activity; over three-quarters can imagine one or both principles having relevance to the way they create; and yet only 58% feel confident in how they curate programmes.
Furthermore, the Covid-19 pandemic has radically affected cultural production (and who gets to produce it). The headline results of a composer survey published in the UK by Sound and Music and Ivors Academy in 2021 are stark: over half of respondents earn under £10k for composing in a normal (non-pandemic) year; and the three areas where composers earn most are DIY/self-producing, concerts including commissions, and education. As the then-Chief Executive of Sound and Music, Susanna Eastburn MBE and Graham Davies say in their supporting narrative, “The financial circumstances of the vast majority of composers are incredibly fragile.” Add to this the rapid technological developments since the late 1990s (beginning with the launch of Napster in 1999, then Apple iTunes and iPod in 2001, and social media in the mid-2000s), which has released an astonishing scale of digital creativity. The pandemic has, if anything, accelerated this further.
How can composers begin to compete for opportunities and attention in and among this?
A Brief Stylistic Analysis of Non-Classical Music
Before diving into the case study, I will put forward a brief stylistic analysis of non-classical music because it closely aligns with my approach to music making in bloom. The idea for a non-classical music is something the composer Gabriel Prokofiev and I talked about often when we were working together on his Concerto for Turntables and Orchestra (2006/7). I have adapted the use (and spelling) to reference a particular music that has its beginnings on the Nonclassical record label.
There are a limited number of what I describe as non-classical musical texts. The music is still far from integrated into music culture, the market, and literature, so it is too early to explore as a technique. Is it a new aesthetic? Thom Andrewes suggests “the Nonclassical [sic] aesthetic is all about displacement […] displacing one style of music into the frame or context of another.” But this does not require a new way of listening in the way that Steve Reich describes minimalism as a gradual process. Consequently, I argued in my doctoral research that non-classical music is a new style with a focus on rhythm and texture. Where it gets particularly inventive (and exciting to listen to) is in the music’s shared characteristics with electronic club music. It is in the very fabric of the string quartets, concertos, and piano scores that I reviewed. The composers are not using electronic club music as an occasional effect, such as Thomas Adès (1999) and Dai Fujikura (2006) might, or as crossover. It is idiomatic of their compositional language.
We also see for the first time mutual exchange: the reciprocal relationship between creative and distributive processes. Non-classical music was written for and first heard in the club context. For example, Prokofiev’s String Quartet No. 1 (2003) and Concerto for Turntables and Orchestra (2006/7) premiered at Cargo and Scala in London, respectively.
Non-classical music lies on the continuum of musical postmodernism which has its roots in the counterculture of the 1960s and in turn on experimentalism in the UK. I would even go as far as to say it continues the hardcore continuum as an example of dub’s instrumental turn.
Case study: bloom
Now, let’s turn to the case study. In this section, I bring to life the general principles of mutual exchange and mobility through the creative and distributive processes of the studio album project to construct the curating composer role. bloom is many-shaped, open-ended, and evolving. It is a composite of six manifestations. The following sections suggest the workflow, although it is inevitably more entangled than this.
Research and Planning
From the very beginning, I sought to establish a web of reference points to interact with at each stage of the production and distribution of bloom. I chose to collaborate with others so creative responsibility would be shared (i.e., my process was networked). My first curatorial act then was to create the situation for everyone to come together.
I looked to Brian Eno’s idea of “edge culture” to frame the narrative of the project and followed his logic when composing. Edge culture works like this: where a more traditional curatorial position might be to follow the linear art historical method of canon-forming that tends towards the grande histoire, Eno offers another way. He prioritizes temporary connections and asks us to confer values that are negotiable, interchangeable, and that avoid single narratives. It is a postmodern position and more accurately represents how an individual confronts and engages with art in the contemporary information society. In my edge culture, I pencil lines between myself, Cooly G, David Lang, and many others.
Defining the Sonic Entities
I set out to develop software technologies to modify the spectral components and sonic properties of the piano. I wanted to design a flexible system where the electronic output (e.g., the real-time processing of the piano) could change within set parameters. Early in the writing phase, I could foresee a way of exploiting this flexibility through the process of remixing, which would become a way of mediating the work with the public. I will return to this idea later. At the same time, I was also composing with a black box performance space in mind (the new work was first heard at the ICA in London).
bloom is a composite of six points of distribution, three of which are ancillary in function (D-F). These are:
III. Interactive digital space
VI. Artist Development Workshop and Programme
Casting the studio album for release
I worked with the stylistic features of the new works to plan the running order of the studio album. I considered the shape, flow, tonality, and balance of durations of the complete listening experience. Importantly, I used the stylistic features of non-classical music in choosing to record particular existing repertoire. For example, I selected this was written by hand by David Lang as an example of notated minimalism. It has a restless character, and the stuttered rhythms echo the break-beats in A Higher Sense of Time. The slowly thinning texture of the last eighteen bars acts as a natural outro, so I positioned it at the end of the record.
Album as curated playlist
Usually, the public release of vinyl and streaming formats would complete this first point of distribution. However, I have since turned my attention to exploiting streaming technology to deliver bloom as a curated playlist. Gavin Wade says the artist-curator applies “curatorial strategies as a way of presenting themselves, alongside other artists, to create composite public outcomes.” I selected existing material and recorded new pieces (guided again by the research network, edge-culture frame, and stylistic features of non-classical music) to extend the listening experience of the original studio album and widen the context and historicity of the works. This is an open-ended process and something I continue to add to and change today. In doing so, I momentarily connect different music, hopefully illuminating my own, while knowing that audiences elsewhere will be doing something similar on their playlists.
In partnership with Treatment Studio, I created the audio-visual show, bloom LIVE (fig. 1). The aim was to materialize my edge culture on the one hand while exploring audio responsive and real time visual effects on the other. I followed an iterative curating model where outcomes from other manifestations (workshops and remix competitions, for example) or previous performances-as-versions have a dynamic effect on the next performance. bloom LIVE shifts and morphs over time. The different performance contexts (e.g., club, white cube, concert hall) provide another opportunity to foreground the historicity of the new body of work and its visual language with electronic club music, minimalism, and more. The breadth of music encountered in bloom LIVE interrelates with the album and website content. New material is gradually introduced into performance (which in turn folds back into the playlist and vice versa). This all the while reinforces my temporary narrative.
I found a rare opportunity in the pandemic to devise a new iteration, bloom LIVE/STREAM, which was broadcast in November 2020 just prior to the second lockdown here in the UK. Where in the live show visuals were generated and mixed in real time in reaction to audio data, for bloom LIVE/STREAM, we pulled apart the original visual content and brought a live camera into the mix, so I became a part of the visual experience (fig. 2). At the time of writing, we are developing a third version, our “show in a box,” that combines elements of live streaming with in-person performance.
The diagram in fig. 3 shows how I thought about (un)controlled activity to create a degree of mutability at each live and broadcast event.
III. Interactive Digital Space
The interactive website “bloomworks” is the hub of the project, and audiences enter from a variety of pathways. It has four main functions:
Documentation (presenting materials in their optimum format)
Research (providing critical and historical context to create meaning)
Pedagogy (examining organizing structures of the project and select works)
Interpretation (inviting user interaction and engagement)
An invitation to participate and co-create is expressed through an open-ended call for remixes.
Remixing as open-source music making
Earlier I spoke of building a system of real-time processing that is inherently flexible and that at the point of recording the state of the electronics becomes fixed. To navigate this, I look to the virtual space as a way of mediating the work: I invite audiences to submit their own remixes of the piece. They can either use the stems provided or create their own following a similar aesthetic approach. I believe this gets around the problem of a fixed recording because there is now a selection of versions of equal value to listen to. The original is the genetic precursor, and the remixes are many different forms (mutations). This is another example of mutual exchange, where the distributive process affects the compositional act. I see this as a small-scale, open-source response to music making. Remixes are uploaded to the site over the lifespan of the project, and contributors get their own page complete with revolving vinyl audio player. Some remixes are rearranged for live performance and worked into bloom LIVE.
My quarterly newsletter, Edge Culture, is a long-form journal that I use to communicate ideas and context directly to my audience. Each newsletter is edited jointly with a featured guest—an example of a collaborative curatorial platform. My role is to choose the guest in line with my research interests set out in the beginning and to edit the text. The activity is unregulated (it sits on the uncontrolled axis). Once the topic is agreed, guest editors are responsible for selecting material and writing text.
Film is another medium where I can bring to life stories that relate to the research context. I am currently working on a series of shorts that explore “Dub, Migrations, Pirate Radio and UK Sound System Culture,” “1960s New York,” and “Experimentalism in the UK.” I do not foreground my work in these films, so in a way this distributes my work only indirectly.
VI. Artist Development Workshop and Programme
The final area is the Curating Composer workshop and artist development programme. The workshop is a standalone introduction to the role through the prism of bloom, while the soon-to-be launched programme sees an annually selected cohort of music creators work towards a collective endeavor with training, progression, and leadership opportunities. Both are a means for participants to reflect on and contribute to the project: their ideas provide further instruction for its development and evolve the role more generally.
Behind the theoretical ideas and creative acts lie the more mundane aspects of the curator’s role. bloom could not have happened without a fundraising strategy, the logistics of project, event, and tour management, or a promotional campaign. As I have become more experienced, I know where my strengths lie and when I am in danger of overreaching. Inevitably, the curating composer develops a wide set of skills, which is incredibly useful but a drawback to do this can be the tendency to think you can do it all yourself! I cannot recommend enough the benefits of building a team. That said, if you do go it alone, I have presented, in the doughnut model (fig. 4), the curating composer’s workflow in the context of the delivery skills required. I find this a useful teaching aide and personal resource to reflect on over time. How do I currently score myself in each category? Where are the gaps in my knowledge and understanding? What do I need to do or where do I look to overcome these?
Abstracting General Principles
In this case study, I hope I have now shown how a composer might use curatorial design to produce and distribute a new body of work. My role in bloom sees the two principles of mutual exchange and mobility in action, showing the curating composer to be original with a distinct set of practices. I chose a networked position this time because I wanted the curatorial function to bring about a unique and temporary situation for others to respond to. We see evidence of this in the significant and original contributions of Plaid, Manuel Poletti, Max de Wardener, Treatment Studio, and the many remixers who have submitted music to the project so far.
What might the curating composer look like in the future? In my position as Chief Executive of Sound and Music, the national organization for new music and sound in the UK, I have seen an increase in composers opting to self-produce their work and that of others. I am currently researching “the curating composer as scene maker” because the act of self-producing goes to the heart of DIY culture, and the sector needs to understand them better if it is to provide impactful financial and professional support. The role also has the potential to be further defined by underrepresented, underserved, and marginalized voices, as their contributions are needed to revitalize the institution.
I will finish by saying that I want to show the curating composer to be significant in historical terms and that institutions (including training pathways such as conservatoires) ignore them at their peril. It is vital a new generation of curating composers provide aesthetic and entrepreneurial leadership in what has become a bewilderingly fragmented landscape. If this speaks to you, then go on and be a creative force in 21st-century new music culture.
Dr. Will Dutta is a curating composer based in East Kent (UK). He is Artistic Director of Studio Will Dutta, Co-Head of Artist Development at Sound and Music, Fellow of the Institute of Cultural and Creative Industries at the University of Kent and Module Teacher (Developing Artist) at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance.
 I take the view that the curatorial function in this instance is active in bringing about a unique and temporary situation for others to respond to. However, this might not always be the case and is therefore not a principle.
 “Impact Survey, Joint Response,” Sound and Music, accessed March 3, 2021, https://soundandmusic.org/post/sound-and-music-and-the-ivors-academy-covid-19-impact-survey-joint-response/.
 Julia Haferkorn et al., Livestreaming Music in the UK, 2021, https://livestreamingmusic.uk.
 Will Dutta, “The Curating Composer: Mediating the Production, Exhibition and Dissemination of Non-Classical Music” (PhD diss., City, University of London, 2018), http://openaccess.city.ac.uk/20394/.