I get tied in knots whenever I sit down to write myself a composer biography. I dislike most biographies I read, yet when it is my turn, I’m just as stumped as anyone else. The difficulty is that “composer biographies” are used for a number of purposes, each with a distinct audience. Crafting one biography to fill every role is a bad idea, yet seems to be the prevalent model.
To my eyes, there are three key roles for composer biographies: a public-facing biography, used for programmes, a biography aimed at other creatives, used for commissioners, academics and fellow composers, and a biography aimed at industry professionals, such as funders. Broadly speaking, I’d say that most biographies are public-facing, yet written as if they are for industry insiders. I've had a go at thinking about each of these examples, and writing some examples. If you can come up with better or funnier examples, please post them below!
A funder, or producer, needs to know that you are going to be a good person to work with. Yet they are often not meant to make that assessment for themselves on purely artistic grounds. They are not old-fashioned A-and-R men, looking for obscure talent or the next big idea. Rather, they rely on the assessments of others. For composers, this usually means programmers for big institutions, juries on competitions, academics and the press.
As such, a biography used for people in the industry looks pretty much like a linear CV with some added press quotes. It will list prizes won, institutions attended, places performed at, prominent teachers and good press quotes.
Here’s my biography, written in that format:
This CV has one big advantage beyond its use for industry professionals: it’s fairly easy to write. You don’t have to put yourself in anyone else’s shoes, it is pretty much a list of facts. I find it intimidating, however, as I always feel as though my list of achievements is too short.
Many creatives you may work with could well decode your linear CV, but they may well not want to. Creatives often engage with composers in a spirit of exploration. Perhaps they’re looking for somebody to commission, somebody to bring on to a project. Or perhaps they’re just curious, looking to expand their knowledge and enjoy new material. In either case, they are likely more keen to know your aesthetic priorities rather than your institutional bona fides.
This is something I often face with frustration. I want to know a composer's interests before engaging them. Most composers have a broad set of interests; some have a segmented portfolio, with some of their work focusing on, say, site-specific multimedia work and other on self-performed work. I want to be pointed towards these areas to see if you’d be a good fit for a given project. I particularly want to be led through your recorded portfolio: if I’m commissioning you for a site-specific work, I’ll want to check that aspect of your work out first.
A lot of the time I’m just browsing, however, and want to quickly get a sense of your aesthetic priorities out of interest and to help me recall your work. I listen to a lot of stuff, and it helps if I can remember you not just as “person who wrote a lovely string quartet” but as “person who writes lovely string quartets to explore the physical discomfort of performance itself” (or whatever).
Here’s my bio, written in that style:
Despite being the most common use for biographies, these are the rarest to find. They are also the hardest to write, as the public that encounters your work is more varied in aims and backgrounds than the creatives who encounter your work.
It’s noteworthy that biographies are not common outside more formal artistic settings. Agents and labels sometimes provide them, these turn up on Spotify and are, to my mind, quite a good model for composers. But I can’t tell you how often I’ve looked for biographies of pop musicians only to find… nothing. Not even a website, often: there’s a tendency for younger acts to have a Soundcloud, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, but no website at all. The public-facing work is then done entirely through curating tracks, videos, photographs and articles by third parties. These media often do a pretty good job of conveying things in a quick, legible format.
I think there is a place for text-based self-presentation, particularly in a part of the music industry where the press isn’t likely to do help much. Text can do valuable work in framing your music. Plus programmers are likely to demand a biography from you, whatever your views on the practice.
So, how to write it? A common piece of advice is “write something that could be understood by your grandmother”. Certainly, anything you write must be understandable by someone with no specialist education or experience. But it’s foolish to imagine that you know nothing about your audience. Perhaps your work is being presented at a gallery: you may be able to tie your work to visual art in a way your grandma might not get. Perhaps you attract a young audience: it may be appropriate to reference contemporary trends that might go over gran’s head. (Perhaps your work is being presented at the Wigmore Hall and your granny is 20 years younger than the average…)
My mental shortcut is this: imagine you’re writing for somebody you’d like to make friends with. This is a much smaller subset than “all the general public” and presumes some shared knowledge. Here’s my attempt:
While this three-fold rubric seems fairly straightforward, it offers pitfalls that are illustrative of our music scene.
Many composers are not keen on performing their musical identity. By this, I mean that they see a discontinuity between their interpersonal presentation and the message of their music. This is partly because contemporary composers often do not perform their music themselves and so have not developed the stage persona that is essential for musicians in most music genres. (Electronic music is an area with a similar character in this regard.) Even when they do, the standardised aesthetic of classical performance allows performers to avoid making choices in their self-presentation, and simply defaulting to black-shirted silence.
This performance decision is sometimes driven by, or compounded by, introversion. For many, the music they write is a sufficient invitation to their mental world. The idea of sharing more of their personality with strangers may seem unwelcome, unnecessary, difficult or even insincere.
This encourages the use of industry-facing biographies in public- or creative-facing contexts, as they are easier to write. This is a mistake, as these biographies are so boring that they make me want to cry. They don’t fill the needs of other contexts and, as they require specialist knowledge to decode. As a result, they are very exclusionary and should never be used in any public-facing place, or any place that might become public facing.
However, I am sympathetic to personal inclinations that drive this trend. The pressure for creatives to become one-person management teams is overwhelming and, in part, a result of the economic pressures of a music economy denuded of cash. Yet I also think composers should try to do their best and avoid the pitfall of viewing the performance of a musical identity as insincere or superficial. It is impossible not to perform an identity: it will be read by everyone who comes into contact with your music. The only choice in front of you is whether you play a role in actively shaping that identity. If you don’t, you may end up presenting your music in a context that your audience finds alienating, or you may create a false performance, whether they read something into you that isn’t there.
That said, crafting your artistic identity is hard work. Many composers are absorbed in the nitty-gritty of their work. Perhaps the truest expression of their musical project is working out how to combine microtonal harmonic structures with serial processes. This can result in the kind of biographies generated by the composer-bullshit generator. Here’s some of my biography in that style:
This modernist, technical style is just one iteration of this. The more modern academic style is just as challenging:
These kinds of biographies can be acceptable as creative-facing biographies (though most are too pretentious), but they cause an allergic reaction in the majority of people. They are much like art-gallery speak, a mocked and frustrating social code that hides a misunderstand what it is to present an authentic artistic self. They seem to me to make the mistake of assuming that somebody else can see your inner state with the same clarity as you do. You may know what is moving about second-order desire, or 31-ET, but unless you convey that clearly, it’s going to remain lost on everyone else.
Transferring your desires into text is hard, but it’s worth doing. This blog is in part an attempt to get better at that. For me, the important step will be uniting my various outlets more organically: creating a visual and performative language that is united with my written output and my music.
That will require that I not overshoot in my attempt to clearly convey my work. My work is relatively complex, not designed for passive listening or for dancing. Writing about it in a way that conceals that behind overly-accessible language would be misleading. Moreover, it would be ineffective, and often lame. There’s a style of PR-speak that is sometimes applied to composers that is as bland and uninspiring as the examples above. A short example, because I’m not so good at faking this one:
To me, this style is uncanny. It falls into the gap between naturalism and artifice in a way that is deeply off-putting. Its enthusiasm makes it clear it’s written by a promoter, as no artist (you’d hope) could stomach that level of self-hype.
Bad biographies, or the bad use of perfectly serviceable biographies, speaks to uncertainty about who our music is for and the state of flux in the way that it is reproduced.
Too often our audience is comprised of industry, academics and other creatives. As a result, the first two biographies can seem appropriate in public settings, because these settings are essentially not public. But this is a self-reinforcing cycle: the more cliquey and introverted we make our musical settings, the more they will put off people who are not familiar with them. They are symptomatic of a genre supported by academic environments, where a certain style of bad writing is far too common.
Our confused biographies also speak to the classical roots of contemporary music. Classical music instituted a never-completed shift from a culture in which the role of composer and performer are integrated to one in which they were separated. In the process, the role of the composer in their self-presentation became muddled. As composers re-begin to have a more direct connection with their audience, either as a performer or through digital media, the importance of authentic self-presentation will increase.