A hyper-productive, dizzying panoply of music

On the relationship between artistic production and being perceived

To be a professional artist you need to balance two, not necessarily harmonious, impulses: the need to make things and the need to be noticed. Without an authentic impulse to make things, even the most cravenly cynical and attention-seeking artist simply runs out of steam, unable to keep flogging themselves into production. It is a mixed blessing that in new music, poor pay and sparse opportunities – for even well-known and established artists – create a bulwark against this kind of interloper. Alternatively, if you have the impulse to make things but are not particularly concerned about the work being seen or heard then at some point you simply cease to be (or to be seen as) a professional artist. Your practice enters into the realm of the amateur and the outsider artist; your accumulation of unseen work becomes more likely to be pathologised as hoarding; your life’s work more likely to be chucked into a skip when you die.

In new music the ‘market’ (such as it is) rewards composers who produce work that is consistent. Consistent in terms of quality, material used, aesthetic parameters, personnel and rate of production. If one of my composition students asked me how best to guarantee fame and fortune in new music (they don’t ask me this) I would suggest making no more than a handful of pieces a year for top performers. I would then suggest that these pieces should be more or less the same. This gives you the best chance of producing work of consistently high quality whilst also building a recognisable ‘brand’ so when ensemble xyz want a piece that’s extremely microtonal/quiet/difficult to play/technological/long/political etc. then they will know who to turn to.

In this context, producing an album a month consisting of wildly contrasting musics for years at a time, as Mexican-born composer and pianist Gavin Gamboa did between 2014 and 2020, is a kamikaze act of career self-destruction. Gamboa’s Bandcamp page is a dizzying panoply of music: miniatures for prepared piano, digitally processed recordings of Beethoven, brutally fragmented remixes, sci-fi musical electronica, live recordings of concerts and more and more and more. I won’t pretend that I’ve listened to all 128 albums available on his Bandcamp but a few caught my ear. A minor Schubert for Tony Conrad is a slow abstracted version of the Schubert for a piano tuned to just-intonation that obliquely captures something of both composers mentioned in the title. In total contrast, Rewonk is a series of remixes of songs by KNOWER. These are little bitcrushed, hyperpop fragments as bright and bouncy as they are wonky. I really like the house music plunderphonics of Prince 2016, where Prince licks are irregularly looped and spliced. Gamboa will then wrong-foot you by releasing an album of perfectly performed Chopin preludes or a piece by Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou or Scriabin. Across Gamboa’s work the texts of the canon of composed and recorded music (even the composer’s own) are revered in one moment before being stress-tested to oblivion the next.

I asked Gamboa via email about his work. He stressed the importance of making his work freely available to “self-publish everything, remain completely un-marketed, and resist the algorithmic chains of streaming platform dominance (hence my refusal to engage with Spotify, even as a user of their free app)…I began to witness that I could become something akin to an esoteric music library if I kept this up … which I did for the next six years.” Gamboa, perhaps sensitive to the unorthodox and potentially self-defeating practice of releasing so much music, reflects that alternatively “this unconventional approach to making my music public ended up forging regional and international relationships I could have never predicted. I met many filmmakers and other artists who reached out to me saying that they had utilized my music.”

Gavin Gamboas Œuvre

Gamboa’s anti-algorithmic mass production has a strange inverse cousin in songwriter Matt Farley. Farley has written around 24,000 songs, a significant number produced, in part, to game the Spotify algorithm. Always extremely prolific, he developed a writing style with his sometime songwriting partner Tom Scalzo where they would “never question any idea that comes into your brain…whether it was a good idea or bad idea we wrote the song, recorded the song.” In 2008, two years after the advent of Spotify, Farley noticed that his songs with ridiculous, puerile or super-specific titles were generating him more income on the platform than the songs with generic titles. He embarked on a project to write songs based on what he thought people might look up on the platform, or more latterly what their children might ask Alexa to play – a strategy that paid off when Jimmy Fallon typed ‘Pizza Hut’ into Spotify, found Farley’s song Used To Be a Pizza Hut and booked him to play it on the Tonight show. Farley has written albums of songs about celebrities, songs about food, over 500 ‘prom proposal’ songs each dedicated to a different name, songs about small towns in North America. His most lucrative song is The Poop Song (5,958,946 plays on Spotify at time of writing), by one of his many alter egos, The Toilet Bowl Cleaners, the lyrics of which are just “poop” over and over again – it apparently earns him $500 a month.

The Poop Song von The Toilet Bowl Cleaners aka Matt Farley

Farley makes a lot of his money writing private commissions, and in this way he is like Gamboa – bypassing the structures of record companies, distributors, publishers and the media to make direct connections with listeners. While Gamboa’s recordings are crystalline digital perfection, Farley’s are pretty rough. The songs are mainly in a naive folk idiom but are not much good - charmless Daniel Johnson, pisspoor Dylan, laugh-free Randy Newman. But to borrow a quote often misattributed to Stalin: “sometimes quantity has a quality all of its own”. The shear volume of material starts to amount to an engaging, even inspiring artistic gesture - the songs accumulate into a celebration of spontaneous and compulsive artistry. It’s also hard not to be charmed by songs called Seinfeld (a look back at the wonderful TV show) or Windsor, Ontario, Canada Song or Farley’s consistent use of overexposed photos and horrible fonts for his album covers. For Farley, writing songs is not about creating perfect baubles that last for centuries but like breathing (or pooping): his creativity is a constant flow connected to his life force.

Matthew LeeKnowles Œuvre

Matthew Lee Knowles is a prolific British composer also mainly writing for other people, dedicating works to performers, composers and artists. For Knowles the need to produce is a powerful compulsion: “If I’m watching a 90 minute film, it never takes 90 minutes, I stop to make notes, sketch ideas, I once wrote three pieces of music during a film, stopping each time (Lanthimos’s The Favourite) I think it took about 4 hours to watch that film.” In 2021 alone he wrote nearly 100 notated compositions. He says of his own work: “Looking back over recent compositions, it seems they could have been written by several people, as they cover some ground, from highly conceptual instructional music, quizzical and direct to complex and virtuosic work, specific and scattered, with graphic notation along the way, through durations of a few minutes to several hours, for solo instruments and large ensembles.” Knowles’s work is not only voluminous and extremely varied, it is often immensely long (For Clive Barker is a 26-hour-long piano piece) or made in a punishingly time-consuming way (he is writing a 400,000 plus word novel, repeatedly drafting it by hand). His work ranges from ambling post-Feldman piano textures to text pieces that are monstrous alphabetised catalogues of human depravity. Kate Ledger livestreamed a performance of Knowles’s solo piano piece For Alan Turing during the pandemic and it took nearly 7 hours. These long pieces defy criticism; after a certain point it is impossible to say whether they are good or bad, interesting or boring: they just are. For Knowles making art is a natural physical process, a part of being alive:

"I will spend 12 hours on a graphic score and it’s hard to stop (I literally just stopped writing this to cut my own hands and use the blood to make handprints on manuscript paper and then messily ate an orange over it to drip on the thing - I’ll give this to you when I see you next!) I went through a phase years ago of filling plastic bottles with whatever I could and seeing how it all reacted (it was messy, I used my own bodily fluids, there were explosions). I did a happening once where I had a poet sat next to a paper shredder, she wrote and destroyed, the point is that our creativity is infinite and we will never get there, it’s a virus."

This essay was first published in german translation by Michael Steffens in issue #138.

Edward Henderson
Edward Henderson is a composer and performer. He co-directs Bastard Assignments and lives in London.