The Joy of…Friendship<sup>1</sup>

The Joy of…Friendship1

“He who has (many) friends, does not have a single friend.”2

I love you. No really, I love you. OK, not that way. No offence! But really, I do. Love you, that is.

I feel my inner hippy coming out when I think about friendship. I offer you the beard of generosity, the long hair of reciprocity, and the sandals of home truths.

Let me start with some open-heart surgery. Did you hear the one about the composer with no friends? Maybe my life has been charmed, but I don’t know of any Billy-no-mates amongst composers. Sure, that doesn’t mean many don’t feel isolated, get depressed, howl at the wind or weep bitter tears. But the ethics of this community – of which I feel myself an honorary member – is one of camaraderie and support.

I want to suggest that this is one of our most valuable resources, squandered at peril, and which calls for vigilant attention and tending. God knows composing doesn’t make for an easy life – it’s a gift, but often of the variety defined as love by Slavoj Žižek (glossing Lacan): “Love is giving something one doesn’t have…to someone who doesn’t want it.”3 Did you ask to be a composer? If so, you’re probably in the wrong job. The rewards for the relative (in some cases absolute) impoverishment, misrepresentation and misunderstanding of many people that comes of composing, include the ecstatic moments of revelation and of being that creating music gives us, and the opportunity – not often enough – to share this with others who need no explanation, account or reason; in other words, with friends.

It seems to me that we need friendships now more than ever4. The economy of new music operates at its best within a gift structure rather than as a market. No-one pays for the ‘unproductive’ time that goes into composing. We have to value our time, but we can’t leave the meter running, and when working with those who do, tensions can emerge. Friends understand this. Working with friends who understand this also produces some of the best music – many of the most rewarding musical experiences I’ve had in the last 18 months or so have come from musicians who’ve spent a lot of time together, ‘wood-shedding’, drinking, being comfortable in each other’s company.

What’s more, that feeling of warmth and generosity can be infectious. As an audience member, it’s often the case that you get the compulsory ‘good mood’ of the musicians, the equivalent of the McJob’s “have a nice day”. What’s all the more valuable are those occasions when musicians are sharing their commitment – to each other as to the music – with the audience. It brings out the best in people.

We have to be careful here, too. Close-knit groups can appear exclusive and self-obsessed. And whilst mutual reassurance and sharing half-worked ideas without judgement being passed can be rewarding, sometimes friends need to unsettle us with home truths (a key difference between friends and fans). A key issue for composers can be the pressure to consider – or at least be aware of – listeners, their expectations and needs, at least in the abstract. Friends can provide a halfway house, an imaginary (and hopefully sympathetic) audience, a proximate Other that is willing to believe in the music you make. Of course, if your friends are all like you then either expectations of listeners may be limited, or the audience your music reaches may be limited to people like you.

I’m not suggesting it’s time for groups of composers to meet for a group hug, but it’s worth being aware of and acknowledging our gratitude to our friends, to continue taking an interest in their work, to be more sensitive to back-biting, and not to be afraid to call on others if our chips are down. It’s easy to make enemies, but more rewarding – if needing more commitment – to make friends.

In all creation did I stand alone,
Still to the rocks my dreams a soul should find,
Mine arms should wreathe themselves around the stone,
My griefs should feel a listener in the wind;
My joy – its echo in the caves should be!
Fool, if ye will – Fool, for sweet sympathy!5


1. With apologies to Giorgio Agamben, ‘The Friend’, in What is an Apparatus?, ed. Werner Hamacher, trans. David Kishik and Stefan Pedatella, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009, 25-37; and Jacques Derrida, The Politics of Friendship, trans. George Collins, London: Verso, 2005.

2. Diogenes Laertius, The Lives of Eminent Philosophers, vol.1, trans. R.D. Hicks, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1972, 465.

3. Slavoj Žižek, How to Read Lacan, New York: WW Norton, 2006 44.

4. I omit the predicate ‘good’ (friendship) here, following Agamben’s argument that friendship is neither a quality nor a property of a subject, but an experience within Being, a ‘con-division’ of life, even “an otherness immanent to selfness”. Op cit, 34.

5. Extract from Schiller’s poem, ‘Freundschaft’

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