Play Your Cards Right



I was recently asked to give a top ten list for a book on the topic of advice I would give to myself when I was starting out. Originally a short list, I decided to turn it into something (hopefully) more useful!


Tip 1. Get involved

I started out at Plymouth University with no contacts in the arts or music.
I wanted to introduce myself to the music crowd but how could I do this with no formal background in music? I simply said to my boss (the composer Prof Eduardo Miranda) that I wanted to organise some concerts of contemporary music regularly at the University. He suggested I introduce myself to the Director of Music. I did, and you know what? The director was enthusiastic.

In short: help to organise events of the type you want to be in.

Tip 2. Do it for free

My first formal piece was a short audio-visual collaboration for a music
festival in Portugal, for no commission fee. I was excited to have the piece
accepted. After I¹d organised a few small concerts and marketing the heck
out of them, the Director of Music asked if I would score the classic silent
movie ³South² for a local showing. He said he couldn¹t pay me. I didn¹t even
blink ­ I would happily write 1:20 of music for no money for a maximum
audience of 120. Amazingly half way through the process he offered a token
fee, but we wouldn¹t have even got to that point if I hadn¹t taken it on
initially for no money.

In short: don’t expect money until later.


Tip 3. Do projects you have to finish

I used to spend many an evening working on projects I never finished. Looking back I can see that for so much of it I was imagining myself being a
writer or composer. Sure you have to go through this stage to produce
demonstration work. But I have found demos to be surprisingly unimportant. I would never have completed the silent movie soundtrack without an advertised performance date. It forced me to think about movie structure, and how to make 1:20 of music, and to seriously consider the quality of my work – my reputation was at stake! The out of ³This isn¹t practical /feasible/desirable² is not an option with a fixed date. I¹ve had the courage to propose ambitious projects because I know that I will deliver and learn to solve the problems.

In short: Just sitting in front of software or paper creating open-endedly for a fuzzy purpose eventually becomes demotivating; get an unpaid commission with a deadline for performance.

Tip 4. Be open to collaboration

One of my first collaborations was with an established composer Nigel Morgan, writing a piece for classical guitar ­ a huge confidence boost. Another collaborator Composer Lola Perrin introduced me to film-makers for visuals, and our relationship developed to point where we could give each other a sympathetic ear and encouragement. For my Open Outcry opera I went about building a collaboration team, before I¹d even written the piece! One person I contacted was Dr Greg Davies at Barclays Wealth to help me design a convincing stock market onstage. A year after starting our collaboration he told Barclays about our ideas, and they are now funding the opera to put it on in the City of London!

In short: My collaborators have given me confidence, opportunities, support and friendship.


Tip 5. Say ‘Yes’

Opportunities for commissions are relatively rare early in a career. When
offered the sound track for South, I¹d never scored a movie. I¹d never
written a piece of music longer than a few minutes. But I said ŒYes¹. I¹ve
received emails when I feel snowed under with work, but I didn¹t say ³No I¹m too busy.² I produced ideas for performances, and when people offered to commission the ideas, I said ŒYes¹ even before the technical infrastructure was designed. I¹ve noticed that people around me who say they are too busy are often negative people ­ always seeing problems, flaws, clichés, etc.

In short: I have said yes to almost everything offered for 4 years. I only recently said my first no, because all my ³yes’s² have put me in a position to choose a bit now.

Tip 6. Promote yourself

I have drafted most of my own press releases. I¹ve emailed journalists and
bloggers, even though our PR agency is involved. I¹ve taken time to travel
to London to meet journalists. On days when I¹ve felt extreme pressure to
complete a performance project, I¹ve taken the day to work on a PR video or
press piece. I know some amazingly talented people doing amazing things with music, visuals and technology. But you won¹t have heard of them because they¹re too busy!



In short: People cannot enjoy what they do not know about. 40/60 creation/promotion is not such a bizarre time mix.

Tip 7. At some point, start getting paid

So many artists and performers around me work for free that I must sometimes seem greedy when I push for a fee. I¹m now at the point where I am mostly being paid to create, and going backwards would be de-motivating to me. I have 3 high-profile performances coming up this year, and until recently one of them was unpaid ­ for someone I largely owe my career to. However they recently found budget to pay me a small amount ­ and it¹s amazing the difference in motivation I now feel. It¹s more about value than money.

In short:
if you go on doing it for free forever, it’ll always be on the margins of your life (unless you’re independently wealthy).

Tip 8. Play your cards right

My formal training is as a scientist and technologist. My early mentor Nigel
Morgan told me to not bother trying to compete with the trained composers on their own ground, but to find my own way of expressing myself. For example: I wrote a dissertation on quantum mechanics for my math degree in 1994. My piece Cloud Chamber in 2011 enabled a violinist to duet with subatomic particles live on stage and was picked up nationally and internationally in the press, and had a significant impact on my career. I am a published ³ex-poet² from years ago – this has helped with writing words for my music, and for writing my press releases. My career uses all of me.

In short: Find some combination of your skills that excites you and others; don’t try to be something you’re not, or write off your past.

Tip 9. Don’t get distracted

I try not to do too much of what you¹re reading now! In other words: writing
about music, writing about writing, and so forth. For me, it can become a substitute for doing the real thing. I am careful that it does not stop me pursuing / continuing my true dreamed-of career.

In short: It can be all too easy to take up all your time organising events
rather than being in them, or writing about music rather than writing music – beware!

Tip 10. Enjoy yourself and be inspired

I was standing on stage recently, preparing for a performance that had national press attention and many expectations on it. It was an ambitious piece and I realised as I stood there that all the pressure and desire to impress meant that I wasn¹t actually enjoying myself. I immediately unwound myself, tapped into the sense of inspiration that initially lead to the performance idea, and lost myself in the music. I¹ve sat at my desk at times trying to complete a piece of music and make it as impressive as possible; then I¹ve forced myself to remember to enjoy working on the music!

In short: Once success comes and you get busy, don’t get lost in working
towards the next step on the ladder. Remember why you worked so hard to get here.


Alexis Kirke is a composer well-known for his interdisciplinary practice (he
has been called “the Phillip K. Dick of contemporary music”). Alexis is
based in the South-West of England and is composer-in-residence for the
Plymouth Marine Institute – the UK leader in Marine research and work on
sustainability, marine pollution and conservation. Alexis has two PhDs: one
from an Arts faculty and one from a Technology faculty. He has worked as a
Project Manager and a Stock Market Analyst (where he developed some of the foundation concepts of the industry textbook ŒOptimal Trading Strategies¹). He is a member of Plymouth University’s Interdisciplinary Centre for Computer Music Research, and edited the first academic book on the topic of computer systems for expressive music performance. Alexis is a poet and critic who has written for publications in the UK and USA. He has also been invited to read at Glastonbury Festival, and was editor of the UK’s first poetry webzine ‘Brink’. Alexis’ works have been performed on BBC Radio 3, BBC World Service, and at the Southbank; and he has been featured in Wired, Independent, Guardian, O Globo, Discovery News, New Scientist, Gramophone, and The Strad.