History of the Living Composers Project

Dan Albertson knew nil of classical music until he was 12 or 13. When he heard his first piece of contemporary music, not long after he had heard his first piece of classical music, he was in wonder. He was young, new to the world of contemporary music, even new to the idea that composers could still be alive. He had been raised in the world of popular musics and his ignorance was vast. He simply assumed that 'classical' composers were the exclusive domain of the past.

When listening to local radio in his township in Michigan, the announcements were of names too foreign to recognise and remember. He learned of Karlheinz Stockhausen and Edgard Varèse via Frank Zappa. His curiosity was piqued, but he struggled to find information and recordings. He wrote a paper about Stockhausen in eighth grade, based on an old text by David Ewen, despite having no access to his music. His imagination filled in the gaps.

He started listening to Two New Hours, Sunday nights on CBC Radio 2, after finding this programme by chance at age 14. E-mail correspondence with some of the composers whose works he heard soon commenced, with no one having any idea of his age. Would anyone have taken his work seriously were his age known? He sought a way to make information about these composers available. This newfound passion, in combination with the fact that he is by nature drawn to catalogues, charts, lists, maps, etc., led him to develop the idea of a website where information on contemporary music would be first-hand and thus reliable, as well as in a central location.

Here lie the roots of the Living Composers Project ('LCP'). The project itself, an outlet for his frustration, stretches back to June 2000, when Dan was on summer break, in-between grade 10 and grade 11 of high school: He began accumulating data, but had nowhere to put it.

The project simmered until autumn 2000, when he discovered in a library at his high school The Dictionary of Contemporary Music, edited by John Vinton and published in 1974. Its empty tag showed that it had perhaps never been checked out. He perused it as an obsession, learning new names, reading articles about then-recent developments in music, etc. Despite being more than 25 years old, this tome and Dan were almost inseparable. He renewed it at the library, again and again and again. He also dove into an edition of Music since 1900 by Nicolas Slonimsky, the progress of which stopped in the early 1970s. He wished to replicate the spirit of these works in his own nonexistent database, a wish that he still holds and tries to realise.

The Internet was very disparate back then, with data, but not necessarily accurate data, which was in turn not easy to find. Dan launched the LCP some time before the end of 2000, despite having no idea how to make a website. The Canadian composer Ron Hannah designed the original skeleton and the American composer Dennis Báthory-Kitsz offered to host it, an arrangement that remains in place. The format for many years was that Dan would send his raw data to Ron, who then coded it. Dan gradually learned from the templates that Ron had established and Dan now handles all of the duties himself. Romeo Talento helped the website with a streamlined redesign in 2012.

Though most composers have been receptive to the idea through the years, some notable exceptions have been dismissive or unresponsive. Wherever possible, these composers are included via direct links to a relevant website. What is important to point out is that the LCP is not, and has never been, a reflection of his prejudices in 'classical' music. Its aim is a representation of the entirety of contemporary music, though Dan knows that the work could never be complete.

In the first half of the existence of the LCP, Dan wrote many profiles for composers, pages with the fixed elements of biography, contact information and a list of works, with an optional discography. This process was a collaboration with the composers involved, going through the texts, making adjustments and only posting the profiles when they had been approved. In more recent times, though, the proliferation of personal websites has made the LCP a collection of links with an assortment of profiles. Dan only applies links to websites that meet, more or less, the criteria of his profiles. He remains adamant that information is the key component; for sure, photographs or soundfiles are useful, but they are meaningless references without information to accompany them. Dan continues to write profiles, but now at a reduced rate.

Though anyone in search of ready information about a particular composer could go to a search engine and find results almost immediately, as has been the case for a decade or more, Dan believes that the continued benefit of the LCP is twofold: reliable information is easy to find and one is able to make random discoveries from browsing, as in a library.

The LCP celebrated its 20th anniversary online in December 2020 – it is older than Wikipedia and almost as old as Google. It contains, as of 27 February 2023, data about 4702 composers, from Aa–Zyman, representing 99 countries and altogether more than 300,000 works. It is the cumulative result of tens of thousands of hours of labour, showing no sign of abating. It has operated continuously without advertisement, intervention or sponsorship, though Dan acknowledges the support of a small group of composers from 2006–09 who helped to prolong its existence. The LCP and the Villa of Composers inaugurated their collaboration in the summer of 2015, with work on integrating and expanding their databases well under way.