That thorny discussion

The press release about the BPI’s classical music streaming thing has done reasonably well. By which I mean quite a few people have read it. One person even mentioned it during a telephone call. And I discover from a tweet exchange with Yehudo Shapiro that I wasn’t quite so alone in my withering view on the announcement as I’d been thinking over the weekend.

This happens a lot with me as regular readers (and those who know me well) will testify. It goes something like this: I fire off a view, confident in my own position, wishing I communicate it in a slightly more articulate way, but still feeling resolute at my consistency railing against conformity.

Then a few hours pass and I start to look wistfully into the middle distance and nibble at the edges of my nails. Soon after that I reassure myself that I’m entitled to my own opinion (but not my own facts) and, as such, even if I make myself look like an arse, I’m perfectly entitled to do that even though I don’t especially seek to do that.

I woke up early yesterday morning. It was around 5.30am. I knew this because my next door neighbour gets up around that time to do an early pre-work run and the lights from her kitchen glow, gently illuminating our bathroom.

I sat on the toilet bowl running over an unresolved task, specifically drawing up a living will and then considering the challenge of presenting that to my partner for the first time (a massively weird experience for him I imagine – must warn him), and scrolling through a nine-tweet thread from a double bassist from Burlington I hadn’t previously been aware of who had retweeted the blog from Saturday and added his own comments. The last tweet was the one that stung the most: “To talk about the canon is so 1800s.” Ouch.

Specialist Music Chart

So, I decided yesterday to pore over the Specialist Classical Music Album Chart.

It seemed like a good place to start. Because the thing is that I’ve only ever looked at the Specialist Classical Music Album Chart once – when Radio 3 started broadcasting the top ten every week whenever it was that the chart actually started. I’m not entirely sure whether Radio 3 still broadcasts it anymore.

And I glad I did, because I’ve discovered things I had no idea actually existed. Composers. Music. Performers. And the chart provides evidence of other people who are (presumably) either buying it or streaming it. Which in itself of others a bit like me. People who want to listen to specialist stuff.

Sure, I know it all sounds a bit weird me talking about the Specialist Music Chart like its a new thing no one else knows about, but in light of the past few days and the conversations I’ve had with people as a result, it’s such a relief to discover.

And what discoveries.

The third symphony by a Ukrainian composer I’d never heard of before now – Boris Lyatoshinsky. A mix of Prokofiev, Stravinksy, John Williams, and Shostakovich all rolled into one – a sort of ‘grown-up’ Shostakovich. And a pianist on Deutsche Grammophon I’d not heard of before now (go ahead, judge me) whose articulation at the keyboard is, on a first listen, something to behold. I’m not entirely convinced whether the world needs yet another interpretation of Bach, but I liked the decoration in the right hand at various points – all very fluid, smooth and chocolatey. There are some moments when I’m not entirely sure whether we’re marvelling at the music or the technique, but still it’s a compelling listen. Igor Levit’s Life looks interesting. Currently finding the artwork annoying.

James MacMillan

After a coaching session at the Southbank Centre earlier today, and a failed attempt to collect my discounted dotted notebook from Ryman on the Strand, fifty-five minutes at Boosey and Hawkes’ sixth floor offices opposite Bush House to interview composer James MacMillan (pictured) for a podcast. ]

I’m greeted by Nathan at the door. Nathan has bright blue eyes (I’m sure that’s right), wears a jacket similar to mine and looks the kind of age I still wish I was if only I had the chance to do everything again. He asks me if i’d like a cup of tea. I say yes, being quite clear about the sugar. What he delivers shortly before the interview begins is the strength and heat I really rather like. Proper tea. That’s what’s needed for a podcast interview, I think.

MacMillan is softly spoken. I wonder whether my rather cold description of how the podcast works and the role I play in it kills the vibe before proceedings get underway. But, as conversation gets going, it turns out that Mr MacMillan is more than game and happy to play along.

We don’t talk openly about what composers do anywhere near enough. I was conscious throughout the forty-seven minutes we sat in the meeting room together that I still regard composers in a vaguely mystical way. On-demand is a given now (and as is revealed during the interview is something that makes appreciating art form a much bigger challenge for most listeners), but I wonder whether we expect transparency even more. I find myself wanting to understand precisely what it is a composer actually does to create the sound that I appreciate listening to. The impossible question.

I hesitate detailing when this particular podcast will come out, but I’m confident it will be before Holy Week, what with the week of programming he and Tenebrae’s Nigel Short have put together at St John’s Smith Square.

Voice Alone and George Benjamin at the Roundhouse

Composer George Benjamin at his home in Maida Vale, with very intense lighting.

Two unexpected announcements from the past forty-eight hours which have piqued my interest.

Voice Alone seems interesting.

In a major step towards tackling unconscious bias in casting, the first round is a blind audition, with no names, CVs or headshots – ensuring all applicants are judged by voice alone. Applications open at the end of January with the first auditions taking place in March and April.

Voice Alone Press Release, 15 January 2019

On a first read, I like the aspiration. It reminds me of a defensive line in the Moderate Soprano (not exactly the same, but similar in spirit). What intrigues me is whether the intent behind it (laudable) translates (eventually) onto stage. I like it. But I’m sceptical. And that’s a good thing. Scepticism better than assumptions. Blind auditions in March. More information on the Voice Alone website.

And George Benjamin’s (and George Benjamin too) in a Wigmore Hall promotion at the Roundhouse on the 5 and 6 March. An interesting statement event on the part of Wigmore Hall both in terms of content and the venue. I love seeing Benjamin at work in concerts – humble, unassuming, and unfussy. He lets the music do the heavy lifting. Definitely in the diary.

Jehovahs, Monte-Carlo, and NMC’s 30th anniversary

I’ve reconnected with my email spam folder. A galling discovery.

Discovered two missed podcast interviews from two very important people and a record label press release, sandwiched in between requests for help from a Crown Prince in Nigeria (I had no idea there was a Nigerian royal family) looking for money to fund a penis enlargement operation, and twenty-five year-old farm-hand ‘Geoff’ who I am told loves going to the gym and wrestling a lot.

In the inbox proper are eye-catching messages from the Monaco International Festival (their brochure artwork is a bit of a visual treat, and I see they’re doing a complete Beethoven Piano Concerto cycle and the BBC Symphony will be there too), news from Signum Classics about their collaboration with Cala Records (who until yesterday I am sorry to say I wasn’t even aware of but now discover possess some historical fascination like Stokowski conducting Beethoven 7), a couple of website quotation requests, and a pitch for a podcast.

Each email demands complete focus and comes with a self-imposed sense of pressure. And what that translates as is that emails take longer to respond to in most cases than they ever did before. More is riding on it than it ever did when I was at the BBC.

Interruptions

And then mid-response, there’s a knock on the door.

I open it and two elderly ladies in thick duffle coats introduce themselves, one adding, “We’re Jehovah’s Witnesses. Have you as an adult, read the bible recently? What with how grim the world is at the moment, we think the Bible is a good thing to be reading.”

I explain that no I haven’t. I extend grateful thanks to them for stopping by and point out that, “I’m probably not your target audience really.” They ask if I know the people who live across the road. “Mohammed, you mean? Yes, we talk from time to time.” I comment on how cold it is today. They agree wholeheartedly. All pause to look at each other, they turn and leave, and I shut the front door.

Sing opera in whatever language you want

From Twitter, the marvellous Fran Wilson shared a Bachtrack piece by Mark Wigglesworth defending ENO’s policy of staging operas in English against detractors who argue for works to be performed in their originating language.

I read it on the train into London yesterday. I could feel myself getting enraged by it, at the same time as being rather dismissive about it even needing to be written in the first place.

Bachtrack proudly announces how important it is to reflect the debate at the top of the piece too, when the piece is ostensibly a PR rebuttal by ENO’s press team (at least if it wasn’t originated by them I don’t believe Mr Wigglesworth would haven’t written it without their blessing) that keeps the traffic going to Bachtrack’s site. Because really, at the end of the day, is the ‘debate’ serving the wider (potential) audience? Hint: No.

The naval gazing is so boring.

I’ve sat in enough operas sung in English, and plenty more in foreign languages with foreign subtitles to know that it isn’t about the spoken language more the narrative that emerges from the combined forces of music and words (irrespective of the actual language).

Some of them have been good productions too.

NMC Recordings 30th Anniversary

The boon to writing about press releases and announcements in this combined form is that there’s considerably less pressure: instead of writing posts for each anno (which always feels like a massive ball-ache), documenting what’s coming in when feels a lot lighter touch and a little more personal.

It also means I engage with the emails that come in. Perhaps that’s another challenge for PRs. In a self-publishing world awareness-raising is a real win from their perspective, even if the coverage isn’t the conventional preview or review.

So it is with NMC Recordings 30th anniversary stuff. I had no idea they’d been going for 30 years for a start. I wouldn’t have actively sought out their new music strand either, so being prompted to is a good trigger.

There’s a new Composer’s Academy release coming on 18th January. The preview track (Freya Waley-Cohen’s Ink) is a compelling listen with just the right amount of intrigue and spikiness to hook me in and helps reinforce collaborations with the Philharmonia and their association with cities outside of London, in this case De Montford Uni in Leicester.

Bernard Rands’ Dance Petrificada from the BBC Philharmonic’s album ‘Chains of the Sea’ is a fabulous thing, brimming with tantalising colours and textures, and a musical narrative that holds my attention throughout on a first listen. I see there’s a Cello Concerto on the release too – available on 8th February. It also gets a big tick for the artwork too.

Edmunds Finnis’ The Air, Turning is a similarly descriptive and evocative creation with hints of film music enhancing a strong piece of storytelling. Also on Finnis’ NMC release out on 8 February, a recording of Finnis’s Four Duets featuring clarinettist Mark Simpson. Birmingham Contemporary Music Group also feature on the album, which reminds me …

Salaries

Birmingham Contemporary Music Group are looking for an executive director with a top whack salary of £36K. That figure is commensurate with the sector (though is smaller than some of the bigger brands who look for people at that level). But it got me thinking about who would be applying for that kind of role, the kind of person BCMG would need to develop the group’s roster and portfolio, and whether the ideal person would be expecting more than that.

And that got me thinking about the conversation I had during the coaching meeting with an executive coach I know writing a PHD about organisational coaching and leadership development.

“I do believe quite passionately,” I said to him, lightly tapping my sternum, “that there are negative consequences for inviting applications for leadership development schemes – perhaps even calling them leadership development schemes in the first place. What about those who put themselves forward but don’t succeed?” He nodded in agreement. “Given how coaching has benefited both of us, isn’t it important that this work we do is accessible and affordable to all?”

Review: Shiva Feshareki’s Unknown, Remembered

Shiva Feshareki’s ‘Unknown, Remembered …’ brought together the seemingly unrelatable Handel La Lucrezia with the story and lyrics from Ian Curtis’ Joy Division oeuvre in a mix of live baroque instrumentation and electronic soundworlds.

The creation was pure Andre de Ridder (Spitalfields Festival Artistic Curator), bringing differing stories, locations and sounds together in a mix of opera, theatre, and art installation, leaving the audience to create their own art.

As I recall from an interview with de Ridder, last year’s Spitalfields commission Schumann Street set out to achieve a similar goal. It was a great success. It went on to secure an RPS win in May 2018. A crowning achievement for de Ridder in his first year as artistic lead.

This year’s big festival statement didn’t resonate in quite the same way for me.

The elements were there. A dramatic location – a difficult to find empty warehouse space – in which theatrical performances told stories in multiple artforms sited in two rooms separated by a narrow corridor.

Soprano Kathryn Manley cut and lonely and sometimes crazed figure in amongst the audience that wandered around during the performance. The combination of Liam Byrne (viola de gamba) and Marianna Henriksson (harpsichord) set apart by Haroon Mirza’s art installation gave each instrument suitable prominence, exposing textures and allowing an unusually close relationship with each instrumentalist.

The storytelling was more immediate in the second room during the considerably more theatrical tape recorder sequence. There was a chilling kind of solitude as the audience watched Krapp (Richard Strange?) pore over his many tapes, listening to soundbites generated by Feshareki at the mixing desk.

The concluding sequence was mildly disturbing. Making use of the vacant office space in Studio 9294, Lucretia appeared trapped in a sealed room whilst dry ice swirled all around us.

But arresting and well-produced as these were in the moment, there was something lacking. I felt as though I was observing something I couldn’t quite make out. I didn’t feel able to rise to the artistic aspirations because the intention wasn’t immediately obvious without reaching for the accompanying programme notes. This was one of those rare occasions when the art itself didn’t immediately speak to me, meaning I struggled to create the art myself.

It might be fair to include some caveats here. First (and this might at first seem irrelevant), I arrived at the venue annoyed. I’d walked from Stratford International across Queen Elizabeth Park to Hackney Wick at a fair pace, but struggled (even with Google Maps) to find the venue, only finding a Spitalfields banner after I’d stumbled into another audience member experiencing similar levels of difficulty.

In addition, I struggled to read some of the programme notes – white text on a black background, in particular,are phenomenally inaccessible in a dimly lit room. I get that edginess is central to the brand, but simple accessibility measures like readability and venue signage remain important.

So, I could have been irritated before proceedings got underway. My focus could well have been some place else.

Having said all of that, what Spitalfields do well is piquing interest. The programme book for example is written in such a way that it yields information about past events even if you haven’t attended them.

Unknown, Remembered … succeeded in stoking the curiosity in three different works I had previously never even considered exploring. That ability to create content that lasts beyond a live performance event is Spitalfields’ USP.

Spitalfields Festival is a content producer’s dream. I’m not entirely sure whether they realise that.

Review: Manchester Collective at King’s Place

If it’s art it’s going to make me think. That’s my present rule of thumb. And art, I’m reminded this evening, extends beyond the stage. It’s often to be found in the experience that surrounds a concert.

Manchester Collective’s mixed programme of contemporary, commissioned and new works was arresting, compelling and visceral. Less concert more live performance playlist, there were moments in the first half when the enthusiastic and appreciative applause from the near-capacity audience interrupted my train of thought.

Textures, looping melodic cells, three dimensional sound, and live sound production pushed me in directions I wasn’t expecting to go. I felt at one with the art – something new to explore that connected with my emotions in a refreshingly immediate way. I was in an imaginary world created just for me. Mild sensory deprivation caused by the black curtains and focussed lighting – we might well have been in a TV studio. When unusual sounds swirl all around you it doesn’t take much to get into flow and immerse yourself in the experience.

At the same time I felt like an imposter.

This may in part be down to some pre-concert conversations I engaged in, one in particular about how I reckoned that people like me (who emote unabashed about things they respond to) are at odds with the edgier spaces where contemporary music authentically resides. It’s not ‘cool’ to wax lyrical I told myself. An odd thought to grapple with given that I felt welcomed, was enjoying the experience of hearing such a carefully chosen selection of sounds, and left eager to hear more.

There is a vibe to the good kind of contemporary music concerts – a self-assuredness – which is completely at odds with the nervous hand-wringing I detect in the conventional ‘classical’ world. This apparent self-confidence shifts my perspective. Contemporary musicians know their audience well, and the connections they make and the conversations had reflect this. There’s no need to cajole in the contemporary music world. Unbridled imaginations make the product a tantalising prospect amongst a niche and committed audience. Marketing isn’t something that is brought in to reflect the product; the product markets itself from inception.

There was a meditative quality to the entire programme. Total immersion meant that any interruption to my music-infused introspection – say, like applause – felt like an imposition. That speaks volumes to the programming. What I want next is to experience that same programme in a physical space that enhances the sound-world the music creates – Peckham’s invigorating rawness makes South East London a must-visit destination for the Manchester Collective. Alexandra Palace, Wilton’s Music Hall (maybe), or even a disused underground station (I’ve no idea whether that’s practicable), would create an even more intense sensory experience.

Jonathan Harvey’s Ricecare absorbing, Reich’s Violin Phase electric, and Vessel’s The Birth of the Queen utterly enthralling. What I heard of Daniel Elms’ 100 Demons had a Reich-feel to it. All of it the kind of thing you didn’t realise you needed to experience. Especially appreciated the austere post-war labarotory-style lighting – gave proceedings a warehousy feel. I wonder whether there’s scope to present the programme without a break.

Thoughts from BASCA’s 2018 British Composer Awards

The BASCA British Composer Awards are a jolly affair, possibly because it’s one of those rare occasions where the writers get all of the limelight. The cumulative effect of all of that effervescent positivity can be, especially in ambient surroundings like the Great Court at the British Museum, a little overwhelming.

A record-breaking 600 applications were listened to by a panel of industry types looking, I have it on good authority from one panellist for originality and impact. In true Everyman style, I asterisked every excerpt I heard during the ceremony that I liked: out of 35 nominees I listened to the first time, I picked out 19 I liked.

Top tip: new music is as difficult as you the listener assume it’s going to be before you listen to it.

Honourable Thoroughly Good Mentions therefore go to:

William Marsey for Belmont Chill
Dominic Murcott for The Harmonic Canon*
Roxanna Panifnik for Unending Love
Conall Gleesob for Solace*
Liam Taylor-West for The Umbrella*
James Weeks for Libro di fiammello e ombré*
Oliver Knussen for O Hotogisu!
James Dillon for Tanz/haus
Simon Lasky for Close to Ecstasy*
Robert Laidlow for Lines Between
Rebecca Saunders for Unbreathed*
Oliver Searle for Microscopic Dances
Jeremy Holland Smith for The Caretaker’s Guide to the Orchestra
Finlay Panter for Time
Graham Fitkin for Recorder Concerto
Julian Anderson for The Imaginary Museum
Gavin Higgins for Dark Arteries Suite
Lucy Pankhurst for Mindscapes
Simon Dobson for The Turing Test*

* Winners

Awards ceremonies are difficult things to write about. Anyone who’s got the drive, commitment and determination to create a work and then submit it for judging is a winner already – a potent reminder of my own creative ineptitude. Such events also illustrate how those who create possess both an innate talent and an unshakeable need. Giving up isn’t really an option.

There is a bittersweet aspect to these showcases, however. I still can’t contemplate the kind of resilience a composer needs to have to create something new, to hand it over to someone else to bring to life and then reconcile him or herself with the idea that its next outing may not be for a good long while, if at all. How it is it that doesn’t kill the creative process I don’t think I’ll ever fully understand.

Big love for Sally Beamish who when accepting her British Composer Award for Inspiration paid tribute to her mother: “It’s because of you [Mum] that it simply never occurred to me that little girls couldn’t be composers.” And special moment of the evening goes to Jazz Composition for Large Ensemble winner Cassie Kinoshi who, owing to being on a flight to Cuba at the time of the awards ceremony, was unable to collect her trophy. So, Cassie sent her proud parents instead. Nice.

Top night catching up with old friends and familiar faces. Peachy.