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.

BASCA interview with Amanda Ghost at Goldsmith’s Music Department, University of London

I attended a BASCA masterclass (strictly speaking, it’s an interview) today at Goldsmith’s College Music Department in South East London.

I’ve captured some of my notes from the 90-minute session below, including some observations made during the visit. I share those notes and observations in list form for expediency’s sake.

Goldsmith’s College has a thriving music department

I was impressed. There were in excess of 25 songwriters/music students in attendance at the session, the majority of whom were already publishing their content via Soundcloud and YouTube.

The music department is bigger than I remember it when I spent time at Goldsmiths in the mid-nineties – the range of ensembles, niche concerts, support groups, and careers advice on offer via the noticeboards is eye-watering.

Don’t anyone let you think that music isn’t worth pursuing – Goldsmiths is proof there’s an industry-driven curiosity-fuelled appetite.

BASCA / UK Music Primer

Moderator Dan Moore (BASCA Marketing/Membership Manager) provided an introduction.

UKMusic is the umbrella organisation for a range of support/lobbying organisations of which BASCA (British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors) is one. The others are AIM, BPI, FAC, MMF, MPA, MPG, MU, PRS, PPL, and UK Live Music.

I had no idea that membership of PRS (which ensures songwriters get their dues from their creative endeavours) required a one-off £100 membership fee.

BASCA campaigns (amongst other things) for transparency and royalties from digital streaming platforms, removal of YouTube’s ‘safe harbour’ (meaning rights holders get the revenue they deserve for music used in videos supposedly). BASCA also runs the Academic Supporters Programme – a link with institutions, supporting and developing the next generation of creatives.

BASCA runs the Ivor Novello Awards (set up in the 1950s to assert UK music in a US dominated marketplace) and the Gold Badge, Fellowship and British Composer awards (of which there’ll be a blog post about the 2019 awards in the coming days).

Amanda Ghost’s career history

  • Songwriter, producer, TV producer and record company exec
  • Secured first publishing deal at 22; dropped out of fashion college; used publishing advance to make demos for record companies
  • Spent nine years writing songs for herself; hustling to get studio space;
  • Secured a manager and eventually signed to Warner Brothers/Los Angeles during which she collaborated with other songwriters
  • One such insistent individual pursued a collaboration which she initially turned down – it was James Blunt
  • Her and blunt co-wrote ‘You’re Beautiful’ – “we wrote it in the swimming pool at my Los Angeles apartment, not in Kosovo as he prefers to tell people’
  • Other collaborators got in touch following the Blunt success, one Mark Ronson
  • Chair of DefJam invited her to write a song for Beyonce (when she was in Destiny’s Child) – a duet for Beyonce and Shakira; Amanda had to write it in 5 hours
  • Took a year for Shakira to come on board and commit the vocals; after that, 12 million sales
  • Ran her own music company (Epic?) at the age of 34
  • Now sits on streaming board of BASCA (amongst other appointments); married to Deezer’s chief exec

Insights from Amanda

  • “Nobody knows anything” – this is Amanda’s personal mantra for tackling any kind of imposter syndrome; don’t let perceived stardom in others dictate your levels of confidence
  • If a publisher/manager says they’ve got everything sorted, ditch them; the songwriter/musician has got to do a nearly all of the work in a record company contract
  • Simplicity is the key to creation – both in storytelling, lyrics, orchestration, and harmonic progression
  • Amanda explained how she worked melodies for songs with two chord progressions (R&B/Hip Hop) by expanding on the original harmonic concept with transitional chords; then built a melody to accommodate the expanded idea; then returned to the original two-chord track and recorded the melodic line over the top. Neat.
  • Writing for other artists is unexpectedly liberating – you don’t have to take into consideration your own perspective on issues
  • Songwriting collaborations are in part about taking someone else’s idea for a lyric and applying your own ‘stamp’ – in the case of Blunt’s ‘You’re Beautiful’ it was injecting something bittersweet into the statement – “you’re beautiful, I will never be with you
  • “The song is the fusion of melody and lyric.”
  • Influences: Prince (for his subversive lyrics), Michael Jackson, and Madonna
  • “Pop music is like MacDonalds – it’s good but its not good for you.”
  • “Blunt has an amazing falsetto.” Agreed.
  • “Streaming services have fractured audiences. BBC Radio 1 isn’t important anymore – getting on Spotify’s weekly playlist is more important than being played on Radio 1.”
  • “A&Rs are data-driven now. What’s interesting is that streaming hasn’t, as yet, broken a new artist yet – the last global artist who made it big (pre-streaming) was Ed Sheeran.”
  • “You as an artist have never had it so good – easier to create, easier to distribute – but it’s also never been quite so hard as it is now to get cutthrough.”
  • “Streaming companies can work out in 3 days based on skip rates whether or not a song will be a hit; but they can’t work out if it won’t be a hit – syncs and licensing of a song can transform it and your success rates.”
  • Rap, R&B and Hip Hop skew the streaming music industry; modern music is minimal, it needs to be stripped right back
  • In the future Amanda sees artists/songwriters going straight to streaming services, the middle man – record companies – getting stripped out of the deal
  • Publishing/record company execs need to see initiatives from people – state your connections, blag
  • Songwriters/performers must think of themselves as content creators and as business enterprises – they can’t think of themselves as working in a particular line of the music business

My observations

From a classical music perspective, I found it invigorating to hear how the art of songwriting can be articulated as a business process. In this way the art of songwriting probably does more to demystify the compositional process (in comparison to composers of ‘art music’).

At the same time I was wary about the way in which a simplified life-story can be make the process seem easier than it really is. Persistence is the key to all of this – a sense of hunger, as though there is absolutely nothing else you can do so you must writing songs.

The unequivocal message I heard (that I don’t hear as emphatically in the classical music world) is that the creative individual must think of themselves as a business first, finding ways to utilise their mindset and skillset in a variety of different areas.



Education, education, education

Fascinating day yesterday. Notebook fully utilised. Observations. That kind of thing.

If you need a headline it’s the unwitting tussle about higher education. My company for the day held the view that gaining a degree was akin to acquiring a much-need shield. I on the other hand held the view that studying for degree is the first step on a never-ending journey of discovery, a relationship which will pay dividends for the rest of your life.

I was disappointed when I discovered what I was up against. I didn’t seek to change the other party’s view. To do so seemed disrespectful.

Broadly speaking, the day’s conversations confirmed what I had previously privately denied: not everyone sees higher education the same way I did when I embarked on my university career.

I approached my choice of music degree (mixed with a range of European history modules) with a sense of openness. I had no idea what I wanted to do when I finished that degree. How could i? I figured the best strategy was to just follow my nose and see where it led me. Unlike the likes of Elaine Bedell (and my peers) I wasn’t blessed with clarity of vision at the age of 19 years old about what I absolutely wanted to do. That same approach has been the foundation of my career. The flip side is that coming up with a strategy demands knowing something innately. That takes time. My approach to knowledge acquisition is necessarily suitable for all.

Back home last night, I sink into a searingly hot bath with a large glass of reassuringly cheap wine and scroll through Instagram. University pal Pete Faint is posting pictures of what he’s listening to. Vinyl (predictably). Last night it seems, it was Acid Jazz.

When I talk about Acid Jazz to the OH I wriggle with excitement. Pete introduced me to it back in 1993. A stream of albums. Urgent stuff. Committed performances. Precision studio recordings committed by musicians playing live. It’s not music that evokes a mood, so much as commands my attention. It’s an immersive experience – like stepping into an art installation that swirls all around you. There is colour to be marveled at. Rhythmic clarity. Progressive harmonies. Unrivaled textures.

What I was listening to the first time in 1993 was seemingly the complete antithesis of what I was studying – a shot in the arm.

But was Acid Jazz and the symphonic works of Brahms, Britten, and Dvorak I was studying as part of my degree really that far apart? I’m not so sure today.

I remember the Wednesday morning tutorial when one of my music lecturers (the legendary Denis McCaldin) introduced the work of Roger Norrington and the London Classical Players in a recording of Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique. Colour, edge and an urgent kind of rawness. Economy of resources revealed the mastery of orchestration. We were able to hear detail for the first time. Leanness brought excitement.

In recent months I’ve been reminded of a piece of faulty thinking I’ve fallen foul of for most of my life. It’s a simple thing: if I know about how to do something, or I have an understanding of something then the value of knowing it is immediately reduced solely because I now know it. I’ve looked at numerous things in my life through that prism. Knowledge about music is one such example.

Both these musical introductions – one from a lecturer, one from a peer – have come about because of higher education. Both are perennials, planted young, which have taken hold, and over time gained strength. They were not assets – a means to an end. Am I really the only one who thinks that? Am I a member of a dwindling minority?

Picture: Pete Faint

The oldest symphony orchestra

St Petersburg Philharmonic are playing Rachmaninov Piano Concerto number 2 and Mahler 4 in the Usher Hall in Edinburgh on Sunday 27 January 2019 at 3pm. Yuri Temirkanov (pictured) conducts; Freddy Kempf sits at the keyboard for the Rachmaninov.

That’s the PR bit out of the way. Now onto the thing I’m pondering since receiving a press release about the said concert.

(For the avoidance of doubt – this is not a thinly veiled criticism of the PR who sent me the press release – I’m not an arsehole, obviously.)

St Petersburg Phil bill themselves as ‘Russia’s oldest and most revered symphony orchestra’.

I see many orchestras assert distinctiveness with superlatives about age. It’s a common thing. But I don’t really understand why they bother. Being the oldest seems irrelevant to me unless there’s a way for me as a punter to discern a better end product because of the ensemble’s age.

What difference does it make that an orchestra is the oldest? What impact does the length of time the brand name has been in existence have on the playing and therefore the experience for the audience? An orchestra is only as old as its oldest current member.

Filling in the gaps

New habit (ish). Not listening to the radio or watching the TV news at any point during the day. If I am working at home then generally speaking I’ll either bask in carpeted silence, or allow random thoughts generate searches on Spotify.

Yesterday, I went from Joseph Horovitz’ Captain Noah (yeah OK, via BBC iPlayer Radio), to his Clarinet Sonatina, to David Bedford’s Ronde for Isolde, Gregson’s Festivo, Davies’ Galaxies for Wind Band, Gregson’s concerto for tuba and orchestra, before Dvorak’s Wind Serenade, before stumbling on Bernstein conducting the New York Phil in a rip-roaring studio performance of Smetena’s Bartered Bride overture and three dances. Terrifying.

I love how random back-of-the-head thoughts can generate music choices that aid focus whilst, from time to time, command such attention that something new can be discovered. Yesterday was an exciting day of listening.

Today, different.

Emails in the morning. Print deadline sought after for a review, website work (lots of fiddling around with logos for the homepage), more emails, purchase orders confirmed, and a bit of fumphering around with a funding application.

Slumped on the sofa around 4.30pm to hear Mark Carney deliver the terrifying reality about a no-deal Brexit – did anyone need further clarification of the blindingly obvious? Then a knock on the door from a neighbour collecting a parcel. He comments on how I’m ill again. I struggle to know how to deal with this.

I realise that I’m providing more detail than I would normally. But the point is this. After a much-needed dose of self-care on the sofa (The Thorn Birds, episode one, Amazon Prime), I end up in the bath listening to Bartok’s fourth string quartet. Spikey. Uncompromising. Dark. Difficult.

There are some pieces of music that succeed in filling in the gaps left by every day life. I didn’t know I needed to hear it. Didn’t appreciate the extent to which I would appreciate it hearing it either.