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.

 

 

Interviewing Southbank Centre’s Elaine Bedell at YPIA

On Thursday evening I hosted a session for YPIA spotlighting the Southbank Centre’s Chief Executive Elaine Bedell.

During the session she discussed her career and provided advice on how to get on in TV and the arts. I’ve captured some of the points that really resonated for me below.

  1. Say yes to people always; be someone people want to be with, always
  2. A negotiation depends on both parties having a shared need or want – anything less isn’t a negotiation
  3. Be your truest self; don’t try and be what you think people want you to be
  4. Wanting to work in the arts isn’t enough now – you need to look with ingenuity and for business opportunities
  5. There should be a closer relationship between media and the arts
  6. Appointing TV people in arts management is a good thing – TV could do with recruiting more arts people
  7. Knowing early on in your life what it is you want to do is possibly the greatest help you can give yourself
  8. Pitch two ideas, not three
  9. Pitch with confidence – start by pinning your shoulders back – pitch with energy
  10. Avoid complexity when pitching
  11. Pitching is a leap of faith – it may not work – knowing how to pick yourself up from a rejection is key
  12. Live performance is ‘where it’s at’ right now – its an escape from our on-demand world, offering real-life social interaction of the kind of that digital denies us

Some personal reflections arose from our discussion that might be worth sharing in addition.

  • Elaine was an incredibly compelling speaker – she held my gaze throughout the 90-minute session. Such individuals are the polar opposite of those who suck all the joy/energy from the room. But, the outcome of Elaine’s innate ability to command attention was that I felt exhausted by the end of the evening. She inspires people to pitch to her. That energy demands personal resilience.
  • There were moments during the session when I felt pangs of inadequacy too (a self-coaching exercise in itself). Elaine identified what it was she wanted to do at a relatively early age – during freshers week at Leeds University when she joined the Broadcasting Society. As far as I could make out, we both of us come from a similar background, but I was envious to learn of her single-mindedness at a point in time in my life when I don’t recall knowing what I would be able to do. She had focus at a point in time in her life when I don’t remember having it myself.
  • I like the idea that the arts could benefit from the business experience of a media professional who takes a data-driven approach to content and the commercial opportunities that arise from it. The arts adopting a more commercial stance doesn’t necessarily mean the downfall of the arts – Snape Maltings over the past few years is a case in point.
  • Content is business, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Popular content is generating revenue for someone. The key is identifying who the content is or might be popular with, and how much revenue can be generated by it. The people who generate the content aren’t necessarily the people who know its monetary value.
  • I like that Elaine regularly walks to work, and has a preferred seat on the bus. My kind of chief exec.

 

Pictures: Yasmin Hemmings, YPIA

 

BBC Proms Diary 2018: Bernstein, Mahler, Mozart, Chopin and Tchaikovsky

Brace. Brace. There’s a lot to catch up on in this post.

There’s always a point in the Proms season when the regularity slips. It usually occurs sometime in August. I’ve never really been sure why exactly. Usually, it’s when I end up drifting away from the brochure or the radio, distracted by other things. Then I look on the bookshelf at the spine of the programme book and feel a pang of regret.

I think my attention slips when the Proms loses its unusualness. It slides from being a treat, to being a staple.

It’s no longer a full English breakfast with fresh coffee and orange juice on the terrace of a five star hotel somewhere on the south coast.

Without me even noticing its turned into the box of cereal I store on the kitchen top, look at with every good intent, but quickly get into the habit of overlooking as I head straight for the coffee and toast every morning.

There have been other things vying for attention. Last week was a business development week. Lots of emails, telephone conversations, quotations for works, dashed hopes, blissful surprises. I’d started last week with nothing in the diary and an impending sense of doom. I start this week with renewed energy and positivity. 

West Side Story 

“Gee, Officer Krupke!”

John Wilson’s West Side Story did deliver. Sassy and sexy. The chorus numbers were full, broad and deep; the solo lines rich characters whose lives and emotions were tangible even on the radio. In fact, I don’t know that I’ve ever heard West Side Story delivered with such immediacy. That a plot-line conveyed in song without visuals can elicit the emotional response it did in me says something about the power of the performance.

Old-school Barenboim

Concerts are programmed if not years in advance, then certainly six months beforehand. That Barenboim’s Prom had a feel of old-school spectacle about it is down, to my mind, about him recreating the heady verve and excitement I imagine followed him around whereever he appeared in the late sixties. There is a warmth to the applause evident from the radio mix when Barenboim steps onto the stage for the concert. In what has increasingly revealed itself as an often bitter, mis-represented and slightly broken classical music world, Barenboim and the West Eastern Divan Orchestra has the ability to unite just by their presence. 

‘Hot’ Kuusisto

Composer Philip Venables, violinst Pekka Kuusisto and Sakari Oramo

There was a similarly rare sense of excitement around the Philip Venables commission for violinst Pekka Kuusisto and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. I’ll freely admit to finding Kuusisto unconventionally hot. There is madness in eyes and an electricity in his playing which makes him vaguely dangerous – the musical equivalent of the person your parents paced up and down worrying about you spending time on a Saturday night with. Venables’ concerto ‘Venables plays Bartok’ – a part spoken, part live performance, part click-track – exploits Kusisto’s Pied-Piper-esque presence. I can’t think of anything I’ve found quite so absorbing in this year’s season or, for that matter, over the past three or four years.

Chopin Piano Concerto from the European Union Youth Orchestra

Seong-Jin Cho

I’m still not entirely sure about Chopin’s F minor concerto. Pleasantly tuneful throughout. Technically I should like it. It’s an unabashed crowd pleaser that successfully combines melancholy and exuberance.  But sometimes the musical material, particularly in the second movement, is just all just a bit too much gilt-edge and red velvet curtains. Sometimes that lavishness can sound like bluster. I’m also fairly certain I heard some duff notes in the piano during the Seong-Jin Cho’s performance. The syncopation towards the end of the third movement still hit the spot though.

Annelien Van Wauwe transforms Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto

Annelien Van Wauwe

The real surprise was hearing Annelien Van Wauwe perform Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra – a recreation of a Bernstein Prom from 1987. It seems incredible to think that Bernstein was still alive when I was approaching my first year GCSE – Bernstein has passed into the distant past in my brain.

I have an aversion to the Clarinet Concerto. Learned is as a teenager. Heard countless others play movements from it in music competitions. Overheard associates at university practising it too. All of its inherent joy extracted leaving just a shell. But Van Wauwe achieved something unexpected with it. Her approach was prompt and the tone of the instrument incredibly smooth. The articulation was so low-key that the roundest richest sound rang out. The second movement had a vocal almost operatic quality to it. I adored it. 

Me and Kirsty

Kirsty and I talked about the Mozart briefly at a lunchtime meet-up at the V&A yesterday. Kirsty played bass in the BBC SSO concerts over the past couple of days. We talked about the Mozart and, at some considerable length, Mahler 5. We held differing opinions about the performance. We agreed this was a good thing. Kirsty articulated some of the problems the genre has – it’s lack of visual stimuli makes classical music as an art form more of a spiritual, individual experience as opposed to something like opera or theatre which in comparison feels far more inclusive.

Classical music’s ‘spiritual’ vacuum

This helped me bolt on my increasing disillusionment: in the perceived vacuum of classical music’s spiritual experience, classical music journalists, writers, commentators and broadcasters wade in and try and lead, cajole, influence or persuade. Little wonder I’m often frustrated when I don’t feel the way I (and others like me) experience this genre is being reflected or represented.

If few are reading the classical music press (I’ve lost count of the number of classical music ‘fans’ who freely admit to me they don’t read Classical Music, BBC Music Magazine, Bachtrack or Gramophone) then who is exactly? I know people are reading Bachtrack – I’ve seen the statistics for the website. Who are those people and what are they going for exactly? And where do people like me and everyone else I’ve spoken to who don’t especially care about reviews go to for their fix?

Where do the people who see those who revel in their academia, wearing it like a badge to ward off the ignorant and inexperienced go? What do those of us go who despise the marketing-fuelled hyperbole read?

And when will we get comfortable with the perfectly reasonable proposition that two people can have entirely different views about the same concert without the discussion descending into one underpinned by perceived ignorance or snobbery?

I can’t give up on this genre, not yet, even if I have frequently wondered over the past few months or so where I fit into it. There is truth in what another blogging friend of mine says: we should continue to do what we do and do it well.

Anything else is succumbing to the perils of the classical music bubble: seeking legitimisation and validation from peers and elders. That would never do. 

Eurovision Young Musicians 2018: Semi-Final 1 – Malta, UK, and Spain

The biennial Eurovision Young Musician competition gets underway today. 18 musicians slogging it out for the top prize.

EYM has in the past suffered from being a bit crap in its vision and its realisation. I’m expecting better things this time around.

So far, in the capable hands of presenter Petroc Trelawny, I haven’t been disappointed. Top line – I don’t think we’ve seen a winner yet.

Malta Bernice Sammut Attard, piano

Poulenc Toccata from Trois pièces
Rachmaninov Prelude in C minor, Op. 23 No. 7; Prelude in G sharp minor Op. 32 No. 12 
Chopin Scherzo No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 31

Programme lacked sufficient contrast to make Bernice shine in any particular work. Accomplished, able and self-assured, but some places lacked spark.

The Rachmaninov was played but not necessarily ‘occupied’ he was playing the notes but not necessarily creating any spectacular with them.

Some tender moments in the slower sections of the Chopin Scherzo – though the shifts into different tempos needed more finesse. The grander sections before the recapitulation illustrated how this was an ambitious choice tackled valiantly.

UK Maxim Calver, cello

Lutoslawski  Sacher Variation
Brahms Adagio from Cello Sonata in F, Op. 99
Stravinsky Minuetto e Finale from Suite Italienne

Better selected programme. Lutoslawski focuses attention and gives Max a chance to own the space. Sometimes the tone of the instrument lacks depth but there’s more presence on screen. 

The Brahms Adagio is a delight. More depth in the lower registers. Since BBC Young Musician Max seems a calmer less-distracting – that helps make the Brahms shine more. It’s a shame we don’t get to hear the complete sonata – he holds the room with grace and poise. 

Stravinsky was good – lacked sparkle though it still retained a compelling quality. At this stage I’m not entirely convinced he’s a winner.  

Spain Sara Valencia, violin

Sarasate Caprice Basque
Paganini Caprice No. 13 in B flat
Bruch 3rd mvt (Finale) of Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor

An ambitious programme of decorative material that suited Sara Valencia’s temperament well. Intonation lost in the fast moving sections in the high registers of both the Sarasate and the Pagnini. She regains control during the middle section of the Bruch third movement – here we see her as a much stronger player. She maintains her poise and, come the coda, makes a good fist of it. I’d like to hear her play more.