Summer’s on its way: New Music Biennial 5-7 July 2019

Contemporary classical is fast becoming a much-needed antidote to the irritations of the mainstream. The return of PRS Foundation’s brilliant New Music Biennial this July is a welcome opportunity to escape into thrilling new worlds.

When I was a kid, languishing on the Norfolk Suffolk border wondering why my parents had chosen to settle on the edges of Fenland, there was one village event I looked forward to. I could see it from my bedroom window.

The Weeting Steam Engine Rally: a weekend-long celebration of steam engines accompanied by a myriad of stalls, catering tents, crafts, meaningless tat, farming ‘demonstrations’, and a huge fun fair. It was the one time of the year when the flat, meaningless and pointless area of the world we lived had any purpose.

The ‘rally field’ would be set up over a monthly long period in the run up to the event. From my bedroom window I could count down to the weekend by keeping a careful eye on how things were shaping up. Only the Eurovision Song Contest (until it became a source of bitterness and resentment) came close in the anticipation stakes.

The New Music Biennial shares a similar trait. I stumbled on it two years ago and was immediately captivated by its openness, its playfulness, and blisfully simple innovation. Every piece of music lasts no longer than 15 minutes and is played twice in between which a panel, often including the composer, discuss the work. A glorious way to immerse yourself in something new. No pressure. No expectation. And importantly for all (I think), its free.

Hearing about its imminent return last week prior to the Proms launch, illicited an unexpected reaction in me. Warm and fuzzy. That kind of thing. I couldn’t quite put my finger on why, until I realised that it was a) two years since the last one (obviously), b) the point when I experienced the last one was the first few days of my new self-employed life and c) that marks nearly two years of a renewed impetus in the Thoroughly Good Blog and the relaunch of the Thoroughly Good Podcast. Time has passed quickly.

There’s more to it than that though.

The innovative approach to performing new works (a nod to the monumental challenge contemporary composers experience getting their works performed a second time) is one thing.

But its the peer-to-peer element about the weekend, two years on, I now finally understand. Composers converge to listen to one another’s works, but to learn from one another too. And for those of us who have an insatiable appetite to live vicariously through the talents of others, the New Music Biennial is a no-brainer.

And for anyone who considers themselves as a creative and who thrives on gaining insights from those working in parallel artforms, its a gloriously immersive kind of experience. Be sure to bring your notebook.

Most anticipated event? It’s actually an installation: Music for Seven Ice Cream Vans.A beautifully nostalgic score floods the Southbank Centre Site, as a fleet of ice cream vans call out to one another. The vans, each with their own individual harmony, create a mesmerising symphony of different clustered sounds and a shared soundscape for unsuspecting audiences.” Bliss.

I can’t wait. I’ve missed it. And in its the diary.

The New Music Biennial is from 5-7 July 2019 at Southbank Centre.

New Music Biennial 2017 at the Southbank – Seven Insights from #NMB17

Some thoughts arising from NMB17 at Southbank last weekend.

1. New music isn’t scary

The New Music Biennial has given me a taster for exploring a whole new world of music I had previously dismissed because I didn’t think it was for me. I assumed I needed context before I could appreciate a work of art. I don’t. The excitement around new music is not knowing exactly what you might hear.

2. Being in the moment is key

This isn’t necessarily a surprise. Recognising that I needed to be ‘in the moment’ was central to me experiencing the intense joy that is a Mahler symphony.

The advantage of new music is, as I think I’ve blogged before, it doesn’t come with any baggage.

So, being in the moment means you’ll know when you connect with something or not. If you don’t, that’s neither the composer’s fault nor yours. If you do, then something wonderful has happened. You’ve discovered something new.

3. Hearing something twice is divine

NMB makes a point of sandwiching two performances of a new work with a ten-fifteen minute conversation with the composer or performer. It’s an inspired idea. You don’t have to stay for the second performance if you don’t want to.

4. Are full-length concerts the right format anymore?

I really enjoyed the relaxed vibe at the Southbank last weekend. The sun helped. I understand that it was a similar experience in Hull where NMB17 kicked off.

What made the prospect of listening to lots of unfamiliar music more attractive was knowing that each concert was dedicated to the performance of one work, that you’d get to hear it twice, and that no concert would be longer than an hour. I also really liked being able to move from once area of the Royal Festival Hall to another to hear something different.

As much as I love concert halls (and I’m a big fan for the way the orthodox concert promotes a sense of mental space before a performance begins), I wonder whether the format isn’t conducive to newcomers.

5. Try before you buy is the way to go

There’s something to be said for the live performance. Ex Audi’s ‘Pieces About Art’ by Laurence Crane was a revelation during NMB.

But, knowing that I can download the entire twenty-piece NMB running order for a tenner if I so wish is a nice thing. I won’t be going in blind when I purchase, and when I do part with my money, I know I’ll be directly supporting creative talent.

6. Writing about classical music is tough …

Not because you need knowledge necessarily (although sometimes it helps). Rather, you’ve got to be able describe how the music connects with you in the moment. Doing so straight after the performance is the best time to pen the copy.

Difficult as it is, it strikes me that writing about a performance has connected with you on a personal level is really important. Better that than writing about the mechanics.

The prevalence of academia in the contextualisation of music is having a negative effect on audience appreciation.

7. New Music Biennial needs to be every year

Do it every year. Host the same events in multiple towns and cities across the country. That would widen our appreciation of the newest music, and support composers and performers in this country. NMB17 has created an appetite I haven’t had sated yet.


New Music Biennial 2017 – Eliza Carthy’s ‘Rivers and Railways’

The sun shone brightly on the Southbank Terrace for Eliza Carthy’s folk-infused Rivers and Railways, a glorious moment that saw the crowd convene for an momentary urban festival vibe. Didn’t stick around for all of it – the sun was punishing, and I was wearing a thick cotton shirt.

New Music Biennial 2017 – Laurence Crane’s ‘Pieces About Art’

Gripping production from Ex Audi in Lawrence Crane’s playful two-movement work for vocal ensemble. An absolute delight.

Vocal ensembles aren’t boring, nor is new music impenetrable. Laurence Crane’s playful work proves that. Pieces About Art combined complex harmonies in a fun piece built on the composer’s self-deprecation, and for Ex Audi’s stunning vocal mastery.

Loved it.

New Music Biennial 2017 – Gavin Bryars’ ‘Winestead’

Commissioned and produced by Opera North in association with Hull City of Culture 2017, Gavin Bryars’ intensely contemplative Winestead, is a twenty-minute work setting two poems by 17th century poet Andrew Marvell to music for electric guitar, viola, cello, tenor and harmonium.

There is a beautiful fragility to Bryars’ writing, a sound that draws the listener closer and closer in. It’s effect is beguiling. Sometimes it shows us something painful dark, at other times joyous.

John Potter’s solid tenor line binds restless ostinatos in the strings and guitar, creating an ethereal effect. The harmonium resides underneath, quiet sustained chords contributing an air of humility to proceedings.

I found this a deeply moving piece. Incredibly personal, but not aloof. I adored the obvious fascination Bryars has combining a small number of instruments with the tenor voice.

Potter’s voice often blended with the ensemble, making his words and voice sometimes indecipherable, melding music and words into one emotional state.

Similarly, the range of sounds produced by James Woodrow on electric guitar were fascinating – the opening ostinato in ‘Damon the Mower’, and the glass-like sounds in ‘The Mower to the Glow Worm’.

The tension sustained throughout the first poem was replaced with a sense of elegance in the second. Equilibrium restored. Stillness.

The New Music Biennial 2017, supported by PRS Foundation, runs until Sunday 9 July. All events are free, some require tickets from the box office.