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Blog » UK Composers Respond to Brexit

16 Jul  

It would be an exaggeration to say that the dust has settled following the UK’s historic referendum on 23rd June. But now that we are several weeks from that extraordinary singularity and things have calmed at least a little, I asked some of the country’s leading composers to give their thoughts on Brexit. 

 

My aim was to canvass opinion from a wide demographic and from those living and working both in the UK and Europe. I was also interested in contributions from the wider musical community. Hence, I include contributions from two festival artistic directors who also chair major arts umbrella organisations. The second of these also kindly supplied comments from affiliated organisations.

 

Judith Weir, CBE, Master of the Queen's Music

 

1. If Brexit negotiations do happen, the musical profession must be pro-active and say what is needed. Top of the list should be continued free movement between the EU and UK for music students (in both directions) because that is the foundation of our internationally successful musical scene.

 

2. The referendum result makes the exit of Scotland from the UK more likely. If that were to take place, what would happen to the BBC, and its generous classical music provision? This is a question that would need asking on both sides of the border.

 

John Woolrich

 

The freedom to live and work in Europe has allowed me to live happily in France for the last eight years, free from red tape. And I haven’t been alone in that: off the top of my head I could mention many other British composers who have made their homes in Europe: Richard Baker, Naomi Pinnock, Luke Bedford and Rebecca Saunders in Berlin and Stuart MacRae in Paris, for instance. Richard Barrett has lived in both Amsterdam and Berlin. It hasn’t been one-way traffic: Paul Ruders and Matthias Pintscher and other European composers have lived in London.

 

And we’ve been able to travel freely within Europe without bothering about visas or border controls (except, of course, at the UK border).

 

If Theresa May makes the position of EU residents in the UK a bargaining chip in her Brexit negotations, the British living in Europe could find their lives becoming difficult.

 

If I have to move, which country will take me after the United Kingdom has disintegrated? I’m half-Scottish, quarter Welsh and quarter English.

 

I received an email this morning saying that the main commercial sponsor of a series of concerts (for which I’d written an orchestral piece) ‘has pulled out because of the uncertainly and insecurity with which the vote has left the business world.’ That’s a six figure chunk of sponsorship which has gone up in smoke: sad for me, disastrous for the orchestra.

 

David Sawer

 

The success of this country is based on its openness, so the referendum result came as a shock. The future is one which we all will have to share, and leaving the EU feels like a step backwards. I can’t help thinking that the UK has been diminished. 

 

I’m not an expert, but my fear is that when Europe-wide musical collaborations and co-commissions are discussed, we will be sidelined. l am sad that the UK might become less attractive for international students and that future UK students might be deprived of access to 27 EU countries for study and work.

 

My hope is that some of the extreme inequalities exposed by the referendum outcome will now be addressed.

 

Arlene Sierra

 

It’s been a strange sensation, feeling as mortified, embarrassed, and depressed about my adopted country as I often have for my native U.S. The closest parallel is how I and countless other progressive Americans felt when George W Bush was handed the election victory in 2000. Back then I was just starting life in the UK and every conversation I had seemed to be about the election - "how sad for you Americans, how embarrassing!" And now, among my many friends and colleagues who ardently supported the case to Remain, the sense that a massive miscarriage of democracy and justice has just taken place is strikingly similar.  

 

There are also parallels with the rise of Trumpism in America right now. Thanks to the Brexit campaign, the worst has been exposed in British society and we are seeing swathes of people suddenly comfortable with statements and sentiments that are shocking to say the least. Fanned by tabloid lies and panderings to prejudice, a compassionate, internationalist approach to politics seems more out of reach than ever.

 

But while we worry and brace ourselves for worse and worse, we keep working, making music, making art. It is our best, and perhaps only, real way to resist and defy these events, to keep creating. Keeping going, keeping ideas open, forming collaborations and encouraging other artists: These are acts of defiance against fear and hopelessness. 

 

In the Bush years I was a recent graduate, struggling to find an artistic and professional path. Now, being more established, I find that teaching and mentoring have become an essential part of the goal to resist despair and keep creating. Providing a support and a model to young artists who are just starting out, it makes our community stronger both locally and internationally. Meeting young composers, hearing about their many and different paths to the same calling, sometimes I am just amazed it happens at all. As long as young people keep caring about art, music, and the world, there is still hope.

 

Colin Matthews, OBE

 

Leaving Europe will inevitably lead to problems for musicians working here and abroad, and more and more bureaucracy. But that seems pretty insignificant compared to the wider picture, and what really appals me is that a government put in power by 25% of the electorate should have tried to solve its internal divisions by proposing an ill thought through choice which has been irrevocably endorsed by just over a third of the electorate: all on the basis of lies and distortion. Surely the impotence that so many of us feel has to find a voice, not a musical one but a scream of outrage.

 

 

Cheryl Frances-Hoad

 

Where I live (in Bedford) all you could see in the run up to the referendum were LEAVE posters, so the result didn't come as a shock to me. It makes it no less depressing though. It seems to me we are leaving the EU because a handful of well-educated men (men taught by experts) wanted the top job. I do understand why a lot of people outside London felt so frustrated though, and I can sympathise why many, faced with the barrage of misleading anti-EU, anti-immigrant propaganda that was coming at us every day, voted the way they did (I think it's been a little too easy for my circle of friends to insulate themselves from opposing views: the peril of social media perhaps).

 

I can't help thinking that Brexit could almost be viewed as a symptom of our society's lessoning respect and appreciation for the arts, although of course it's vastly more complicated than that! The UK Sciences are already suffering, and I can't see why Brexit wouldn't have a similar effect on the arts, even if the sums of money involved aren't so vast, but in recent years it's hardly as if music in schools has been well-supported by the Government. Brexit will probably have very little effect on my composing career, at all or in the short term at least, but that's hardly the point. I'm lucky to have reached a certain point my career where my CV will probably still allow me access to various funding streams, but if this had happened five years ago I'd not feel anywhere near as confident. I think as composers, however, we can continue to create music that speaks to people across borders, continue to look outwards for inspiration and continue to try to introduce new audience to our artform.  I can't imagine the economic implications and unknowns that there must be for some of the big arts institutions in the UK at the moment: it makes me shudder. Perhaps all one can do, until things become clearer, is continue to write music that encourages collaboration, dialogue and inclusiveness. 

 

John Palmer

 

I have spent many years of my life on the Continent and my cultural formation is truly European, having lived in England, Germany, Italy and Switzerland for so many years, having absorbed all these cultures, having been 'moulded' in such cultures. I do feel British and European at the same time. 

 

Britain fully belongs to Europe: we Europeans belong to the same cultural tradition that springs from Greek and Roman civilisations. To deny this would be foolish and ignorant. But it is equally true that the current European Union is not a transparent and democratic institution. Who of us really wants to be ruled by two governments: a national one that is losing its sovereignty year after year and a super-government made by people in Brussels we don't know, who haven’t been elected by us, and who dictate to us what they decide?

 

I have often experienced the structural heaviness and the corruption of the state-based culture that prevails on the Continent. I have come to terms with the fact that the majority of Continental people do not see this, simply because they do not know, they have never experienced, a different kind of democracy, one that is more liberal and based on the freedom of the individual. In this sense Britain remains, indeed, different to Continental Europe.

 

I went to an event for Europe in Munich on Saturday because I wanted to get a deeper understanding of the current feeling about Brexit in Europe.  I spoke to several people, but no one could understand why Britain has left. One tries to explain why, yet they don't understand or want to understand that there may be another sensitivity for democracy different to theirs. I spoke to other people in Stuttgart, Halle, Berlin, Rome and Perugia, but with the same results. Only a Swedish friend of mine could understand why the majority of British people have decided to leave. As I hinted earlier, the vast majority of Continental people do not understand that the British tradition is simply different to the Continental one, and this split of perception in the European Continent is, indeed, a real problem. Yet, I believe it is a problem that can be solved in a political environment that is truly democratic.

 

But politics should go hand in hand with the social and the human aspect of life. We Brits must guard against the tendency to think only of ourselves. I do think we all should be more altruistic and less selfish. In this sense we should learn, for example, from more (European?) human values such as friendship, passion, emotional intensity and more importantly, a stronger sense of “sociality”. Similarly, Continental Europeans could have much to learn from our sense of liberty and respect for the individual. If we all made an effort in both directions I am sure we will always find the right solution to any political problem.

 

Charlotte Bray

 

Being a British composer who shares her time between London and Berlin, and Barcelona for the coming Semester, no doubt I will be very affected by Brexit. My management is in Berlin and I have ongoing working relationships with many musicians in Europe, therefore I dearly hope that there will be pathways formed in the aftermath to make these relationships still viable, for British musicians working in Europe and vice versa. Aside from the impact Brexit will have on music and the arts, I find it devastating how divided our country is and how narrow-minded people can be, unable to see beyond the little island they live on.

 

Jack White

 

For every freelancer there is always an element of uncertainty. Most accept this as part of the territory, acknowledging the risk but also the freedom such engagement provides. My fear is that the artistic landscape for post-Brexit composers will be one fraught with uncertainty, to a greater extent than anyone can now imagine.

 

In recent years the Conservative government has not been a champion of music. It should have come as no surprise that as soon as we began hearing the repeated mantras of 'austerity' and 'living within our means' that councils were going to have to start making some difficult decisions. Of course, councils are not going to win approval by shutting front-line services when budgets get slashed. Therefore services relating to the Arts get crushed as soon as cuts have to be made. On top of this we have seen the continuing rhetoric from ministers such as Nicky Morgan, Eduction Secretary, claiming that picking Art subjects hold students back in their career choices.

 

After the decimation of many areas of the UK under Thatcher, the EU highlighted many places in South Wales (where I am based) for specific poverty grants. These grants sought to redress the imbalance of opportunity, both economic and cultural, within regions such as South Wales. My suspicion is that without our relationship with the EU to counter-balance the lasting effects of such depression, many areas will suffer further hardship. What this means culturally for these regions is that, after a certain time, they will become cultural black spots with organisations and professionals moving to areas where there is better chance of securing work. I can see it becoming increasingly likely that the government will increase the call for further austerity measures, citing Brexit as the reason.  

 

Maybe the investment from the EU wasn't quick enough within areas such as Wales (which head-scratchingly voted Brexit), and Northern England. Maybe the deprivation of those areas was already entrenched enough to make (clearly misleading) calls to save public services, and the idea of a protest vote, an attractive decision. People clearly had the passion to get out there and vote, they just didn't think about the complexity of the problems that would be caused by Brexit within their own region in my opinion.

 

I am not sure where this leaves us. The next generation of composers and musicians will certainly face much tougher decisions. How can we have faith in a government who has arbitrarily decided that foreign-born professionals must earn over £35,000 or face deportation? Such decisions suggest that post-Brexit Britain will likely be one in which the cultural value of music will simply be understood as its potential to generate income, without the comprehension or  understanding of its (ironically cost-effective) societal benefits.  I dearly hope I am proved wrong.


Photo: Azzurra Primavera

Errollyn Wallen, MBE

 

Einstein said: “A large part of our attitude toward things is conditioned by opinions and emotions which we unconsciously absorb as children from our environment. In other words, it is tradition—besides inherited aptitudes and qualities—which makes us what we are. We but rarely reflect how relatively small as compared with the powerful influence of tradition is the influence of our conscious thought upon our conduct and convictions.” 

 

In the three weeks since Brexit we have had a change of Prime Minister and much social upheaval both here and globally.

 

I worry. What can I do? How can I make sense of these times?

 

As a musician it is for me to start listening in a different way.

 

I must pay super close attention to the whispers and cries coming from all quarters.

 

It is for me to not only witness — but to take action when necessary.

 

I must stand up. I must speak up. I must act. 

 

I wish we musicians and artists had stood up more strongly for the international

 

community of which we have always been part.

 

* Albert Einstein: The Negro Question (1946)

 

Kenneth Hesketh

 

O brave new world, that has such people in't!

 

This tiny island’s decision to Brexit has caused a pyroclastic shockwave around the globe. It has set in motion a kaleidoscope of butterfly wings that has only started to cause chaos across social, financial and educational sectors. That this damage was done by duplicitous individuals, who cared only for their own advancement, will be seen as a mere bagatelle in comparison to the long-term shift in how we, the people of the UK, are viewed and are able to impact the world at large. That Brexit might even act as a model for others elsewhere in the EU to manipulate nationalistic tendencies saddens and sickens me.

 

The fortune of this country will change slowly – an emergent property of the many systems now at work – as a Brexit of one sort or another is set in motion; we will see whether partnerships are rescinded or altered to our detriment in the fields of science and education; how access to European grants is diminished or terminated; how a more right-wing government under PM May will now act even as articulates it plans in Labour’s traditional philosophies (Labour's need to practice self-immolation at this time is beyond reason). This United Kingdom may stay intact but the evil that has hatched out and divided the country will take time to truly settle again – and I can only hope it does.

 

There are groups such as Scientists for Britain who say the breaking of EU shackles and obligations of free movement will free science in the UK, allowing for a time of great innovation and realignment, of greater involvement with the US and in our shared mother tongue.* However I can’t think of any artist who fears Europe and what it stands for, or who seeks to renegotiate our entwined and mutual development and exploration, one that began centuries ago and to our betterment. As a composer and person I fear parochialism, ignorance and un-nuanced ‘conviction’; the awareness of cultures and fluidity of contexts is, I believe, what leads us towards a truly flexible, relevant and dynamic art. Whatever form Brexit eventually takes, the world we now live in – thanks in part to modern modes of information exchange – cannot put the genie of artistic awareness and cooperation back in the bottle. It might make it more difficult to gather consortia from across Europe, but to a certain extent it already is, but we continue to connect anyhow. Therefore, we CAN artistically maintain our fraternité, our networks and shared culture and exchange of influences, and in the process, perhaps, we will allow our politics to rise closer to the surface of our art and so speak more forcefully. Might this even allow our art to connect relevantly to a wider public as well? There has to be benefit in that. 

 

Howard Morris PhD, DSc(Hon), FRSA, FRS, Professor of Biological Chemistry (now Emeritus) at Imperial College, London since 1980

 

Bill Bankes-Jones, founder and Artistic Director of Tête à Tête, and Chair of the UK's umbrella body for opera companies, the Opera and Music Theatre Forum:

 

Brexit came as an absolute body blow to me.  It's very hard to separate out emotional and professional reactions. 

 

Like pretty much all of us working in the arts, the idea of leaving Europe felt absolute madness to me at a time of increasingly connected communication, when we should all be trying to work together more and developing wider umbrellas.

 

I had a feeling this was going to happen though.  It's like a horrible working through of the core idea of Richard Hoggart's The Uses Of Literacy, where he sets out his idea that mass literacy will send us plummeting towards a lowest common denominator where this great new asset to society is used by commercial forces to profiteer by bringing out the worst in mankind - viz newspapers like The Sun etc.

 

Unfortunately, I fear he was right, and continues to be proved to be right as our increasing connectedness just encourages the very free flow of ever more debasing porn and other material, and worse still, allows social networks to somehow encourage great outpourings of bile and viciousness, or at best, short-term and shallow answers to deep and crucial questions.

 

To some extent, I do think this is why there is a general sense of loss of control around the country - that and the awful economic imbalances between London and the English and Welsh regions.  What's heartbreaking is the referendum was seized as an opportunity to lash out against these centralised forces by the electorate, without a proper understanding of the very negative consequences that will accrue to these same voters themselves.

 

Even more frighteningly, I can't see how this loss of control will ever be overcome.  Certainly our politicians and democratic processes are unlikely to be able to return any sense of control, which is very frightening indeed.

 

But with Theresa May telling us that "Brexit means Brexit", we'll have to knuckle down and make the best of it.

 

In opera in particular, we are very accustomed to a free flow of artists internationally, and of course with Europe next-door, we are very grateful for the lack of red tape involved in the free flow of the workforce.  We also welcome and embrace the kind of partnerships Europe has facilitated and often financed.  We will have to hope that these things are not too destabilised.

 

Oddly, I spent the day of the referendum result in Switzerland, a very European country outside the EU.  I guess we have to hope that we will be able to remain that connected, while becoming just as prosperous and remaining as creative as we have always been.

 

The British Arts Festivals Association, chaired by Presteigne Festival artistic director, George Vass, give their view in a recent press release:

 

Downgrade of the UK’s cultural credit rating

The UK’s withdrawal from the EU will create restrictive conditions for collaborative creative partnerships. The costs and bureaucracy associated with welcoming international artists to the UK will be increased and our potential access to support for these partnerships will vanish. Should the UK leave the EU the impact on the performing arts will be hugely detrimental. Funding will be lost, partnerships will cease to exist, our specialist higher education institutions will lose students, UK artists will find it more difficult to work in Europe and the UK will lose many visiting artists. We have already seen the UK’s financial credit rating downgraded. Should this imprudent action, prompted by political expediency and irrational fear, be ratified, then we must also prepare for the downgrade of the UK’s cultural credit rating.

 

Other views from individual organisation members of BAFA:

 

Lyndon Jones, Artistic Director, Swansea International Music Festival

 

For Wales, the referendum outcome is grim, and possibly catastrophic. In the short term, substantial amounts of EU funding for agriculture, and for capital projects including schools, hospitals, and roads, will vanish. Therefore the Welsh Government’s remaining funds will be stretched to the limit, and arts funding is very likely to be one of the first casualties of new spending limits.

 

Further ahead, the possibilities of Scottish and Irish independence might see Wales as a (perhaps unwanted) partner of an internationally isolated England which, faced with its own post-Brexit difficulties and a secure Tory parliamentary majority, might struggle to see the value in generous public funding settlements to a predominantly Labour-voting neighbour.

 

Martin Dimery, Creative Director, Frome Festival 

 

In some parts of the England, like Somerset, austerity budgets have meant the complete withdrawal of arts funding from local councils, followed then by a removal of funding from the Arts Council, who refuse to be the sole provider in these cases. EU funding for capital projects remains one of the few subsidies still available. We can have no confidence, given central and local government policy to the arts in the regions, that this money will be made available from those sources instead, following "Brexit." In Frome, an EU grant bid of significant proportion to help develop a venue has suddenly gone from looking positive to impossible overnight.

 

Debbie Liggins, Business Development Director, Orchestra of the Swan

 

On a practical note, I would add to this the volatility of the financial markets which could affect the value of investment portfolios and thus the amount that Trusts, Foundations and Individual Benefactors are prepared to donate to the Arts; the potential property value instability which could affect rental prices of commercial premises; the value of the pound which could cost festivals more to employ overseas artists; the re-allocation of public funding away from the arts in order to fulfil the promises of the ‘Leave’ campaign; the loss of the British brand as the UK breaks up …



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