Christian Morris talks to Irish-born violinist Gregory Harrington, an emerging soloist based in New York, who has just released A Different World, an album of music by James MacMillan.
Tell us something about your background.
Well, I started violin when I was 4, studying at the Royal Irish Academy of Music with Kevin Kiely until I was 18. I then went to University College Dublin and studied International Business with an arts degree in Spanish, working in Dublin doing finance in a multinational to pay for lessons once a month in London with the wonderful Russian violinist Marat Bisengaliev. Eventually I did the auditions for New York, and came over to study at the Mannes College of Music with Sally Thomas, from whom I learnt a tremendous amount, and finally finished studying with Erick Friedman for a period of three years, who was a really wonderful teacher.
How did you become interested in contemporary music?
Unexpectedly actually... I was looking for a piece to perform at my London debut in the South Bank Centre back in 2000. So I had just come over to study in New York and spent a few days going around music stores here in New York looking for a contemporary piece to perform. I came across Kiss on Wood by James MacMillan, and was just so drawn to the sonorities and the musical language that he uses. I remember after putting down his score saying to myself "Yep, this is it…" and it has really taken off since then.
Read the rest of the interview with Gregory Harrington here
(Photo: Jeffrey Hornstein)
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I said in one of my earliest blog posts that I didn't envy the job of concert reviewers. Having to make a snap judgement about a piece of music strikes me as a thankless job, especially if, after a few years have passed, the work you said was a failure is acknowledged by everyone as a masterpiece (or vice versa). CD reviewing might be considered rather easier - one can listen to a piece many times to form a judgement - but even then you often form an opinion in a relatively short period of time. Sometimes it has taken me years to get to know, understand and finally love a piece of music, making me nervous when I come across something I don't like.
Which brings me to Deutsche Grammophon's new release of music by Wolgang Rihm, Krzysztof Penderecki and Sebastian Currier featuring violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter. I found myself, at best, perplexed by the two pieces by Wolfgang Rihm. The first, Lichtes Spiel for solo violin and orchestra (New York Philharmonic), has an attractively languorous Bergian romanticism but, seemingly, very little sense of direction or shape. And in one seventeen-minute movement it feels hopelessly spun-out. The double bass player Roman Patkoló joins Mutter in Rihm's Dyade, for unaccompanied double bass and violin. They both play with commendable commitment, but, though there is much more drama and variation in this work, it still feels insufficiently focused. As if to emphasize this point, it is prefaced by Penderecki's Duo Concertante, for the same two instruments. At less than half the length of the Rihm it is brilliantly purposeful and urgent, an object lesson in writing for limited resources. The final piece on the disc is Currier's Time Machines, a concerto for violin and orchestra in seven movements, each inspired by an element of time. I loved the work's colourful orchestration and minimalesque pulsating rhythms, but also its moments of extended lyricism, as in the last movement Harmonic Time, which seemed to evoke something of the vast and unknowable cosmos. Mutter and the New York Philharmonic play with both laser-like clarity and emotional commitment. I would be happy to own this disk, but, in the first instance at least, only for the Currier and Penderecki.
Naxos has released a new disk of piano music by Arvo Pärt, played by Ralph van Raat. It offers a fascinating overview of the composer's changing style. The first works - Piano Sonatine, No.1 and No. 2 and Partita - come from the end of the fifties and are in a tonally rich neoclassical style influenced by Shostakovich and Prokofiev. The central work of the disk is the exquisitely poised Für Alina in the pared down manner made famous in such works as the Passio Domini Nostri Jesu Christi secundum Joannem. If, like me, you found that work just a little too cold and ascetic, it is worth checking out the last work on the disk, the both violently impassioned and lyrically introspective Lamentate for piano and orchestra, written in 2002. Pärt describes the work as a lamente 'not for the dead, but the living.' It makes for powerful listening, especially in this excellent recording.
Also on Naxos is something that, for me, was a bit of a discovery: a disk of music by Canadian composer Jeffrey Ryan. It contains his Linearity of Light, the triple concerto Equilateral and Symphony No. 1, Fugitive Colours. The first and last works are played by the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, who are joined by the Gryphon Trio for the second. The inspiration for Linearity of Light, writes the composer, 'is visual-the qualities and properties of light', a premise that gives birth to a highly engaging work of often dazzling orchestral colour. Breathless, the first movement of Equilateral, begins rather like a speeded up version of the second of Knussen's Two Organa, developing into a movement as restless as its title suggests. This is followed by a beautifully contemplative second movement that makes reference to Anglican plainchant and the Hebrew words of the Mourner's Kaddish. The final movement is a 'vibrant affirmation of the dance of life' that is, nevertheless, so relentlessness that it might also suggest a hurtling towards the grave. Symphony no. 1: Fugitive Colours, continues the composer's interest in colour. The first movement builds an effective structure out of a knitting analogy in which 'one colour of thread, about to be dropped is woven in and wrapped around another colour about to begin'. The brooding and enigmatic second movement, Nocturne, essays rich reddish-purple, contrasting with the rapidly changing colour in the aptly named scherzo third movement Light: Fast. The last movement, Viridian, is based on a cool green. The music throughout this disk is marked by brilliant orchestration, pulsating (often ostinato) rhythms and a lucid tonal style. The performances are excellent .
Nimbus's The Bad Tempered Flute features the flute music of Andy Scott with flautists Paul Edmund-Davies, Clare Southworth and Andy Findon, pianists Tim Carey and Peter Lawson and harpist Lauren Scott. Steve Reich's WTC 9/11 (see contrasting reviews here and here), featuring the Kronos Quartet, is now available on Nonesuch. Robert Daugherty, a composer known for the approachability of his style, has a new disk, Fire and Blood, out on Warner Classics. Naxos's clutch of new music recordings this month include: a double-disk set of chamber music by Robert Helps; James Whitbourn's Living Voices and Son of God Mass; Penderecki's Viola Concerto and Cello Concerto No. 2; a disk of Azerbaijani Piano Concertos; and Jenny McLeod's Emperor and the Nightingale.
Nimbus is currently taking pre-orders (up to 31st October) for a recording of Richard Blackford's Not in Our Time (see review here) at a reduced price of £9.99 (£14.99 thereafter). Also soon to be released will be a disk of music from the winners of the Abbey Road Studios 80th Anniversary Anthem Competition. The winners, who in the classical category were Daniel Brinsmead, Daniel Elder, Tina Andersson and Zhangyi Chen, were given the chance to record their works with professional singers and the London Symphony Orchestra. I hope to be able to review the disk when it is released.
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The North Wales International Music Festival begins on 24th September. The programme focuses largely on older repertoire, though there is a composer portrait concert dedicated to the music of Paul Mealor, he of Ubi Caritas royal wedding anthem fame, on 29th September. Earlier in the day he will also give a talk with conductor Nicholas Cleobury entitled 'Is Modern Music For Me?' The Tetbury Music Festival opens its doors on 6th October. Only lasting a few days it does, however, include a concert in which Steven Isserlis will play Thomas Adès's Lieux Retrouvés and Geörgy Kurtág's Four pieces for solo cello.
Two European festivals caught my eye. In Madrid the Festival Internacional de Musica Contemporánea de Tres Cantos begins on 8th October. The seven concerts in the festival programme focus largely on the music of living Spanish composers such as Sergio Blardony, Raquel Rodríguez and Jesús Legido. Featured performers include pianist Jean-Pierre Dupuy, violinist Manuel Guillén and the group Sonido Extremo (Extreme Sound), conducted by Salvador Rojo. Three of the concerts, on 8th 15th and 29th October, are also preceded by round table discussions at 6 pm. Spanish required. Wien Modern runs from 28th October to 25th November 2011 in Vienna. Again dedicated to contemporary music, the festival will focus on the music of Austria and the United Kingdom. The festival opens on 28th with a concert given by the ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien featuring music by Bernhard Kerres, Lothar Knessl, Andreas Mailath-Pokorny and Friedrich Cerha. Subsequent October concerts include music by James Clarke, Brian Ferneyhough, James Dillon, Hilda Paredes, Zahra Mani, Mia Zabelka, George Benjamin and Luke Bedford. More information on the festival's November concerts next month.
Aside from festivals there is a wealth of other concerts to choose from this coming month. On 26th October at Hoddinott Hall the BBC National Orchestra of Wales will give a portrait of the Dutch contemporary music scene, featuring music by Robin de Raafm, Willem Jeths and Klas Tortenson. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra will give the Scottish première of James MacMillan's St. John Passion at City Hall, Glasgow on 29th September and a concert of Sceisi, Cage, Skempton and Cardew on 29th October at Old Fruitmarket, Glasgow.
At the Bridgewater Hall the Hallé will perform concerts that will include Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Primtemps on 13th October and Magnus Lindberg's Violin Concerto on 27th October. In Birmingham, Oliver Knussen conducts a programme of Birtwistle, Milstein, Dallapiccola and Schoenberg at the CBSO Centre on 25th September. The concert features the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, who will also, on October 29th and 30th, be running Feel the Buzz, a composing and improvising project for 14-18 year olds. Talking of youth, the CBSO Youth Orchestra, conducted by Jac van Steen, will give the première of Leckey by Ben Foskett at Symphony Hall on 30th October. Also at Symphony Hall, on 21st October there will be a semi-staged performance of Bartók's chilling Duke Bluebeard's Castle, with the Philharmonia under Esa-Pekka Salonen.
In London ENO continues its run of Mieczyslaw Weinberg's The Passenger, based upon a semi-autobiographical novel by Auschwitz survivor Zofia Posmysz, until 25th October 2011. On 1st October at the Queen Elizabeth Hall the London Sinfonietta will give a concert of music by Pierre Boulez, who will also appear onstage beforehand to talk about his life and work. The group will also present two concerts of electroacoustic music on 21st and 22nd entitled Sonic Explorations at Kings Place. The first features music from Europe, the second from South America and Britain. The London Symphony Orchestra, finally, will give two performances at the Barbican of Britten's War Requiem on 9th and 11th October and an all-Steve Reich concert, also at the Barbican, on 15th.
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After a visit to some Basque friends in Northern Spain last week I found myself with a day to spare in Bilbao. The city used to be faceless and industrial until the Guggenheim Museum of Modern Art, Frank O. Gehry's breathtaking postmodern masterpiece, was constructed on the river estuary next to the city's classical district or 'Ensanche'. Now civic confidence is everywhere, marked by the perfectly kept flowerbeds and armies of mechanised pavement sweepers. I've visited the Guggenheim before, so I went round several other museums first, also taking my time over tapas, cerveza and manzanilla in the Casco Viejo. By the time I got to the Guggenheim, swallowing my pride at the €13 entrance cost, I had four hours in the building before it was to close at 8pm. Ample, I thought.
At first I was disappointed, since the first things one comes across are items from the permanent exhibition in, and leading off, the central foyer, which I'd already seen. Though these are certainly worth a second view, I wondered if my money might have been better spent. But, after walking around Richard Serra's monumental The Matter of Time, I then came to a room that marked the beginning of a new collection. The first piece was Kutlug Atman's Küba, which contains 40 televisions of varying types and ages sat upon a variety of sideboards, tables and small chests of drawers with a single easy chair facing the television. On each television a person from Küba, a socially marginalized district of Istanbul tells a little bit about their lives. Apart from the light from the television screens, the room was dark. One could only hear the bubble of chatter from each of the forty people from the town. I sat in chair after chair, mesmerized by the atmosphere in the room and the sometimes moving, sometimes banal, stories being told.
And though, inevitably, some subsequent installations were hit, some miss, this was roughly my experience as I went round the rest of the collection. There was Thomas Hirchhorn's Cavemanman, a cave installation lined totally in packing tape with various detritus from every day life strewn around - a commentary on contemporary society; Paul McCarthy's Tomato Head, based around the old children's toy of Mr. Potato Head, except with the option to attach or insert sexual organs or, indeed, other items into the various available orifices - an allegory, perhaps, on how we adapt our personalities to suit the situation; and Rivane Neunschwander's Contingente, a film showing ants devouring a map of the world made of honey - obviously a statement upon man's similarly voracious consumption of the earth's natural resources.
I write about this here because of the musical trains of thought this exhibition provoked in me. As I went around I quickly realized that the four hours I had allocated to it were not nearly enough, and that other members of the public, of all ages, were being similarly gripped. And this likewise provoked feelings of artistic envy. I know I'm not the first person to say it, but it is striking how the most challenging of modern art is so easily enjoyed by the average person. The same people who will, at the same time, deride or ignore the best efforts of contemporary composers. As I thought of this I realized that I was, perhaps, guilty of the same fault. In a single day in Bilbao I had visited, including the Guggenheim, four visual arts museums. It had not even crossed my mind to try to find a concert hall.
One could easily say that visual art has an advantage over music in these days of quick fixes and short attention spans because, if one doesn't like a work of art, one shakes one's head sniffily and moves on to the next. Music has to be understood in time. But I don't think that this is the whole truth. Visual art has to be understood in time too. One has to engage with the work, think about the layers of meaning on offer, unravel its mysteries. The real difference is the way we present music: there is nothing worse than that sense of being trapped in one's chair in a concert hall listening to something that bores or offends our ears, with starched collars staring at you if you cough. The experience of the Guggenheim underlined to me the importance of the work of our most pioneering composers to get the work out there; in the street, café or nightclub, places where the public can listen in an environment that is more relaxed, or where one can listen for as little or as much time as one feels necessary. People should be allowed to walk away from music they don't like.
One other thing. Yes, it was a visual art exhibition at the Guggenheim, but many of the installations contained elements of sound. But they were unbelievably, almost laughably limited in scope. Do we collaborate enough with artists? Not only does this strike me as a potentially fertile and exciting area to work but, cynically put, might allow composers at last to participate in the modern art gold rush.
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Since writing my review of Biophilia last week, I've thought a lot about what makes a good CD release. Not everyone is able to release an app or rely on a huge marketing effort to get them noticed. But if one follows the 'three Ps' - programming, performance and production - one can't go wrong.
A new disk of music by James Macmillan featuring the brilliant young violinist Gregory Harrington and two equally gifted colleagues, pianist Simon Mulligan and cellist Caroline Stinson illustrates what I mean. The programme is organized in a way that subtly draws the listener in and then provides the changes of pace necessary to keep one interested. The opening trio of pieces for violin and piano, Kiss on Wood, After the Tryst and A Different World, whilst certainly not straightforward in their expressive intent, have an approachable harmonic idiom. This prepares the ground for what feels like the centre-piece of the disk: the challenging but superb Fourteen Little Pictures, featuring violin, cello and piano. A change of pace then takes us to a trio of pieces for piano solo. The first two, Walfrid, On His Arrival At the Gates of Paradise and 25th May 1967 (which derives from a set of two pieces by the same name), are both world première recordings and both inspired by football. I was particularly struck by the boyish gusto of the second, a celebration of the day Celtic won the European Cup. It also acts as the perfect palette cleanser for what follows: in anguistis... I, for solo piano and, the last piece on the disk, in angustis... II, for solo violin (also a world première recording). These last two pieces, written in response to the events of September 11th, form a dark and melancholic close to the programme. The performances from this young group of musicians are consistently first class. Harrington's playing is marked by its veiled richness in the lower register and incredible control into the sometimes stratospheric higher registers employed by Macmillan. Caroline Stinson only features in Fourteen Little Pieces, but proves very much to be Harrington's equal, whilst Simon Mulligan provides both sensitive accompaniment and soloistic virtuosity as required. Production too is excellent, with very immediate, warm and well-balanced recording. Talking of production, the disk is available on iTunes, Amazon and CD Baby as downloads. But if, like me, you are a lover of the physical product, it is worth purchasing this handsomely made CD in hard copy. Björk eat your heart out...
A slightly more curious piece of programming can be found on Joanna MacGregor's new disk of music by Harrison Birtwistle, Hugh Wood and Lou Harrison released on Warner Classics. The disk opens with Birtwistle's uncompromising Antiphonies for Piano and Orchestra, a work that, with its abrupt interactions between soloist and orchestra, seems to completely tear up the concerto rulebook. I found it intriguing, mysterious but impenetrable. Repeated listening required, I think. More immediately engaging were his virtuosic, and often urbane and witty, Harrison's Clocks. Though more obviously conceived as one entity (it has recurring material at the beginning of each movement, for example) it reminded me a little of Ligeti's Piano Etudes, probably because the evocation of clocks also fascinated the Hungarian composer. The third work, Hugh Wood's Piano Concerto, is jazzily appealing (especially in the third movement), but also quite hard-edged. Which makes the final work in the programme, Lou Harrison's luscious and tonal Piano Concerto, feel a bit out of place. Which is not to say I didn't like the piece; on the contrary I found its totally idiosyncratic East meets West style very infectious. Programming issues aside, however, MacGregor performs brilliantly, adapting herself to the wide range of styles on offer and she and Warner are to be congratulated for bringing us these new recordings.
Naxos continues its tradition of strong support of contemporary composers with six new recordings this month: a recital of contemporary American repertoire for violin and piano, featuring music by Puts, Glass, Kernis, Zhurbin, Danielpour, Bolcom and Higdon; violin and saxophone concertos by James Aikman; Linguae Ignis, Vesalii Icones, Fantasia on a Ground and Two Pavans by Maxwell Davies; the opera Guru, by French composer Laurent Petitgirard; a disk of flute chamber music by Ned Rorem; and Year in the Catskills, Gardens, Dream Dances and Diversions by Peter Schickele.
Also worth checking out are three recording that will be released at the end of the month: ASM 35 on Deutsche Grammophon, a selection of mostly older repertoire played by Anne-Sophie Mutter that will, however, also include Lutoslawski's Partita for Violin and Orchestra; also featuring Sophie Mutter on DG, a new disk with world première recordings of Wolfgang Rihm's Lichtes Spiel and Dyade, Sebastian Currier's Time Machines and Krzysztof Penderecki's Duo Concertante; and a new disk on EMI that includes Schoenberg's transitional work par excellence, Chamber Symphony No.1, conducted by Simon Rattle.
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Despite her international musical profile, and the praise heaped upon her by such people as John Tavener and Alex Ross, I confess that Björk’s career has mostly passed me by – just another name in the vast and unknowable musical firmament. I was even unsure at first whether I should be including her in a blog about contemporary classical music. But the eclectic style of her music making, which admits influences from punk to Stockhausen, suggests a type of crossover composer very common these days.
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Her latest project, Biophilia, is described as ‘an interdisciplinary exploration of the universe and its physical forces – particularly those where music, nature, and technology meet – inspired by these relationships between musical structures and natural phenomena, from the atomic to the cosmic.’ This sounds a little bit like either hubristic marketing or the abstract for a PhD thesis. In fact, it is, in the words of the BBC’s Mark Lawson, ‘one of the most complex multimedia projects in musical history.’
Biophilia explores the ‘love for nature in all her manifestations, from the tiniest organism to the greatest red giant floating in the farthest realm of the universe.’ But this is not just an album of songs about Mother Nature; just as Wagner wanted to unite the various aspects of music drama so that they were all consistent with his own artistic vision, Björk, in Biophilia, seems to be attempting to do the same, but in the digital age. The songs are explored through live shows, through digital record releases and lavish boxed sets, and in an iPhone and iPad app.
If you are an owner of either an iPhone or an iPad I suggest you stop reading now and download the app, especially as the mother app itself is free. It opens with an inspiring, if slightly tree hugging, voice-over from Sir David Attenborough, as we slowly zoom in on what appears to be a constellation of stars. A mysterious choir sings downward, clustered glissandi. Just by itself the constellation is a fascinating multimedia project of its own. As you zoom in on ‘constellation’ names, which turn out to be the names of embedded multimedia projects, you hear snippets of sounds associated with them. The effect is totally beguiling. Apart from Cosmology, which comes free with the app, the projects themselves are in-app purchases. As yet, just two, Virus and Crystalline, are available to buy, but the project will gradually expand.
Each project (song doesn’t seem the word) starts with a description that links the idea to music in a fairly convincing manner. But, despite Björk’s avowed wish to perform these pieces in science museums, this is art not science; I was prepared to take the metaphors on face value and enjoy the dazzling multimedia presentations. In Crystalline this takes the form of a crystal game, which perhaps reflects the idea of building blocks that make up the hypnotic song that accompanies it. Virus, which at first seems like a love song, is in fact a rather disturbing take on how a parasite feeds off its host. The interactive video shows a virus slowly devouring a cell. Cosmology features a rolling graphic score that recalls twentieth century electronic scores by composers such as Stockhausen, Ligeti and Cage. It would probably be a good learning tool in school music lessons, even more so because all the projects also come with a rolling score of the music in proper staff notation.
Biophilia is being brilliantly marketed. I mean that as a compliment. As well as the app and live concerts, one will be able to own special versions of the music in CD, vinyl or two custom-made editions. This aspect is something of a revelation to me. When I first started buying music as a teenager I hankered after the physical form almost as much as the music itself. Gradually, bit-by-bit, it feels as if no-one owns recorded music any more; people download or subscribe to cloud services like Spotify. But here, even the electronic form has so much added value it evokes the excitement of buying the actual physical product. But more importantly it makes me want, for the first time in a long time, to purchase the physical product too. It feels like something special, just like that moment when, as a teenager, I first received the complete CD boxed set of Beethoven symphonies through the post.
In a world crowded with music, I wonder whether composers have much to learn from Björk’s Biophilia.
Mark Lawson on Biophilia on BBC Radio Four’s Front Row
Biophilia on Nonesuch’s website
Wikipedia’s entry on Björk
Björk on Stockhausen
Music by living composers at the BBC Proms continues in August with performances of Robin Holloway’s Fifth Concerto for Orchestra (4th Aug), Gabriel Prokofiev’s Concerto for Turntables and Orchestra (6th Aug), Joby Talbot’s Chacony in G Minor (14th Aug), Georges Aperghis’s Champ-Contrechamp (20th August), Stevie Wishart’s Out of the World (27th Aug) and a series of concerts that include the music of Dutilleux (3rd, 13th, 22nd and 23rd August). If you are near the Bregenz Festival, you may also be able to pick up tickets for Judith Weir’s Blonde Eckbert (6th August). The Schleswig-Holstein Festival also continues until 28th August, with some concerts featuring contemporary music and jazz.
The Edinburgh Festival gets underway on 12th August. Contemporary music featured at the festival includes an all Jonathan Harvey concert (13th Aug), Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes (15th Aug), Tan Dun’s Water Concerto (16th Aug), Unsuk Chin’s Fantaisie Mécanique (18th Aug) and Concerto for Sheng and Orchestra (24th Aug), the world première of Toshio Hosokawa’s Blossoming II (21st Aug) and (not a première) Blossoming (1st September), Anders Hillborg’s Cold Heat (29th Aug) and Dai Fujikura’s String Quartet No.2 (1st September). There is also the chance to hear Philip Glass and his ensemble perform music to the visionary films of Godfrey Reggio (13th, 14th and 15th Aug).
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The innovative and exciting Tête à Tête Opera Festival gets going on 4th August and might just be this month’s best new music ticket. The festival, which focuses entirely on contemporary music, features 40 different productions that include the work of 52 different composers. Productions that caught my eye include: Fables – A Film Opera with music by Emily Hall, Paul Sartin and Andy Mellon (4th and 5th August); SensoryO by Rachel Drury (13th and 14th August), which is aimed at children between 18 and 36 months; Brunch by Max Charles Davies (7th August), a flash opera that will also be performed unannounced throughout the festival; and The North Wind was a Woman (18th August), a collection of songs by C:T founder David Bruce. The full programme may be found here.
In 2004 the Office of Fair Trading asked the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors (BASCA) to stop providing guidance about commission fees paid to composers, saying it was anti-competitive. To get around this (and, perhaps, illustrate the absurdity of the request) BASCA have instead published a table of the average amount paid to composers writing for various forces both inside and outside the UK between January 2005 and December 2009. Whilst BASCA have protected themselves by pointing out that the information is not to be taken as advice as to what to charge, the table is, nevertheless, both extremely helpful (if you are lucky enough to be receiving commissions) and interesting (if you are hoping to). The full breakdown can be found on the BASCA website.
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The table is best read in conjunction with the Commissioning Survey Report, which provides useful further analysis. For example, it shows that the majority of commissions that those questioned reported were for more traditional categories such as chamber music, orchestral and choral works. The number of commissions drops off rapidly with categories such as symphonic wind ensemble, brass band, ‘electronica’, jazz band and jazz orchestra. This surprised me – I’ve always been led to believe that there was a great deal of commissioning activity for these sorts of groups – and so wonder whether the report is skewed towards composers working in traditional genres. I also notice that large scale electronic music, ‘Electronica (A)’, only had two respondents, so the relatively high commissions fees per minute (£742.05) paid in this category could easily be a statistical anomaly.
Perhaps most interesting of all is that BASCA find that the average non-UK commission is £10,431, the average UK commission only £4,579, whilst tantalisingly saying that the report ‘does not investigate why this may be the case.’ It may simply be that commissioners abroad pay more money to composers, though I suspect not. The proportion of commissions in the report that derive from outside the UK was only 17%. This reflects the bias of the report towards UK respondents (it’s hardly likely that 83% of worldwide commissions derive from the UK). Following this logic I wonder, therefore, whether the commissions received from outside the UK were actually for British composers. So it would make sense that these figures would be higher, since a composer with an international profile is likely to command higher fees.
Christian Morris talks to Adrian Hull, director of Arcomis, Arts Commissioning
What is Arcomis?
I set it up in 2007 when I'd finished my PhD in composition at Cardiff. The name is derived from Arts Commissioning. Whilst pursuing my doctorate I was lucky to have been commissioned to write eight pieces for a large firm of Chartered Accountants that were performed around the country and then culminated in a concert at Covent Garden. I didn't know much about corporate commissioning – it felt almost like a dirty word, as if you were selling your soul. But actually it wasn't like that at all; it was a very positive experience where I got to do artistically exactly what I wanted. Arcomis was essentially set up to replicate that process, whereby with a whole pool of composers we could then go to businesses and offer their services. Perhaps composers aren't business-like – we want to write music – so I thought Arcomis could go to companies and individuals offering the opportunity to commission works.
How did you go about setting it up?
Setting up a business is a relatively straightforward process: you do it with Companies House in the UK. We also had some initial assistance in the form of a grant from Cardiff Council and Cardiff University. Part of this gave the opportunity to attend business training courses and workshops. At first I thought these sessions would be dreadful, but actually the training was incredibly useful, since it included things like knowing how to write business and strategic marketing plans. A business-like approach is essential to what we do, since I felt really strongly that Arcomis shouldn't rely on any exterior funding
Read the full interview here
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After looking round the big recording companies’ websites this morning I felt a sense of disappointment; music by living composers was very thin on the ground. Major record labels don’t really seem very interested in contemporary music any more (coming to think of it, were they ever?). I think it is safe to say that their ‘Classical’ releases have a habit of falling into one of the following categories:
Music by (especially well-known) dead composers. I need to be careful here. I’ve nothing against these recordings in themselves, in fact my own CD library and, I suspect, everyone else’s is choc-a-bloc with this kind of music. It’s the concentration upon this that is a worry.
Themed collections of classical music such as EMI’s new release of Romantic Ballets, or, worse, collections based upon some kind of new-age nonsense and still listed under classical, such as the new disc, also on EMI, entitled Zen Chants (I’m including hyperlinks not so you can go and buy the discs, but because I want to show that I’m not making this up).
Music that is made marketable by the presence of a superstar performer. Here things sometimes look brighter, since it can enable a record company or performing artist to get music of lesser-known composers into the public domain. Joanna Macgregor’s disc of Cage and Nancarrow, which I reviewed last month, falls into this category. But often the music tends to focus on the ‘safe’ composers. And, of course, it helps if the performer is attractive. Have a look here to see what I mean.
The music of a lucky few contemporary ‘superstar’ composers. Again I’ve nothing against this. I’m delighted to see Nonesuch trailing a soon-to-be released disc of music by Steve Reich. Totally deserved, good luck to you etc. But this creaming off the top of a few composers, especially those whose music is most easily marketable, ignores the depth and breadth of new music being written today.
It is easy to see what binds all of these categories together: the need to make money. Whilst this is understandable – a record company is a business not a charity – I wonder whether record sellers might be missing out on something in the longer term. They pour all their huge marketing resources into a few predictable pots, completely missing out on all of the other talent around. Why not continue their promotion of a few big names but at the same time allocate a proportion to deserving lesser-known composers? Lesser names are cheaper today but they may become the cash cows of tomorrow.
If a big record company does not believe that this is viable they need to look at the work of labels such as Hyperion and, in particular, Naxos. I confess that when I first started seeing Naxos discs around 20 years ago I tended to ignore them, believing that their prices reflected lower quality recordings. A stupid attitude. Not only do they have, by a substantial margin, more new recordings on offer this (and every) month than the major classical record labels, but a high proportion of these contain music by living composers. Some of these are well-known, some half-forgotten and some quite obscure. It makes the Naxos new release page an exciting place of discovery. What’s more (and here they differ from Hyperion), they release all of their discs on to Spotify – fast becoming my first port of call for all of my listening – and are even helpful enough to publish sleeve notes and excellent composer biographies on their site at no charge.
So here, at last, are my totally Naxos new music recordings picks this month.
Pride of place goes to their new disc of organ music by Judith Bingham. I’ve often wondered why so many contemporary composers do not write for this instrument. This magnificent disc shows what they are missing. It contains a good cross-section of her work for the instrument, from the superb, granite-hewn concerto for organ, Jacob’s Ladder, to two delightfully simple works originally intended for children, Gift and Hope. Bingham’s language is often dissonant and chromatic but always very expressive and, actually, extremely approachable. The performers and recording are first-rate. This is a recording I will return to again and again.
If I were to say ‘Howard Blake’ most people would probably think of The Snowman. If, like me, you are unfamiliar with his other work, why not try Naxos’s new disc of string chamber music featuring the Edinburgh Quartet? It includes Spieltrieb, a cogently argued and substantial single movement work for quartet; A Month in the Country, a suite formed from his film score that packs quite an emotional punch (listen for example, to the heart-rending third movement); and Leda and the Swan, the score for a television ballet that, due to its erotic nature, caused a bit of a stir when it was broadcast. This is probably not the disc for those looking for hard-edged contemporary music, but the quality of the writing is undeniable. The only thing I could have done without is the final piece on the disc, a string quartet version of The Snowman. Even Naxos can succumb to commercial pressures.
Finally, something a little bit ‘left-field’. A disc released as part of their ‘American Classics’ series containing music for saxophone quartet. The composers included are entirely unfamiliar to me though that could, of course, be simple ignorance on my part. The disc contains: Elias Tanenbaum’s Sax Quartet, David Sampson’s Breathing Lessons, Morrill Dexter’s 6 Bagatelles, Eddie Sauter’s Piece for Tuba and Saxophone Quartet and Eric Ewazen’s Rhapsody for Saxophone Quartet. The style of the works tends to be jazz/minimalist inspired but with moments of real expressive intensity. I was particularly taken, for example, by the sometimes pensive, sometimes bitingly sardonic Piece for Tuba and Saxophone Quartet. The New Hudson Quartet have made promoting and expanding this repertoire their mission. Their performances, with an impressive range of nuance and fine ensemble, are excellent.
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