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  BRITISH COMPOSER AWARDS  Misuc at 12:49 on 04 December 2008

Last night, suffering from a terrible ear-ache I listened to most of a 'concert' showing off winners of the new 'British Academy of Songwriters'/Performing Rights Society awards.

Members may like to hear this and comment. Here is a link:

My first impressions:

Anybody who knows the 'scene' here at all would have predicted the results from a simple list of who knows whom etc. With the exception of the 'international' category, won by a very trendy 100-year old from the USA, who everybody treats with great respect and awe and nobody understands, the rest were middle-aged, middle class, middle-of-the-road mediccrities. There was a great variety of 'styles' - and one or two good ideas. The fist pice: 'folk music' had soome attractive folk-fiddle figurations and Howard Skempton's song had some beautifully effective endings. The trouble even here was that neither they nor a single one of the pieces on offer last night (apart from the Carter) showed the slightest awareness of the property of music to differentiate into beginnings, middles, ends - the most basic differentiation of all, which gives music its dynamic, and the listener a reason to listen on. 'Folk Music' breaks up into motiveless repetitive clanking. It is all ODTAA (one damned thing after another). The Skempton consists of nothing but magnificent endings, stretching out to infinity and beyond. Adam Gorb's excruciating tuneless pot-pourri of rambling meandering sub-Bernstein jottings was an insult. Jonathan Dove's 'Pinocchio' showed nothing at all of the bizarre, sinister or of the puppetry. It contributed nothing. It was just a sample: a completely conformist, idea-less, unskillful, motiveless cosy showbiz exercise. And James Macmillan just gave us another serving from his recipe book/ catechism.......

  Re: BRITISH COMPOSER AWARDS  jiholland111 at 13:00 on 04 December 2008


I dread to think what you thought of my (amateur) piece, 'Green Sky', which won the Making Music Award.

But then, do I really care, judging what you've written about the other (professional) music that you heard (admittedly with 'a terrible ear-ache'?

  Re: BRITISH COMPOSER AWARDS  Misuc at 15:31 on 04 December 2008

Yes. Of course you care. Who would not? Unfortunately I missed most of your piece, but what I heard I found really exciting- quite different from the rest. I'm going to give it a proper listen as soon as I can.

This is not a pro vs amateur issue. The failings I found in the other pieces were not caused by their 'amateurism' but on the contrary by their total lack of a sense of struggle (i.e. in a sense they were all too good at their job!)

  Re: BRITISH COMPOSER AWARDS  scott_good at 21:56 on 04 December 2008

followed the link, and now listening to Et Expecto Resurrectionem Mortuorum

what a piece - terrifying - magnificent.

i'll get to the other stuff soon.


  Re: BRITISH COMPOSER AWARDS  scott_good at 18:08 on 05 December 2008

Ok, i did it, listened to the whole show.

Probably shouldn't have listened to Messiaen before...

At any rate, i can put them into 3 categories - I'll do bad to good (yes yes, these are just my opinions)

My marks aren't great...

3rd place - the "how in the world did these pieces win" category - sorry if this is harsh.

Cutler-"Folk Music" - I just don't get it. Ok, it's not horrible music, but to win a competition for best chamber work of the year?! Come on. It's a little ditty with too much repetition for it's own good. Ya, some pleasant moments, but I just can't understand how this could win such a vast category.

Gorb - "Adrenaline City" - Oh man, the band thing. No wonder it gets such a bad rap. Well, I'm a sucker for 10/8 and actually have a soft spot for band music. But really, what is up? Development, anyone...I guess I would have had fun playing it in high school...I guess.

Bingham - "Fantasy on Paganini or something" - This is beyond me again. How does a piece like this win this huge category (solo or duo)? Tepid. Ok, some nice parts, and some effectual violin composing. But to win a competition...And seriously, if you are going to take on Paganini as a subject (wow), you better go hard core, and this piece was soft.

Dove "Pinocchio" - Well, there is cleverness going on. But this music doesn't do much for me. I guess it does for others. But ya, as Misuc said, where is the darkness - the loneliness - the "magic" - too much Disney. I'm sure something like this would do well in box offices, and maybe it's good for kids (not something unworthy) but should not to my mind be winning serious competitions.

2nd place - the "Not bad, but didn't blow me away" category

Skempton - "The moon is flashing" (I think) - This started with such promise. In my notes, I was writing things like "here is a real "British" piece in the best sense of the word"...but then, it went on, and on...just a few too many Britten rip offs - too much of the same and same - and the ending was simply bizarre in the context of what led to it. None the less, I did quite enjoy it for the first few minutes - the melodic lines were compelling and the interaction between bass and/or inner voices with the vocal line was quite lovely.

Holland - "Green Sky" - Aside from the Carter and Bedford, the work which flexed the most creativity. It was certainly interesting and colourful. But I did have issues with it's randomness (sorry John...just my opinion). In essence, any moment of the work was good, but put together I found it disorienting. I'm not sure what the composer was going for (note: perhaps he could share some thoughts with us and post the piece on his sound samples page so we can listen with more insight...).

Macmillan Liturgical work - well, some nice writing. but I'm just too blown away that there is a liturgical category at all! huhh? Someone explain, please, how in a music competition, there is a religious category?

1st place - the "Yes, I would like to hear this music again. Solid, imaginative, and deserving of a 1st prize"

Carter - Well, of course. He is brilliant, and the chunk of the piece was really neat. It did feel like just a chunk, though. I would like to hear the entire piece, as I'm sure it will be even more effective.

Bedford - "Wreath" - This was the standout piece for me. I am often put off by atmospheric music, and normally, this kind of repetitiveness bores me, but he worked in very imaginative ways with melodic fragments which in their interactions, creating effective and enticing harmonic pulses and fluxations (sorry, just seems like the right word). I was drawn into this piece. It had subtle emotional effect, and was the only work that grew on me, and got better as it went along. I definitely want to hear the entire piece. Bravo.

Lastly, I would like to say that if anyone from England says that only esoteric modern atonal music is what gets recognized in their country, I will simply know that they are talking out their *** (which is what I have suspected all along). Most of these works were overtly tonal in their language, and won awards presented by other composers.

The issue is not tonality...

  Re: BRITISH COMPOSER AWARDS  MartinY at 21:57 on 05 December 2008

I managed to hear all of the awards music on listen again and found myself more or less agreeing with Scott on every point especially the pieces which were surprisingly the 'best in class'. I was a little surprised at how much tonal music won, but a lot of the successful composers in the UK are writing tonal music. That is certainly not the issue of my gripes. with the UK music scene.

I presume the reason there is a liturgical section is that the churches are probably now by far the biggest purchasers of books and sheet music in the country. Look at the size of's religion related music sections... That is another story but I could hear echos of the sacred music of the past which some of us know and love in the MacMillan. It almost made me want to sing some of his motets... Grrrrr.

  Re: BRITISH COMPOSER AWARDS  Nicolas Tzortzis at 22:51 on 05 December 2008

As Scott points out,these awards proove once more that all the talk about "the establishment only accepting and awarding atonal music" is just a lot of .... .

  Re: BRITISH COMPOSER AWARDS  Misuc at 11:04 on 06 December 2008


Very frustrating. Apart from the fact that I've still got the ear-ache, I can't actually get get the link I posted to work. (It asks me to download a plug-in, but nothing happens when I click). I've tried other links, and they don't seem to want to work, either. But I'm determined to listen to the whole concert and perhaps give a more balanced judgement.

Scott's first effusions made me nostalgic for the times I could get so easily pleased until I was reminded of what it made me write. I am glad that there is this little mean scoffing gnome sitting within me as I write or listen, tapping me on the shoulder or tweaking my ear, and saying: "Come on! Are you satisfied with that?! What have those four bars contributed to the noble art of music?" Every composer of any value has such a demon. Sometimes it causes him to elaborate, extend and stretch an idea beyond its 'natural' bounds, sometimes it gets him to 'drop everything and run' - in other words to give up preconceived concepts and allow his imagination the means to jump to another phase.

Look at Beethoven's notebooks to see something of how this can happen - or even Mozart's (who kept changing the barring to get the required upbeat 'lift'

It is essential both to encourage these imps and to make sure they work for you and not against. This requires the sensitivity and humility to be repeatedly knocked out of kilter by the discovery of a musical idea or device, a quality which is, almost by definition, hard to find among successful professionals nowadays Seeing as both success and professionalism depend so much on being able reliably to supply the required goods to the existing sponsors.

Scott's second commentary returned to his usual very observant and intelligent manner. I didn't hear the Bedford, most of John's piece, or the Bingham, but otherwise I find his comments agree very well with mine.

I don't want to come across as a moaner. Carter is actually a miracle. How does he keep that elan and sense of fragile coherence? But there are great English composers too, Benedict Mason, Alexander Goehr, James Dillon....... We should discuss their work too

  Re: BRITISH COMPOSER AWARDS  Misuc at 19:18 on 06 December 2008

Yes, but look up the SPNM, or listen in to the BBC. Nearly all you hear falls into the category of nondescript: it can't quite summon up the strength to use the forces of tonality, nor does it know quite how to dispense with them.

If this hovering between systems were done with sensitivity and responsiveness, as does sometimes happen (see my refs. to Mason, Goehr and Dillon - three very different composers with very distinct and opposing attitudes to tonality/atonality) then this can be seen as the unique strength of the current musical 'language'.

Everyone seems to agree that tonality/atonality is not the question. Obviously not. Tonality, as a worked out system whereby the choice of pitches and intervals at any one moment directly and indirectly affects the total time-scale of a movement, finished around 1850(though Brahms and Mahler were able to use and extend certain features, usually managing to end up in the same key as they started)

On the other hand, there was never a fully worked out system of atonality - though there have been numerous amazing and less amazing ways of trying to deal with the lack of such a system.

Isn't it time to move on and discuss real issues?

  Re: BRITISH COMPOSER AWARDS  piargno at 20:54 on 06 December 2008

David - I was the one that said it's about good music and bad music, and I never disrespected you. :-(

  Re: BRITISH COMPOSER AWARDS  Misuc at 22:29 on 06 December 2008

Isn't it interesting - and encouraging - 1] that quite a few of us agree (more or less)in our judgement of our fellow composers? 2] that our judgements are so different from those who commission things, make awards etc.? What conclusions should we draw? What should we do about it?

  Re: BRITISH COMPOSER AWARDS  piargno at 04:48 on 07 December 2008

That's an extremely valid point. I'm quasi-convinced that award-granting, especially here in the states, is an extremely political process that involves 10% talent, 50% who you know, 20% how much your music caters to an audience, and 20% your physical image and marketing. In the near future, I'm going to do a comparison of the "popular american composers" of today who are between 20 and 35, and hopefully show that they are basically the same person recycling the same 3 pieces over and over again amongst themselves, and they're allowed to do it because the people controlling the distribution of opportunities have trained them to be as much of a bromide as they are.