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Birmingham Contemporary Music Group Interview 571

Posted on 17 November 2006. © Copyright 2004-2014 David Bruce


C:T talks to leading UK new music ensemble the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group

BCMG. Photographer: Chris Nash
The BCMG is widely regarded as one of the foremost contemporary music ensembles in the UK. What cultural responsibilities come with that and how do you address them?

We see our responsibility as being broadly to support composers and to engage the largest number of people we can with the most exciting and important classical music of our own time, extending back to forward-looking classics from the 20th century. In doing this we aim for the highest artistic standards across the company.

Does the audience for a BCMG concert extend beyond the 'New Music clique'. What do you do to try to ensure that it does?

The ‘new music clique’ are very welcome at our concerts. However, composers and artists working with BCMG frequently comment on the breadth and diversity (and size!) of our audiences in Birmingham. Over the years we have pioneered many initiatives to take our performances to a wide audience, in particular to those who may not normally consider coming to the centre of Birmingham for a concert of new classical music. These have included free Urban and Rural Tours and free Meet-the-Composer Days, as well as an extensive learning and participation programme which is fully integrated into our commissioning and performing work. Underpinning our work is a firm belief that an excellent new work, expertly performed and imaginatively presented can be a stimulating and enjoyable experience for anybody.


Tell us about your commissioning policy. How do you decide who to commission? Is it better to have a clear cultural stance/position with respect to new music; or to be more comprehensive and inclusive?

The policy is very broad - a desire to commission the right piece from the right composer at the right time, and for this to embrace both established composers and younger emerging voices, and to commission for both the BCMG ensemble and for young performers via our learning and participation programme. We commission composers from abroad as well as from the UK. Within that broad framework, the choice of whom to commission has to come down to the judgment and taste of the Artistic Director, with greatly valued input and advice from colleagues and a number of artists who work regularly with the Group, including our Artists-in-Association. There is no particular stance or position taken up as policy, only that in commissioning a composer we should believe strongly that they have something important to say which deserves to be heard by a wide audience.



To what extent does your funding (eg Arts Council) determine your artistic position?

Not at all. This does not mean we do not value a close working relationship with our many stakeholders, including the Arts Council and Birmingham City Council, but there is never an occasion when our artistic programme is driven by our funding. We sometimes respond to the availability of particular funding streams to develop new ideas, and sometimes this is done in direct partnership with funders, but this is always for projects which are natural extensions of our work and which we really want to do, it’s never a case of creating a project simply for a funding opportunity.

If the success of a group like the BCMG is not just based on box office numbers, who do you listen to, to judge the level of your success?

There are many measures of success – the size and range of audiences and participants, and more importantly the kind of feedback we get from them, is a key one of course. Equally, feedback from composers, artists, the critics, our funders, all assist us to gauge the level of our success. It’s very nice to win awards occasionally too! But above all we have to listen to ourselves. There is a ruthless streak of self-assessment in the organization, which goes through the musicians, the staff team and the Board of Directors and, in the end, if we can’t tell in our guts whether or not a project has been successful then we shouldn’t have been doing it in the first place.


Classroom music education in schools appears to be at an all time low. What do you see as the future for music education in the UK and what will BCMG's role be?

These are all very big questions!!! We don’t feel it entirely true that classroom music is at an all time low – there are many examples of fantastic music teaching and music teachers in Birmingham many of whom we work with. One of the problems is that there are not the mechanisms to share this good practice. We definitely think there are some considerable challenges facing music in schools – breadth verses depth in the curriculum, connecting with young peoples musical worlds outside of school and working with very diverse abilities within a class. BCMG’s role in this includes; promoting new music as a living breathing art form with living composers and musicians working in schools, building partnerships with teachers and other educationalists to create models of excellent practice – particularly focusing on the composition/creative side of music. A composition-based approach challenges and engages young people and is inclusive of all young people whether they play an instrument or not. However, this can be done badly when composition tasks are presented as recipes to be followed with predictable outcomes and without understanding of cultural context and purpose. When done well, a composition-based approach connects to creativity/thinking skills agenda, encourages young people to problem solve and to think like composers, and, gives music a purpose beyond the classroom. A small organisation like BCMG has to think carefully how we will have impact and for us this is not to do lots of different projects in lots of different schools but to build and develop ongoing programmes, based on good pedagogy, in consultation with young people and educators, which respect the skills of all those involved. It is important to us to disseminate our work and our website is becoming increasingly used for this. Two further linked strands of our work are to create more performance opportunities for young people to play contemporary music and to commission new work for young people to perform.

Do you read unsolicited work?

Yes, and we are always happy to receive scores and recordings, although given the quantities which come through the letterbox it can sometimes take a considerable time to read and listen to everything. We are aware this can be frustrating to composers although within our resources as a small company we try to assess as much as we can.

What do you think of the present artistic environment, both at home and abroad? Are we living in a healthy cultural state?

A mixture of optimism and concern. In some ways it seems a particularly rich time for the arts, and there is a richness and depth in composition in the UK at the moment which is very exciting, even if it is perhaps harder than ever before for young artists to find their own voice, with such a multiplicity of directions open to them. In others ways, particularly concerning the place the arts, and especially contemporary arts, and especially contemporary music, have in general discourse, it can seem much more depressing. Despite there being more public money for the arts in the UK than ever before, there is also a much wider call on that money which means that artistic life still feels as if it is at best surviving, albeit with less outright threat than in recent times, rather than thriving. This is from an arts company’s point of view of course. It is of great concern that a result of financial strictures can be a pressure for artistic programming to serve the demands of marketing rather than the other way round, which produces a dangerously ever-decreasing circle. One of the most important things, in an age of wide availability of the arts at second hand through both traditional and emerging technologies, is to retain the primacy of the live, never-to-be-repeated, ephemeral artistic performance or event. As an arts company we have to keep dreaming up new initiatives to find ways to attract audiences who are bombarded with so many calls on their time. But our own experience is that the audiences are there if you are resourceful in finding them, and there is a lot of great art being created so it’s hard to stop optimism surfacing!




What are BCMG's plans for the future?

We are about to launch a new kind of Family & Schools’ Concerts project, with film and theatre interweaving with music by composers such as Xenakis, Gerald Barry and a new work by John Woolrich to engage a young audience of 8-11 year olds. We have a series of concerts planned over the next few seasons with our new Artist-in-Association Oliver Knussen, including our regular visit to the Aldeburgh Festival in June. In the new year we have concerts with Sakari Oramo and Thomas Adès, the latter including a visit to the Paris Présences Festival and the Barbican’s festival built around Adès’ music. Finally, and most importantly, we’ll be unveiling new commissions from Brett Dean, Tansy Davies, Johannes Maria Staud, John Woolrich, Eivind Buene and Nicholas Sackman during 2007, plus a series of new string quartets for young performers inspired by the science of nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy (!) by Philip Cashian, Tansy Davies and David Horne.



How can people find out more about you?

Via our website: http://www.bcmg.org.uk



Interview by David Bruce © Copyright 2004-2014

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