There's no word
in Finnish for workshop
"This is a very bad performance", complained
my composition teacher at Helsinki's Sibelius Academy, eyeing the name
of the prestigious British ensemble on the cassette case as we listened
to an old piece of mine. I clarified that the players weren't giving a
performance but a workshop, done in limited time with limited resources.
Defining what a workshop is to Scandinavian musicians, for whom there
are only rehearsals, performances and recordings, is tricky. Born of the
conservatism of British concert audiences in the first half of the twentieth
century and nourished by a shortage of arts funding for challenging programmes
since, composer workshops with professional ensembles are a distinctly
British institution which British composers try to make the best of and
British contemporary music ensembles, as a rule, know how to handle. The
inception of spnm itself was inextricably bound up with the provision
of workshops (see Francis Routh's Contemporary British Music: The 25 Years
from 1945-1970). Being "workshopped" is, for better or for worse,
a feature of nearly every British composer's early career.
In October a dozen composers - six from Britain and six from the Nordic
countries - took part in four days of composers' workshops at BBC Pebble
Mill. spnm organised this event in conjunction with UNM ("Young
Nordic Music", who selected the Scandinavian participants), Birmingham
Contemporary Music Group and Athelas Sinfonietta Copenhagen as part of
Birmingham's Discover Denmark festival, dividing the six workshops and
two final presentations between the two ensembles. The workshop leaders
were Steve Martland and Karl Aage Rasmussen, artistic director of Athelas.
Although I was selected by spnm for this event like the other five British
composers, I've been living in Finland for the last eight years and I
was curious to see what our Nordic counterparts made of workshops. I had
written a piece for Athelas, who were tackling this kind of workshop situation
for the first time. Karl Aage led the session and he chose, usefully,
to approach it as a sort of hands-on composition lesson. Athelas treated
all of their workshops as a forum for trying things out - what else would
the uninitiated expect from the word "workshop"? - with the
result that only one piece was ready to run from start to finish (mine,
as it turned out) in Friday's performance. The other five were presented
as "works in progress" in open rehearsal form.
In contrast, BCMG's workshops were closer in style to dress rehearsals
and clearly directed towards achieving a successful rendition of each
composer's piece. In the final BCMG presentation, there were six out of
six straight run-throughs. Why the difference in approach?
First, I think it's a fair comment that what composers often expect from
workshops are not workshops at all, but run-throughs with recordings.
BCMG, as veterans of numerous workshops, tacitly acknowledged this. One
of my own more rewarding workshop experiences, with the Lindsay String
Quartet, was basically a recording session. That said, workshops as real
workshops - an opportunity to get feedback from professional players,
hear the input of the composer leading the session, tweak things that
don't work, check instrumentation problems - can be enormously beneficial
to young composers, despite their potential practical value being all
too frequently diminished by the players' unfamiliarity with the notes
(workshops should not feel like first rehearsals, although they sometimes
To conclude, here's a summary of my contribution to the debriefing session
which a representative of the Danish Music Information Centre chaired
after the final performance.
In Finland, emerging composers' work is usually played in the concerts
of primarily student-run organisations like the "Ears Open"
Society (Korvat auki, founded by Esa-Pekka Salonen, Magnus Lindberg et
al). UNM serves a similar purpose on a regional level, presenting a yearly
festival of music by Nordic composers aged under 30. In both cases, some
performances are given by professional players, some by students, but
there is no equivalent of our workshop paradigm: a performance is invariably
a concert performance.
While composers are able to organise and promote themselves effectively
in the small, close-knit Finnish musical community where everyone drinks
in the same three bars, this would be impossible in the UK due to the
sheer differences in scale of our respective music scenes. Therefore,
the task of promoting the work of young or unpublished British composers
nationwide falls on the shoulders of cash-strapped arts administration
bodies like spnm, for whom workshops are a way of maximising limited
resources. And though Scandinavia isn't quite the state-subsidised paradise
for composers it is sometimes held to be, there is no equivalent of our
workshops in the Nordic countries because there is no financial need for
spnm’s involvement in Discover Denmark was funded by the
PRS Foundation’s Millennial Award, presented to spnm in 2001.
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