December 2001

There's no word in Finnish for workshop

by Hilary Robinson


"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 frustratingly do).

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 one.

Hilary Robinson

spnm’s involvement in Discover Denmark was funded by the PRS Foundation’s Millennial Award, presented to spnm in 2001.

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Event listings for this month


Previous articles:

November 2001
New Opera?

October 2001
Composer Associations

September 2001
Private Commissioning

July 2001
Joined-up Commissioning

May 2001
The Martland Interview

April 2001
Looking Four-wards

March 2001
Chamber Made

February 2001
Publishing, Promotion and Profitability

January 2001
From the World to the Warehouse

December 2000
What price new music?

November 2000
Composing for dance
from start to finish

October 2000
John Lambert remembered

July 2000
Joanna MacGregor

June 2000
Announcing the shortlist

May 2000
Word of mouse

April 2000
Child's Play

March 2000
tables turned

February 2000
the ENO Studio

January 2000
a challenge from Michael Oliva

December 1999
into the next century...

November 1999
Joanna MacGregor writes

October 1999
obsessed with consuming?

September 1999
spnm welcomes Joanna MacGregor.

July/August 1999
Spectrum 2 - miniatures for piano.

June 1999
Hoxton Hall New Music Days.

May 1999
Bath International Music Festival is 50.

April 1999
Who is Georges Aperghis?

March 1999
On frost, birth and death

February 1999
Keeping busy...

January 1999
Now that's what I call contemporary!