Director Joanna MacGregor recalls an eventful year, and looks
forward to an extraordinary Prom Concert
I’ve had a really great time as Artistic Director of spnm;
it seems to have flashed by (or am I just getting old? Don’t answer
that). When I was persuaded, in a bar, by Steve Montague (bearing several
pints of Guinness) to take up the job after him, I was already re-examining
my ideas about composers: the way the music press write about new music,
the role of publishers, the impact of the internet and above all the relationship
of improvised music, from all cultures, with ‘written’ music.
Working with the spnm team for the past year has been a wonderful
opportunity to meet composers, exchange ideas and get some new projects
off the ground, as well as place pieces off the shortlist.
I’ve been thinking about the role of new music, performers and audiences
in the 21st century. All through the last century we were living with
an outdated, 19th century view of virtuosi – wowing the crowds in
ever-bigger venues, their success determined by extortionate fees and
record sales. Well guess what? Major record labels are folding or being
swallowed up by conglomerates, and too often formal new concert halls
have been hastily built, reflecting a rigid mindset. Audiences have moved
on, while the paraphanalia of performance is locked in the past. At this
corporate, globalised level, promoters and audiences are speaking a different
I’ve got complete faith in the pivotal role of composers this century,
and spnm is crucially well-placed to radicalise all the old sentiments
about ‘contemporary music is hard to sell’, ‘falling audiences’,
‘amateur versus professional’ and other cliches. There isn’t
room to detail everything that’s gone on in the past year, but the
nine new pieces from shortlisted composers for Gamelan Ensemble made up
of players from the Royal College of Music
and the South Bank Gamelan Players, premiered
at the Bath Festival in June and subsequently
broadcast on Radio 3, blows away many of those preconceptions; the concert
was played to a packed audience at Bath Pavilion, to music-lovers who’d
come to hear a mix of traditional Javanese music, ‘classic’
John Cage, club music from Django Bates and Mike Wilson, and new work
inspired by the sonorities of the traditional Gamelan and Cage’s
take on Hindu classicism. No less eclectic, and just as successful with
audiences, was Mersey New Sounds, where nine
composers worked in close association with Tate
Gallery Liverpool to produce new works that were received either
informally, through-out the gallery by day (and a big thank-you here to
students and teachers from Liverpool Hope College,
who played Steve Reich’s Six Pianos with panache and
energy!), or at a concert the same night with myself and Ensemble
10:10 (surrounded by Tony Cragg’s amazing sculptures). There
was other cross-arts works too, including a dance project at
Isleworth Festival, as well as works performed throughout the year
by City of London Sinfonia, The
Duke Quartet, Apollo Sax Quartet and
National Orchestra of Wales and Lontano.
But there are two projects particularly close to my heart, and they involve
new work for young people. I’ve got a phobia about ‘Tubby the
Tuba’ concerts for children – anything that smacks of planets,
carnivals – animals (of), waving your arms in the air, clapping along
etc seems unbearably patronising, and what right-minded child wouldn’t
promise themselves never to go to a concert again? (Rather like being
dragged to a lousy production of Shakespeare at thirteen.......) But the
launch of the 5-year Composing for Kids (c4k) project hopes to
obliterate the twee factor and give young people a chance to work with
composers and perform real cutting-edge stuff. It got off to a flying
start with four spnm composers in October last year; watch out
for the first performances of their work this summer. And secondly, spnm
is involved in a real ground-breaking Prom on July 18th: the premiere
of a new work thirty-minute work SCRY written by four composers,
and performed by the Guildhall Junior Ensemble,
the Finchley Childrens Music Group, the youth
ensemble New Century Strings of Bolton, the
percussion maestros Ensemble Bash and myself.
The Prom will highlight so many issues in new music at the moment –
the bringing-together of young and professional performers for an audience
of all ages, working with a stimulating and diverse group of composers
– Alec Roth working with writer Vikram
Seth, pop and Asian classical artist Nitin
Sawhney, spnm shortlisted composer Pete
McGarr and lastly Gary Carpenter,
who will weave a prelude, interludes and finale to bind it all together.
As Nick Kenyon, director of the Proms, says: ‘We were all insistent
that this project should not be ghetto-ised in any way, but part of the
mainstream Proms programming. Hence its place as the first half of a highly
popular main evening concert which also features Copland, Ravel (Piano
Concerto in G) and Bernstein (Symphonic Dances from West
Side Story). The aim is to provide a fun evening for audiences
whether or not they have been to a Prom before, and the event forms part
of our new Family Explorer package for the 2000 Proms... ...we weren’t
looking on this occasion for improvisational pieces but for fully furnished
pieces of music that good stand on their own and be taken up by different
spnm will distribute these pieces through the c4k publishing
scheme after the performance, and having attended the early rehearsals
for the Prom, I feel sure they’ll be a huge take-up for these new
works: Earth and Sky by Alec Roth combines a Gamelan-inspired
accompaniment with imaginative, rhythmic choral writing; Nitin Sawhney’s
Urban Prophecies brings together a tabla player, hocketing
for wind, piano and percussion, baroque rhythm on synth-marimbas and club
beats; Pete McGarr’s Cloudspell Seasons is a typically
magical work for strings, toy piano, mouth organs, and includes, in my
part, one of the best directions ever – ’hum ad lib in the style
of Glenn Gould (at the most convenient octave)’; and Gary Carpenter
sets words by Blake and Walt Whitman, with some terrific gutsy writing
for the Bash boys and piano.
So thanks to all the composers who’ve been part of my year with spnm
- thanks to spnm for coping with me - and please try to come along
to the Prom, both to cheer on the young performers and composers and to
give a thumbs-up to the Proms for sticking their neck out to try something
Joanna MacGregor, spnm
Artistic Director 1999/2000
The Prom performance of SCRY will not be the
only work premiered in July combining adult and children's performing
groups. Click here to read about Colin
Riley's new major work for the East of England Orchestra and Lincolnshire
The monthly listings magazine new
notes is essential reading for composers, performers, and everyone
interested in what's new in new music. In its printed version new notes
reaches over 5,000 contemporary music enthusiasts in the UK and around
If you promote new music events you should advertise them in new notes.
Single concert listings are just £50+VAT (new low price!). The magazine
also features ads for festivals, composer competitions, recordings and
new notes also features
monthly articles on issues at the forefront of new music
special offers on CDs, tickets, scores and books for spnm members
information about forthcoming spnm events
a free classified section for spnm members' non-trade ads.
For full details on advertising or inserting leaflets in new notes
please contact the Editor: John Fosbrook
Event listings for this
challenge from Michael Oliva
the next century...
obsessed with consuming?
welcomes Joanna MacGregor.
Spectrum 2 - miniatures for
Hoxton Hall New Music Days.
Bath International Music Festival is 50.
Who is Georges Aperghis?
On frost, birth and death
Now that's what I call contemporary!
Forty years of madness?
To plug in or not to plug in?
No, honestly it is a cello
Composing for film
New music on old instruments
Blue sheep of record companies
spnm looks to the future
New Music 98 in Manchester