July/August 2000



spnm Artistic 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 All through the last century we were living with an outdated, 19th century view of virtuosi – wowing the crowds in ever-bigger venues, their success determined by extortionate fees and record sales.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 language.

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 Saxploitation, BBC 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 groups’.

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 really different...

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 Youth Orchestra.

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Previous articles:

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!

December 1998
Forty years of madness?

November 1998
To plug in or not to plug in?

October 1998
No, honestly it is a cello

September 1998
Composing for film

July/August 1998
New music on old instruments

June 1998
Blue sheep of record companies

May 1998
spnm looks to the future

April 1998
New Music 98 in Manchester