May 2001

The Martland Interview


new notes editor John Fosbrook caught up with spnm Artistic Director Steve Martland, to ask him how he went about creating his season of events.

new notes: How would you sum up your aims as Artistic Director?

Steve Martland: I wanted to create opportunities where composers could put notes on paper (it seems horribly traditional, but there again, I am!) rather than create music for installations or fashion shows, or whatever. That has its place, but I wanted to make available situations that might attract the sort of composer who was interested in composing; in writing a piece in a more abstract sense, for a specified ensemble.

A notable feature of your time as Artistic Director has been great use of "homogenous" ensembles - vocal quartet, string ensemble, piano duet etc. What draws you to these ensembles?

To me, the most important elements in music are pitch and rhythm. Timbre comes quite low down. It's very much an interest of the second half of the twentieth century, where timbre is on the same level as pitch and rhythm, and it might have produced some interesting music but it's not something that interests me. And therefore I wanted to attract those composers who were similarly interested in writing music that had other priorities than timbre.

I think for newer composers - for all composers in fact - a homogenous group of instruments or voices helps you concentrate and focus on the basics of music - pitch and rhythm. Also, it forces you to think more imaginatively. I'm not interested in the "one of each" line-up (like that of the London Sinfonietta, for instance), which produces nothing interesting.

You've also been keen to give pointers to composers...

Yes - I'm also concerned that rather than just say "write for two pianos", or "write for string orchestra", that there's some sort of compositional directive at the beginning. It's another way of guiding and helping people, really. So that for the Orlando Consort, also because it was in line with what they normally did, we sent out fragments of mediaevel music to form the basis of the compositions. It was more abstract with the Goldberg Ensemble, because the impetus was more conceptual, which was "to consider the English string tradition". Although of course, amusingly enough, one of the pieces we did was by a Frenchman married to an Irishwoman!

It's just that pointers help people think at the start of a piece why and how are they composing it.

Why have so many of the events in your season involved workshops?

I think that workshops have certain uses, and with a lot of these projects I wanted to include workshops, because the aim of the spnm has always been to allow composers to hear a performance of the piece. And if we can get a workshop attached to the performance, that means that the composer has access to the musicians, either before the rehearsals, during the rehearsals, or before the concert.

I think a lot of students and new composers have very limited experience of working hands-on with the musicians, and this shows very much in the notation. Notation is nothing more than a means to an end, and you find ludicrous ways of notating music which you wouldn't even pass Grade 5 with. I think that you learn about that by having access to musicians and working with musicians. They tell you more than anything. Rather than composition being this extremely rarefied, ivory tower, abstract thing that doesn't take into account that this stuff has to be performed by living human beings.

For many of your events, rather than include existing works from the spnm shortlist you have written to the shortlisted composers and asked them to compose new works. Why is this?

The backbone of the spnm is the shortlist, and wherever possible it's important to me as Artistic Director that I try to find pieces from the shortlist that can be included in the events that I'm doing, as well as calling for new scores. But sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn't, depending on the ensemble we're using - so far there have been more new works written for specific calls.

How have the new works compared with the existing shortlisted works?

Well maybe this proves my point about having homogenous groups where you've got to think about the "basics" of music. Because unquestionably the works that have been written for the calls for scores so far are of a much higher standard than the shortlisted scores. Maybe that's not the reason at all! But certainly, when people are asked to write for a specific group, and are given some basic information about what to compose and how, I think it provides a focus. And I think that's the reason why the pieces are of a higher standard, both in terms of quality of music, and notation, and structure - everything, in fact, that you consider when you're trying to decide if a work is good or bad. Even though they're by the exact same composers who have works on the shortlist.

What advice do have for composers starting out?

I'm no-one to give anyone any advice! But the one thing I would say, is don't get too stuck up your own arse. Be real, and don't be afraid to be yourself.

So is this what you look for when you're reading scores?

It's an important thing. I suppose when I'm looking at scores, I'm looking for something that might not be brilliantly written, but which does show some personality and individuality. I mean that's what communicates with musicians, and with audiences. So personality is important - that's why we know Beethoven, and we know Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky.

I don't go for the romantic idea of expression in music. It's an abstract thing that music has a personality. Whether that's a reflection of the human being that wrote it is something that we're not interested in. It's the fact that music has a personality, and that it says something to you, really. And so much contemporary music says nothing to you, really, other than "I'd rather watch paint dry than listen to this". That's why we're interested in certain composers and not in others.

I'm not interested in well-made pieces. I'm interested in pieces that have something to say, even if the articulation of that is clumsy.

We are delighted that Steve Martland has agreed to continue in his role as Artistic Director for a further year. Preparatory projects for Nigel Osborne's season will commence in May 2002 with a season launch in September 2002. The call for scores for the 2003 season will be deferred until later in the year, as the spnm undergoes a period of intensive strategic planning.

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Event listings for this month


Previous articles:

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
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November 2000
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October 2000
John Lambert remembered

July 2000
Joanna MacGregor

June 2000
Announcing the shortlist

May 2000
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April 2000
Child's Play

March 2000
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February 2000
the ENO Studio

January 2000
a challenge from Michael Oliva

December 1999
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September 1999
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July/August 1999
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June 1999
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May 1999
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April 1999
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March 1999
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February 1999
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January 1999
Now that's what I call contemporary!