November 1999

Joanna MacGregor writes

I was giving a talk before a recital last week. I wasn’t on great form - I was coughing, blowing my nose, croaking (sexy voice at last) and wanted to be at home in bed. I was also faced with the prospect of playing the Waldstein Sonata in half an hour. (The Waldstein is an old friend, but, like old friends, you know there are parts where you tread very carefully.) Anyway, I’d been asked to speak to a group of about twenty music students from the local school, all boys, and they were great - very lively, funny, bright. But as I answered their questions about being a musician, it becameclear that for half of them I wasn’t ‘on message’. The picture I was giving them wasn’t quite conforming with their view of the world, which was: 1. Oxbridge is the best place to study composition. 2. A good review in Gramophone magazine guarantees very large sales. 3. All good composers have publishers. 4. All good institutions have a ‘royal’ in their name because they’re.....good. And so on.

One of the last questions I was asked was did I think that the musical establishment was falling apart at the end of the twentieth century (subtext: you’re a revolutionary maniac). But all these kids were trying to do was cling on to a world-view that they’d picked up; the real question was whether they’d be thinking the same way, five or ten or twenty years later.

Reader, at moments like these I try to remember what the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said: ‘You cannot step into the same river twice, for fresh waters are ever flowing in’. Unhappily I was not able to quote that ancient aphorism; instead I opened another packet of Lockets. But drifting into my private Tardis I remembered that when I was young my music-world, too, was a piece of frozen architecture; I thought all new music should have the density of Boulez’s Second Sonata, and the mathematical complexity of Xenakis. It seemed reasonable that all performances were sparsely attended and in the same few venues. It was natural that such difficult music could only be attempted by a few dedicated brethren, or ensembles of the Chosen Few.

Well, twenty years later I feel rather differently. I realised quickly that there was no value to ideologically painting yourself into any corner; the only good fixed habit to acquire was one of constant re-evaluation. Aesthetic ideas develop and transform themselves, and institutions - record companies, publishers, funding bodies, spnm itself - need to reflect the kaleidoscopic nature of art, rather than thinking of themselves as keepers of the flame. The ideas that I put forward to spnm for my year as artistic director reflect my thinking at the moment - that new music for children to play needs to be moved from the sidelines to the centre of the agenda, which is why we’ve set up the Composing for Kids scheme; that new music encompasses new techniques as well as improvisation, so I’ll be performing with DJs on part of my CMN tour; and that we need to break out of concert hall venues, which is the thinking behind the Albert Dock weekend next May, where we’ll be ambushing shoppers with music, video and sound installations as well as teaming up with the Tate Gallery, Liverpool and the 10:10 ensemble from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic.

By the way, I still think Boulez’s Second Piano Sonata is a thrilling piece and Xenakis is one of the great composers of the twentieth century. An ‘either/or’ position is of no use to anybody. And if I was asked to be a spnm director in twenty years' time, it would all be different again.

Joanna MacGregor
spnm artistic director 1999/2000

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Previous articles:

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