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Shaping the Landscape: The Question of Style and New Music

Although it is a subjective opinion, I have never regarded myself as a ’modern’ composer, or I should say, a composer of particularly modern-sounding music. I did once receive a response from Classic FM to say that the music was "too modern" for their station, but not really writing with ‘that modern sound’, which sometimes seems to me to become a stylised modernity, I have always felt that the music I write falls in the middle of the spectrum. In saying that, I am full of admiration for the complexity of some modern classical music, the trouble is that when listening, if I am struggling with it, then how does that music reach a wider audience? Or perhaps it doesn’t matter if it does. I remember going to hear a friend of mine playing a new concerto a few years back, really tough on the ear, and although undoubtedly it would have made more sense on further listening and study, the question really was, could I be bothered to do so. On similar lines, when I was just starting to go public with pieces, I had just finished my first string quartet, not knowing where to start regarding a performance, I was chatting to a friend in Oxford. He said “I recently went to hear a string quartet play, superb except for a very short new piece that they included in the programme. If they play crap like that, they are bound to play yours’. The quartet was the Allegri, and they did play it, a number of times (Journeyman CD).


So my guiding phrase is always, ‘would I like to hear that again’, and this is for me the fundamental of music that I write, and music that I hear. Naturally my own opinion will differ from others, but generally I have found it to be a reasonable gauge. More than once, after a concert which included a piece of mine, a stranger has come up and said ‘I don’t like modern music but I liked that’. So, if that person can leave with a slightly altered view on what new music is about, then that is all to the good.

Tate Modern. Photograph: Nana B Agyei

What this is skirting around though is the position of new classical music in our society at the moment. In general, not good I would say, particularly if one makes a comparison with other art forms. Modern art, for example is embraced, culminating in crowds to the Tate Modern. By contrast I recall an orchestral manager describing to me how a new work, even short, drastically affected ticket sales to the point where they no longer consider including a new piece, however short. So why is this the case, how has it been allowed to happen, and what can be done about it?


Well the first thing concerns whether it is true or not, that new classical music is not liked, appreciated or acknowledged by the vast majority. Some might say that the Proms is an outstanding example to show that new music flourishes. Others might say that since it now includes all manner of genres, it is another demonstration that classical music is on the wain, and new classical music with it. But even if healthy, what is the position for the rest of the year. I remember one colleague telling me that in years only three new scores had ever reached the desk of a conductor of a major orchestra and none of those three made it to the platform. I also recall a particular funding rejection which said we are targeting new theatre writing this year, and there are no funds for new music.

So how has it come about, decisions by administrators, the style of music written by composers, the list, and reasons, would be endless and suitable for a book rather than a short blog. But the important thing is what can be done? The first thing I would do is to make the inclusion of new music a criteria in the funding of organizations, orchestras, festivals, even new arts buildings, and whatever, so that funding is secured only if a proportion of new work is included in a year’s programme. Just in the way that organisations now have commitment to education, ethnicity, etc. This developed once it became a funding hoop to jump through and I would suggest that new music now needs to be treated like a special interest group. But more than this, it is a change of culture that is required, a true acceptance that we can’t live forever ‘on the old’, just as we can’t with art, theatre, and any other art form.

String Quartet No.1 (Robben Island)

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