On ‘Sound and Music’…

November 4th, 2016

I have recently been watching with some interest the growing intensity of feeling that has arisen regarding the organisation ‘Sound and Music’ and how composers of ‘art’ music (for want of a better term) are feeling under-represented by this organisation. Nothing unusual about composers of art music feeling under-represented (you very rarely hear composers say, “you know what, there is too much classical music in the media today”) but what is unusual is the strength of feeling directed toward this organisation and the unifying effect it has had on the composing work force. The letter that has been written by leading British composers Colin Matthews and Nicola LeFanu has apparently been signed by 250 of our most established composers, from the bright young things to the venerated generation of Maxwell Davies and Birtwistle. There is also a secondary letter by younger composers (presumably not invited to contribute to the first letter) also winging its way to Sound and Music which promises to have more signatories than the former – quite a mobilisation of what is often a disparate group of creative people.

So what is in this letter, and why write it? Well, to cut a long story short, there were several organisations all working within the field of contemporary music that were merged to form Sound and Music in 2008. This new organisation is an Arts Council funded body with a remit to provide opportunities and enhance our awareness and understanding of contemporary music making of all persuasions. Nothing wrong with that. However, the general feeling is that Sound and Music has been focusing a little too much on the Sound rather than the Music – i.e. more on sound installations, sonic art etc rather than notated, ‘acoustic’ (again, for want of a better term) music of the Colin Matthews, Nicola LeFanu type.

Whether this is entirely true is a moot point. Certainly Sound and Music does cater very extensively for the sonic art part of the deal – this is an area of music I know very little about, so it would be wrong to suggest if practitioners of this are happy with the coverage they get or not (though I’d like to know). There is plenty of information and opportunities for acoustic composers on the Sound and Music website; you just have to search for it quite hard, often navigating unfamiliar events, composers and language to get to something useful. I think part of the problem is that with the previous organisations (SPNM – Society for the Promotion of New Music, and the BMIC – British Music Information Centre) composers knew exactly what they were getting, where to look for it and were ‘safe’ in the knowledge that there was at least one organisation with their best wishes at heart. It just isn’t apparent now that this is the case – or is it?

I think it is admirable that the composing fraternity are mobilising to action, and through various means of communication it appears that 90% are pro-action against Sound and Music – it has almost become something of a cause célèbre, something to be seen to be for. However it is some of the dissenting voices that have generated the most interest for me, some questioning the role of art music, it’s reliance on funding bodies, it’s clinging to tradition; some questioning whether the SPNM was actually any good, did it provide the opportunities people suggest, did it favour establishment types over genuine new voices? Certainly, with a new director of Sound and Music to be announced, it is time to have these discussions and to raise these questions. All forms of contemporary music making (with the exception of popular musical forms) are niche and any attempt to narrow exposure to them would seem a folly – surely all artists involved in contemporary music should bond together for the greater good – isn’t that the point of Sound and Music?

For what it is worth, I gave up my membership of SPNM when it merged in 2008, not necessarily because I objected to the merger but mainly because I never felt like I was getting anywhere with applying to the various schemes and opportunities. I felt quite disenfranchised with the organisation and wanted to make my point (which I’m sure they felt!) though hold no hard feelings. I think there should be an organisation helping young composers, providing opportunities, giving people their first tastes of the professional music world, but like all government funded bodies we shouldn’t be too reliant on them, because once they’re gone, they’re gone.


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