At the Ivor Novello Awards yesterday, composer and conductor Oliver Knussen made a plea to the BBC not to “relegate” all contemporary composers to “a two-hour slot that you seem to regard as a place to put pond life.”
Some of us who write music today, we don’t write very far out music, we don’t write very populist music, we write what we believe in and to communicate a vision. … Our music is to be used, we write it for us and sometimes it’s a little prickly but some very nice things are prickly, I’ve heard.
Instinctively, I’m inclined to agree with him; and the BBC spokesperson’s response, as reported in the Telegraph, did little to assuage those concerns:
We completely agree contemporary composers and their works are important.
That’s why the BBC is the most significant commissioner of contemporary classical music and new talent schemes than any other broadcaster.
(First: I hope that grammatical mess is the result of a flawed transcription, not what the spokesperson actually meant to say.)
Alan Davey the controller of Radio 3 has also increased the number of contemporary works across the schedule, launched a new BBC Introducing Scheme for contemporary composers, the search for 70 new commissions and a contemporary composer in residence who will create new works in the day time schedule for our 70th anniversary.
All of this is on top of a regular slot for contemporary composition, the recent season New Year New Music which focussed on contemporary works in every programme for a week and the forthcoming BBC Proms, broadcast on TV + Radio 3, which feature many contemporary composers .
It seems to me that only the first of these – increasing the number of contemporary works across the schedule – fully addresses Knussen’s point; and we have only the BBC’s word that there has been such an increase. I wonder what the data actually looks like. (What are these new works; where are they being scheduled; etc.)
As for the others. I have nothing against the regular slot for contemporary composition – Hear and Now – but this is presumably the two-hour pondlife slot to which Knussen is referring. (And with its late Saturday night slot it’s not hard to see his point.) The “New Year New Music” season was all well and good, but increasing the station’s focus on new music for a week (ie, less than 2% of the overall year) is only a marginal gain – but is easily labelled so that it sounds and looks bigger than it is. And this summer’s Proms have been widely derided for being one of the worst for new music in years. (And if the last two or three years are any guide, they will be even worse when re-broadcast to TV, as a habit has grown of dropping the new pieces from the TV transmission; cf Lachenmann’s Tanzsuite mit Deutschlandlied in 2013.) The commissioning and composer-in-residence schemes are to be welcomed, but the overall tenor of the response here still feels very much in line with contemporary music as a fringe exoticism (or perhaps a weedy pond) that is to be tolerated, rather than the repertory’s living core.