Oliver Knussen speaks out for new music

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.

4 thoughts on “Oliver Knussen speaks out for new music

  1. If you compare the BBC’s approach to new classical and jazz/improvised music, to RAI3, or France Musique, or BR-Klassik, or WDR3, or SWR2, it’s clear that Mr Knussen makes a very good point. Why can’t BBC Radio 3 devote one evening a week to this music, together with a discussion on related ideas and politics? There’s nothing particularly controversial about this suggestion; rather, it’s surprising that the BBC doesn’t do this now.

  2. I agree with pretty much all the above, but would like to add a further thought: as well as the fact that new music is generally relegated to a few small slots on the BBC, there is also a culture which focuses upon the brand new and allows little place for continued exposure to radical modern music written in relatively recent times.

    As well as having broadcasts of premieres and so on, we need more slots in which a lot of music of the last half century or more is heard more times. Much such music can be startlingly new upon first listening, and takes time and repeated listenings to digest properly. Fantastic composers such as Bernd Alois Zimmermann or Bruno Maderna died over 40 years ago, so obviously there will be no new works from them. But few of their works have been heard at all regularly in the UK, and I think it is important that this work, and the existing catalogues of numerous living composers, are given more than just the one-off. How about hearing a range of works by Mauricio Kagel or Gilbert Amy or Sylvano Bussotti or Ivo Malec or Horațiu Rădulescu or James Tenney in mainstream slots on Radio 3, or even some features on their and others’ work on television? It may do wonders in terms of developing new audiences.

    A good deal of music remains very ‘new’ even after all its various premieres. And the real test is often in how it bears up to being heard over a more extended period of time.

    1. Yes, absolutely Ian – another reason to feel uncomfortable about the emphasis on premieres/commissions in Radio 3’s plans. *New* new music may get some airtime, but there’s an increasingly widening window of musical history between 1950ish and the present day that is almost wholly unheard.

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