#promsnewmusic 2014

It’s Proms announcement time again! I’ve just been ruining Twitter for everyone by spewing out a list of all the new music being performed at this year’s festival.

Some quick observations for now:

Sir Harrison Birtwistle and Sir Peter Maxwell Davies both turn 80 this year. They’re two of this country’s most important composers, no doubt, and it’s absolutely fitting that they get some recognition at this year’s Proms. However, among the 37 41 items in my list below, five of them are for Birtwistle and five are for Davies. And three of those are complete concerts, for which I haven’t bothered to list each piece. By my reckoning that means that close to a third of the new music content of this year’s Proms has been written by two octogenarian knights of the realm. Time to cast the net a bit wider perhaps?

Talking of anniversaries, peers, etc, the late Sir John Tavener gets a decent send off with two concerts featuring his music this year. That’s as many as Carter, Harvey, Henze and Nunes were given last year in their memory, between them.

The news is a little better when it comes to women composers: last year I think there were three (Burrell, Gubaidulina, Clyne). This year I count six: Panufnik, Beamish, Grime, Tabakova, Weir and Chin.

Elsewhere, more of the new music seems to be happening in the main bill this year, and not shunted out to the matinees and chamber concerts. Good. The BBC will be hoping that lightning doesn’t strike for a third time with Adams’ ill-fated Short Ride in a Fast Machine (Prom 63). Prom 72 promises “An evening of 20thC English music that looks beyond pastoral stereotypes” but manages not to find room (YET AGAIN) for a Michael Finnissy performance in the Albert Hall. Guys, Red Earth was 26 years ago.

Oh, and there’s a concert called ‘Oriental Promise‘ (Prom 16). In 2014.

As for my highlights? Much harder to pick than last year, since there are far fewer of them. Aurora’s Benedict Mason premiere (Prom 41) is a must; after that … the Francesconi (Prom 28), then either Tavener in Prom 25 or one of the Birtwistle concerts.

I’ll be honest though, there’s much more that interests me in the six concerts of the LCMF 2014 bill than the 70+ of the Proms. Here’s the list for your own perusal:

Update 1: I missed a handful of composers yesterday (Chen, Bignold, Roustom, Tiensuu), mainly because they weren’t mentioned in the headlines for their respective concerts in the guide. Some of these are big new commissions too, so it’s a shame to have to drill down to find that they’re there at all. Still that’s no excuse for me, so sorry about that.

Update 2: And another composer isn’t listed even in the guide – Tom Harrold who, according to Radio 4’s PM programme last night, is writing a piece for the Aurora Orchestra in Prom 41. However I’ll leave his name up here until I see that confirmed in the online programme.

Prom 2 Qigang Chen: Joie éternelle, UKP http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/july-19/14922

Prom 4 R Panufnik: Three Paths to Peace, EP http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/july-20/14926

Prom 7 J Tavener: Gnosis, WP http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/july-23/14934

Prom 8 Pet Shop Boys: A Man From the Future, WP http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/july-23/14936

Prom 10 D Horne: Daedalus in Flight, LP http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/july-25/14940

Proms 11 and 13 (CBeebies Proms) B Bignold: Around Sound http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/july-26/14942http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/july-27/14946

Prom 14 S Holt: Morpheus Wakes, WP http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/july-27/14948

Prom 15 J Dove: Gaia, WP http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/july-28/14952

Prom 16 G Prokofiev: Vn Conc., WP http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/july-29/14954

Prom 18 H Birtwistle: Night’s Black Bird http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/july-30/14958

Prom 20 S Beamish: Vn Conc., LP http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/august-01/14962

Prom 23 J McLeod: The Sun Dances, LP http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/august-03/14972

Prom 25 J Tavener: Ikon of Light, Requiem Fragments, WP http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/august-04/14992

Prom 28 L Francesconi: Duende, UKP http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/august-07/14976

Saturday Matinee 2 H Birtwistle: Endless Parade http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/august-09/14994

Saturday Matinee 2 PM Davies: Sinfonia http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/august-09/14994

Prom 31 H Grime: Near Midnight, LP http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/august-09/15002

Prom 33 H Birtwistle: Sonance Severance http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/august-10/15038

Prom 35 PM Davies: Caroline Mathilde, suite http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/august-12/15048

Prom 37 S Reich: It’s Gonna Rain, Desert Music http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/august-13/15076

Prom 38 PM Davies: Sym no.7 http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/august-14/15078

Prom 39 B Rands: Pf Conc., UKP http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/august-15/15080

Prom 41 D Tabakova: Spinning A Yarn http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/august-16/15084

Prom 41 B Mason: Meld http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/august-16/15084

Prom 46 K Roustom: Ramal http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/august-20/15118

Prom 46 A Adler: Resonating Sounds http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/august-20/15118

Prom 48 H Tómasson: Magma, UKP http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/august-22/15130

Prom 49 J Tiensuu: Voice verser, UKP http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/august-23/15134

Prom 55 U Chin: Su http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/august-27/15030

Saturday Matinee 3 PM Davies portrait http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/august-30/15072

Proms Chamber Music 7 J Weir: Day Break Shadows, WP http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/september-01/15090

Prom 61 Z Long: Postures, EP http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/september-02/15094

Prom 63 J Adams: Short Ride in a Fast Machine http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/september-04/15098

Prom 63 J Adams: Sax Conc., UKP http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/september-04/15098

Saturday Matinee 4 H Birtwistle portrait http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/september-06/15112

Prom 67 B Ranjbaran: Seemorgh http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/september-07/15120

Prom 68 J Widmann: Flûte en suite, UKP http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/september-07/15122

Prom 69 J Widmann: Teufel amore, UKP http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/september-08/15128

Prom 70 PM Davies birthday concert http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/september-08/15132

Prom 71 C Brubeck: Travels in Time for Three, UKP http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/september-09/15136

Prom 72 H Birtwistle: Exody http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/september-10/15138

Prom 75 F Cerha: Paraphrase on the Opening of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/september-12/15144

Prom 76 Gavin Higgins: Velocity, WP http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/september-13/15146

A suggestion for Composer of the Week – some women

Today marks the 70th birthday of one of BBC radio’s most valuable broadcasts, Radio 3’s Composer of the Week.

Naturally, there has been much congratulating, celebrating and back-slapping. And mostly deservedly so – COTW is one of those broadcasts that you’re simply glad exists. When I first started exploring classical music as a young teenager, it provided a brilliant education. It’s a great, Reithian idea that just wouldn’t be commissioned today. So praise be that it’s still alive and kicking.

As part of their celebrations, the programme’s producers are inviting suggestions for a composer who hasn’t appeared in the previous 70 years. To help, they’ve published a list of every composer or group of composers who has been featured so far.

It’s quite an impressive list, and a testament to seven decades of broadcasting. However, I did a count and came up with the following:

Only nine twelve of the single composer broadcasts are on female composers.*

Nine Twelve and a half if you include the “William Alwyn and Amy Beach” broadcast.

That doesn’t seem like enough, even for a programme whose emphasis – perhaps expectedly – is on the more mainstream end of the 17th–19th century repertoire. But still. If the producers are interested in redressing this balance just a little bit, given that this is 2013 and people like Meredith Monk, Pauline Oliveros and Kaija Saariaho exist, then perhaps I could direct them towards the following three playlists: 1, 2, 3.

If you have suggestions of your own, do send them to Composer of the Week.

*Admittedly a quick count by eye; it’s possible I may have missed one or two.

Update, 10 Aug, 20:30: Cassandra Miller has written a response to this post (and some of the issues around it in general). And, coincidentally, Annie Gosfield has blogged some ‘Confessions of a “Composeress”‘ for the NYT this week. Some possibly not unrelated stats on male/female ratios in UK music departments.

Update, 12:11: Sharp-eyed Robin ap Cynan (see comments) improves on my original count.

Update, 11:40: @StevenRajam tweets the following:



So the Proms 2013 programme came out yesterday. Here’s what I reckon.

The highlights are clearly Proms no.50 (Ilan Volkov conducts the BBC SSO in John White, Gerald Barry, Rzewski and Feldman), no.11 (Ex Cathedra reprise their triumphant Welt-Parlament from MITTWOCH last year) and no.5 (Lachenmann’s Proms debut – Tanzsuite mit Deutschlandlied programmed beside Mahler 5). But no.25 (Aurora Orchestra play Zappa, Nancarrow and Glass) also looks fun.

I’m intrigued to see how the 6Music Prom (no.40) pans out; the Urban Classic Prom (no.37) looks flimsier.

There’s lots for Lutosławski fans, in his centenary year – much more than there was for Cage in 2012. Still no Livre pour orchestre – which I know will disappoint Adrian Thomas, and others.

Special mentions to a couple of other inclusions: both Pärt’s Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten (Prom 67) and Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs (Prom 71) should sound lush from up in the gods. Another big new Birtwistle is nice to see (Chamber Prom 5), and I’m interested to hear Pintscher’s double trumpet concerto (Prom 48) and Eötvös’s violin concerto for Midori (Prom 63). As Simon Cummings points out, it’s also interesting that several of the BBC commissions (Adès, Khan, Sohal) are for pieces of substantial length. Thumbs up too that a lot of the new music events have been moved back into the main evening programmes, and not shunted out into the matinees and chamber proms, as they have been in the past.

The biggest disappointments are the notable absences: four major composers passed away last year – Carter, Harvey, Henze and Nunes. Only Henze (nos.26 and 37) is represented in the programme. I would have been surprised if any Nunes had been included, but Carter’s absence seems like a major oversight; Harvey’s even more so, given that this is a British festival. I realise there wouldn’t have been time to devise a substantial memorial to either composer given that they died only late last year. But since the programmes aren’t finalised until February or even March, there should have been time to squeeze one or two small works in. A pity no one thought to do so. Harvey’s music in particular seems made for the RAH’s acoustic.

Here’s a quick guide to the whole lot for new music fans. No stylistic filters, just a list of all Proms featuring a living composer, or one predominantly active since the 1960s or so:

Ferneyhough gets the Today treatment

Update, 2 March: It was unplanned, but late February/early March became Ferneyhough fortnight on The Rambler, mostly thanks to the Barbican’s Total Immersion event on 26 February and ELISION’s concert of solo works on 7 March at Kings Place. This is the first post of several, including a review and after-review of Total Immersion itself.

I was surprised to hear that Brian Ferneyhough had been featured on this morning’s Today programme. I was less surprised when I listened myself on iPlayer at what a condescending three minutes of radio it was.

Here’s a recording of the relevant section:

You might say that some Ferneyhough over people’s breakfasts, no matter how you present it, is better than none. But I disagree, and here’s why.

The interview begins with the composer – who to my ears sounds like he’s losing patience with a tiresome line of questioning – advocating very simply and with complete honesty for what the presenter, Rebecca Jones, describes as his ‘dense, difficult and very demanding’ music:

BF: I don’t think I’m asking too much of people. It costs me a lot to write music too. Why shouldn’t I ask them to not just put their bums on a chair but to use what God gave them in their heads? After all, why is it me or people like me who always have to apologise and say oh well, it isn’t as complex you think it is it’s really actually much more popular and we’ll all sit down over a drink and I’ll explain it to you. No, it’s not like that at all.

RJ: Do you want to confuse your audiences?

BF: No. What I want to do is for them to suspend disbelief for a little bit and therefore enter into a sort of Alice in Wonderland world – through the little hole by drinking the potion – and try to even in the most confusing and seemingly chaotic circumstances to try to hold onto something.

This was good stuff, a promising beginning. Let’s assume – since he’s the expert, the BBC has a commitment to broadening access to high culture, and this is supposed to be a plug for Saturday’s concerts anyway – that Ferneyhough isn’t brazenly lying here. That maybe there is something in wanting audiences to put some effort in (or at least let’s acknowledge that that’s a respectable stance for an artist to take), that perhaps listening to Ferneyhough might be like trying to hold onto a single thread in a chaotic world, that maybe suspending disbelief and taking a leap and finding something and holding it and treasuring it for your own is possibly an admirable – even thrilling – way to engage with a musical work. Let’s imagine how good that broadcast might have been.

And then let’s look at the trajectory of what actually happened:

  1. Fetishise the difficulty and impenetrability of the score of La terre est un homme.
  2. Use Psycho-like strings to underscore words like ‘daunting’, ‘struggle’ and ‘very demanding’. On the words ‘highly stressful’ cue big, swelling dissonance.
  3. Voice a rumour that the performers of the BBC SO were finding rehearsals very stressful, then pull an uncontextualised quote from Ferneyhough saying that no performance is perfect and why would we want that – ‘we could all go and shoot ourselves’.
  4. End with an audio snippet recorded in a practice room, and make it sound as amateurish and raspberry-like as possible.

In summary: Ferneyhough’s music is sinister, pointlessly difficult, causes stress and sounds a bit like farts. But at least it doesn’t give you cancer.

Look, I know this is a three-minute slot on a morning news programme, not half an hour on BBC4 late at night, but this is not responsible arts journalism at any time of day. It’s deliberately and offensively misrepresentative. It doesn’t promote the music, it doesn’t increase understanding, it doesn’t even offer a moment for people to make up their own minds (three minutes of just the music would have at least done that). It simply builds walls, closes ears and reinforces prejudices. Ironically, in the one passage in which Ferneyhough was allowed to speak for himself, he said this was exactly what he was reacting against and set out a clear description of how his music was a pathway to that intellectual freedom. A shame that Today’s producers didn’t think their listeners would be interested in taking that path.

In case you are, here’s a nice video of Ross Karre playing Bone Alphabet:

BBC Young Musician finals to be broadcast in full

You may remember back in May a lot of hoo-ha over the BBC’s embarrassing presentation of the 2008 Young Musician of the Year competition. Well, in the spirit of Christmas redemption or something, room has been found in the jam-packed BBC4 schedule to broadcast the competition’s concerto final in full: BBC4, 30th December, 7pm. Hurrah!

BBC Two broadcast for The Minotaur

BBC – Press Office – BBC Two to broadcast world premiere of The Minotaur

BBC Two is to broadcast the world premiere of Sir Harrison Birtwistle’s The Minotaur from the Royal Opera House, London, offering opera lovers across the UK the chance to see this critically-acclaimed opera.

It is the second opera commissioned from Sir Harrison Birtwistle by the Royal Opera and was recorded at Covent Garden in April for the Royal Opera House.

Roly Keating, Controller, BBC Two, said: “Any new work from Harrison Birtwistle is a bit of an event but the acclaim that greeted The Minotaur instantly marked it out as something special. It’s fantastic to be able to bring it to a television audience so soon after its world premiere.”

The Minotaur will be broadcast on Saturday 7 June 2008; the first act starts at 7.35pm and finishes at 9.00pm and the second runs from 9.40pm until 10.35pm.

Update: I’ve just discovered that the ‘interval talk’ between the two halves of the Minotaur broadcast will be … Have I Got News For You. What a bizarre bit of scheduling that is. Takes me back to the bad old days of ITV inserting the News At Ten halfway through their Friday night film. Still, better than footage of John Tomlinson mucking around on Facebook I suppose…

BBC Young Musician of the Year and Petition

The BBC’s coverage this year of the annual biennial Young Musician of the Year competition has caused a considerable amount of controversy in classical music circles. (Message board threads of complaint may be read here, here – where contestants themselves have been complaining about their broadcast treatment – here and here, as well as a Guardian column by Susan Tomes here.) In previous years (and the competition and programme is celebrating its 30th year) the coverage has centred around uninterrupted television broadcasts (often in prime time) of the performances of the various finalists, reaching a climax in the grand final with concertos performed by each of the category winners (strings, wind, brass, percussion, keyboard).

    This year, the coverage of young musicians actually playing anything has been decimated: in each of the five category final programmes (each an hour long) it was around 45 minutes before viewers saw anything of the players actually doing their thing: and even then we were given only snippets, often with commentary voiced over the top. The overwhelming bulk of each programme was devoted to rather trite, repetitive documentary of the lives of the competitors – going shopping, looking at Facebook, etc. The unavoidable message seemed to be “look – these kids may be into classical music, but they’re normal really”. And the thing is, no, they’re not normal teenagers – they’re prodigiously talented and have sacrificed a great deal in the furtherance of that talent. That makes them exceptional. To portray them as otherwise appears doubly wrong-headed: firstly, why should the BBC, the viewer, or the contestants themselves, be embarrassed by excellence and the difficulties of its pursuit? And secondly, isn’t the remarkable gifts of these teenagers the reason people might want to watch in the first place.

    The result was more like Fame Academy or X Factor than the Young Musician broadcasts that people remember and that were very recently hugely popular. The conclusion being drawn in many quarters is that the BBC is simply ashamed of broadcasting classical music on TV – perhaps even ‘high’ culture in general. One disturbing aspect of this affair is that in earlier years, Young Musician would have appeared on the analogue channel BBC 2. This year it was, as in recent years, on the digital BBC 4 (not available to all) – set up ostensibly because channels 1 and 2 no longer felt a obligation towards serious arts broadcasting, and BBC 4 would therefore take up the slack. But if BBC 4 isn’t the place for Young Musician, then what is? Ah, the Beeb say, the full performances are available online through iPlayer. Which is all very well if you are fortunate enough to have a home computer, broadband access, and don’t mind watching classical music broadcasting while sat at your desk and on a Flash player that gives a grainy picture, compromised sound and a frequently interrupted feed. Hardly a commitment to public service broadcasting.

    With all the above in mind, a petition has been set up. (Ignore the stuff about donating after you’ve signed – just navigate away from that page, your sig is still recorded.) I can only encourage people to sign, for what little good it might do. The question is, who exactly benefitted from this shambles?

    2007 British Composer Awards shortlist

    The shortlist for the 2007 British Composer Awards was announced last Friday (although the list isn’t yet published on the official website). I’ve not heard enough of the pieces on the list to have many opinions on who should win, but if I were a betting man, I’d say Jonathan Dove, Martin Suckling and Brett Dean look good for your money, and probably Jem Finer and Gwilym Simcock too.

    Chamber –
    Brian Ferneyhough: String Quartet No 5
    Simon Holt: 4 Quarters
    Patrick Nunn: Escape Velocity

    Choral [includes works for choir & orchestra] –
    Julian Anderson: Heaven is Shy of Earth
    Francis Grier: The Passion of Jesus of Nazareth
    Mark-Anthony Turnage: A Relic of Memory

    Community or Educational Project –
    Stephen Deazley: Thrie Heids
    Jonathan Dove and Matthew King: Hear Our Voice
    Edward McGuire: Ring of Strings

    Instrumental Solo or Duo –
    George Benjamin: Piano Figures
    Harrison Birtwistle: Crowd
    Jonathan Harvey: Run Before Lightning

    International Award –
    Derek Bermel: Soul Garden
    Brett Dean: Wolf-Lieder
    Wolfgang Rihm: Verwandlung

    Liturgical –
    Richard Causton: Jesu, sweete sone dear
    Gabriel Jackson: Orbis patrator optime
    Tarik O’Regan: Threshold of Night

    Making Music Award –
    Howard Jones: The Illusion of Progress
    Joanna Lee: whippoorwill
    Martin Suckling: Mosaic

    New Media (only two works shortlisted) –
    Jem Finer: Score for a Hole in the Ground
    Janek Schaefer: Vacant Space

    Orchestral –
    Thomas Adès: Tevot
    James Dillon: Piano Concerto ‘Andromeda’
    Jonathan Harvey: Body Mandala

    Stage Works –
    Jonathan Dove: The Enchanted Pig
    Stephen McNeff: Tarka the Otter
    Lynne Plowman: House of the Gods

    David Horne: Life’s Splinters
    Oliver Knussen: Requiem – Songs for Sue
    David Matthews: Terrible Beauty

    Wind Band or Brass Band –
    David Horne: Waves and Refrains
    Edwin Roxburgh: An Elegy for Ur
    Gwilym Simcock: Lichfield Suite

    As is traditional with such events, you can also vote for the Radio 3 Listeners’ Award too (details, complete streaming soundclips and voting form are here.)

    Dudley Moore and Peter Maxwell Davies

    Together at last!

    Actually, according to this Guardian story, they were brought together in 1961, before either had begun to find fame in their respective fields, for a BBC documentary entitled ‘Two Composers’. And, wonder of wonders, the film has just been unearthed by producer Francesca Kemp. According to the Guardian it will be broadcast, for the first time in 46 years, on BBC4 on 29th June (next Friday). However, I haven’t been able to confirm this with Radio Times, and the BBC4 website only lets you see the current week’s schedules, so keep your eyes peeled for further details.

    Links for the week

    Oh, wow – this would be awesome: BBC to put one million hours of its past online. I’m already drawing up thesis-related lists in my head…

    In other things music/internet related, this article (’20 Things you Must Know About Music Online’) is well worth reading in conjunction with this one by composer and performer Bob Ostertag (‘The Professional Suicide of a Recording Musician’).

    PLUS: a new discovery for your bookmarks/blogrolls – Of Sound Mind, a blog on experimental and electronic music.