The contemporary music scene is a strange, scary place – especially for young composers to break into.
If you mention the concept of ‘contemporary classical music’ to non-musicians or concert goers, it will often be greeted with uncertain gazes, non-committing murmurs, or instant dismissal. When it comes to programming, music venues seem to take these opinions on board.
Music colleges churn out hundreds of graduates between them each year, not to mention the universities. Those who go on to be performers with working ensembles in London and around England will undoubtedly find that, although their ensemble may support contemporary music and programme it to some extent, they will spent the majority of their time playing ‘old’ classical music. When presented with this, some venues may try to deny it – however, I’ve had discussions with various people who have worked at some of the leading venues in London who have confirmed this sentiment. Some of the venues will go to the extent of only programming a more ‘contemporary’ work when in a concert with popular pieces of work that will guarantee an audience.
Now, I realise that this may sound like I have some kind of vendetta against the classical canon. I honestly don’t – I love a lot of classical music, and enjoy going to concerts of it. In no way do I think that ensembles should play just contemporary music (unless by choice) and abandon the composers and works that created the musical culture we live and work in today. However, I do have an issue with the ratio of traditional works performed in comparison to more contemporary pieces. In order for the traditional repertoire we know and love today to emerge, it had to be performed – again and again.
The challenge, therefore, is how do we encourage venues to present and promote more new music, in order to encourage new audiences to become interested in the genre? Not all venues are as guilty as others – some are trying (to varying extents) to integrate contemporary music into their programmes. The BBC Proms has commissioned a number of new works this year for their Proms series; similarly, the Southbank Centre seem to feature a wide range of works, styles and genres at their venues, which attract wide audiences.
Of course, another huge issue is how the fledgling composer fits into the stereotypical contemporary classical roles created by society. For example, if your music isn’t of a new complex nature, and doesn’t feature multiple dissonances, it may be discarded by the academics who believe in complexity, and thus ignored by the ensembles who wish to be known in that kind of contemporary circle.
It seems to me that we need a rethink of the whole system – and this probably begins at the musical hubs in our capital. It will be wonderful, one day, to strike up discussions about contemporary classical music, and instead of the blank, glassy stares, for everyone to have opinions and likes and dislikes within the contemporary world, and to feel involved and part of it – rather than distanced and confused by the whole concept.