Were Colin Matthews et al. right to ask the Arts Council-funded organisation to ‘favour’ those engaged with notated, modern composition?
Why should notated, modern composition be handed public funding when musicians in other fields – sound artists, improvisers, electronic composers et al – all equally dedicated to their art, some of whom eke out an existence on the cultural breadline, get zilch?
That’s the question many are asking after composers Colin Matthews and Nicola Lefanu co-wrote an open letter aimed at giving Sound and Music (SAM), the Arts Council England-funded body set up to promote and facilitate new music, a kicking over its apparent failure to ‘act on behalf of composers and the many musicians who work in the field of new music’. News of their initiative surfaced on Norman Lebrecht’s Slipped Disc blog on March 27, and with updates suggesting that they had mobilised 250-plus signatures, Lebrecht, who is famously opposed to the Arts Council, blared ‘Britain’s top composers launch all-out attack on Arts Council new music policy’.
Matthews and Lefanu argue that when SAM was founded in 2008 it was meant to ‘embrace and enhance the functions of the organisations which had been merged in order to form it: the Society for the Promotion of New Music (SPNM), the British Music Information Centre, Sonic Arts Network, and the Contemporary Music Network’. But they insist that SAM has instead become a ‘producer’ of ‘a bland and unfocused endorsement of “sound art” and the promotion of relatively fringe activities which had little or no connection with the mainstream’.
If someone less generous than myself were determined to pick holes in their loose terminology, such a person might ask why, if the activity they’re supporting was genuinely mainstream, it would need public funding at all? It’s precisely music ‘on the fringe’ that needs handouts surely? That is of course playing semantic games, but taking a superior stance towards so-called ‘fringe activities’ from a position of privilege is a dangerous business.
If their letter had flagged up the widely held perception that SAM has been pretty disastrous at communicating what it does, I couldn’t have argued with that. If they had pressed the point that until the SPNM was dissolved, young and unpublished composers had an address to which to send their scores in the hope of securing performances, and that SAM’s policy of inviting composers to apply on a project-by-project basis has weakened that key link between organisation and composers, we could have argued the pros and cons. I benefited from the SPNM reading panel back in the day, and understand how valuable it was.
If they had acknowledged that SAM has in fact instigated projects with the BBC SO, the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (BCMG) and Manchester Camerata; if their open letter had not sneakily implied that SAM had abandoned notated music in its entirety (which was never the case, as Matthews himself conceded in a follow-up article in The Guardian), I might have taken it seriously.
But pleading for tolerance while displaying intolerance is a dim-witted strategy when trying to win hearts and minds, and Matthews’s and Lefanu’s sniffy, finger-wagging tone towards music that sits outside their purview does their cause no favours. Naturally they don’t offer any aesthetic reason as to why their definition of composed music deserves privileged access to public funds; their letter is based simply on a nebulous certainty that it does, presumably because it used to be like that in days of yore.
In his Guardian article, Matthews lays down terms and conditions about what ‘should’ be SAM’s ‘core mission’. But Matthew Greenall, SAM’s first executive director, writing in the comments section, disputes Matthews’s ‘fundamental misinterpretation’. ‘SAM was set up with the legacy of its founders,’ Greenall writes, ‘but also to do something new. Its remit was, and is, to initiate new work and partnerships that can make a material difference to new music’s (perceived) low public profile, low audience numbers and tentative foothold in the education curriculum.’
It’s difficult to read Matthews’s and Lefanu’s letter as anything other than two composers in their dotage pretending it’s business as usual; that the future can be endlessly deferred, like two atonal Auberon Waughs. But the future, in fact, arrived at least 10 years ago as more composers, and other sound-makers, create music and sound – Sound and Music in fact – using technologies, settings, concepts, musicians and resources that have nothing to do with ‘old school’ ideas of the Western ‘concert piece’. Why should these people, if they can demonstrate their creative integrity, be excluded? Matthews tells us what SAM ‘should’ be; the more interesting question is what it ‘could’ be.
A source from within SAM tells me that infighting between entrenched representatives of the old feeder bodies undermined the organisation from the get-go. Surely avant-gardes are supposed to jolt thinking people out of ways-of-doing? How depressing to see those involved here merely digging in their heels. An organisation that was genuinely diverse and prepared to instigate a ‘whither music’ debate regarding all forms of notated and non-notated music could only be of benefit. Could part of the problem be that no one within Sound and Music is actually listening to each other?
Philip Clark is a critic for Gramophone and The Wire, and a composer-turned-improviser. He tweets as @MusicClerk.