Bridging the gap: a festival done differently
Friday, December 8, 2023
Launched from his own interests in metal, composer Matthew Whiteside shares his journey to beginning The Night With... Festival in Glasgow
‘How can I create a gig feel for contemporary classical music, while still respecting the classical tradition?’. This was the question consuming me in 2016. The answer I landed on was to present concerts in gig spaces like pubs and nightclubs in three parts rather than the traditional concert halves. This format, while never compromising on the world class quality of the music, has gained us increasingly large audiences and a growing community around our concerts who keep coming back.
I came to classical music via metal. I always listened to and performed classical music but it was its own thing, separate from my other musical interests. During my GCSEs the combination of hearing Metallica’s S&M, Thomas Adés Asyla, Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, brought me to realise that composers weren’t all long dead, and that people were writing music so much more engaging to me than most of the canon that is so often programmed. All of these together made me want to be a composer and explore these sound worlds for myself.
'With this year’s concerts I wanted to develop The Night With…’s aesthetic even further. To create a rock festival-like setting for contemporary music'
But I have always found the concert hall experience othering. It simply isn’t as engaging as a metal concert. Why do we have to sit still to receive music? Why are people who move or clap or make a noise at the wrong time often frowned upon or shushed? The shushing or ushers telling people to turn off their phone is more distracting! They are enjoying the music. Classical Music is entertainment, art is entertainment!
After I finished my studies I started questioning the concert format. I’d been putting on student concerts for about six years by that point but never questioned the received wisdom of how a concert should work. Also, I’m 6ft 3. Concert seats are not comfortable for me to sit in! As much as I love the music, it is often a physically uncomfortable experience for me to sit in a concert hall and often means my enjoyment of the music is massively reduced.
I find it really interesting going to concerts now and reflecting on the experience. Not just the uncomfortable seats, but the short intervals that reduce the chance and time to make the concert a social event and the ushers who walk up the aisle to tell someone to turn off their phone or not take photographs. Why? It's one thing for someone to be sitting there filming the whole concert but completely another for someone to engage in the way they are so used to: by taking a photo and sharing it on social media.
Since putting on The Night With… concerts I’ve gained so much more understanding of what I enjoy in a concert experience, as well as confidence in my own convictions. Now, as much as I can, I stand at the back of concerts - much to the surprise of ushers who always repeatedly try to direct me to a seat. It's one thing I love about the BBC Proms - the ability to experience the concert in a way that is comfortable for me as an audience member.
The United Strings of Europe | Photo: Dimitri Djuric
The Night With…is unashamedly about contemporary music with a little bit of early music scattered throughout, since there is a similarity between the genres. But I won’t programme anything else. It just isn’t of interest to me. We don’t need another concert of a Mozart cover or a young violinist doing their own version of Paganini. We need more platforms for music written in the last 50 years or so, showing the true breadth and diversity of modern music making. We need space to show that classical music is a living artform and get away from a museum mentality that only occasionally adds to the collection.
With this year’s concerts I wanted to develop The Night With…’s aesthetic even further. To create a rock festival-like setting for contemporary music - closer to Download or Glastonbury than a normal classical festival - with two stages, back-to-back gigs plus a fully stocked bar and street food truck. The intention is that when someone walks in through the door they don’t have to wait until the last piece finishes. That's not to say I expect everyone to listen to every concert! There will be a separate room for people to sit, chat, have a drink and a bite to eat. Of course, they could come to every concert; It is entirely up to them!
We’re programming no less than twelve world premieres over the two days, two of which are the winning entries from our most recent call for scores. 'It's not something I ever thought would be the case' by Ollie Hawker, and ‘Wait in the car’ by Rebecca Galian Castello are written for Magnetic Resonator Piano (a beautiful augmented piano) played by pianist and composer Xenia Pestova Bennet.
The Engine Works is an ideal space for this. Not only is it a large, grungy-chic ex-industrial space with multiple rooms, it also allows me to programme concerts that I wouldn’t be able to fit in a ‘normal’ The Night With… concert because basements of bars and nightclubs tend to be small and don’t usually have a piano.. For the festival, we have several concerts featuring the piano, such as Xenia Pestova Bennett and the Herbrides Ensemble, as well as larger scale ensembles like the United Strings of Europe. The festival will also include the world premiere of my own work, Emptiness, for voice and strings, performed by United Strings of Europe and soprano Emily Thorner. It is a rather dark existential piece, exploring mortality. Not dissimilar to many of the themes explored in metal music…
Community building and industry development is a core part of The Night With… At the festival we’ve a series of industry events such as ‘speed dating’ events and expert panels to discuss the ins and outs of commissioning, branding and international networking, and I will have copies of my new book The Guidebook to Self-Releasing Your Music, for sale. I’m trying to build an environment where people are not just coming to hear brilliant music but can develop productive working relationships. Ultimately, The Night With…’s aim is to promote new music in any way possible.
As part of the aim to nurture new music in a holistic way, I founded The Night With…’s very own record label, TNW Music in 2020. We’ve recently released our third live album of recordings taken from The Night With… concerts, as well as our fourth studio album - shadows that in darkness dwell - an experimental suite based on the music of John Dowland. The concert premiere of this album is the penultimate concert of the festival. In 2024 we will be releasing a live album from the festival along with albums from Juice Vocal Ensemble and Emma Lloyd.
My hope is that the classical music world will see events like The Night With… and stops being so uptight. Not wearing concert blacks as a uniform and allowing audience members to be individual people rather than passive receivers of art, and experience it in the way they enjoy. I hope audience members do this in December. A different kind of winter cheer!
The festival runs 14th and 15th December in the Engine Works Glasgow. www.thenightwith.com
Composer Matthew Whiteside is the founder of The Night With... Festival