Alexis Paterson, Cheltenham Music Festival

As manager of Cheltenham Music Festival, Alexis Paterson is a leading champion of classical music. Here, she tells us about the current crop of young classical composers she's excited about and explains the opportunities her festival offers musicians...

Anita Awbi
  • By Anita Awbi
  • 19 Dec 2014
  • min read
Alexis Paterson is a leading champion of classical music.

As manager of the annual Cheltenham Music Festival, she has her finger in many musical pies, from the Composer Academy to the Party in the Park and the Fringe itself.

With over 60 events and 650 performers taking part across 12 days every year, there’s plenty of room for contemporary composition to feature alongside popular classics.

We spent some time with Alexis to learn more about the current crop of young classical stars she's excited about and find out what opportunities the Cheltenham Music Festival offers to composers of all ages and musical leanings…

What does your role cover as manager of the Cheltenham Music Festival?
There’s a little bit of programming, all of the logistics and financial side of things, co-ordinating the production, technical riders, contracts… I’m also very involved in the Composer Academy.

What scope is there for upcoming composers at Cheltenham Music Festival?
It does vary from year to year but what’s true every year is we have a range of opportunities for composers at various stages of their careers. The Royal Philharmonic Society supports a commission through its Composer Prize that premieres at Cheltenham every year. That’s often a chamber music commission, which really fits with our core audience.

Next year we’ll have a co-commission with Nova Music Opera for a new opera from Charlotte Bray – although she’s not so emerging anymore – she’s really made a name for herself in the last few years.

How does Composer Academy work?                                                    
Composer Academy is a real test bed for fresh-out-of-training composers. We appeal to people trying to get their first foot on the ladder. We don’t have any specific entry requirements, we just ask that people would define themselves as emerging. It’s quite important to me to recognise that one person’s sense of feeling established is very different to another. The Composer Academy is designed to be an immersive peer support week where they can test ideas out and share advice about the practicalities of being a composer and making a go of it.

Every time in the feedback sessions I hear that what people really value is to learn that other composers have the same frustrations as them. Composing is quite a solitary activity.

So what are the main frustrations and feedback?
I would say there’s a lot of discussion about whether being published is the be all and end all, or whether, in the digital age it’s still something to aspire to or whether it’s better to self-publish and get a manager or agent. There’s a lot of discussion about social media and self-promotion. Some people just want to be a composer and they don’t understand why they have to be good at social media, building their website, getting things recorded and negotiating contracts and commission fees. But there’s a sense these days that you have to be multi-skilled. It sometimes feels as though, as a young composer, you’re just expected to know all this and there’s nowhere to go to get support and training. So we always try to work in a couple of practical sessions each year to give people an opportunity to chat about seeing projects through right through from preliminary ideas to the stage. We need to encourage discussion around the funding application process, advice on getting commissions, recording your music, navigating contracts – all the things you don’t want to think about if you have music filling up your head. But you have to think about these things if you want to get your music performed.

Do you think that there’s less grasp of the importance of DIY and digital media within the young classical community than other genres?
Certainly, when I was at university 10 years ago I don’t remember any training on social media and self-promotion. I think conservatoires and colleges are starting to support students in that side of things. I wonder if people feel that it’s a bit taboo. That whole idea of networking and self-promotion can seem a bit corporate to young composers. I think for some people it grates slightly with the idea of a young artist who wants to be quite abstracted and free. I suppose the business side of things feels very separate to the creative side and sometimes it jars a little bit.

Having said that, there are young composers who are doing brilliant things with their social media and websites. They’re getting their SoundCloud accounts updated and getting their music out there. So I do think things are changing. I can name five or six composers off the top of my head who are doing great stuff online

Michael Betteridge has done very well recently – he’s on the Adopt a Composer scheme at the moment, working with the Cobweb Orchestra, and he has a lot of interesting video media.

Aaron Holloway-Nahum – he was on our composer academy two years ago. He’s got his Riot Ensemble so not only does he have great social media presence but he’s generating his own performances. He’s got a group of performers together and he’s self-helping. He’s got a blog, he takes a lot of photographs and he’s very active in sharing other people’s work.

Gavin Higgins (below) has great photography on his website and brilliant sound grabs. He’s ranked his material so the first thing you click on is his best stuff. It’s little things like that which make a huge difference.

DIY seems less prevalent within classical music – maybe because of the costs involved and the culture? What do you think?
The DIY ethic is less prevalent in classical than other genres: the ‘self-taught bedroom composer becomes next big thing’ isn’t a story you really hear in classical composition. Most classical composers are still trained via traditional conservatoire or university routes so they’ve worked with orchestras and ensembles and been engrossed in that world - it’s a different musical landscape.

Are there any young composers you’re really excited about?
There are. If I name one there will be a million others that I’ve forgotten! Two people who I’ve noticed really making a splash in the last couple of years since I came into contact with them through the Composers’ Academy are Aaron Holloway-Nahum and Daniel Kidane. There are also people like Trish Clowes and her work with Emulsion, which is a real melting pot. She works with people who are jazz and classical. Oh, there are just so many! I love Gavin Higgins’ music. Jack White is another one.

Are there any trends you are noticing?
No, not really – which is a good thing. A lot of young composers coming up don’t sound like they belong to a certain mindset and I quite like that.

How do you think contemporary classical music is evolving?
A lot of people are starting to come to classical music from lots of different avenues. Anecdotally, you hear of people who are discovering Steve Reich from bands like Radiohead, who have cited him as an influence. That’s a really great thing. Hopefully it will translate into a good audience for these young composers.