Modern Classics

Guy Damman discovers how modern classical music is shifting its genetic make-up in the UK, allowing young composers to expand out of their comfort zones and carve new niches for themselves.

Anita Awbi
  • By Anita Awbi
  • 4 May 2011
  • min read
Guy Damman discovers how modern classical music is shifting its genetic make-up in the UK, allowing young composers to expand out of their comfort zones and carve new niches for themselves.

You would be forgiven for thinking that the world of classical music is teeming with ageing male conductors and suffocated by the ghosts of composers past. But when Sarah Rodgers, the BASCA and British Composers Awards (BCA) chair, addressed the BCA ceremony late last year, she was confronted by a roomful of young talent awaiting their accolades.

Of the 13 prizes awarded at November’s ceremony, 10 of the recipients were under 40, and half of those under 30. Perhaps more pertinently, given the traditionally lopsided gender balance among composers, six awards went to female composers. Evidently, classical music composition in Britain today is less about implausibly famous dead men and more about young, and very much alive, women.

The evening’s biggest winner was 31-year-old composer Cheryl Frances-Hoad, who lifted two prizes, beating classical superstar Tom Adès to the instrumental solo and duo accolades for her blithe piano piece Stolen Rhythm. Educated at the specialist Yehudi Menuhin School and later at Cambridge University, where she studied under Professor Robin Holloway, Frances-Hoad has been composing ever since she can remember.

‘I was incredibly shy when I was younger,’ she says. ‘I would actually hide from people just to avoid having to chat. Maybe this is why I buried myself in writing music. The odd thing was I was never shy in my music. My teenage music was very emotional, and I either performed myself or had a piece performed at every school concert I could manage. I never got stage fright – not even in the Albert Hall.’

Even before she enrolled at Cambridge, Frances-Hoad was already receiving commissions, so it seemed a strange time to shift focus and undertake an academic degree. ‘I had intended to study at Cambridge ever since I first saw the place at the age of 15,’ she explains. ‘I hated the first term – it was so hard – but I soon realised how much I was learning. Just like any other creative artist, you need a lot to draw on as a composer.’

The chance to study under renowned teacher Professor Holloway deepened her confidence considerably. She also suspects his unseen hand in her first major commission for the 2002 Spitalfields Festival. Perhaps typically, she decided to continue her formal studies upon winning the commission, this time moving to King’s College London to take a doctorate under Silvina Milstein.

Another modern classical frontrunner, Sasha Siem, who at just 25 won the BCA choral music award for her setting of Psalm 140, also studied under Holloway. She is now studying for a PhD at Harvard, which she believes will allow her to ‘develop a sense of her own voice’.

Siem and Frances-Hoad’s decisions to extend their university careers reflect a growing trend among composers of their generation. Where university music departments once leaned heavily toward music history and theory, the teaching of composition is now a major element. This is not because musicians feel the need to seclude themselves in ivory towers – although this has been the case in the past – but because the collegiate environment offers a protected space where talents can be developed and nurtured  without the pressure of full public exposure.

Ryan Wigglesworth, who won the BCA vocal music prize for Augenlieder, agrees on the importance of a safe environment to in which to experiment and grow. The 31-year-old recently undertook a commission by the BBC Symphony Orchestra (SO), working alongside vocalist and long-standing friend Claire Booth, and admits he would never have had the courage to attempt the work without a wealth of practical experience behind him. ‘What you need are performances out of the limelight, and that’s what you can get when you’re still studying. After that, reality starts to bite pretty hard,’ he says. ‘Particularly when it comes to a big commission like this, there’s a clear sense that you only get one shot at the thing.’

Despite his modest years, Wigglesworth has amassed more practical experience than many twice his age, thanks to his dual career as a conductor. While at Oxford, aside from roping in budding student talent to perform his compositions, Wigglesworth spent much of his time sitting in on rehearsals of the London Sinfonietta and the BBC SO, watching composer-conductor greats such as Oliver Knussen wringing magic out of the most complex scores.

‘I have had a few periods in my life when I’ve lived the classic composer-in-the-garret cliché, spending hours staring into blank pieces of paper. Conducting is great, partly because it means getting to know so much of other people’s music, and partly because it teaches you about what you can expect performers to cope with given a certain amount of rehearsal time, and how to gauge their reactions.’

Graham McKenzie, director of the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, the UK’s largest festival for new music, points to the fact that multi-tasking has to be the way forward for many young composers. ‘It might be that they also conduct or perform, often working closely with particular ensembles who gain a reputation on a joint basis. Composing for the media, working beyond the concert hall and opera house, is another option, as is installation work. “Sound art” is something that’s attracting a lot of interest right now because it’s a grey area between music and visual arts that allows the two disciplines to move closer together.’

The imperative to work in different areas isn’t just an artistic one, according to McKenzie. It’s also economic. ‘Things haven’t got any easier in terms of making a living. If you think about composers in other countries, particularly Holland – until recently anyway – Germany and Scandinavia, it’s possible to make a living without supplementing your income by teaching and such like. If I’m going to commission a piece from a career composer from those countries, it’s almost certain that some national body will put up the commission fee to get the piece written. In the UK, funds are very limited, even on the basis of a solid invitation from a festival like Huddersfield.’

He explains that although the Huddersfield Festival is the largest event in the country dedicated to contemporary classical music, he only has between £10-12,000 available for commissioning each year. This drives the festival organisers to work with funding bodies and other festivals. ‘Composing music takes a great deal of time and skill. Ultimately, if you want people to continue to write great music, you’ve got to pay for it,’ he says.

In the UK, many composers are finding that commercial avenues are becoming ever more desirable ways to make a living, and this in turn is reflected in the way composition is taught. The Guildhall School of Music and Drama runs an MA in composition that develops talent along ‘portfolio’ lines, asking students to complete works in a variety of contexts, which may include composing for theatre and film.

Meanwhile, Richard Paine, rights and media music director at publisher Faber Music, has set up an academy for composers interested in writing for film and TV. The short course begins in June. ‘The most important thing is to have a personality where ego is subdued – it is a collaborative business,’ says Paine. ‘It’s not your gig as a composer, it’s the director’s gig. If a composer can’t deal with that they’re in the wrong business.’ Faber’s music director Sally Cavender explains that the relationship between composer and publisher can be ‘like getting married - it’s important to get it right, because you’re starting a relationship that could last a lifetime.’

Cavender looks after the ‘traditional’ composers at Faber, and the first thing she looks out for is musicians that have something new to say. ‘It also helps if there is a bit of a buzz surrounding a figure. Talent isn’t enough by itself. There has to be a feeling among performers that this person’s music is playable.’

Although Faber is not large by music publishing standards, its list of composers – from Benjamin Britten to Thomas Adès – is short but prestigious. Signings from the last few years include Tansy Davies – whose forthcoming album Troubairitz is eagerly awaited – and the German composer Torsten Rasch, a distinctive musician who is not so well known but whose music is ‘of such extraordinarily high quality’, says Cavender, ‘that it’s inconceivable people won’t come round to him.’

Sally Groves, an influential director at Schott Music, recently took on Wigglesworth, whom she says is ‘the real thing’ both as a composer and conductor. From her own list she also draws attention to the rising profile of Richard Ayres, whose joint commission for the 2013-14 season of the Stuttgart and Berlin Comic Operas is a clear sign that his playful and bold style is creating interest. Groves also notes two figures outside of Schott – Emily Howard and Duncan Ward – whom she says are representative of the depth and breadth of talent in the country.

‘Emily Howard composes wonderfully vivid and engaged music,’ Groves enthuses. ‘She has some wonderful projects coming up, including a [PRS for Music Foundation-funded] commission for a 20-minute opera Zatopek!, and a new orchestral work for the Wien Modern Festival. As for Duncan, well he’s still very young, but he seems to be able to do everything. He doesn’t see the need to judge between genres and styles of music and composes for lots of different audiences.’

Helen Grime, who won a BCA accolade back in 2003 and last year joined publisher Chester Novello, has also been creating a buzz with major performances at the Aldeburgh Festival and the Proms. She acknowledges that it’s been easier for her since signing to Chester Novello. ‘The best thing, apart from having someone to negotiate for you, is that a stable relationship like that can help you settle into yourself. You don’t need a publisher to attract commissions of course, if things are going well, but they help you chose the ones that allow you to develop as an artist. That time between the ages of 25 and 30 is very critical, and ideally you need to build your voice rather than worrying about rent and gas bill.’

‘Luck has a lot to do with it, if I’m honest’, says Grime. ‘With so much talent around, and not really much success to share round, you come across quite a lot of bitterness from people – it’s rather a horrible profession, really.’

But Wigglesworth sees the industry from another angle entirely. ‘There are so many wonderful composers coming through in this country that’s it almost unbelievable, especially if you consider Britain’s musical past. I’ve never understood why this renaissance has come now, but there it is, and I don’t think anywhere else in the world is enjoying anything similar just now.

‘People often forget about what composers do, and how much grind and sheer slog it is to put pieces together and get them performed. That’s what’s wonderful about formal recognition of the kind the BCA offers. It’s one of the few occasions when people outside the classical music world get to hear the music being written now. There are probably loads of people who have no idea that this world is still going on – and yet in some ways it’s never been in better shape.’