The New Music Biennial festival, funded by the PRS for Music Foundation, claims to push ‘the boundaries of new music’. It provides an opportunity for new musical works to be showcased across the United Kingdom and on BBC Radio 3. The term ‘new’ in this instance is to be taken literally: these works were very recently written (some were world premières) and drew on music history, existing practices and the musical techniques of a variety of cultures. The festival, initially presented in Hull, the 2017 City of Culture, was repeated at London’s Southbank Centre and follows the previous models of this festival to present a variety of eclectic genres of music being written today.
The idea of being a composer of a specific musical category seems a little outdated, with composers describing their own work as ‘uncategorisable’, ‘falling under no category’ or of a kind in-between genres. A more accurate way of describing the music presented in this festival would be to say that it, at the very least, alluded to, invoked or directly quoted a multitude of existing music practices and techniques. New Work for Orchestra, written by film composer Mica Levi, at times incorporated variations on a four-note theme. It was a well-managed blend of orchestral timbres, with a harmonic and melodic framework that recalled impressionism and minimalism. At the same time, it was very much of the present day in the way that it freely exploited a variety of compositional approaches while trying not to be defined by any of them. Also adopting a tapestry of other musical genres were Hannah Peel’s Journey to Cassiopeia, performed by the composer and Tubular Brass; Anna Meredith’s Concerto for Beatboxer and Orchestra, performed by beatboxer Magicka and Southbank Sinfonia; and GoGo Penguin’s As Above So Below. Where Meredith’s composition contrasted beatboxing with orchestral sounds, Peel’s blended brass, voice and 70s analogue synths. GoGo Penguin’s offering incorporated myriad compositional techniques including electronica, jazz and what they described as ‘contemporary classical’.
The New Music Biennial strived for ‘newness’ not only by challenging the boundaries between musical genres, but also in its attempt to tackle boundaries between cultures, politics, gender, sexual orientation and education
What made the New Music Biennial festival unique (a point iterated before every concert) was the way in which it presented the pieces: each concert focused on one work, which was played twice, with an interview with the composer inserted between the performances. This structure offered an insight into these new pieces that one rarely experiences at other new music festivals. In some cases, the music was strikingly different on second hearing and even, as with Brian Irvine and Jennifer Walshe’s 13 Vices, went so far as to incorporate different text and melodies and a changed order of compositional sections.
The ‘new’ works in the New Music Biennial festival earned that title in the ways in which they engaged with the present: as well as a multitude of genres and styles, current affairs and identities were also tackled. A particularly striking example was Illusions by composer Philip Venables and performance artist David Hoyle. This hard-hitting piece provided a passionate voice for LGBT+ rights. It was performed with aplomb by Hoyle and the London Sinfonietta, who managed to match Venable’s startling music precisely with an edited video of Hoyle’s performance. No matter their political ideology, anyone who heard this piece surely had an intense experience in which absurdity, oppression, exploitation and domination were used to reflect the artists’ thoughts on society. Hoyle’s politically fuelled, brutally honest (and sometimes humorous) curse-filled oratory could not fail to stir an audience.
Errollyn Wallen’s Mighty River touched on themes of slavery and freedom (freedom, incidentally, being the current ‘Hull UK City of Culture’ theme). Performed by Ensemble X, this orchestral piece mixed spirituals with ‘contemporary classical techniques’ in a moto perpetuo that recalled the relentlessness of water. During her mid-concert interview, Wallen talked about her reputation as a ‘black female composer’ and how she feels that, now that she has tackled the orchestral medium, it was fate that she would take on the issue of her identity.
Culture and identity were also tackled in Jason Singh and Anne Martin’s Ceumannan – Footsteps. 2. Synthesising North Indian Raga with traditional Gaelic song, this piece employed a mixture of Western and Eastern instruments and performance techniques, including beatboxing again (a popular medium at this festival). The common ground of Singh and Martin’s cultural roots (a struggle for land) takes their compositional approach beyond ‘fusion’: their piece is not merely a fusion of styles, but the expression of a single commonality.
The Biennial’s inclusivity did not stop at cultures, but extended to performers, as children, adult amateurs and even the audience had the opportunity to interact with professionals. The short opera Itch Witch by Emily Hall (composer) and Toby Litt (author) was successfully written with and performed by 8-11 year olds. Similarly, in a segment called ‘The Residency Supergroup’, Wallen, Singh, Irvine, Sam Lee and Eliza Carthy had the opportunity to show off their compositional skills by creating pieces for school children and/or adult amateurs to perform. A particularly notable employment of this medium was Singh’s piece. We only heard an extract of this sophisticated performance, but it proved to be a calming blend of breath sounds, vocalisations and pre-recorded monologues, which even had a role for the audience.
Audience interaction was not the only way in which this festival challenged the standard ‘classical music’ concert hall etiquette. The festival also featured installations, an example being sound artist Ray Lee’s Ring Out, which he described as a 16-channel composition performed on eight stereo bells. The audience could walk round Zebedee’s Yard in Hull as a choreography of giant bells, emitting various electronic sounds, swung like colossal pendulums at pre-defined rates and angles.
The New Music Biennial strived for ‘newness’ not only by challenging the boundaries between musical genres, but also in its attempt to tackle boundaries between cultures, politics, gender, sexual orientation and education. Whether it achieved this within a broader context of contemporary musical practice is a matter for further debate. One might argue that much of the music was not as challenging as it could have been – its inclusivity of ages, musical abilities and genres meant it favoured familiar compositional techniques, albeit used in unfamiliar ways. Its performance–audience structure nevertheless (perhaps unavoidably) enforced the spectator–spectacle relationship that normally underpins the traditional consumption of artworks. Despite this, there was a clear attempt to make the creation of ‘new’ music accessible to amateurs of all ages as well as professionals throughout the festival. All concerts were free and this probably went a considerable way to creating a ‘new music’ festival in which children and non-specialists were present in the audience as well as on the stage.
If readers wish to explore the pieces further, all 20 New Music Biennial commissions are available to download from NMC Recordings’ website.