Ingenuity and Inadequacy

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It’s a truism, but when it comes to the annual BBC Proms season, you can’t please everyone. Each April, when the announcement is made and the details are unveiled, it’s rather startling to see not only how many people have loud opinions about them, but also how very deeply felt those opinions are. For David Pickard, director of the Proms, and no doubt for all his predecessors, announcement day must feel like an occasion for both flinging open the doors and battening down the hatches, waiting for the wave of public response – whether indignant or enthusiastic – to subside.

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From the perspective of new music, it’s easy to make a case that getting het up in this way is essentially meaningless. The Proms, after all, is not a contemporary music festival. A cursory glance at the concerts in any year reveals an overwhelming emphasis on traditional – that is pre-1910 – repertoire, with only a sprinkling of more recent music lurking here and there, occasionally being permitted a concert all to itself. All the same, the event begs some questions. Should contemporary music receive greater emphasis? Does the range of new music presently featured at the Proms provide the same representative breadth as earlier repertoire receives?

For David Pickard, Proms announcement day must feel like an occasion for both flinging open the doors and battening down the hatches.

Questions of precisely this ilk were at the forefront of the thinking that brought the Proms into existence in the first place. They were inaugurated in 1895 not, as many would assume, by Henry Wood but by businessman and all-round impresario Robert Newman, whose stated aim was ‘to run nightly concerts and train the public by easy stages. Popular at first, gradually raising the standard until I have created a public for classical and modern music.’ In his autobiography My Life of Music, Henry Wood emphasised Newman’s aim even more succinctly: ‘He wanted the public to come to love great music.’ It’s significant to note that, at the outset, Newman believed ‘classical and modern’ – standard repertoire and contemporary music – should be presented together, side by side. This was a view emphatically shared by Wood who, as well as being the Proms’ only conductor at the outset, also devised the content of the concerts. Reflecting on that first 10-week season, Wood declared, ‘We were educating the public by interweaving novelties with the classics.’ The word ‘novelties’ here carries no negative connotations; indeed, Wood’s pride in the opportunity to present contemporary music is nowhere better demonstrated than in the Appendix of his autobiography, where he devotes no fewer than 20 pages to a list containing ‘the more important novelties’ performed at the Proms from 1895 to 1937. (Wood’s use of the word ‘novelties’ extends to works that would be considered new to Proms audiences, irrespective of date of composition; however, the list in his book is restricted to examples of what was then contemporary music.)

Eighty years on from the end of that list, this intermingling of established and contemporary music remains, in principle, central to the way that the Proms operates. This is all to the good; after all, Newman and Wood’s aim of ‘educating the public’ is an open-ended one, and is arguably best served when old and new do sit side by side, providing the best possibility not simply for provocation but for more meaningful contextual reflection and understanding. It’s also a central aim of the BBC’s ‘Mission and Values’, which seek to ‘enrich people’s lives with programmes and services that inform, educate and entertain’. To that noble end, it’s worth examining how contemporary music is explored in these concerts today.

Even on the occasions when new music does make an appearance, it’s often not for very long.

Let’s start with some basic number-crunching. The 2017 Proms season, which runs from 14 July to 9 September, features a pretty typical amount of new music: 41 works, which over the course of the season averages out at roughly one piece of contemporary music for every two concerts. This doesn’t sound like much, and it isn’t: the total duration of these works amounts to approximately 13 hours, in a season of around 80 concerts, each containing roughly 90 minutes of music. Furthermore, two-thirds of the contemporary pieces are under 20 minutes long, with just four works lasting 40 minutes or more. So on the occasions when new music does make an appearance, it’s often not for very long.

A little under half of the contemporary composers featured in 2017 are from the United Kingdom – among them Harrison Birtwistle, Brian Elias and David Sawer – so the representation is reasonably international. Since the BBC is primarily concerned with reflecting British culture this isn’t of itself problematic, though it should be noted that almost all of these composers, regardless of nationality, are white.

From the perspective of gender, the numbers are not kind. While there are premières from the diverse likes of Andrea Tarrodi, Hannah Kendall, Catherine Lamb and Missy Mazzoli to look forward to, women nonetheless constitute little more than a quarter of the featured living composers, and in terms of duration, four-fifths of the new music being performed at this year’s Proms is by men. Compared with other festivals, those statistics are far from exceptional, but that doesn’t make them any less appalling. This kind of discrimination could be resolved in a stroke – the composers and repertoire are there! – but until it is, it remains a significant blight on the Proms’ outlook. It’s particularly disappointing in a year that sees the 50th birthday of one of not just the United Kingdom’s but the world’s most acclaimed woman composers, Rebecca Saunders. The Proms likes to make much of composer birthdays, and while John Adams’ 70th is celebrated across the season, Saunders’ dazzlingly innovative music will be represented by just a single 11-minute work, which won’t even be heard in the Royal Albert Hall.

Beyond these concerns, an area where the Proms makes an important contribution to contemporary music is in the opportunities it affords composers to write for large orchestral forces. As has become the norm these days, short orchestral amuse-bouches have been commissioned from younger composers for the first and last nights (by Tom Coult and Lotta Wennäkoski respectively), and much of this year’s new music is for similar forces, some – such as Mark Simpson’s The Immortal and James MacMillan’s A European Requiem – including the use of large choirs as well. We become so accustomed to hearing performances of new music for relatively modest chamber-sized formations that the chance to experience numerous large-scale works remains something of a novelty. The considerable clout of the Proms helps to ensure that this aspect of contemporary music-making can maintain a modicum of health, something that should be loudly celebrated.

If anything can be said to typify the developments of new music in the last couple of decades, it’s the experimentation with, and assimilation of, electronics. Whether in the form of acoustic instruments performing alongside electronic counterparts, live electronic manipulation of acoustic sounds or indeed works without any acoustic element, these are all so entirely integral to the world of new music that it seems ridiculous even to need to say it. Yet of this fact the Proms has been and remains stubbornly ignorant, year after year. It’s as though there were an unwritten commandment: Thou shalt perform only with acoustic instruments. The general mindset of the Proms appears to be that, if the music involves electronics of any kind, it must no longer be part of a ‘classical’ tradition.

The very fact that the Proms so doggedly attempts to step outside the conventions of ‘classical’ music, both in terms of repertoire – film/TV music, show tunes, world music and pop – as well as venue – the Roundhouse, Peckham’s Bold Tendencies Car Park and, in 2017, Tate Modern’s Tanks – makes it all the more incomprehensible that electronic and electro-acoustic music is so overlooked. In recent Proms, electronics have essentially only been present in the form of the most peripheral of tape parts (Reinbert de Leeuw’s Der nächtliche Wanderer, performed in 2016), treated amplification (Michael Berkeley’s Violin Concerto, 2016, and Brett Dean’s Electric Preludes, 2014, the latter of which was only included as a last-minute replacement for Luca Francesconi’s Duende – The Dark Notes, postponed to the following year) or as a novelty ‘bolt-on’ (Eric Whitacre’s Deep Field, 2015); Nicole Lizée’s The Golden Age of the Radiophonic Workshop (Fibre-Optic Flowers), 2012, is a notable exception due to being, as its title reflects, a very deliberate homage to electronic sounds.

While that case for not getting het up about the Proms can, indeed, be made, when they sideline new music so much it makes one care all the more passionately about what is actually included. And while you really can’t please everyone, in the case of contemporary music at the Proms, there’s only so much to get excited about. It’s hard not to feel that the opportunities and benefits the festival provides are predominantly directed according to an ignorant, narrow vision. Not only does this inadequately educate the public, it perpetuates misunderstandings about new music and keeps people oblivious to some of the most exciting aspects of its evolution. Yes, new music is a challenge for audiences, but surely the ‘classics’ are regarded as such in part because they, too, continue to challenge and provoke us. Newman and Wood knew this; it’s one of the main reasons that we love great music.

The BBC has the opportunity to do so much more. Its vast resources – to which each of us, as tax payers, directly contribute – coupled with its multimedia outreach and the ubiquity of its global profile could provide an unparalleled platform to show real faith in contemporary music. Not only demonstrating its wondrous unpredictability, ingenuity, eclecticism and beauty, but also continuing properly Newman and Wood’s invaluable mission, educating the public by sitting all music – classical and modern, acoustic and electro-acoustic, by women and men – side by side as equals. It’s what the music and we deserve.

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