Live from London: What's Changed and Why

For TEMPO, July 2016

N.B. This is the accepted manuscript (AM) version of this article. For the published version, please log into the Cambridge University Press website here.

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Gentrification, spiralling rent, economic inequality, traffic chaos — the people of London have come to dread what 'change' entails. However, I'm convinced that some things have changed for the better: today's 'new music scene' (which I identify as that populated by composers and performers of notated contemporary music, creative improvisers, their concerts, networks and ideas) is radiating a vibrancy that would have been unimaginable fifteen years ago. I want to celebrate it.

I say 'fifteen years ago' because 2001 was the year I left music college as a nascent composer. Around that time, I saw a lot of great free improvisation at the Red Rose in Finsbury Park or upstairs at the Union Chapel, where the performers on stage typically outnumbered the audience. I went to see the London Sinfonietta at the Southbank Centre and John Tilbury play Morton Feldman at the Conway Hall, where no one ever seemed to want to socialise afterwards. 2001 was the year that I briefly worked at the British Music Information Centre, where we had world premieres in the dusty recital room, sometimes after a day of answering the phone to confused members of the public asking for tickets to see Cliff Richard.

Undoubtedly, some great music was being made in London at the time, but there was something stale about the infrastructures and communities supporting it, something parochial even. Now it seems more vital than ever.

Fertiliser for the grassroots

It's become the norm for young (or 'emerging') composers and new music performers to take opportunities into their own hands. They've formed collectives such as Squib Box and Bastard Assignments, programmed concert series such as Kammer Klang and 840 (the long-running Music We'd Like To Hear is a precedent), and founded independent record labels such as Slip Records. And they keep on proliferating.

The events they promote mainly take place without public funding and without the major arts venues. In 2015-16 I have seen concerts in art galleries, churches, outdoors, in a car park, a vacant dentist's surgery and at a variety of pubs ranging from the swish to the very down-at-heel.  This is no longer a marketing strategy ('see a string quartet in a bar!' — Camden's scarcely lamented Bar-tok, I'm looking at you); it is a given that music doesn't require a stage and raked seating.

Necessity is also the mother of relocation. So few small to medium-sized music venues have been able to survive financially that those left, such as Café Oto, are fully programmed far ahead. The independent promoters have been forced to become resourceful.

When Café Oto finds space in their schedule, their new music events often feature an egalitarian combination of improvisation, composed music and electronic music. They attract lively audiences, who are excited about the inclusivity and the atmosphere. Compared to the bad old days, they're noticeably younger, more diverse, and want to discuss what they've seen afterwards. The networks are in place for disseminating ideas and promoting this music, through the internet as well as here, in real life. There's an international exchange, with guest appearances from young artists from abroad.

Obviously, the major spaces are still programming concerts of new music, but these grassroots communities are infecting their approach. For example, the Southbank Centre now has Harmonic Series, a concert series curated by cellist Oliver Coates, which inhabits unexpected spaces within their buildings and might collide new dance music with Eliane Radigue's transcendental drones.

Looking at the visual arts

Many events have borrowed the idea of 'curating' from the visual arts practice. The established idea of 'programming' within classical music could be characterised as a concern with choosing a complementary selection of pieces, or identifying a common theme, or even deploying the trick the major orchestras still use whereby they put the 'difficult' piece in the first half of a concert so the audience won't run away at the interval.

In contrast, these curated events pay attention to how music works in the space, how the audience will interact with the performance and how deeper, philosophical connections between different kinds of music might be explored through juxtaposition. Here's an example: the London Contemporary Music Festival's event in December 2015, 'A Martian Sends a Postcard Home', was a kind of sonic essay on the theme of 'alien-ness' that featured composed works by Helmut Lachenmann and Andrew Hamilton alongside a durational live art piece by Tino Sehgal in an adjoining space. The evening culminated in an ecstatic performance by Egyptian chaabi musician Islam Chipsy and his band EEK. It took place in a massive concrete laboratory underneath Baker Street.

Ambitious aesthetics

Opera and music theatre are no longer the preserve of composers with massive institutional support: in London, music creators are doing it anyway, on whatever scale is available to them. This betrays an ambition that did not exist before, and festivals and companies such as Grimeborn, Tête à Tête and ERRATICA have sprung up to present the resulting works. In some ways, these organisations are echoing the exploded approach to opera that characterised the Almeida Theatre's programming in the halcyon 1980s, except that they focus on local talent rather than importing under-exposed work from continental Europe or America.

Composers and performers also seem more confident than ever to integrate electronics into their work due, in part, to a democratisation of new technologies. Any innovation in this area used to rely on an invitation to institutions such as STEIM or IRCAM; now we all have access to relatively cheap, open-source or free software and hardware such as MaxMSP, Arduino and Pd. Conservatoire composition departments now acknowledge this as important, and younger composers are leaving higher education with a broad aesthetic and skills-base. A good exemplar is Mica Levi, whose work effortlessly moves between pop, electronic and experimental music, besides more conventional pieces for the established Sinfonietta-type line-ups.

Innovation trumps desperation

London is undeniably a difficult place in which to exist. There's less money to fund anything and the costs of being here are obscene. What amazes me is that so many people in new music are operating in spite of the economic climate. There's a spirit of openness and motivation in the air, playfulness, even.

Most importantly, there is an urge to be creative. Even if they sometimes 'reinvent the wheel' it feels like most people in this scene understand that reimagining what music might be and what it can achieve is more valuable than adding another pedestrian, well-written piece to the wind quintet repertoire. That is what will re-position London on the international stage and that is the reason for my reinvigorated confidence, in the face of the vicissitudes.

Leo Chadburn, 2016