Joining up the Dots

Joining up the Dots

What we can learn from contemporary music festivals in Portugal and Finland

I have been travelling around networking and promoting contemporary Irish music recently: in late September I attended a few days of both the Musica Viva festival in Lisbon and the Nordic Music Days in Helsinki – which coincided with the annual plenary session of the European Composers’ Forum and its key event ArtMusFair, of which more later.

Such travels naturally lead to reflections and comparisons with Ireland. The first thing to notice is that in Ireland we never experience a truly substantial new music festival: the high-gloss, high-cost RTÉ Living Music Festival is just over two days long. Many European festivals, including those in much poorer countries (Portugal, Lithuania, Croatia, etc.), are a week or ten days long. They make small amounts of money stretch in ways that are inconceivable here, and this does not stop them from achieving artistic excellence. In fact we could do the same here, if we simply banded more of our new music events together. Various ensembles, music promoters, choirs, concert halls and so on devote some (or all) of their time to new music, and if they all did just some of that in the same week, allowing a unifying theme, publicity machine, and artistic director, then we could have such a festival almost overnight. Whether we want this is another matter: it is something I have never heard discussed. It might raise the profile of contemporary music, or it might produce a more intense ghettoisation for it to fall into. I think it could succeed, since in recent years we have come a long way out of the ghetto in our audience relations here. I don’t, however, hold out a lot of hope of it happening, because our culture is against this sort of joined-up thinking.

More dottiness
Speaking of joining things up brings us to another feature of the contemporary music events in Portugal or Finland. In both of those festivals (and elsewhere), I have seen the integration of children, as audience and/or participant, to be usual somewhere in the programme. In Portugal this took the form of classic children’s stories with a narrator, imaginative staging and lighting, and electro-acoustic modification of the narrator’s voice: simple, effective and contemporary. In Finland, there was a piece of music theatre for children from aged ten to fifteen to play (in an orchestra) and sing/act, scored by an established composer.

The reason for such events is always the same: to ensure a future for the art form. In Ireland we do this occasionally with theatre and dance, but not really in contemporary art music. It would not be that difficult; again this is a lack of joining the dots. There is one reason (though not a complete excuse) why it is rarer here: we do not have a Department of Culture. In most other countries there is such a department, which branches out into departments for education, arts, sport, heritage, language, and so on. Thus, those seeking funding for new music are mightily encouraged to provide an interface with educational aims.

Creating a better ArtMusFair
Frank Stahmer, who co-ordinates the European Composers’ Forum ( from the Austrian Komponistenbund came up with the idea of ArtMusFair (which in a German accent sounds very like atmosphere), a trade fair for composers of art music which brings together promoters, publishers and agents for new music while working primarily from the contemporary composers’ standpoint.

Along with stalls and people milling about there were presentations on all sorts of topics such as music theatre, writing for film, and new instrumental resources. Another was on authors’ rights. The presenters of this made the important distinction between the use of the phrase ‘authors’ rights’ and the word ‘copyright’. There is already a semantic slant towards the creator in one and to the reproducer in the other. Authors’ rights include the notion that the composer is the natural owner of their work, which he/she can then subsequently trade in various ways. Composers also have moral rights concerning the further use of their music by third parties. For instance, even if you have sold all or part of the earning potential of your rousing march to a publisher and a recording company, you still retain the right to stop a Le Pen from using it at a political rally. This concept was enshrined internationally in the Berne Convention of 1886. (Interestingly, Ireland has not actually managed to ratify this yet – 136 countries have, including Togo, Rwanda, Zimbabwe and Tajikistan – which is not to say that copyright protection here is inferior to all of these countries, but it points up once more our poor record on joining dots of all kinds. Our adherence to its principles is, however, evident in our ‘Instrument of Accession’ lodged with the World Intellectual Property Organization – as recently as December 2004.)

This presentation also pointed out that the rifts, which can sometimes amount to genre wars, between classical, jazz and the more popular forms, originate in the highly profitable capitalisation of music, which only took off during the twentieth century. The development of a large and profitable music industry included great development in the disadvantageous exploitation of music creators against the spirit of the Berne Convention. This naturally impacted unevenly across the genres. Nevertheless, any division among composers in different genres only plays into the hands of the exploiters: the major recording companies and their ‘publishing houses’. (A major recording label or even public service broadcaster will claw back further earnings due to the artist by intervening a second time as their ‘publisher’ in addition to being their ‘recording label’. They control these publishing rights, but they generally don’t exercise them in any way that is advantageous to the composer – by, for example, producing a score.) All composers, as ordinary individual producers, are perilously weak when confronted by the market control and highly evolved legalistic practises presented to them by recording companies. This is why it is important for different types of composer to present a united front, as indeed they do through the European Composers’ Forum, which is one pillar of ECSA – the European Composers’ and Songwriters’ Alliance. The other two pillars besides ECF are FFACE (Federation of Film and Audiovisual Composers of Europe) and APCE (Alliance of Popular Composers of Europe). This three-legged body is also active in trying to make composers’ interests audible through the louder noise of the music industry when bodies such as the EU Commission are deciding policy that affects them. Notable among a tedious list of such policies in development are those concerning competition within member states (affecting the future of IMRO, for example), and forthcoming directives on on-line content.

More dots that need joining: the Association of Irish Composers is the sole Irish member of ECSA, through its membership of ECF. We do not have a representative body for popular songwriters available to join APCE, nor one for media composers to join FFACE. If we did, I could end this piece quoting Roxy Music: let’s stick together. I can’t. I can only say to the other genres in Ireland (oh, and this one, and to the Department of Foreign Affairs, Department of Education and the Department of the Arts): let’s join the dots.

Published on 1 November 2008

John McLachlan is a composer and member of Aosdána.

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