New Work Notes: Critical Mass

New Work Notes: Critical Mass

John McLachlan asks if we have what it takes to develop a thriving contemporary music scene.

What does it take to make a successful contemporary music ‘scene’? It might be assumed that an artsy district of a large city should sustain a thriving scene. One might imagine it is mostly about the population size reaching ‘critical mass’, so that big cities should inevitably have a thriving contemporary musical culture, but of course it’s not quite that simple, and many other things (such as facilities and geographical focus) come in to play; even in London today there are complaints that the city lacks a convincing scene.

One can construct an imaginary utopia where composers, performers and audience exist in a mode of inter-related communication that actually involves mutual influence, leading to incremental improvement/change in the state/practice of all three groups (whose memberships would to a degree overlap). One would further imagine another group outside this, of culture lovers (film- and gallery-goers, poets and painters), taking an occasional interest and helping to raise the cultural temperature. Just as in physics where ‘critical mass’ means ‘enough for a chain reaction’, the phrase here means a meaningful interaction between these populations that leads to substantive changes in behaviours. In the utopian ‘scene’, then, many specific things would take place, such as performers and composers helping each other to realise their vision, leading to mutual modification of that vision: a local style would emerge. Promoters and funders would be inside (among the practitioners or culture lovers) rather than outside, and so on. A key element would be location: a venue or cluster of venues consistently and preferably exclusively associated with a vibrant, creative scene. A positive attitude and generosity of spirit would keep the virtuous circle turning.

Do we have any such thing here in Ireland – and what if we don’t? Interestingly, the answer is not a simple ‘no’, but it is still ‘no’. It is not simple because we have pockets of best practice mingled with bad practice. We have some groups and some venues scattered about with these kinds of elements, but the consistency is missing. Some composers and performers are co-operating artistically, some only commercially (most contemporary music performers are freelancing and trying to keep busy households afloat, while composers often can’t even afford a household). The booming economy of recent years has, we all know, sent the overheads through the roof, so that the wider arts community is dispersed to wherever accommodation is cheaper: painters, sculptors and writers are dotted around the west of Ireland rather than fomenting a scene in Temple Bar. So the possibility of a scene is affected adversely by the economic background of boom-bust cycles (and it’s about to get worse, when we return to the brain drain pattern of the past). But apart from crude economic factors, we are uneven on the attitudinal front. A culture of begrudgery infects our native cultural life, while those who have worked abroad are frequently the ones who have the necessary can-do attitude to make the most of what we actually have. Besides that, the arts policy makers, funders and promoters mostly work with a very pro-scene mindset, which is positive.

Every single commentary on music in Ireland points an accusing finger at education, and it can hardly be left out here. Apart from the obvious, that so few of the general population get the slightest musical enlightenment at school, there is the question of what is going on in our conservatories and universities. Traditionally, everywhere throughout history, such places have simply ignored creativity and current art practice as irrelevant to what they do – though one might still wonder when and if they will be moved to change (as visual arts educators did in the 60s). Our conservatories and universities are not all irrelevant to creative (and in particular cutting-edge) musical practice, with the best examples coming from the music technology centres in Belfast and Dublin, which are central to whatever scenes we have. The worst examples here are perhaps where instrumental tuition is the focus. Although vocalists and instrumentalists are still vital to contemporary music overall, the culture around the education of performers continues to be mostly against self-expression, since its main aim is to preserve repeatable modes of interpretation, while the curriculum in such places is unbelievably conservative. In addition to that is the ‘star system’ beyond the conservatory whereby the soloistic attractions of competition culture eclipse the traditional chamber music practices.

Emerging composers in Ireland looking out for local performance opportunities find a sort of desert faces them. Where are the professional string quartets, piano trios, wind quintets, brass ensembles and piano duos who might slip in a new work by an unknown? It’s a sad scene for them. It’s even sparse for the classical music lover who might hope to hear the great chamber works of Beethoven, Brahms or Bartók. As long as there are just two professional string quartets in the country valiantly trying to cover all composers living and dead, many even of the established Irish composers will continue to have their string quartets performed only by visitors or scratch ensembles. Meanwhile they just don’t bother to write wind quintets or brass quintets any more. These forces used to exist in Ireland, but no longer. Again, speaking of inconsistency, there have been times of plenty and times of famine for our composers with those forces and also in the areas of chamber opera, chamber orchestral music and chamber choral music; with the professional groups in these three areas currently less enthusiastic about challenging new work than in the past.

Surveying the scene in which new music enthusiasts find themselves, there appears to be no pattern. While there are sporadic signs of improvement, those who have been around a bit longer will have seen decline also, depending on where their gaze falls. There is, however, a basic reason why something positive arises somewhere and then declines later; that is that in this country, with no unified or sustained push of sufficient strength from the larger institutions or from government, anything good, innovative or energetic that you see owes itself to the presence of a key individual who values creativity in music – and they always eventually move on. That is the rule dictating our lack of pattern.

As for audiences, by comparison with other countries our contemporary music audience is quite large and has grown in recent years, at least in comparison with the dismal numbers often encountered abroad. This owes itself partly to our peculiarly centralised way of arranging facilities and transportation, and partly to the marketing efforts which have improved in that time. But our audiences are not exactly as sketched above in the utopian model. It has been said before that the way forward is to make new music concert life like a well-run bus service: if you miss one the next one comes along soon. There is a point in that, but it would not rid us of attitude problems, which run deeper.

Finally, is there any advantage in not achieving critical mass? For those composers who are not reduced too much by these things, there is the advantage that we don’t have the problem of stylistic orthodoxy – which can plague nations and oppress originality. With this also goes a pressure to work internationally from early on, which can propel a career. And while it is not an advantage, the poverty of a scene does not stop the individual composer from achieving highly: many of the great composers of the past struggled against indifference from the public, and their sporadic luck came in the form of a few well-placed sympathetic individuals. Plus ça change.

Published on 1 September 2008

John McLachlan is a composer and member of Aosdána.

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