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The Shock of the New: Scotland’s Advocates for Adventure in Music

Do you worry when someone announces ‘new music’, and you just know that it’s either nothing of the kind, or like nothing you’ve ever heard before? Really new music is actually something quite different, and collectives such as New Music Scotland (NMS) make it their life’s work to search for undiscovered sounds, tease them out, and present them ways that won’t scare those of a delicate disposition.

So, when 1320Radio was invited along to a very special NMS networking event at the RCS in Glasgow, the lure of a peek inside the lab was too tempting to turn down. As it turned out the prawn sandwiches were excellent too, and there was the added bonus of sitting in on the organisation’s AGM (*).

Events like this are often described as ‘useful’, but minds have been particularly concentrated by the recent hoo-ha over Brexit, and the struggle to be heard in an increasingly muddled and befuddled media landscape.

NMS emerges from this melee as a voice of reason, for it exists to “connect, enable and support makers of innovative and experimental new music” and “help generate a vibrant and thriving new music sector”. It is a timely response to cultural atrophy and signals a determination that creativity should not be side-lined on the road to cyber hell.

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One wag in the audience wasted no time in asking, “What exactly is new music?” and the wry smiles all around suggested a familiarity with that particular Gordian Knot.

Yet NMS already has generous terms of definition that help to defy the trite categorization of ambitious, new musical forms. “Practices can include acoustic ecology, avant-garde music and improvisation”, they say, and they go on to list “…orchestral music, computer music, electronica, microtonal and experimental music, invented instruments, radio art, sound art and uncategorisable musical practices.”

I particularly warm to that last turn of phrase in a generally gregarious position statement, but in an otherwise temperate meeting there were one or two topics that did get participants a bit hot under the collar.

Principal among them was the freedom of artists to move around, play abroad, take part in cultural exchanges and generally cross-pollinate. Brexit heralds a closing of once-wide-open doors across Europe, and it serves only to underscore the existing cost and difficulties involved in visa applications to the USA, where many artists struggle to ply their trade. If you want to work in America then it will cost you dearly, and you have to be at the American consulate at he crack of dawn to get one.

The American position amounts to little more than a prohibitive tariff, whereas U.S. artists pay a fraction of the cost to UK musicians and can obtain a visa quite readily. This could easily be the shape of things to come a wider world where attitudes harden and border controls tighten – unless someone gets the finger out and starts campaigning. It will be no surprise to the initiated to learn that the task may fall to one of the most modestly funded advocacy groups in music.

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In turn, another point (made with robust frankness) was that artists who do have experience of working abroad are struck by a stark contrast in the way that promoters, venues and audiences understand the term ‘duty of care’.

It is clear to many that far too many venues in the UK, not least in Scotland, offer artists poor hospitality, poor working conditions, a poor experience for the listening audience and inadequate, often shoddy facilities. This may well be the most productive place to look when seeking clues to small numbers in the audience for even the most accomplished performers.

Music professionals and exemplary venues that do great work may protest, but they ought not to protest too much. The thing to keep our eye on here is the comparative experience. Our continental and North American counterparts are streets ahead of us in this respect, and they have been able to preserve the arts and culture as a civic responsibility.

The litany in the UK is that everything must pay for itself. If that were even remotely true, then the country would grind to halt. As it is, it seems to be okay for art, culture, learning, continuous personal development, social cohesion and collective identity to wither on the vine.

New Music Scotland is driver for positive change, and it has responded to issues of provision, access and experience with initiative and enthusiasm. A casual glance at the range of performances they’ve supported by disseminating information on the website and on social media reveals a commitment to diversity and inclusion.

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The same evening as the networking event, the Echoes and Traces programme featuring works by Sally Beamish, Rory Boyle, Aidan O’ Rourke, Ailie Robertson Stuart MacRae, Savourna Stevenson, Hanna Tuulkki and Matthew Whiteside was to be performed by Capella Nova inside Glasgow Cathedral. Two months previously Matthew Whiteside was making his new music available to early evening drinkers at Glasgow’s Hug and Pint.

It’s perhaps not so much the ideas that need to spread throughout Scotland, so much as the levels of energy and the power of persuasion. There is no shortage of original thinking, but there is a reluctance in some communities to take risks and absorb the shock of the new. It’s worth remembering that what was once avant garde, sooner or later becomes commonplace, accepted and often deeply loved.

Past events highlighted and  amplified by NMS have included a Creative Sound Image and Technology Summer School, Altered Spaces and Superwomen of Science. Some of the intriguing prospects ahead are Cryptic Associates:Luminous Birds, Alien Lullabies Launch Party and the RCS New Music Ensemble at Cumnock Tryst. Other self-directed initiatives, apart from the networking day and panel discussion at RCS, have included the NMS conference, Mapping and Listing Live Performance Opportunities and Peer-To-Peer Residencies for Promoters.

One especially eye-catching event listed on the NMS website is Suzanne Parry’s Adrift, Alight, Alive: Three Portraits of St.Blane receives its world première in Dunblane Cathedral on Saturday 24th September. It was commissioned by Dunblane Cathedral Arts Guild to celebrate its 40th Anniversary, and Suzanne has taken the life and miracles of the saint and composed a three-movement work for brass quintet, organ and voices. (**)

For more about NMS Scotland follow the link below and follow them on Facebook for frequent and informative updates.

1320Radio

(*) New Music Scotland’s Report on NMS Day 2016

(**) Adrift, Alight, Alive: Three Portraits of St.Blane directed by Michael Bawtree, and the performed by Scottish Brass, Kevin Duggan (organ) and members of Dunblane Cathedral Choir. The concert also includes music for brass quintet by Lutoslawski, Duncan, MacMillan, Maxwell Davies, Purcell and Gabrieli, plus three voluntaries for organ by Maxwell Davies. Tickets at the door: £9 Adult, £2 Child/Student/Unemployed. Start: 7.30pm

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