Ken Walton: Mapping contemporary classical music

Well-known Glasgow based musical ensemble, Daniels Beard. Picture: TSPLWell-known Glasgow based musical ensemble, Daniels Beard. Picture: TSPL
Well-known Glasgow based musical ensemble, Daniels Beard. Picture: TSPL
For anyone living in Glasgow, Edinburgh or Aberdeen, contemporary classical music is readily available.

Equally, there are festivals, such as the long-running St Magnus Festival, where it is a main, long-term component of the programming. But how widespread is new music performance in Scotland? Does it reach equally into remote rural communities? Can we honestly say that we are well-served, no matter which part of the country we live in?

Thanks to some fascinating introductory research, carried out jointly by the voluntary promotional organisation New Music Scotland (NMS) and the Royal Conservatoire of Music (RCS) with funding from the Scottish Funding Council’s Interface programme, there is now an actual new music map telling us exactly where in Scotland the hot spots are. The findings of this mapping survey – available on the NMS website – are both positive and cautionary.

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“The most encouraging thing is that it is happening everywhere, far more widely than we thought,” says Jo Buckley, NMS network co-ordinator, who spearheaded the research.

“I contacted 125 organisations around Scotland, 98 of which responded, and only four of which did not promote new music in some shape or form.

Needless to say, the core of the report states the obvious, though the figures are useful in putting flesh on skeletal supposition: that 77 per cent of performing organisations involved in new music are based in Glasgow and Edinburgh; that Glasgow has twice the number of these than Edinburgh; and that Aberdeen, through its highly successful sound festival (ironically snubbed for regular funding in the recent Creative Scotland allocation process), has supported significant levels of commissioning and programming of new music.

“Sound has shown us how it is possible to work successfully over a number of years, building up audience trust,” Buckley explains. All the more scandalous, then, that it fell victim to Creative Scotland’s recent selection process, a situation that – according to trends identified in the survey – will not only have serious implications for Aberdeen, but also for groups like the Red Note Ensemble, much of whose own work is tied up with that festival.

“We found that festivals and ensembles are the ones who do the commissioning of new work, not the venues. So if, in Aberdeen, sound is not in a position to do that, there are not many left in the region that can. Any downturn in activity by sound will have a knock-on effect.”

That’s a sobering thought, given that the report also points to a somewhat predictable situation in Scotland’s isolated rural areas, where tiny venues with limited funds “can’t afford to take a knock on ticket sales”. The willingness to explore such music may be there, but in reality, survival dictates a conservative approach to programming.

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But in the course of the research, Buckley’s team unearthed some interesting surprises, one of which was the willingness of art galleries, book festivals and other multi-art festivals to explore experimental music and a host of crossover collaborations.

“We found, for instance, that the Wigtown Book Festival had commissioned new music, and that art galleries were frequently engaging sound artists to broaden their core programmes,” she says.

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Nonetheless, the underlying findings of the report were that “areas which are under-served by new music activity include the Scottish Borders and the rural Highland areas”.

Is it just a case of funding? It is certainly true, says Buckley, that where sufficient funding exists to underwrite good outreach schemes and longer-term audience interaction, even in the remotest areas, new music programmes have a greater likelihood of succeeding.

But it’s not just funding that will ensure a more even spread of pins in the New Music Map. There is, says the report, a need both to invest in the performers who can make it happen Scotland-wide, and to encourage collaborations that will widen the net of existing urban-based initiatives.

Which is why Buckley is so concerned about the recent paucity of support for new music initiatives in the funding portfolio announced by Creative Scotland last month.

“Quite apart from sound, the East Neuk Festival failed to get regular funding, as did Mr McFall’s Chamber, Daniel’s Beard, Live Music Now, and NMS itself, all of which have been highly supportive of young artists in contemporary music. The good news is that the Hebrides Ensemble, Cryptic and Red Note did. But on balance, Creative Scotland did not support new music well,” she believes.

As for partnerships, the study believes that strategic collaborations could transform the profile of the new music sector. It says: “organisations who struggle to support new music could benefit hugely by working in partnership with those who have found ways to make it work”, adding, in what must now seem a cruel twist of irony, that “partnering a successful new music festival such as sound in Aberdeen with rural venues across the Highlands could yield tremendous results over time.”

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As a serious piece of research, this NMS/RCS study is a vital opening gambit to a debate on a sector of music that is remarkably buoyant in certain parts of Scotland, but which is conspicuously Central Belt-orientated and fighting unsuccessfully to secure levels of long-term funding that would allow it to develop its full Scotland-wide potential.

“The creation of the map is just the start,” says Buckley. “It’s important to have a central process that will let people know who’s commissioning and where. It’s not the end of the process. We’d like to apply for more funds next year to extend the research.”

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Given all that it contributes to a vibrant contemporary culture in Scotland, new music needs all the supporting leverage and funding it can get. So let’s find a way of keeping it alive.

• New Music Scotland’s New Music Mapping Survey,