IN THESE credit crunch times, should we fear for the future of new music? Not so much on the small scale but in such riskier ventures as last week's daring collaboration between the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (SSO) and Paris's prestigious IRCAM studio. This resulted in the Scottish premiere of Jonathan Harvey's radical new 2008 BBC Proms commission, Speakings, for full orchestra and electronics.
Of course, the BBC SSO is not a typical case. Funded predominantly by the licence fee, it has a remit to provide music for BBC Radio 3, so the staging of such events is as much to record for future broadcasts as to entertain live audiences in its 1,200-seater City Halls home. It can afford to take risks. And in any case, Harvey is a respected elder statesman among British composers, therefore a relatively safe bet.
As such, the SSO remains Scotland's prime live provider of contemporary orchestral repertoire, and while the Scottish Chamber Orchestra does very well, and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra has certainly increased its previously appalling record in presenting new work, especially by Scottish composers, the fact is that audience numbers drop significantly when the billing is not Beethoven, Brahms or even Shostakovich. It happened last week for the Harvey premiere.
Of course, there's a big cultural debate to be had here, which delves right to the heart of how music is taught in schools, and how we then approach concert-going at a later age.
Nonetheless, these are risky times for orchestras as audiences' discretionary spend tightens. Should they play safe, or should they take the moral high ground and its inevitable risks in planning future seasons? In short, will we see growing conservatism in their artistic planning? It's a matter to be discussed more fully when the orchestras announce their new seasons in a couple of months' time. And it's a critical one in determining if brand new orchestral music has any future at all here in Scotland.
So why bring it up now? The reason lies in a remarkable Edinburgh-based ensemble that thrives on the skimpiest of resources, calls on favours rather than being able to pay all of its musicians real money, yet is somehow managing to present brand new large-scale works at a level of competence that can be readily sampled on its smart website.
The Edinburgh Contemporary Music Ensemble (ECME) may not be a household name, but slowly and steadily, since being founded three years ago by the students who still run it, it has presented concerts that showcase an astonishing range of new music by some of the hottest young talent in Scotland, composers who would otherwise be without a voice at this crucial stage in their development.
The latest concert takes place this Sunday at Edinburgh University's Reid Concert Hall, in which James Lowe – until recently associate conductor of the RSNO – conducts new works by Martin Parker, Stuart Taylor, Jake Spence, Alfredo Caponnetto, Suzanne Parry and Vassilis Kitsos.
Few of these names will be familiar, given that most are either current or recently-graduated PhD composition students from Edinburgh University. They are emerging talents who, as part of their doctoral portfolios, will have had reason to write music for large forces. In the normal course of events, such works would have been submitted for approval, and then probably committed to lifeless obscurity on a university library shelf.
But such is the buzz these days among Edinburgh University's expanding cluster of graduate composers – spurred on by the infectious enthusiasm of incumbent music professor and composer Nigel Osborne, and similar to that over in Glasgow's Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (RSAMD) under Gordon McPherson – that such a fate was never going to be permitted under their watch. In December 2006, three of their number – Jake Spence, Shiori Usuri and Alfredo Caponnetto – set up ECME on a budgetless whim.
"We had all had similar experiences of having our large-scale works performed, but had not been happy with the performances," recalls Spence, the ensemble's chairman. "In Edinburgh, there was no group capable of performing new works beyond chamber orchestra proportions. It was a gap we felt we had to fill ourselves."
EMCE's first concert featured music by its three founders. Since then it has presented around two concerts a year, encompassing a broader range of music than just student works, even mounting a celebratory programme for their mentor Nigel Osborne. But this weekend's programme is the most directly focused so far on current Edinburgh University-based composers. Among them is Martin Parker, a former freelance critic with this newspaper and now on the university staff, where he specialises in electronic design and installations. His ensemble work Steinmetzarbeiten dates back to his undergraduate days and was written for the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival.
James Lowe, also an Edinburgh graduate and regular conductor of the ensemble, is as passionate about its aims as the composers are. "I spend most of my time conducting music by dead composers. It is so important that we give audiences an opportunity to hear music by a group of living composers whose styles are so amazingly diverse," he says. "All the music on Sunday is extremely accessible".
Lowe and the ensemble are joined by some hot names among today's young performers of contemporary music, including the brilliant Edinburgh-based pianist Simon Smith. "We are working our way up, finding interesting performers to collaborate with, despite a shortage of funds that once led to us being able to pay only our leader and conductor," says Spence.
It's a remarkable achievement that the ECME does what it does, and largely for the love of it. They deserve a medal or, better still, some funding.
But it's hardly a sustainable state of affairs. Scotland does not have a good reputation for supporting and nurturing large-scale professional performances of its nascent compositional talent. Current economics provide an all-too-convenient excuse to exacerbate that. Yet, more than ever, this is the time to invest.
• Edinburgh Contemporary Music Ensemble performs at Edinburgh's Reid Concert Hall, Sunday 15 March, 8pm. Further information on www.ecme.org.uk