New music: why we need to challenge the “repertoire”

“The composer is a bit like the director of a movie and we are the actors and the actors have to express what the script says to their best ability.”

Avguste Antonov

The case for performing new music is a compelling one, but one that keeps having to be made in the face of entrenched views, a conservative mindset towards programming and a fear that audiences simply will not enjoy contemporary work.

Professor Avguste Antonov is a concert pianist and a professor of piano at the Châteaubriant Conservatoire who has made a specialism within his distinguished career of performing contemporary American music. When he spoke to Music Works in January, he described how he experiences the collaborative relationship with living composers and why he thinks this repertoire is important and needs to be heard.

First of all he challenges the idea that there is only one type of new music and the perception that it is inevitably atonal and “difficult” for the average listener. Instead he wants to see programming and promoters celebrating the wealth of work that is out there and have the courage to allow new pieces to be performed. And not just once as a world premiere which can catch the eye, but then see a work slip into oblivion, but to market cleverly.

“What’s left? Country premieres, city premieres, village premieres, you’ve got a whole type of type of premieres you can do and it all depends on how you promote that premiere…It all depends what you do with it.”

He also speaks compellingly about the special relationship that is possible when performing the music of a living composer. Although the performer feels a duty to perform a work in a way that reflects the composer’s original intention, no one can go back and ask Bach or Beethoven what they meant by any particular piece of scoring, but direct access to a living composer offers huge opportunities.

“You can actually go and talk with them and understand where they’re coming from as far as how they composed the work, what type of ideas, where they came from, and where they’re looking to go.”

But he also acknowledges that, once a piece has entered the domain of the performer, the composer has to allow that performer to place their own mark and interpretation on the work.

“Each composer is different. I’ve known composers who never want to hear me practice or rehearse their work before the concert. Not because they didn’t care, but because they want to give me that complete freedom.”

And that brings its own responsibilities. His approach is to always to be open minded whilst keeping a weather eye on the composers intent. It’s highly collaborative work.

“Composers write what they what they would like to express. But if we look on the other side of the map, it’s the performer when he gets on stage, that puts everything into place.”

One thing Avguste is certain of: new music offers a wealth and variety of pieces that should and can be heard. All it needs is a little more courage on the part of programmers and the persistence of artists like him in seeking out more repertoire, engaging with composers and making the case both in the lecture theatre (as well as the occasional podcast!) and on the concert platform itself.

You can listen to Avguste and all our other great guests on the Music Works podcast here: https://polyphonyarts.com/music-works-podcast/

Too Much Mozart: towards a truly diverse and inclusive classical repertoire.

Growing up as a mixed race teenager in Hertfordshire, a talented and promising pianist and clarinettist, Elizabeth de Brito, felt completely disengaged from the world of classical music as it was being presented to her: “surrounded by nothing but white men.” Feeling marginalised and ignored, she spent 12 years completely away from classical music until she started to find the hidden composers with whom she could identify, composers like Cécile Chaminade, William Grant Still, Chen Yi, Florence Price, Tania León, Mari Iijima, Galina Ustvolskaya, Ruth Gipps, Maria Szymanowska, Karen Tanaka and Anna Thorvaldsdottir.

It was, she told the Music Works podcast, the moment when she grew up. She also knew she had to do something to address this glaring imbalance.

“I went out searching for all these female composers and black composers, and all these people, that I’d never heard of… [ and I thought] I’m in a position to create change now.”

By then Elizabeth had a background in radio and so creating a radio show was the obvious next step. The Daffodil Perspective was born with the declared mission to give a platform to all those brilliant overlooked composers who had been effectively written out of the repertoire.

She knew that she had to move beyond the kind of tokenism that saw the occasional performance or broadcast satisfying what programmers and promoters saw as new pressures to increase diversity. Her avowed aim was to bring those composers into the mainstream, challenging the very idea of what constitutes the perceived “core repertoire.”

“If you play Beethoven 100 times over the course of the year and you’re playing one black female composer, there’s something not right there…It’s not about just fitting it in and bringing people to the table, it’s creating a different table where there is space for all these different people and all these different voices.”

The logic is straightforward: if you add in all these female, black, Asian and other ethnic minority composers, that immediately expands access to the range of music out there. And by making this music more accessible that gives more people more of a choice to be interested in classical music.

It should be a win-win, but challenging prevailing attitudes can be hard. Promoters often have fixed ideas about what their audiences like or will tolerate and fight shy of anything that seems unknown or new. There’s also the prejudice against contemporary or modern music as hard to listen to, atonal and difficult to engage with as well as a general lack of knowledge and understanding out there.

To combat this, Elizabeth also offers repertoire consultancy to help anyone who wants to make their programming more inclusive, but doesn’t know where to begin.

As she says: “[if] you’re not serving the whole population…who are you serving?”

You can find out more about Elizabeth’s work here: http://www.thedaffodilperspective.com, and also listen to The Daffodil Perspective by following the link below. We guarantee you’ll be blown away by the resources she offers and come away with a whole new and enriched perception of the music that is out there. These composers are only overlooked and unheard if we don’t see them or listen to their music, and, thanks to Elizabeth de Brito, we now have no excuse for that.

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You can find Music Works and this episode here on the website: https://polyphonyarts.com/music-works-podcast/ or you can listen on all the usual podcast channels.