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‘Ken’ the New ‘Classical’ Music 2004-11-29

Posted by clype in Articles of Interest, Glasgow, Humanities, Scotland.

Article on Angry New Music by Kenneth Walton:

At Glasgow’s ‘Cottier Theatre’ this weekend, prepare to meet ‘KEN’. No, we’re not talking “Barbie’s” plastic model partner, or me (Kenneth Walton) for that matter.

‘KEN’ is an event which promises to rattle the sensitivities of mild-mannered classical music-goers, shake the dust off the somewhat sanitised new music scene that currently exists, and generally stick two fingers up at the establishment, whatever that is nowadays.

‘KEN’ is the brainchild of six young Glasgow-based composers who are desperate to set a serious challenge with their latest works — no compromises; no cushioning the programmes with token snatches of Dvorăk or Brahms; no rules; no apologies for their highly individual, in-your-face, generally experimental stances; just good old-fashioned artistic anarchy.

It might actually be crazy enough to work. The whole idea of it certainly takes me back. Remember the wacky heyday of Glasgow’s old ‘Third Eye Centre’ (now the institutional sounding ‘Centre for Contemporary Arts’), featuring video installations by a then-unknown Craig Armstrong, or such radical ventures into the peripheral avant-garde as Polish Realities or the ‘1988 Festival of New Chinese Music’, the latter introducing the now well-known Tan Dun to Glasgow audiences? Or even further back in time, to Peter Maxwell Davies and his revolutionary Manchester School cronies of the 1950s; or Philip Glass and the rest of the 1960s New York minimalists who performed privately on the flip side of the Manhattan establishment?

Somehow — as in wider everyday life — things have got a little boring, a little safe on the contemporary music front. Students go to university to get a job, for goodness sake. Whatever happened to rebellious curiosity and vision?

Even composers, these days, seem to have a career path in mind. I’m not sure whether ‘KEN’ is the answer, but I admire the guys who are giving it a go.

So who, or what, is ‘KEN’? In practical terms, its six principal collaborators are calling it ‘an exhibition’.

Each composer — three each night — has been given a 45-minute ‘space’, in which they can set up stall, just like a visual artist, with whatever and whoever they wish. To emphasise the point, a series of visual exhibitions by Glasgow artists will parallel the musical ones.

[Picture of David Fennessey]
‘If the composers want to stand smearing themselves with jam, or screaming the national anthem, they can do it’.

So says ‘KEN’s’ ringleader, Irish-born David Fennessy, one of a new breed of composers that the ‘Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama’ (‘RSAMD’) appears to be churning out at a greater rate than ever before, thanks to an energised department headed up by fortysomething Scots composer Gordon McPherson — a man who once revelled in upsetting the apple-cart.

is joined by three of his direct ‘RSAMD’ contemporaries — John Harris (until recently artistic director of ‘Paragon’), Peter Dowling and Colin Broom — and two slightly younger contemporaries, Gareth Williams and
John De Simone, both still completing their PhDs at the Academy.

Every composer will provide his own unique ensemble. Styles vary from rock-inspired to classically derived modernism. But it’s the strength in numbers and unity of purpose that makes this project such an intriguing one.

I can’t think of a time when Scotland had so many raw young composers working together in this way. James MacMillan in the late 1980s was almost a lone voice.

The few others of his generation — Craig Armstrong or John Lunn, for instance — were doing well elsewhere or in other fields, and collaboration was minimal, if there was any at all. Collective will and dis-satisfaction has driven this new breed of radicals, who will unleash their respective voices this weekend.

‘There’s an old-fashioned idea that composers are an isolated species, not connected to the scene’, says Fennessy.

‘We believe it’s important for composers to be integrated’.

That doesn’t preclude the need to protest. Fennessy realised he was not alone in questioning the way his own music was being presented.

‘The best you normally get is ten minutes in a classical programme. Yes, my music is written down and composed, but I feel more and more it has no placing alongside standard classical concert repertoire’, he explains.

‘All six of us have a mix of influences, from rock to improvisation to classical backgrounds. The diversity among us is productive — we can have great rows. But where we do come together is in our dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs’.

That’s not meant as a whinge. So intent are Fennessy and his colleagues on changing things, they are bankrolling ‘KEN’ completely out of their own pockets. They took a conscious decision to do so.

‘Six months ago, we were busy filling in the usual funding application forms, and already we felt we were starting to jump through so many hoops’, he recalls.

‘Stipulations and guidelines demanded that we had to include education and outreach aspects to be hopeful of securing anything at all.

‘We thought, hang on. We felt we’d already lost direction by beginning to adjust our stance in order to conform. We knew exactly what we wanted to do. Any weakening in our resolve would be hypocritical. So we all chipped in, 40 professional musicians are playing for free, and we’ve been stunned by the goodwill of folk offering us the use of video projection and amplification equipment’.

‘KEN’ will happen as a piece of collective private enterprise, not some prettily packaged piece of social inclusion art. Determination is not in short supply.

‘I’m a great believer in composers getting off their arses and doing something’, says Fennessy.

‘Most have a tendency to wait for the phone to ring. That can’t sustain itself. You must get up and take your music to the listener. And to do that, it’s important to find the right place and concept’.

Glasgow and the ‘Cottier’, he reckons, are the right combination for the diverse and challenging sounds that ‘KEN’ promises.

‘There is a demographic issue’, he argues.

‘The traditional classical audience is middle-aged, middle class. Ideally we’d like everyone to come, but realistically ‘KEN’ is more likely to interest people like us. There are lots of them in Glasgow, especially in the universities, the art school and the ‘RSAMD’. And it’s a city that is at the cutting edge of visual arts and other areas of music’.

As for the ‘Cottier’, apart from not having a particular history for one type of music, its flexibility — including easy access to the bar — will allow those attending the event to wander in and out of the auditorium as they please.

‘I hope the music is captivating enough, but at least there’s the option to come and go whenever you like’, says Fennessy.

There’s no saying what sounds we can expect this weekend. But let’s raise a glass to rebellious youth. There’s not enough of it about these days.

‘KEN’ is at the ‘Cottier Theatre’, Glasgow, 2004-12-04 & 2004-12-5, from 19:00 to around 23:00 each night. For further information, visit www.ken-ex.com.


Note: Craig’s other works include ‘Moulin Rouge’, ‘Love Actually’ and many more film soundtracks. Tan Dun’s film soundtrack for ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ brought his name to a global audience.


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