BBC treats living composers as ‘pond life’

BBC treats living composers as ‘pond life’


norman lebrecht

May 20, 2016

Oliver Knussen issued the following diatribe last night at the Ivor Novello awards:

‘Some of us who write music today, we don’t write very far out music, we don’t write very populist music, we write what we believe in and to communicate a vision.

‘There are an extraordinary number of incredibly gifted young composers … please BBC don’t relegate all of us to a two-hour slot that you seem to regard as a place to put pond life.

‘Our music is to be used, we write it for us and sometimes it’s a little prickly but some very nice things are prickly, I’ve heard.’

NPG x33549; Oliver Knussen by George Newson


  • Robert Garbolinski says:

    Perhaps they ought to write some good tunes!

  • Rodney Friend says:

    Is OK talking about ‘Music in Our Time’ broadcast slot ?

  • pooroperaman says:

    More a lake than a pond if it’s Ollie…

  • boringfileclerk says:

    The world would be a much better place if the BBC played more Harrison Birtwistle!

    • John Borstlap says:

      …..uhmmm… I do remember a gala première of a HB piece about the end of time, a celebration of death, Untergang, plague, famine and probably the Bomb, joyfully attended by royalty and the VIP’s of London’s musical world. I saw the bright smiles, the sparkling eyes above the cleavages and butterflies, and the rosy complexions above the champagne glasses, and the excited talk about ‘the piece’, as if it all had something to do with something positive or pleasant. A clarinettist was asked if he liked the piece, and ‘Oh yes!’ explained further why: at some moment he was allowed to play a short motive like a sigh, he enthusiastically declared, which was so, so very much rewarding. On hearing the work, this sigh happened to be the only fragment remotely reminding you of music, and surprisingly it was copied from the finale of Beethoven’s quartet opus 135 (Der schwer gefasste Entschluss). So, even for the only fragment that had some musical reference, the composer had to steal it, probably after long deliberation (following the title) – after discovering that he could not come-up with something like that himself. A world with ample Birtwistle does not seem very agreeable to me.

      • Alexander Scott says:

        John, you are entitled to your opinions, of course, but I would challenge you, when airing them to the world, to not reduce the totality of a composer’s oeuvre (in other words, his life’s work and perhaps the totality of his being) to the feelings about one particular work; frankly, I’m further tempted to say that you missed the point of that particular work.

        Upon the use of quotation, you have an even less nuanced view. Simply put, the use of quotation within a contemporary composer’s work (particularly a quotation of Beethoven) is to provide context within an otherwise abstract piece; it is done not because the composer *couldn’t* come up with something equally beautiful (and I assure you that Birtwistle certainly could), but rather because the familiarity of the quote, along with its musical significance within Beethoven’s oeuvre, provides information with which to decode the rest of the aural landscape. For analogy, when I say that opinions like yours is:

        “Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
        Signifying nothing,”

        it is not that I couldn’t come up with ample language to bemoan the constant tone-deafness from the likes of you, but rather that a quotation of Shakespeare might better provide the context for my state of mind. Or, to paraphrase you,

        “An internet with ample Borstlap does not seem very agreeable to me.”

        • John Borstlap says:

          I agree with all of that, including the last sentence, which expresses an unfounded fear.

          Of course I know of the inclusion of citations in contemporary works, but my point was that this particular event showed something utterly crazy that nobody seemed to notice: a lively celebration of Death on all levels, and the citation as the only musical reference, pointing towards a glorious past and a glorious composer. That society commissions a big work from their celebrated sonic artist, who then sets-out – in his luxury situation of freedom, fame, rich diet and financial independence – to create a thorough celebration of complete destruction and nihilistic sadism (masochism?), which is at its première fêted as a first tier cultural gala event, seems to me the complete demonstration of cultural and social insanity and hilarious self-defeat.

          Of course it could also have been a desperate attempt to entirely ignore the awful ‘thing’ to save face, considering the preparation efforts and the presence of innocent royalty…. a collective denial exercise. Equally hilarious. It all was a perfect example of what contemporary music means to society. It sprinkled my following days with burst of laughter.

      • James Erber says:

        The phrase you refer to in Birtwistle’s Triumph of Time is neither a quotation, not is it for clarinet (it is played by soprano saxophone). Best to engage both brain and ears before making a comment of this sort.

        • John Borstlap says:

          Thank you very much for this apt correction; of course it makes a [redacted] of a difference to the point I wanted to make, which now has become entirely invalid. Indeed, it makes B suddenly a great composer of stimulating, optimistic music. Let us not forget the contribution of a ‘juvenile-delinquent personality’ (Stravinsky) the saxophone has made to the orchestra, and I sincerely hope that the mentioned fragment will now be liberated from the compromising association with such conventional instrument like the clarinet.

  • Nicola Lefanu says:

    Ollie writes so slowly (a few minutes of output per year), the small amount of contemporary music broadcasting in UK probably doesn’t affect him much 😉

  • C R says:

    Fascinating that as he went to accept the Queen’s Medal that he should be accompanied by the wannabes and pond life of contemporary music who do nothing and contribute nothing but are there for the drinks and handshakes – the Susanna Eastburns and Zoe Martlews of this world.

    They’re what’s wrong. People elevated to the level of their uselessness while people like Olly Knussen make real work. Embarrassing.

    • Moneypenny says:

      What a ridiculous thing to say, but at least in saying it you can show to the world that you have no idea what you are talking about.

      For what it is worth, Susanna Eastburn is on the committee which decides on the Queen’s Medal for Music, and she was at the lunch along with the rest of the committee.

      If you really think that Susanna and Zoe ‘do nothing and contribute nothing’ then you are an idiot and it is you who should be embarrassed.

    • Hilary says:

      Ouch! I heard Zoe play recently. Your description doesn’t fit.

    • Royal Phil says:

      Mr C R I can only imagine you spend the whole of your life at the very bottom of your particular pond. Under a rock. You know nothing. But should Susanna and Zoe ever put their minds to sorting out pond life, pond life will take over the world and you will realise how awesome they are and how hard they work.

    • Peter Ruut says:

      Your simply unpleasant remarks about the Chief Executive of Sound and Music, Britain’s National Dvelopment agency for composers and new music, and Ms Martlew, who was with Mr Knussen as a support and ex partner and who does as much as anyone to support and enthuse about new music and composers, show ignorance and mean spiritedness. What is more, Ms’ Moore and Eastburn, as well as Judith Weir, are members of the Committee that actually CHOSE Mr Knussen for the Queen’s medal.
      Get your facts straight before you bitch and head on back to your troll hole.

    • Bex Herman says:

      Zoe Martlew is one of the best cellists, composers and humans out there – if that’s your definition of ‘pond life’ I’ll assume it’s the highest compliment around.

    • Morello says:

      What an extraordinarily unpleasant and ignorant comment. Trolls alive and well on SD I see.

    • norman lebrecht says:

      You are making these unfounded unpleasantries from behind a cloak of anonymity and a convenience address. If you had an iota of courage or dignity, you would do so under your own name.

    • John Lee says:

      Interesting observation. Sounds like you are more interested in impotency and reflexively defending your ego than any true observation or understanding of Zoe Martlew. I suspect and smell a bit of envy. I was a colleague with her in Poland at the Chopin academy. Present your CV for comparison. In the U.S. your comments would be seen as delusional. Go eat more chips.

    • Zoe Martlew says:

      Aha! Busted at last! Mr. CR, you are the first to smash the delusional facade that is our life long dedication to music and uncover the true game plan beneath: namely, lashings of free champers and regular trips to the Palace. As the countless composers we’ve both worked with over the years will tell you, we will stop at NOTHING in our desperate bid for free drinks, new complexitist recognition and even the tiniest slice of the perpetual whirl of Royal dodecaphonic gatherings, Ferneyhough fashionistas, Milton Babbitt pool parties, the cream of society spectralists and excessively moneyed avant garde glamour that forms the heart of the UK contemporary music scene. Should you catch either of us at one of our useless activities, for god’s sake stop us, smuggle us a canapé or two and all will be forgiven. Love, Zoë and Susanna, New Music Wannabes. XX

  • Norman Jacobs says:

    Dear Zoe,
    How dare you make such claims! Last week I put on a Milton Babbitt centenary pool party…and you were nowhere to be seen. You appear to frequent some pool parties but seem to be a bit selective when it comes to mine. Nonetheless, thanks again for suggesting Cecilia and your input on this page. Canapés await you at our next meeting.

    • Zoë Martlew says:

      Ah Norm, you got me…

      Confess I was trying to crash a serialist swingers party that night, dress code “Retrograde”. People had to bring hexachords and rotate in irrational rhythmic combinations. Surprisingly few inversions present. Now off to try and be seen at the opening of a new spectral score. With any luck there might be a few free microtones to latch onto..

      love, Zoë.
      New Music Wannabe.

    • Hilary says:

      CR’s spiteful intrusion doesn’t merit all the wit on display here.
      Congratulations to Norman Jacobs for your Babbitt centenary concerts in Brighton. The charming minute Waltz encompassed so much within the timespan. Feldman’s rehabilitation in the UK started off in Brighton. Let’s hope the same applies to Babbitt.