Commissioning new music costs money. Sometimes a lot of money. Given the everyday financial pressures on arts organisations, finding money for commissions can be difficult. New thinking required, perhaps?

This is going to be rather a different post from usual, focussing as it will do on contemporary and avant-garde classical music. And that includes our part in helping people to realise that classical music doesn’t stop somewhere in the early C20, but is a living, breathing art form with much to offer.

Most live contemporary music performances in the city come from Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (BCMG).

bcmg logo
BCMG’s logo

BCMG has been a fixture on the Birmingham musical scene for over thirty years. From its start as an off-shoot of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO), it has become one of the premier medium-sized ensembles in the UK. As an ensemble specialising in ‘new’ music of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, it could possibly have constructed all of its programmes from available, known music. Instead, it has made a name for itself by giving first performances of over 160 pieces of music, and counting.

Some seventy of these pieces were commissioned by BCMG. Which brings me back to my opening paragraph – how to fund these new pieces of music? Back in the 1990s, BCMG came up with a new, innovative scheme to involve ordinary music-lovers in the creation of particular works. Sound Investment is a cleverly-named scheme which invites individuals to donate money towards a particular composer’s work. Their investment allows new sounds to be created and performed. Without it, BCMG would have struggled to commission anything like that number of new pieces.

So, what has this got to do with Music Library? Well, several things. Over the years, we’ve accumulated an excellent collection of contemporary and avant-garde music scores, representing all the major names from the past half-century or so. Lately, however, this has become more difficult – restricted resourcing, and time constraints being two reasons. There is also the issue that only a few composers are represented by mainstream music publishers and often their scores are not available on sale, or if they are, the prices are beyond our reach. Another important element is the Birmingham connection. Sound Investment works are pieces that are made in Birmingham, and as such, it made sense for the library to have copies of these pieces wherever possible.

Despite this wish, we hadn’t been doing so well in making it happen until one individual came to us with an offer. This person is a long-time Sound Investor, and one of the benefits of being an investor is that s/he is given a copy of the score for each work invested in. Their most generous offer to donate these scores to the Music Library was something we happily accepted. So we are now the proud owners of scores for most, if not all, Sound Investment commissions.

These scores from Huw Watkins , Helen Grime , and Michael Zev Gordon are only a fraction of those which we now have. Seize the day has another Birmingham connection as its composer, Michael Zev Gordon, teaches at Birmingham University.

Howard Skempton  Ben Somewhen (commissioned 2005)

Skempton  Ben Somewhen
Howard Skempton Ben Somewhen – front cover

Dating from 2005, this is Skempton’s second Sound Investment commission for BCMG.     Howard Skempton is another composer with a Birmingham connection as he teaches composition at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. Since his connection with Cardew and The Scratch Orchestra at the beginning of his career as a composer, Skempton’s music has been recognised for its experimental simplicity. This is a particularly interesting score as it comes with a booklet of drawings by the reclusive artist Ben Hartley He, or rather his drawings are the focus of Skempton’s work, and the booklet includes those drawings which influenced Skempton’s music. The introduction notes that:

the drawings are done in Indian ink, using a matchstick, a technique, so I understand, sometimes used in primary school art teaching.

Well worth a look. And a listen …

David Lang  Crowd Out (commissioned 2013)

Lang Crowd out
David Lang Crowd Out – front cover

The first thing that caught my eye from this front cover is the subtitle: ‘for 1000 or more voices’! Although I have faint memories of this, I’m rather ashamed to admit it generally passed me by. David Lang  was inspired by the occasion he’d watched an Arsenal football game, and his memories of the crowd’s chanting, and its roar when a goal was scored. It also made him think about the individual within such a crowd. The text derives from all kinds of people’s experiences in a crowd – how it makes them feel. As you can see from the front cover.

The first performance took place at Millennium Point in Birmingham’s Eastside. It must have been quite something – Simon Halsey and his twenty helpers, trying to marshall such a huge number of performers from all over the Midlands. It was a great success by all accounts, and if you want to get a flavour of it, you can, as it’s on YouTube here .