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?

I’m revisiting a post from two and a half years ago. Someone’s random view made me look at it again. The post needed an upgrade but it also fitted in with where I am right now. To save me rewriting most of the text, little account is taken of our current situation.

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

bcmg twitter ident
BCMG’s Twitter logo

BCMG has been a fixture on the Birmingham musical scene for over thirty years. 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.

Roughly 80 of these pieces were commissioned by BCMG. Which brings me back to the start. Where does the funding come from? BCMG runs an innovative scheme to involve ordinary music-lovers in the creation of particular works. Cleverly named, Sound Investment invites individuals to donate money towards a new piece of music. Without it, BCMG would have struggled to commission anything like that amount of new music.

Currently, they are also commissioning a series of solo pieces from composers across the globe within their Soliloquies and Dialogues campaign. They have already premiered two works to date, a piece for violin from Donghoon Shin, and a piece for trumpet by Celeste Oram.

So, what has this got to do with Music Library?

Contemporary music scores

Over the years, we’ve accumulated a collection of contemporary and avant-garde music scores which represent 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 few composers are represented by mainstream music publishers. For those that are, prices are often beyond our reach.

Other composers have to make their own decisions about making their scores available. Most of time, that means bypassing normal retail channels. We are experiencing this issue more frequently. An attempt to make our contemporary music scores more diverse is a current example of the challenge this presents us.

Another important element of scores commissioned by BCMG is the Birmingham connection. Sound Investment works are pieces that are made in and for Birmingham, and as such, it makes 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. A generous offer to donate their scores to the Music Library was something we happily accepted. Now we are proud owners of a wide-ranging selection of Sound Investment commissions.

Some examples

These scores from Huw Watkins , Helen Grime , and Michael Zev Gordon are only a fraction of those which we now have. In a quest to find to find even faintly photogenic covers, they’re all ones produced by commercial publishers.

To find more about Helen Grime, there’s a recent short documentary piece from the London Symphony Orchestra.

And a COVID-19, socially-distanced conversation involving Huw Watkins.

Seize the day has another Birmingham connection as its composer, Michael Zev Gordon, teaches composition at Birmingham University. I can’t find a recording of Seize the day, but here’s a recent video of another piece, Nigun, performed at the University with help from BEAST, their Birmingham Electro-acoustic Sound Theatre.

Howard Skempton  Ben Somewhen (commissioned 2005)

Skempton Ben Somewhen
A suitably minimalist 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 Cornelius Cardew and The Scratch Orchestra at the beginning of his career as a composer, Skempton’s music has been recognised for its experimental simplicity.

As an aside, here’s a recording of The Scratch Orchestra performing part of Cardew’s Great Learning, inspired by Ezra Pound’s translation of Confucius.

Ben Somewhen 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 the 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.

You can see a few of Hartley’s drawings on the CD cover.

David Lang  Crowd Out (commissioned 2013)

An eye-catching cover for David Lang’s piece

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. Looking back, I wish I’d been there.