S&H Article

Some reflections on Masterprize 2001 by Jean Martin


There is no doubt that John McLaren has clout and is a brilliant communicator. He did, afterall, manage to engage reputable organisations like BBC Radio 3, BBC Music Magazine and the London Symphony Orchestra to take part in his Masterprize competition.

As McLaren says: 'The reason that they were willing to support the idea was a feeling that clearly had been building up for many years, that something really did need to be done, that New Music remained marginalised and that we needed to try and get more new music into the main stream international repertoire'.

I cannot see this sense of urgency and it puzzles me that fine musicians in the final jury, like the conductors John Eliot Gardiner, Charles Mackerras and Marin Alsop, the saxophonist John Harle and ex-Rock musician Jon Lord lent their names to this lost cause.

New serious music has always had problems finding an audience. Wagner, Debussy and Messiaen all experienced problems. Complex, rich works demand a certain effort to understand them. But eventually audiences are willing to accept the idiom of a new work if the composition is well crafted. It becomes an enriching experience. Listening to the music of the Masterprize finalists, however, was a boring, painful experience. Instead of opening up views and creating an inspiring sense of wonder, it had the predictable, stale, second hand feeling of commercial format radio about it. You already know what you are going to hear.

On the Masterprize website one can read: 'International composing competition .... bringing listeners & composers closer together.' Who can tell what brings listeners and composers together? It is a complex, evolving process, which nobody can control. Not even Mozart or Beethoven could decide to sit down and write a masterpiece.

Paul Sacher - enormously wealthy, a conductor and true champion and sponsor of New Music - had an altogether wiser approach to generate great new music. He trusted his taste - that intangible, ephemeral force - and commissioned specific composers he appreciated. Amongst others, he commissioned music from Bartok, Henze, Hindemith, Honegger, Iber, Krenek, Martinu, Malipiero, R. Strauss, Stravinsky and Tippett.

The claim that all new contemporary classical music is inaccessible is wrong. Many of John Tavener's compositions are very pleasant to listen to. The Protecting Veil was a hit. Arvo Pärt has become very popular and made the ECM label rich. Henryk Gorecki's Third Symphony has sold over a million copies on CD, a figure the last winner of the Masterprize, Andrew Marr, can only dream of. Gavin Bryars' music gained cult status in the' 90s. The Minimalists - Steve Reich, Philip Glass and John Adams - have become famous all over the world and are listened to by a culturally broad audience. J. Harvey composes intelligent and spiritual music which has depth and reaches the heart. Mark Anthony Turnage is inspired by Jazz. His two operas, Greek and the recent Silver Tassie, were great successes with opera audiences. James MacMillan, Thomas Adès, John Casken and other British composers are liked by audiences. Some of Henze's music is very accessible. Tan Dun's music is so adaptable that he won an Oscar for his recent score for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Stockhausen's electronics inspired The Beatles, Björk, generations of Pop, Punk and other subculture/underground musicians. Ligeti was used in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey and listened to and understood by millions of film viewers. Messiaen has become almost a mainstream composer in recent years through wide performances of his work.

What has really happened is that the business model has gained universal appeal. Numbers are more important than quality. The Masterprize aims to generate music which appeals to large numbers of people world-wide. Musical creativity has been degraded into a mere money creating process. Why don't McLaren and his friends rewrite their mission statement: 'Masterprize - international composing competition to generate good Gebrauchsmusik, which can be used in theatre, film and musicals'.

It is a sign of the times that the money men have gained such prestige, and influence, in Britain that they can seemingly manipulate institutions like the BBC (we have to reach out to a wider audience), the LSO (we desperately need money), and well known conductors like Gardiner (circulating my name might make me a bit more famous). It is a sad affair.

In his review for the Guardian Andrew Clements observed: 'There is a plethora of American composers who have become adept at exploiting that quick-fix populism, while most Europeans still cling to the idea that writing music is an art form rather than a consumer service.'

Most of the Masterprize 'composers' will find good jobs as orchestrators or film composers in Hollywood and other film studios, adapting and arranging music for disaster and horror movies, car chases and sentimental tears. There is a demand for good Gebrauchsmusik composers who can serve the media industry. But writing good, applied music requires, apart from fine musical skills, a special sense for drama and the ability to make connections between image and music.

Jean Martin

Jean Martin covered the Masterprize Competition for German Radio in 1998.

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