First published in the Guardian on 13 September, 2014
What will happen to Scotland’s classical music in the event of a Yes vote on Thursday? The question is a microcosm of the referendum debate as a whole in that there is no single way of approaching it, let alone of answering it. Putting the question to classical musicians and music industry people around Scotland I’ve been met with reactions from wild conjecture to heady excitement, bewildered shrugs to solemnly reasoned logistics to ardent theories on deep-rooted national psychology.
The most clinical answer is that nothing much will change – at least, not in the short term. Arts policy and spending are already devolved. Scotland’s five National Companies (which include Scottish Opera, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra) are funded directly from Holyrood, while Creative Scotland administers grants to smaller groups like the Scottish Ensemble, Red Note, Hebrides Ensemble and Dunedin Consort. The SNP administration has indicated that, were it to be re-elected in an independent Scotland, this system would remain in place.
So far, so straightforward. But scratch beneath the surface and things become increasingly interesting. In many ways the classical music industry is at odds with Scotland’s other creative sectors here, and broadly speaking more conservative. While artists from across the board have formed a vocal faction of the referendum debate – particularly as part of feisty pro-independence forums such as the National Collective – the classical sphere has tended to be less willing to publicly voice its hopes and/or fears for independence, with a couple of notable exceptions. Many of those who have spoken to me off-record gave a similar explanation for this: that any political affiliation would be too risky in an artform that depends so heavily on state funding. Basically, that they’re hedging their bets.
Still, it isn’t hard to gauge a pervasive (though by no means universal) feeling of trepidation in the classical sector. Those involved in everyday making and promoting classical music have tended to gravitate to the same issue: will independence cut off Scotland’s classical music scene from London? This isn’t so much about British versus Scottish identity soulsearching as a business-driven acknowledgement that London is arguably the global hub of classical music. By having access to its facilities – recording, performing, publishing, promotional, broadcasting, administrative and so on – Scotland’s classical musicians are, the director of one ensemble told me, “able to punch well above our weight”.
Much of the concern here is to do with industry nuts-and-bolts. Would artists living in an independent Scotland still be covered regularly by UK-wide newspapers? Represented by UK-wide agencies; distributed by UK-wide record labels; eligible to apply for the kind of trusts and funds that require their money to be spent in the UK; supported internationally by the British Council? John Butt, director of the Dunedin Consort and professor of music at the University of Glasgow, underlined the importance of unrestricted to-ing and fro-ing for musicians in a small country. “Any obstructions on free travel and employment across the UK (for example, different tax rates) will not necessarily be prohibitive,” he said, “but they may well add to the administrative burden that we face as a company with extremely narrow margins.”
I met with Fiona Hyslop, Scotland’s Cabinet Secretary for Culture and External Affairs, to raise some of these concerns. She’s a forthright operator and she batted away many of the logistical points with impatience. “In terms of funding from trusts and foundations, quality and culture don’t have boundaries,” she said. “Trusts will go to where the talent is.” On the issue of access to London’s industry facilities, she replied that “geography doesn’t change after independence. We certainly see the importance of our orchestras being able to share, whether that’s in London, Paris, Berlin or Scotland.”
Regarding free movement for musicians working in and out of Scotland, Hyslop said that she is “delighted” by the “international nature” of Scotland’s companies. “If anything, we’ll become more outward looking. I hope we can be a positive beacon of how to go about things for the rest of the UK. We want to embrace internationalisation. Look at the parts of the White Paper” – the SNP’s 670-page mission statement for independence – “that deal with immigration and citizenship. At the moment the UK’s policies are anti-family. Yes, we’ll have controlled immigration. But I would expect Scotland to be more sensible, to actually welcome talent.”
The serious elephant in the room is the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra: one of the finest orchestras in Europe and an ensemble that could have more reason than most to expect change in the event of a Yes vote. Presently the BBCSSO provides at least 60 concerts every year to BBC Radio 3, which in return provides a healthy chunk of the orchestra’s income. These concerts contain some of the most interesting orchestral repertoire, particularly contemporary music, being performed anywhere in the UK, certainly in Scotland. Just look at the line-up for Tectonics, the orchestra’s formidably intrepid festival of experimental music.
In accordance with the BBC’s officially neutral line (“we will not enter into any discussions about the future or the shape and nature of our services after the referendum until that referendum has taken place; to do so might compromise perceptions of the impartiality and balance of our coverage”) nobody from the orchestra’s management was willing to discuss what the implications of independence might be for the BBCSSO.
The SNP’s White Paper proposes a national public broadcaster, the Scottish Broadcast Service (SBS), which would operate in a reciprocal relationship with the BBC: those of us living in Scotland would continue to have access to Doctor Who (and presumably to Radio 3 and the Proms) while the BBC would share programmes made by the SBS. According to Hyslop, because only two thirds of the revenue from Scottish license fees is currently spent on BBC Scotland, the future SBS could be more lucrative, and more culturally ambitious, than the present BBC Scotland. Where does the BBCSSO fit into that? The orchestra isn’t mentioned in the White Paper, although there is a suggestion that the proposed SBS would “initially be founded on the staff and assets of BBC Scotland”, which presumably include its musicians and orchestral management. It’s a grey area that anybody who cares about music in Scotland should be taking very seriously indeed.
Amid these logistical what-ifs and wherefores, it’s also worth considering how independence might effect attitudes towards classical music north of the border. At a Musicians’ Union forum in Glasgow entitled ‘The future of music in Scotland’, John Robertson, Labour MP for Glasgow North West, offered the following contribution to a debate on recent management failings at Scottish Opera. “I grew up in a red sandstone tenement in Anniesland,” he said, “so you won’t be surprised to hear that I don’t listen to opera.” (The composer William Sweeney, who was chairing the panel, coolly responded: “well, I grew up in a pebbledash tenement in Drumchapel and not only do I listen to opera, I even write the stuff”. The riposte earned a hearty cheer from the audience.)
Robertson’s assertion that a person’s early-years postcode determines their life-long musical tastes is not just alarmingly unimaginative; it also hints at an unreconstructed suspicion that because classical music is not ‘indigenous’ (where opera is Italian and the sonata is German then pibroch is Scottish) it has no place in state-supported Scottish culture. Mercifully, this kind of thinking hasn’t played any meaningful part of cultural policy since devolution and shows no sign of rearing its head after independence. As John Butt put it, this attitude “reeks of the good old-fashioned essentialism that the SNP has worked so hard to eradicate from the independence debate”.
There is more – much more – to be done to integrate classical music into an everyday cultural ecosystem in Scotland, but the signs are encouraging. Two classical recordings were on the 20-strong longlist of this year’s Scottish Album of the Year Award, a young and energetic industry venture that aims to celebrate the rude health of Scotland’s (mainly indie-rock) scene. While Westminster politicians skulk around the shadows of the Royal Opera House for fear of being branded elitist, SNP leaders are keen to jump on the bandwagon of Scotland’s popular classical brands like Sistema Scotland and Nicola Benedetti.
Professor Butt again: “if there is truth in the assertion that Scotland’s is primarily a ‘working class’ population, it is clear that several of Scotland’s finest composers over the years since 1945 have come from working class backgrounds. While it is unarguable that classical music culture has always benefitted from aristocratic patrons and those of the endlessly ‘rising bourgeoisie’, it flourished strongly, albeit under strict control, in the former eastern bloc, and continues to do so in communist China. Classical music does not have to belong to a moneyed elite (as if Messrs. Cameron and Osborne regularly met to discuss the relation between Beethoven’s late quartets and Kant’s categorical imperative), but it can only belong to those who have regular access to it and who receive the type of inquiring, critical education that allows one to understand its processes.” Proper access to proper music education, he suggests, is what will make or break the health of classical music in any future Scotland.
As with every corner of the referendum debate, these conversations will rage on until September 18 and beyond, unearthing residual opinions that benefit from a healthy airing regardless of the outcome of the vote. For David McGuinness, director of the Glasgow-based early music consort Concerto Caledonia, the problem isn’t so much Scotland’s relationship with classical music as “the classical music world’s relationship (or relative lack of it) with Scotland and Scottish culture. The historical contribution” – he means Scottish composers such as Tobias Hume, Robert Mackintosh, Robert Carver – “has been made invisible through being ignored or considered uninteresting.”
After the Musicians’ Union forum, back at his office at the University of Glasgow, William Sweeney pursued a similar bone of contention. “For me the Yes or No debate? There are a lot of technical questions that need to be addressed, but the critical thing is whether independence would make an invigorating psychological difference. Since Alex Gibson” – the great Motherwell-born conductor who founded Scottish Opera in 1962 – “we haven’t had a conductor who really understands that we must perform our own music alongside the best music from around the world. Would a Yes vote trigger those in charge of our national institutions to appreciate that? Maybe it would.”