First published by Sounds Like Now, September 2017 edition
In his early years as artistic director of the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, Graham McKenzie introduced a festival slogan: ‘Music Lives in Everything’. It wasn’t as new-age as it might sound. (If you’ve ever been in the company of the acerbic Glaswegian, who dresses exclusively in black and keeps his mood about as demonstrative, you’ll know that new-age is pretty wide of the mark.) The slogan was about widening parameters, about subtly but purposefully infiltrating a field that, he thought, had become too narrow. “The festival has become fixed on a very one-sided view of what new music is,” McKenzie said in 2006, his first year as director. “It has always dealt in music that is elaborate and complex, because it’s fully written down. I’ve nothing against written-out music — in fact, you’ll find plenty of it in the festival. But there’s this whole other area the festival has neglected.”
Huddersfield built its reputation on bringing the big names of European and American modernism to West Yorkshire on dreich November nights. That paradox, picturesque for its sheer unlikeliness, was part of the appeal, and the legends abound. The time Boulez and Cage were reunited at St Paul’s Hall after 40 years of estrangement. The visits to local curry houses by Xenakis, Carter, Messiaen. The attempts of BBC vox pops to find a single shopper on the High Street who had heard of Stockhausen (they couldn’t).
‘Music Lives in Everything’ was McKenzie’s statement of intent to open up the Huddersfield programme, to question certain new music dogmas and entitlements. He invited improvisers, installations, sound sculptures, happenings, new technologies, even — whisper it — free jazzers. Within his first couple of editions he featured Evan Parker, Berlin improv collective Zeitkratzer, harp miscreant Rhodri Davies with a four-hour installation in collaboration with David Toop and Lee Paterson. He deployed portable headphones for an installation by the German sound-artist Christina Kubisch that picked up the electromagnetic landscape of Huddersfield’s urban wiring — cash machines, traffic lights, shop displays. The Vienna Vegetable Orchestra played half-cooked vegetables then served the instruments to the audience as soup.
Some of the old guard were not amused. “For almost 30 years,” wrote Andrew Clements in the Guardian in 2008, “Huddersfield’s annual new-music beanfeast was one of the highlights of the musical year. Ten days in November packed with premieres, and myriad opportunities to get to grips with a whole range of composers generally overlooked through the rest of the year. Yet, under artistic director Graham Mackenzie [sic], the emphasis has changed. While there are still important premieres of works from a range of European and American composers, installations and works in which improvisation plays a major role seem aimed at attracting a new audience.”
That was two years into the McKenzie era. “Of course,” he says when I mention the backlash. “Oh, I had letters. Andrew Clements thought I was a disaster, that I would turn Huddersfield into some kind of hippy improv festival. But then another person replied to him, saying that he shouldn’t worry because in all the years I’d been programming the CCA [in Glasgow], I had never put on a single act that deserved the label ‘jazz’. I guess you can’t win.”
Can’t you? Consider the balance of written-down to not-written-down music in this year’s programme, the 40th edition of HCMF. It opens with a major new work by James Dillon, a composer associated with HCMF since the start and not generally known for a lack of complexity. The Arditti Quartet and Ensemble Modern come together for a new suite of works by Brian Ferneyhough — another name long championed by Huddersfield. There is a focus on the ephemeral works of Toronto-based Linda Catlin Smith and a celebration of the late Pauline Oliveros. So far, so heavyweight. Rhodri Davies unveils an expansive new ensemble piece, his biggest score to date; there’s a showcase of young British artists including pianist/organist Kit Downes and electronics whizz Lauren Sarah Hayes; a visit from Vermont indie-avant-folk singer Sam Amidon; a rock/club vibe from zeitkratzer, 2e2m, Kobe Van Cauwenberghe, Nikel and Alexander Schubert revamping classic scores by Lou Reed, Kraftwerk and Brian Eno. If statistics are your thing, there are 31 world premieres, 103 UK premieres and 13 HCMF commissions.
Or, as the festival website puts it, ’13 hcmf// commissions’. That lowercase branding, that conspicuous punctuation, is no accident. Back in his very first year, McKenzie admitted he wanted to think of a “more interesting name” for the festival — a wholesale identity reboot. “By the time you get to the end of ‘Huddersfield Festival of Contemporary Music’,” he told journalist Ivan Hewett, “you’ve lost the will to live.” I bring this up now and McKenzie groans. “OK, OK. At that point I was in the office and answering the phone a lot. It did sap the life out of you if you said it enough times. And it seemed to me a very 1970s name, something constructed by a committee. A bit joyless. It didn’t shout ‘excitement’ and ‘open-mindedness’. There were much more interesting sounding things around at the time… I was seduced by names like Music Lovers Field Companion. And,” he adds, “there was the bigger point. I wanted a name that was not about specific genres.”
So why didn’t he change it? “Oh. Pretty quickly I realised the name was untouchable. That the legacy here was way too precious to just kick it out the door.” Instead, he borrowed a trick from his days at the Centre of Contemporary Arts in Glasgow, where as artistic director he had added a colon after the acronym (CCA:). “The point was that anything might be attached to those letters. Education, film, music, installation, whatever. It’s open-ended and full of possibility.” He catches himself sounding like a graphic design pitch. “Anyway, I’d already used up the colon, so this time I went for the slash.”
HCMF was founded in 1978 as a weekend event with a budget of £3,000. The instigator was Richard Steinitz, a quiet-spoken academic at Huddersfield University who helmed the festival for 23 years and earned the affection of the 20th century’s fiercest iconoclasts. “People didn’t expect Stockhausen and Boulez to turn up,” McKenzie says. “Maybe it was because nobody else was really inviting these people to the UK at that time. Today we have a different kind of access to artists. In those days they were mysterious figures, heard about but rarely seen in the flesh. Suddenly you had a situation where these artists were coming to the UK. It happened to be Huddersfield, but people who were hungry for it would have gone anywhere.” So much for the romance of West Yorkshire.
“But that was the vision and courage of Richard Steinitz,” McKenzie continues. “He was able to establish a dialogue. If Stockhausen was due to appear in London and the venue couldn’t give him enough time and space to rehearse properly? Steinitz would say, ‘we’ll give you the space’. He was canny and charming. There were infrastructure problems, of course. Only a couple of hotels, only a couple of places to eat. But that made for an immediate, up-close connection. There’s that great photo of Boulez, Cage and Messiaen in the local Pizza Hut. Actually, we went to that Pizza Hut years later and tried to get them to put up a plaque. They asked head office, who said no. Nobody had a clue who they were.”
It’s easy to sentimentalise the contrast between Huddersfield towners, tough and unimpressed, often plain oblivious, and the bespectacled, turtlenecked contemporary music aesthetes who turn up in mid November. McKenzie plays down that particular narrative. 47 per cent of HCMF audiences come from an hour’s drive away, he points out. The town is easily connected to Leeds, Manchester, York, Newcastle. “It isn’t remote or random or provincial for them,” he stresses. “And if it’s dark, wet, cold, a bit shit, well that’s perfect for the festival. If I programme five concerts per day, I know I’ll get my audience coming to all five of those concerts. Because the alternatives? There aren’t many. If the festival was in London or Glasgow or Barcelona, there would be all kinds of distractions. I get people going to see things they might not otherwise choose. Even if they hate it, they might feel good about themselves for having tried and experienced.”
McKenzie’s own route to Huddersfield was circuitous. He describes himself as “a huge music fan” who plays the saxophone “very badly; the only person who would listen to me is my dog”. His first job was as a social worker in Glasgow, where he worked in a night shelter on Renfrew Street then became a welfare rights officer. “When I quit that I got involved in arts and culture. I was writing for stage and radio, one foot in community work and one foot in culture. I was part of the conversations going on in Glasgow in the late 1980s around how art can work as a tool for urban regeneration, how the 1990 City of Culture thing would impact the housing schemes.” He became director of the city’s Centre for Contemporary Arts in 1997 and “felt strongly about the ’s’ at the end of that name”, determined to honour the multi-arts purpose of the space. He programmed John Tilbury playing Morton Feldman, Ian Pace playing Michael Finnissy’s five-and-a-half-hour epic The History of Photography in Sound. He invited the AMM and commissioned Canadian composer/pianist Marc Couroux to write a 90-minute work called La Poursuite du Caractre Qubecois.
“Look at the history of experimental music programming across the 20th century,” he says. “It wasn’t the concert halls that were supporting John Cage, it was the galleries. The CCA was the place for that music to happen in Scotland. You weren’t going to get it at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall or the Glasgow Jazz Festival. A lot of people thought we had to persuade classical audiences to come see this stuff, but that’s probably the audience that is most resistant. It’s the visual arts crowd who will take it in.”
Is there anything he wouldn’t programme? “Well,” he pauses, “Richard used to take advantage of some of the touring networks. He’d put on someone like Joe Lovano. I love Joe Lovano, don’t get me wrong, but he’s too mainstream jazz for me to consider putting him on. For me, Huddersfield is about all sorts of music, but it’s not about the mainstream. There are plenty of other places that promote that kind of music. Huddersfield isn’t going to enter the fray. We’re here for the artists and audiences who aren’t served by that kind of mainstream infrastructure.”
A decade and counting into the job, McKenzie still faces periodic gripes about the clout, calibre and scope of his programming. “Time was,” wrote Philip Clark in the Guardian last year, “when a visit to Huddersfield meant rubbing shoulders with the greats.” Clark recalls queueing behind Luciano Berio at an ATM, spotting Elliott Carter in an Indian restaurant. “The history of the festival is haunted by the ghosts of John Cage, Olivier Messiaen, Pierre Boulez, Iannis Xenakis, György Ligeti, Henryk Górecki, Alfred Schnittke, Hans Werner Henze and Michael Tippett, who all made the trip to this unassuming West Yorkshire town. But who,” Clark asked, “had even heard of last year’s headliner, the Swiss composer Jürg Frey?”
As a Wandelweiser enthusiast I would contest that last point, and in any case McKenzie’s notions around the role of a headliner aren’t so much about lionising the ultra famous as “raising a debate, adding a new dimension. Jürg Frey operates at a higher level than a lot of the current trend for really quiet music, so I wanted to challenge preconceptions around that music”. As for Clark’s broader malaise, to do with what he sees as a general dearth of ‘great composers’ for our time? McKenzie considers any shift away from personality cults as a good thing. “Young people today have access to everything on the internet,” he argues. “In general terms they don’t make gods or idols out of musicians any more. Nobody is going to write CLAPTON IS GOD on a wall. People expect to have closer contact with artists, debate through social media. They see themselves as part of a community. That doesn’t mean the quality is any less.”
Perhaps it doesn’t make for as easy a headline, as iconic a Pizza Hut photo opportunity, but by platforming collaborative work, improvised work, process work, new artists, marginal artists, McKenzie is part of a broader shift in the look and feel of contemporary music — away from dogmas and isms and and genius mythologies, towards community, genre fragmentation, diversity, access, experimentation. When a local paper asked him to name the five big stars in that year’s festival, his answer was ‘everyone and no one’. “It is about the new,” he says. “It is about innovation. It is about encouraging people to come along and take part in the experience.” He talks about unsexy things like new music industry networks, repeat performances, co-commissioning. He’s not obsessed with world premieres; “I’d rather have the work played a few times than obsess over it being brand new. Anyway, the third or fourth performance is often the most beautiful.”
And he talks a lot about infrastructure. “I do find it quite surprising,” he says, “that in the 40 years of the festival, while we’ve watched towns around the UK build amazing galleries and arts spaces, Huddersfield still suffers from not having an iconic space. There is nothing you could immediately see when you walk out of the train station and think, ‘I will find art in there’.” What he wants is an arts venue with a flexible concert space that could house the festival and other events through the year.
“We face the difficulty of people saying, “well, you’ve been working it out for 40 years, why are you saying you need the space now?’ I’m not angling for a Simon Rattle style concert hall. I’d like to see some kind of arts building that accommodates visual arts and music. A flexible 400-seat space, maybe a black box studio. Whether that needs to be built from scratch, or an industrial space that could be converted…” He trails off, but the intention is clear, and after another breath he spells it out. “Without a proper investment in infrastructure, I don’t think Huddersfield will be able to accommodate the festival as it continues to grow. We’ve already had to go elsewhere. We’ve used Yorkshire Sculpture Park, we’ve used Leeds, we’ve been at the Hepworth Gallery.” He’s gone further afield, too, staging pop-up versions of the festival in Mexico City, Philadelphia, Moscow.
“But the core of the festival must be in Huddersfield. And Huddersfield needs a proper venue.” Does he intent to stay long enough make that happen? “I’m not on a limited contract,” he ventures. “I always think as far as, ‘I’ll do the next one’.” No five-year-plan, then? “Of course,” he laughs. “I’ve got a 40-year plan.”