On the Scottish Awards for New Music. Why and how?

First published in The Herald on 7 March, 2018

What’s the point of awards? I’m not talking Oscars, though this week we feel the reality check of a ceremony that saw the fewest female winners in six years despite all the high-vis momentum of #MeToo. Big industry awards validate big industry, and that ship turns slowly.

Even without matters political, the notion of declaring objective “better” in the arts is endlessly problematic. Which is better: a film in which a woman procreates with a sea creature or a film in which a woman finds her way with clove cigarettes? A new piece of music about an eczema sufferer or a new piece about the suffering Mary while Jesus was on the cross? It might sound like a platitude to say that anyone shortlisted is already a winner, but when it comes to music awards — especially contemporary music awards — basic recognition is the ultimate raison d’être.

A few years ago, the pianist James Rhodes set out a scathing diatribe against the giving of gongs for music. “Award ceremonies for the classical industry (industry, not listeners) must have sounded such a terrific idea on paper,” he wrote in the Guardian in 2013. “Sadly, the mutual masturbatory back-slapping and sense of “better than” that is so rife amongst those who claim to enjoy Varese and Xenakis only serves to provide the perfect means to further separate what is truly important about classical music from what is deemed as oxygen to those behind it.”

Rhodes’s distain was directed at the annual awards hosted by Gramophone, whose editor, Martin Cullingford, braved a public response the following day. “We do all we can to encourage listeners old and new to explore the great achievements of music-making,” he reasoned. “Coverage for such excellent recordings in the non-specialist media has declined in recent years as the wider print and broadcast media seems less interested in classical music and we have to work ever harder to get word out to the music lovers that we know are out there.” If coverage had already started declining then, the situation five years later makes 2013 look like the glory days.

Gramophone Awards are primarily focused on championing achievement in core classical repertoire, an area that still enjoys the kind of institutional funding that allows for formal marketing. Have a quick skim of the posters in Glasgow’s Subway stations: Scottish Opera, RSNO, Scottish Ensemble. Visibility is a luxury of those who can afford it. Cullingford’s point — that awards ceremonies can create a stir around new names — becomes exponentially more important the more the names in question sit below the general radar.

And so tonight I shall be making my way to Drygate Brewery in the east end of Glasgow to present the second edition of the Scottish Awards for New Music. Last year’s inaugural event set out the stall of the organisation that kickstarted the awards, New Music Scotland, whose ambition is noble: to celebrate Scottish contemporary composition and performance as distinct, multiform and worthy of greater recognition. This year award winners will receive a bronze sculpture designed by recent GSA graduate Daisy Chetwin, each one individually crafted with inspiration from the winning work. Pop musicians might prove their nonchalance by propping bedroom doors open with their Brit awards. I remember spotting a British Composer Award (was it?) in the bathroom of Peter Maxwell Davies’s house, holding up the loo roll. I doubt any winners of a bespoke Chetwin tonight will fein such indifference.

Granted, there are all kinds of knots in the process of setting up a new awards. Who gets to nominate? Artists can nominate themselves, and last year some did so several times over, which raised the question of whether the less brass-necked therefore got ignored. Many works were nominated by the national companies that commissioned them, which arguably perpetuated a situation of those who already have being given more.

There are the existential questions: who qualifies as Scottish? New Music Scotland settled on the loose criteria of “having a connection to Scotland”. What counts as new? Entries in the recording categories have included some new recordings of not very new pieces, even some seriously old music recorded in new ways. Where does new ‘classical’ music ends and new pop, folk, jazz or DIY music begin? “We don’t want to duplicate the work of other platforms,” the composer Oliver Searle told me, referring to the Scots Trad Music Awards and the Scottish Album of the Year Awards.

And yet this year the Awards have introduced new categories including Innovation in New Jazz (in conjunction with the organisation Jazz from Scotland) and New Trad (with the organisation Hands Up for Trad). According to Andy Saunders, vice-chair of New Music Scotland, these are “aimed to highlight new activity in these two sectors which had a foot firmly in another genre and so was forging something genuinely new and experimental”. Why stop at folk and jazz?

The awards will continue to grapple and evolve, and that process itself is already sparking healthy discourse. Those who feel excluded or irked by the perimeters should make some noise; I get the sense New Music Scotland would welcome it. In the meantime, some statistics ahead of tonight’s ceremony. This year there were 221 eligible submissions; others were dismissed for having no link to Scotland, or were “felt to be ineligible artistically by the working group”, which I suspect means they weren’t up to snuff.

Of those 221 submissions, 91 were from men, 32 from women, 73 from organisations rather than individuals. “A bit of a disappointing breakdown,” admitted Saunders, “and one that I was surprised about…” But it’s only year two. Hopefully the net will widen. For the moment, let’s celebrate a short-list that embraces a range from Shiori Usui to Karine Polwart; from a piano sonata by Stuart MacRae to a whimsical installation by Kathy Hinde and Maja SK Ratkje involving multifarious bellows, tubes, whirly propellors, balloons and kazoos.