On the Scottish Awards for New Music

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First published in The Herald on 8 March, 2017

Tonight is the first Scottish Awards for New Music. Winners will be announced during a ceremony at Drygate in Glasgow. That the inaugural event is literally a piss-up in a brewery sets the tone for an industry shindig that is pointedly less formal than the British Composer Awards or any equivalents I can think of. Winners will receive a ceramic singing bowl made by Elaine Henderson and decorated with a sonic wave from, or linked to, their winning pieces.

As with any such endeavour, much chin stroking and committee debate has gone into defining the perimeters of who is eligible, who can nominate, who will benefit, who will be left out. The awards are the initiative of New Music Scotland, itself a loose association of composers, programmers, performers and academics. Its members are mostly of classical-ish persuasion though NMS is keen to kick that image. The awards, they say, are ”intended to highlight and showcase the innovative, experimental and ground-breaking work taking place in Scotland, as well as the depth and breadth of the country’s contemporary music scene.”

I should declare my own involvement at this point and mention that I was a judge on one of the panels, responsible (along with conductor Jessica Cottis, composer Brian Irvine and director of Ireland’s Contemporary Music Centre Evonne Ferguson) for selecting ‘the best’ entries from the small scale, large scale and recorded works categories. We debated another category called Award for Innovation but decided not to pick a winner. Innovation is one of those words that gets chucked about in funding proposals and press releases, but the real thing is hard to come by and we wanted to set the bar high.

Oliver Searle teaches composition at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and is chair of NMS. He told me the awards are meant to showcase Scottish new-musicking as distinct, diverse and worthy of greater recognition. “It feels like there’s a groundswell in Scotland,” he says. “We think that something different is happening here.” Different? The implication is ‘different from the rest of the UK,’ though Searle says it’s also about defining Scotland’s music in an international context.

He acknowledges pinpointing that difference is tricky, but suspects it has to do with a plurality of influences. “Certain places in the UK have their own ‘sound’ — there is, for example, a particular sort of music you tend to write if you’re a composer coming out of a London conservatory. It’s polished and rooted in an august classical lineage. The composers I’m seeing coming through the RCS are often from non-conventional backgrounds. They haven’t necessarily come to us via classical routes, which can be a brilliant thing for the freshness of the music that gets made but not such a brilliant thing when the music falls under standard industry radars.”

He says the awards are “interested in composers doing something a bit raw, a bit different, a bit risky.” He mentions David Fennessy, Glasgow-based Irish composer who spent his adolescence as a guitarist in rock bands. He mentions Aidan O’Rourke, folk fiddler and composer who also improvises and writes choral and instrumental scores. “We want to celebrate the blurring of genres and blending of traditions that is happening up here,” says Searle. “That is the point of the awards.”

Inevitably there have been all sorts of teething issues for the organisers to spend the next year pondering. Who should be nominating whom? More than 180 entries were submitted this year. Some artists gamely nominated themselves, some several times over. Traditionally that would be the role of a publisher or agent, but many composers do those jobs for themselves these days. Do the less brazen therefore get ignored? Some works were nominated by the national companies who commissioned them, which arguably perpetuates a scenario of those who have being given more.

There is the awkward matter of who counts as Scottish. Is it a birthright? A residential right? An accent right? The organisers settled on all three, with extra room for manoeuvre. There is the existential matter of what counts as ‘new’; entries for the recording category included some new recordings of not very new pieces and even some seriously ancient music. There are boundary issues around where new music ends and new pop, folk, jazz, DIY, whatever begins. “We don’t want to duplicate the work of other platforms,” says Searle, meaning, for example, the Scots Trad Music Awards and the Scottish Album of the Year Awards. How to ensure ‘new music’ doesn’t then silo itself?

There’s the matter of judging like against non-like. Some entries had scores, others didn’t. Some had recordings and videos, others didn’t. Which one is better: a sound-art installation involving nature sounds or a new invented electronic instrument involving ultra complex computer software? As with all awards, ’better’ becomes a loaded notion. To the credit of NMS, the criteria given to the judges tried to remain open while still being specific enough to mean something. (Our instructions were as follows. Originality: Is the music/project original in form, concept and/or realisation? Skill: Does the work demonstrate a high degree of craftsmanship appropriate to its medium? Impact: Does the music make an identifiable impression on the listener? Consistency: Do the musical materials, form and realisation coincide as a consistent whole?)

The shortlist has already been announced. Scanning the names you’ll find magnificent talent, if not yet the all-embracing eclecticism Searle and his NMS colleagues hope to represent. There are short works by Claire McCue, David Fennessy and Alasdair Nicolson; long works by Martin Suckling, Stuart MacRae and Helen Grime; recorded works by Henry MacPherson, James MacMillan and Robert Irvine’s collection Songs and Lullabies. There are Sound Art/Electroacoustic works by Hanna Tuulikki, Pete Stollery and Tim Cooper. There are other categories called Community Participation (Drake Music; Sound Festival; John McLeod, Emily Mitchell and Geoffrey Tanti), Achievement in New Music (Ilan Volkov and Alasdair Campbell; Ailie Robertson; Sound Festival) and New Music Performer of the Year (Red Note Ensemble; BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra; MacGillivray). Winners announced from 8pm tonight.

The inaugural Scottish New Music Awards are tonight at Drygate Brewery, Glasgow