Keynote speech for the 2014 British Composer Awards

Last night I was invited by the Artistic Directors of the British Composer Awards, Julia Haferkorn and Ed McKeon, to give a keynote speech at the 2014 BASCA-hosted event. I didn’t expect the sheer amount of creativity that filled the room. It was a privilege to be able to experience the broad scope of sound exploration amongst contemporary composers of all ages.

Anyway, and without further hesitation, here’s the speech I was privileged to give:

I would like to start by saying a huge thank you to BASCA for their ongoing work and, of course, for inviting me to share a few words with you at this prestigious event. It’s an honour to be here at Goldsmiths’ Hall among Britain’s most talented composers.

My sincere congratulations to all those being recognised this evening. Your contribution to the world of music is extraordinary. Through your talent, creativity and commitment, you are inspiring the nation and, indeed, the world. Every one of you is proof that Britain continues to produce composers of the highest calibre. I have no doubt that your outstanding work will inspire a new generation of composers, continuing this great tradition of quality music-making long into the future.

Reading through the list of nominees for tonight’s awards was both breath-taking and heart-warming. People of all ages, from all backgrounds, are working right across the country (and across the world) to ensure our society has a deep and rich musical culture. The value of music to society is incalculable. Who here has not been moved by music? Who here has not experienced music that made them stop and think? Music is the lifeblood of our culture. Without it we would wither and perish.

Discovering new music is one of the most invigorating experiences anyone can have, which is why it’s vital to have a healthy body of composers producing new works specifically for our time. This evening is a celebration of our country’s very best. What a shame we can’t give awards to all the nominees!

If we stop to consider the world we occupy, the success of our living composers is truly remarkable. The economic downturn has hit everybody hard and the music industry is no exception. Contracts are scarce, while paid commissions and funding for new projects are harder to find than they once were. Not only that, but the process of getting projects off-the-ground takes much longer these days. I’m proud to have commissioned hundreds of new works, but I can’t deny that, over the course of my career, it’s become more and more difficult to commission pieces, to find sufficient time to get projects off the ground and to negotiate funding with groups of organisations who increasingly depend on each other for support.

Being a composer today is about much more than writing music; it’s about working collaboratively, making the most of the tools available to us in the digital age and, above all, it’s about creating opportunities for new music to be heard. However challenging the outlook, there’s still plenty of potential to create new, high-quality music. Organisations such as BASCA, PRS for Music, the Arts Councils, Sound and Music and the Musicians’ Union work tirelessly to provide supportive schemes, to protect composers’ rights and to raise awareness publically. We should thank these bodies – as well as the hundreds of other schemes, foundations, festivals and clubs – for making the business of being a composer less of an uphill struggle than it might otherwise be.

It’s important to convince as many institutions as we can to support new music. If music is the lifeblood of our culture then ensuring its healthy survival is everybody’s responsibility. We – avid supporters and dedicated practitioners – are the best people to lead the way. We should do everything we can to encourage radio stations, television networks, concert venues, opera houses, orchestras and public bodies to promote the music of our time – music as it lives and breathes today. A stronger industry means more opportunities for work and a greater contribution to the country’s economy. The more people we can get to support our music-making, the more the industry will flourish.

Our composers are a fantastic cultural resource, and not just for their artistic output. Music is a vital form of expression, giving us the means to say things we can’t say with words alone, to entertain each other in a uniquely cherished way, and to tackle ideas of beauty that we can’t tackle through other means. Music is not just an artistic product, it’s a practice; music doesn’t just exist – music is made. Composers are experts in a very profound sense. We might be tempted to think of them as the people who put dots on a page, put notes into digital workspaces – people who marshal sounds ready for performances – but they’re so much more than that. Composers are specialists at creative thinking, at making difficult connections, at finding a unique means of expression through the art-form that we prize more than any other. Yet, composers tend to go undervalued.

I firmly believe that composers can make a huge contribution to education and community development, showing us all how to unlock expressive, creative and problem-solving potential that would otherwise remain untapped.  Every day we see adverts for art classes, cookery classes, yoga classes, sports training. What about learning to create music? I don’t mean playing music, but creating it in the first place. Learning to play an instrument often involves years of training and considerable financial investment, which can be prohibitive to many individuals. But anybody can create music. Anybody can learn to bring others together through the power of music-making. Here in the room tonight and all around the country we have highly skilled, highly talented people with lots to offer. It’s about time we put more effort into promoting music, not as a passive nicety or even an obligation, but as an active practice that we can all benefit from – individuals, families and communities.

Who better to learn from than the best? Composers: tonight we honour your individual achievements, your portfolios of work, your dedication to your craft. But let tonight also be a celebration of your potential and the unparalleled mark you leave on society. Already, we owe you a great debt, and there’s still so much we have to learn from you.

I’ve been lucky enough to work with some of the best composers in the world and some of the most promising young talent. I know all too well the value of a good piece of music and just how many ways music can impact people’s lives for the better. I’ve worked on the classical concert stage, at jazz festivals, in the recording studio, on film & TV projects, in classrooms, with charities, with folk musicians, with improvisers and with pop artists. My journey has taken me to all corners of the music industry and I can say with certainty that nothing would happen without the work of composers – the people who create the music in the first place. What you do is vital and I’m privileged to be part of the industry that you make possible.

Congratulations again to all the nominees here this evening. Many thanks to all the thousands of other great composers around the globe who toil to make our world a better place, many without recognition. Of course, we should all thank our host, BASCA, our sponsor, PRS for Music, and BBC Radio 3 for helping to share this wonderful event with everybody far and wide.

I hope to continue collaborating with composers for many years to come; I can think of nothing better or more important. I wish all of you here tonight every success in the future.

Thank you!

Image: © BASCA/Mark Allan (used by kind permission)

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