When I was looking round university music departments while going through the application process, I remember turning up in Huddersfield on a cold January lunchtime in 1991 for the normal pre-audition talk. David Lennox, who gave the talk, noted at one point while discussing the contemporary music festival, that the previous year, in the room in which we were sitting, they had hosted Cage, Boulez and Messiaen. My decision was made at that point, and it was a good one. As an undergrad, postgrad at the RNCM, and then lecturer in Huddersfield, for 15 years the festival provided me with my education in new music. Hearing the best new music ensembles and soloists on a regular basis, talking to composers and performers, and getting a feel for the new music world from the inside was an incredible opportunity. The fact that this happened on my doorstep was extraordinary. When I moved to the south west in 2007 it was, along with friends and colleagues, the thing I missed most.
This weekend, for the second time in my life, I have a new music festival where I live, and it has the potential to be equally extraordinary. Over the past couple of days, the first Bristol New Music took place, rising suddenly almost from nowhere to present a programme of variety and intent. I’d heard rumours, knew about the consultation, and expected it to appear at some point, perhaps. It made it though, and I am so glad it did. Although I could only get to two of the events this time round, both the Bozzini’s performances of pieces by Claudia Molitor, Cage and Tenney, and musikFabrik’s Partch and Zappa were astonishing for different reasons. Bozzinis in St. George’s – one of my favourite chamber music venues – had such a focus to it, with the happy coincidences of the Cage matched by the perceptual bewilderment of the quartet version of Tenney’s KOAN and a pithy new piece by Claudia. Then today, taking my son to his first ever new music concert, hearing musikFabrik’s performance on their newly-commissioned replicas of Partch’s instruments and a second half of Zappa. Needless to say, as we sat wide-eyed and eared at the front (my son’s insistence paid off, as it normally does…), I felt transported back to those first experiences in Huddersfield. The new Partch instruments were so much better than I’d imagined: even down to the stands and labels, they looked and sounded as the originals. For my son to begin his encounter with new music in this way could not be bettered. He dragged me to the bar afterwards (he was not missing out on that it seemed) and when asked what he wanted said ‘a whisky’ (he’s seven). He got some crisps and a lemonade.
So although I only managed to get to a couple of the main concerts, plus the university singers in the resonant Wills Building, it felt like a very good start indeed. It’s what Bristol needs. There’s such a variety and depth of exploratory music-making in the city that it is bound to succeed if it can maintain this kind of programme and collaborative endeavour. To all involved, well done. Given the ridiculously short lead in – and indeed that notwithstanding – this was a major achievement. So as we made the short journey home, it felt like normal service had resumed. I can give it no greater compliment than that.