Music of Today

Written by: Colin Anderson

The Philharmonia Orchestra’s Music of Today series begins another season on 30 September. Bayan Northcott is the first composer featured

The Philharmonia Orchestra’s estimable Music of Today series begins its 12th season on 30 September – Royal Festival Hall at 6 o’clock. It’s an informal format and no ticket is needed; just stroll in. The first composer this season is Bayan Northcott, a well-known writer on music. “I always wanted to be a composer but I wasn’t trained and I didn’t really learn an instrument – I was attempting pieces that were too difficult for me technically – so I went to University and studied English, which I taught for six years. I was scared at one stage by the Boulez thing, that unless you were with the pulse of history you were useless. That was in the air in the ‘fifties and ‘sixties. One way of getting into music was through music journalism, a seductive thing to do.”

Bayan Northcott applauds the Philharmonia Orchestra for its Music of Today series; after all, these early-evening concerts do make an intriguing prelude to the Philharmonia’s 7.30 concert (the concert on the 30th includes popular pieces by Stravinsky and Rachmaninov). Bayan Northcott, effectively self-taught, recalls with gratitude the encouragement he has received from, amongst others, Robin Holloway, Alexander Goehr and the late Hans Keller. And also Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. “He got a sight of some of my pieces. I was asked to write a piece for The Fires of London; I was staggered because we’d had a stand-up row on television when I’d criticised something of his. It was quite a spectacular spat! So it was very nice of him to ask me, and I did write the piece, and the Fires played it.”

This Music of Today concert features Bayan’s opus one, a “little oboe sonata. I said to myself, at the age of 36, ‘for god’s sake sit down and finish something’. Then came some songs and a guitar piece.” It’ll be intriguing to hear Bayan’s music; a man of letters, self-taught as a composer, one who “loves many aspects of European tradition.” Bayan is also attracted by “Gamelan or Japanese Ceremonial Music, or modified pop backgrounds,” as a basis for a piece. “When Hans Keller said that musical communication takes place through the meaningful contradiction of expectations he said something profound. Real musical meaning comes out of setting up something that people recognise and think is going in one direction and then you do something slightly different. The gap between what you do and what is expected is the new information, what’s fresh about the piece, and that is how music evolves.”

The other work being played is Bayan’s Horn Concerto, “the first piece of mine to be over 20 minutes; my first, extraordinary, here I am in my fifties; it shows you how behind I am! I hope there’s an ongoing narrative, a line of thought and feeling which follows right through the piece. It’s deliberately rather conservative. It looked at the time, 1990, that Minimalism was taking over, so I was being defiantly traditional.” For Bayan, “composing is sporadic because I have journalism deadlines but I hope to stay well for the next 20 years and write the work of my life.”

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