Andrew Burke © Will Tisdall
© Will Tisdall

Andrew Burke — Re-inventing Tradition

The London Sinfonietta has just finished its 50th full season, marking its first ever concert on the 24 January 1968 with one on exactly the same date 50 years later. One of the first new music ensembles to be formed, the London Sinfonietta rode an early wave of success that brought it international recognition within four years. Such was this success that Pierre Boulez tempted away the London Sinfonietta’s manager and co-founder Nicholas Snowman to Paris to help found the Ensemble Intercontemporain, leaving Snowman’s co-founder and music director David Atherton to recruit Michael Vyner as artistic director. Together, they developed a strong tradition for the ensemble in the 70s and 80s based on commissions, concerts, touring and recordings of music composed by many of the great post-war avante-garde and modernist composers – Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luciano Berio, György Ligeti, Iannis Xenakis, Witold Lutosławski, Harrison Birtwistle. The instrumentation for the group – the ‘one musician to a part’ model – probably evolved as much as anything to do with the economics of touring. The London Sinfonietta commissioned a core repertoire in this form that served a demand from venues and festivals for concerts exploring the new sounds of the age.

For anyone, including a new music ensemble, reaching the age of 50 can trigger an existential crisis, and we have had discussions about how our age and tradition equates to such an innovative start, and what today would be as new, different and risky. “Things now are not what they used to be” is the much-used expression (although, such is the danger of nostalgia, it may be worth reflecting that perhaps things were never what they “used to be”).

Context is everything

While there are some important similarities between the new music ensembles around Europe, we don’t each face exactly the same challenges or problems because of our different national context. And even if the challenges appear similar, we may not interpret them as such.

For example, arts funding, society and wider government policy in the UK has profoundly influenced the development of the London Sinfonietta over the years. While staying true to our instincts, we have had to learn how to adapt and even pre-empt these changes. Our national Arts Council encouraged and then effectively mandated that organisations develop programmes of work that provided arts activity in schools and the community – but this was in fact a movement led by the London Sinfonietta which was the first UK music organisation to begin an education programme in the early 1980s (the idea of Michael de Grey who managed the ensemble at the time). There is now Arts Council led policy for publicly funded organisations to have clear digital policies, to find ways to tour more regularly to areas of the UK where less arts provision exists and to develop projects and audiences that reflect the diverse society that exists in the UK today. All of these policies are driven by a consistent motivation - to reach more people with the art that is paid for with public money.

The other major piece of context for us all has been the financial crisis of 2008. In the UK, this has been followed by a decade of austerity that has left far less funding for all public services, including the arts, and particularly massive reductions in arts funding available from local authorities. The network of possible venues and festivals around the UK who can take the financial risk on contemporary classical music concerts has shrunk.

We in the UK have therefore looked with envy for many years at the scale of public investment in the arts and new music in several mainland European countries. Higher levels of funding have been sustained for longer - enough to keep full-time new music ensembles busy year round, with admirable programmes of ambition and scale in their own country and internationally.

Yet, as necessity is the mother of invention, so the London Sinfonietta has found it has had to develop an appetite for experimentation and change that has caused it to evolve its artistic ethos and programme of work consistently across a 50-year history. The ensemble has taken pride in its resulting eclectic aesthetic, its cross-genre and cross art-form collaborations, its public engagement programmes, its digital experiments and events in unusual locations.

The only thing that is constant is change

We should not be surprised that change is part of our work – and we should surely expect this from the community of composers and artists whom we work with. The visionary composer John Cage said of the evolution of music, as far back as 1992: "We live in a time I think not of mainstream, but of many streams, or even, if you insist upon a river of time, that we have come to [a] delta, maybe even beyond [a] delta to an ocean which is going back to the skies."  For the London Sinfonietta in the UK there was perhaps a period in the 70s and 80s where the programme of the ensemble was the definition of a certain strand of new music because its concerts were one of the few places to hear this groundbreaking repertoire performed live.  A London Sinfonietta commission was a signal moment for a composer because it represented a rare chance to have a world-class performance on a stage that received serious critical attention and national broadcast.

But now - in a world of digitisation, social media, Spotify and Soundcloud – Cage’s assessment has become an even greater truth. Composers no longer require publishers nor record labels to help them reach an audience. It can be argued that there is no more mainstream in new music and the established ensembles, festivals and venues with ‘traditional’ ways of curating and promoting concerts are no longer the gatekeepers they once were.

Some younger composers we work with now reflect the multi-sensory digital world in which they grew up. They fluently use different arts and musical genres together as one form of expression, naturally imagining works with electronics, film, speech, staging and lighting, collaborating with pop artists and making work which is a mix between art installation and experimental theatre performance. Writing a concert piece for an ensemble of classical instruments is now just one of the choices they can make.

And, while the refined craft of writing for ensemble is hard won and usually university educated, such training is still no guarantee of great music.  While there has been an expansion in the UK of fee-paying students studying courses and gaining credentials in composition, there is still the exciting rarity of truly original music voices. Composers such as Xenakis came from outside this tradition – and while he fought hard to learn from as many recognised masters as possible, it was his non-conventional approach and sound that we now celebrate.

The digital revolution has changed the audience too, who are far more aware of many different styles of new music. New concert locations and styles of curating events have become more important to the new music sector in the UK in a bid to attract this audience. Many promoters we work with around the UK and abroad are looking for the ‘hook’ in the concert idea that will make it relevant to an audience in the way that the more narrative and political art forms of film, theatre and art can do. We have in the past few seasons worked in unusual spaces such as nightclubs, factories, art galleries, museums and even the London Underground tube network to present an audience with an engaging ‘experience’ that can, at its best, liberate their imagination and provide a crucial way into really listening to the often unfamiliar sounds of the music. Our most recent commission was a piece of music theatre by composer Tansy Davies and writer Nick Drake, performed in an old newspaper printing factory. Audiences were up-close to the singers, enveloped in smoke (and even a few made wet by a water shower from the roof). The venue was part of the story of the project that attracted wider audiences, and it’s hard to imagine that work being played again in a traditional theatre.

What next?

So what do ensembles like ours do about this new, changing landscape? One where there is less funding and more pressure from policy makers to “do more with less”, a demand from venues and festivals to provide new experiences that connect with wider audiences and – crucially – composers who want to explore all the sonic and cross-art form possibilities they can.

One choice certainly could be to reinforce our own traditions – continue to commission a repertoire for a fixed-size ensemble, performed in a concert hall to attentive audiences, and just work with the best composers who write their best work for that form. Several groups have created their own ensemble traditions, repertoire and economy based on this way of working and a concert experience of great new music in a great acoustic is still a wonderful thing. There is also no doubt a self-preserving logic to this approach. Yet the conversation is whether we are reaching a ‘tipping point’ - whether the context around us is now changing so much as to question whether this future is sustainable. If we persist, there is also a risk we become obsessed with a tradition that makes us our own kind of 20th century period ensemble.

Or we accept the change, and seek to be inventive and flexible. For us at the London Sinfonietta this means we have and will be making projects involving different numbers of players and instrumentations. Our musicians will also increasingly be challenged to perform differently and in new settings, and be asked to collaborate with musicians, composers and artists in new ways. Over the next few years we are already proposing to adopt new musicians from different musical traditions as associates to the ensemble to see what kind of music results.

Collaborations with other contemporary art forms, and in different spaces, are not new – but they continue to be hugely successful in reaching wider new audiences who listen as hard and as well as those who buy tickets to concert series. Recently, a series of 10 events curated with artist Christian Marclay attracted large new audiences to the White Cube Gallery in London, and allowed our musicians to explore successful semi-composed, improvisatory collaborations with composers whom we may never have commissioned for our more traditional concert hall programme.

Ways forward

This flexibility can happen while sustaining the tradition of concert repertoire that all the new music ensembles have already and continue to commission. We – like many groups - still give a majority of our concerts in the concert hall of music made by highly trained and talented composers - and there is still an audience for these events when they are curated imaginatively.

The conclusion I am reaching is, of course, in finding a balance between sustaining and developing this extraordinarily rich tradition, and being prepared to break it all to do something new. I regularly think that if the London Sinfonietta is not prepared to regularly re-invent its tradition, we are no longer living the spirit of the ensemble when it was founded in 1968.

This involves risk – and doing things you don’t yet know how to do, with composers and artists who are seeking to invent new possibilities with sound, art form and setting. The American film maker Charlie Kaufman once said that if what you are doing does not have the possibility of failing, then by definition you are not doing anything new. It seems to me that – hand-in-hand with the best composers we can find and trust – we should keep the best of our tradition, yet shrug off the fear (or be willing to lose some sleep), embrace the change and keep taking risks to make vital, inspiring, challenging, different and difficult musical art.
—Andrew Burke, 2018


Andrew Burke is the Chief Executive & Artistic Director of the London Sinfonietta (since 2007) and was previously working in music education as the Head of London Symphony Orchestra Discovery Programme from 2003-2007.

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