Secrets of a leading composer revealed;Art in Scotland;Interview; Sally Beamish

27th March 1998 at 00:00
Svend Brown heard Sally Beamish offer signposts to her Second Symphony on the eve of its premiere in Glasgow

The best thing about a new piece of music is that you have never seen it before, and the most scary thing about a new piece of music is that you have never seen it before!"

That was how Bill Chandler, one of the violinists in the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, summed up the experience of giving the premi re of Sally Beamish's Second Symphony last week. Thinking about it, he could as well have been describing listening to it. Too often it is assumed that, although the musicians need heaps of preparation for a premiere, the audience should be able to come to it receptive and ready to appreciate the gifts on offer. For all the excitement and anticipation these events generate (and this one has had the Scottish media in as much of a feeding frenzy as it gets about an arts event these days), is it really fair to expect music and listener to spend half an hour together without introducing them first? There will always be those who enjoy the thrill of exploring virgin territory, but the vast majority of listeners regard new music with apprehension, and need more than the naked notes themselves.

Last week, as part of its contemporary music week, the RSNO did precisely this. The night before the premi re proper, Beamish gave anyone who wished to hear it the chance to see inside the new symphony; she described her material, inspiration and her craft. At her disposal was the full orchestra, who illustrated her points effectively in short excerpts as well as performing the piece complete at the end of the evening, and a trio to play the small piece - Between Earth and Sea - the starting point for the symphony.

The audience was small but mixed: there were bald heads at both extremes of the age range, several classes from local schools, who also took part, and members of the public mixed in with the luvvies and Beamish fan club.

This kind of project stands or falls on its presentation, and Beamish is a natural. She talks with ease and openness of every aspect of her work. Many composers resist actually telling you how they made that tune or this chord sequence, or what the significance of this moment could be. There are mysteries and magic in juggling emotions in sound, but there is also craft. She showed how she orchestrated, how a tune was constructed, how she thought, what the pattern of her working day might be, all things which could encourage the pupils in the audience by demonstrating that you do not need to be a tormented genius to compose. She laid all this bare in a gently self-deprecating, utterly honest manner, and made you realise how much music is an integral part of her life. What a role model.

The other aspect of her presentation of value to music lovers of all ages, but again particularly the younger listeners, was that she elaborated on the symbolic significance of the music. She has described the symphony as her most abstract work to date, yet it is shot through with images and evocative sounds. A rhythm is a heartbeat, a falling interval a sigh. There are shallow waters gently ebbing and flowing on a beach populated with birds in this landscape. By pinpointing these elements and having the orchestra play them in isolation, Beamish offered very identifiable signposts to listen out for during the full performance, so that this brand new piece was no longer a vast expanse of 30 minutes of unfamiliar music, but waters we could negotiate with a map.

Fascinatingly, many of the sounds and formal ideas of Beamish's work surfaced again in three pieces by pupils from local schools, which were interleaved throughout the analysis of the symphony - a canny way to break the evening up and avoid too much talking. These pieces are the fruits of a creative project that has seen the composer and members of the orchestra working in classrooms with small groups to explore the themes of the symphony - ideas of rhythm, atmosphere, seascapes and birdsong. The one thing they could not have had, of course, is the actual sound of the new piece in their heads. Yet each four to five minute-long piece materially resembled the symphony. They were all impressively realised and excellently performed by the children, not to mention beautifully integrated into the presentation, avoiding any impression of being an add-on. If anything, the music crystallised some of the substance of Beamish's speech. If there was something yet to be resolved - and this is a mild criticism - it is the question of language.

Lynne Walker, who facilitated the evening, teetered too often on the brink of patronising in some of her questions to both composer and children; and Beamish did assume a certain knowledge of musical vocabulary and form. So, while she explained the essence of sonata form very briefly, she could maybe have spent more time on the issues of contrast and development inherent in it - cementing the idea as much as articulating it. There were also unexplained references to pentatonic scales, B sections, chromatic harmonies and the like, which a general audience simply cannot be assumed to understand.

In recent weeks there have been two presentations of this kind in Scotland. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra toured the country with a very similar schools project called Masterworks, which focused on James MacMillan's Veni, Veni Emmanuel. For both orchestras it is a very expensive exercise: it requires extensive planning, a full orchestra, a sympathetic conductor and presenter and - in these two cases - a living composer. But it is so worth the money in terms of bringing both the music and truths about composing music home to any audience, but specifically school classes, themselves grappling with creative work. These projects were made possible because of one-off public funds for the SCO and private funds for the RSNO. Here's hoping that those who might have it in their gift to encourage more of this kind of work take up the initiative now, while it is hot.

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