Performing Right Society
The Performing Right Society is every composer’s lifeline, but for one group the lifeline has weakened. Until last year, composers of so-called “classical” music enjoyed a subsidy to their rights payments of around 170 per cent. The supplement came from the earnings of the PRS as a whole, which meant that the big earners such as film composers and song writers were subsidising writers of string quartets. Not surprisingly, this caused a good deal of resentment, which the PRS board-heavily loaded for historical reasons with classical composers and publishers-always managed to quash. But finally it grew into a full-scale mutiny, and the parliamentary select committee on Monopolies and Mergers was called in. Their ruling that greater “transparency” was needed was all the encouragement the PRS needed to phase out the subsidy. The effect on some composers is said to have been calamitous. One well-known figure claims that his income has slumped by 60 per cent, another by 45 per cent, and the full effects have yet to be felt. Most classical composers react with a despairing shrug and say they’ll go on doing what they have always done; one or two are talking of founding a rival collecting society. Their publishers, who have suffered to the same degree, are more sanguine. They admit the PRS has a case-why should some members be called on to subsidise others without their consent? But, claims Michael Berkeley, a passionate supporter of the subsidy, like is not being compared with like. “It’s not musical value we’re talking about. We’re talking about proper recompense for labour expended. It might take a year to write a big orchestral score-compare that with the time needed to write a hit song, or a television signature tune.” But encouraging labour per se has its risks. Taken to its extreme, it would encourage a combination of giganticism and eccentricity-and indeed in the palmy days of “new music” subsidy those things were much in evidence. You find them gathering dust in music libraries, those vast orchestral scores from the 1960s which needed two conductor’s stands to hold them, a 100 players to play them, and a PhD thesis to explain them. The dangers of breaking the link between creation and public taste were only too visible in Holland, where creative artists were entirely insulated from the market by a system of lifetime bursaries, and a state-subsidised publishing house that at one time published anything and everything by any composer with a Dutch passport. The virtue of the PRS’s system was that, by basing the pay-out on real box-office earnings, the salutary effect of the market was preserved, but softened just enough to give the composer a breathing space. It worked well for decades; its only fault was that the wrong people were paying for it-the PRS membership. If the Department of Culture, Media and Sport is serious about putting the creative artist back at the centre of cultural policy, it should offer to foot the bill.
Modernism stays afloat
Given the utter lack of financial incentives, and a cultural climate where accessibility is all, composers who cling to modernist ideals are becoming an embattled species. It can sometimes seem that musical modernism survives only because of the massive prestige of a few greying masters, notably Pierre Boulez. His 75th-birthday conducting tour earlier this year had all the gloss and pomp you’d expect, but with the slightly forlorn air of a survivor of the heroic avant-garde shaking his fist at the rising tide of minimalist populism. There are plenty of anti-modernist ideologues who insist that Boulez’s “new” music is now old hat-and yet the strange thing is how tenacious the modernist impulse is amongst the younger generation. For every student composer who follows a mimimalist or new romantic line, there’s another who follows a modernist one. These twenty-something composers are no epigones of Birtwistle or Ligeti. The best of them, like Geoffrey Hannan and Morgan Hayes, have a marvellous freshness and originality. They show modernism isn’t about being pure-you can incorporate as many musical and expressive impurities as you like, as long as you avoid sentimentality by weaving them into a coherent language. But with sentimentality at a premium, new music publishing in the doldrums, and one-time patrons of modernism like the London Sinfonietta now having to defer to accessibility, you wonder how these talents are going to survive.
One area of music making that is booming is community opera, a genre that can make the purist opera-goer wince. But even the most sceptical would have been won over by The Palace in the Sky, a retelling of the Tower of Babel story played out on a building site in Hackney, and enacted-appropriately enough-by a cast of hundreds on the stage of the Hackney Empire. There were schoolchildren, retired people, the local jazz and Salvation Army bands, a Turkish lute band, a steel band, and dozens of others who saw the advertisement in the local paper and auditioned for parts. There were a handful of pros (one of whom, the tenor Robert Tear, said taking part was the most liberating thing he’d done in 40 years) but it was the amateurs’ show, and they stole it. The precision and verve they brought to a musical score of considerable sophistication was amazing. Inclusivity doesn’t have to mean dumbing down. n