0 Soon to be disbanded, Glasgow District Council has
funded new works by four contemporary Scottish composers who will play the local authority out of office,
says Eddie Gibb.
s a gesture of Pat Lally’s magniﬁcent municipal muniﬁcence, four murals by Glasgow’s most famous contemporary painters will hang in the Royal Concert Hall,just as soon as Peter Howson gets his canvas the right way up. The pictures were commissioned by the District Council and will act as a reminder of its committed patronage of the arts long after the local authority ceases to exist under local government reorganisation in April. But there will be another, less tangible legacy left by the Council — a cycle of four contemporary musical commissions which are to receive their international premieres in Glasgow over the next eighteen months.
The Council-financed commissions pair a contemporary Scottish composer with an artist from another discipline, with dance. creative writing, sculpture and visual art all being set to music played by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. The first pairing puts lnverness- born composer Alasdair Nicolson together with shaven-headed north London dancer Laurie Booth, whose past performances have featured his fascination with martial arts. It should be interesting to see how a chamber orchestra accommodates such a physical performer in its midst. ‘They’ll need to get together soon to see if he’s going to be kicking them in the face.‘ jokes Nicolson.
The piece is called The Last Meeting and is based loosely on the Greek legend of Orpheus and Eurydice’s adventure in the Underworld. As Nicolson says. it’s a story that many composers have tapped for inspiration before him. ‘This is not a ballet on the Orpheus legend,’ he adds. ‘That was just the stimulus idea. It’s about musicians and the power of music. and about being reunited and having it taken away again.’
Nicolson was paired with a choreographer because many of his previous commissions have been for theatre companies. including the score for TAG’s adaptation of Alasdair Gray’s epic Glasgow novel Lanark. Music was an integral part of the production. which used two opera singers who acted as the play’s narrators in an attempt to replace the visual element of Gray’s story — Duncan Thaw’s creation of the mural - previously thought to be unstageable. The experience of working on Lanark and many other musical theatre collaborations is likely to lend The Last Meaning a strong
dramatic sense. So how will it sound?
‘That’s one question you don’t ask a composer.’ laughs Nicolson, ‘but I have thought about the interaction between the instruments and the roles played by the different sections of the orchestra. There will be drama within the musical side.’ The next stage is for Booth to work out his moves around the musicians, who will be arranged rather differently from a traditional chamber orchestra. This unusual collaboration has meant that Nicolson has had to work not only as composer, but also give stage directions.
Though the collaborations have been funded mainly by Glasgow District Council, the idea originally came from the SCO. The other commissions pair up, Haflidi Hallgrimsson and painter Craigie Aitchison, Sally Beamish and writer Janice Galloway, and James MacMillan and sculptor Sue Jane Taylor. ‘One of the things we have always tried to do is challenge the boundaries of what a modern orchestra does and its relationship to other art forms,’ says SCO managing director Roy McEwan. ‘We looked for four interesting composers who were either Scottish-based or had a Scottish connection and had a distinctive voice. Alasdair is used to working in a wide variety of environments and is committed to looking at music in different ways.’
‘People are much more comfortable with what they know and love. That makes it difficult for composers to survive. There’s less room for experimentation or the chance to tail.’ Alasdair Nicolson
Nicolson says the fact that The Last Meeting was paid for from the public purse did not influence the work — most of his compositions are subsidised in some form, he says. But McEwan does stress that the composers were all chosen because they were ‘great communicators’, which is the closest anyone will come to saying that such a Council-backed project should be accessible. ‘lt stems from the City of Culture, which most things do.‘ says
l Calm and composed: Alasdair Nlcolson
Charles Bell of the Council’s Department of Performing Arts. ‘The project comes out of the view that Glasgow has of itself as a city of creativity. No one is pretending the SCO has a massive popular audience. but by working in a different way. and if it’s promoted in the right way, they should extend the audience.’
Nicolson believes the Council’s decision to fund contemporary commissions was far- sighted. coming at a time when classical concerts are increasingly retreating to a repertoire of the tried and tested classics. ‘People are much more comfortable with what they know and love, and that’s not just the corporate sponsors, that's the audiences and often the musicians themselves.’ he says. ‘That makes it difficult for composers to survive. I can’t say l’m doing badly. but young composers often get only one opportunity and that’s it. There’s less room for experimentation or the chance to fail. You can stick in the past and not engage with what‘s happening in contemporary music. but then what’s to happen in the future‘?’
When Glasgow District Council ceases to exist in March. it will at least be able to say it did its bit for that future.
Alasdair Nieolsonis' The Last il'leeting has its world premiere at the City Hall in Glasgow on Friday 8, with a second performance at the Queen is Hall. Edinburgh, on Saturday 9.
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