One of the main reasons I haven’t been writing much here (apart from work and family obligations) is that I’ve been running a project that means a lot to me. Now that it’s almost put to bed perhaps I can get back to other stuff that means a lot.
The project idea came from an unlikely source – the Elton John Christmas advert for John Lewis. It’s the one where he sits down at his childhood piano, bought at great sacrifice from his parents, and reflects on the way that some gifts are – well – more than just another gift.
The thing is, I’m the son of a musician and composer of a similar background to Elton John, and the massive sacrifice of his parents guided his approach to music. Dad left school at 15 having been told by his teachers that council house kids just don’t “do” classical music. He was busily performing – mostly for free – around the country from that age anyway, but he was in his thirties before having the self-confidence to go to teacher training college.
Doors to musical opportunity have been slammed in his face all his life, e.g. for being the wrong class or (since settling on the Isle of Man) the wrong national background. Yet he continued to perform, to compose, and to encourage new generations of working-class kids to be musicians.
A few years ago we noticed a change, which at first we put down to his age. Then a couple of years back he was diagnosed with Alzheimers. Now, while if guided to a piano he can still play, he cannot concentrate enough to write music, or even to read it and learn new pieces.
The challenge for me was to continue what he started. How to encourage teenagers from backgrounds as unlikely as his to produce “serious” (as opposed to bland pop) music. To read the government PR you see in the press, there has never been a time when so many brilliant young musicians were being produced. But that PR is a lie.
The state school system is a mess, reduced to producing conformist office fodder as surely as it was in the 1950’s, and not much else. Music lessons are seen as luxury items, one of those “extras” middle-class kiddies get in the same way they learn to ride ponies, sail or ballet dance. The chance that a kid from a council estate could get to the Royal College of Music, study composition and become the next Elgar is nil, and on the Isle of Man doubly so.
I wanted to change that in at least some small way. My solution was to pester some people who were handed a huge legacy to stop wittering on endlessly about how to invest it, and to spend some of it instead on enabling people from a humble background to do something creative, within the lifetime of either the (mostly elderly) other trustees or me.
My suggestion was a prize to produce short pieces of music for a new national ceremony. The prestige and prize money might provide valuable first steps on a career ladder for a new generation of dreamers like my Dad (or even me in my time). The idea went down well, both with the trustees and various well-connected, overprivileged bods who get public money to stimulate what passes for “Manx national culture.” The realisation was – well – a little harder. But it has happened – if in a very small way and not quite as I would have liked.
The great irony is that the only way I’ve been able to run a project which encouraged people (especially young people) to produce new and beautiful creations was for it to be centred on two of my pet hates – death and folk music. In my own teens and twenties, I played everything from Renaissance brass music to UK avant-garde, and aspired to work with the likes of John Cage or the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (managed the first, sadly the second folded before I could get there). So I really hoped to enable similar spirits from this generation who might then be the next generation of experimentalists. Sadly, I couldn’t push the envelope that far.
The trade-off is that the only musical entries the trustees actually liked were of the conservative Manx folk variety (albeit mostly created by young people ) and the ceremony at which the music will be played commemorates war dead (albeit innocent civilians of all nations in recent and current conflicts, rather than just Tommies from long gone ones “we” (whoever that is) “won” (by whatever means that has been officially decided).
So much for my hope of a truly new 21st century ceremony without barriers to participation revolving around truly new 21st century music. But as I ran the project (and am the only person driven enough to do the donkey-work), I also slipped a few extras in under the radar.
We got some excellent entries which do not fit the favoured categories, and they have the seeds of something new and original about them. So, in arranging for the winners to get an airing on local radio, it “just happens” that we needed to fill a little more air time (well, they are only two minute pieces), and that “accidentally” some of the more experimental and unique stuff is being included.
Oops! Us hopeless avant-gardists, all head—in-the clouds and forever muddling up the details. What are we like, eh?
But if Dad and some of my other past mentors were in any position to judge, I think they’d approve. And do I care what necrophiliacs and cultural conservatives think about it?