The shock of the new

We love contemporary art and literature. So why does music have such an image problem?

We are living in a glorious period for contemporary British musical composition. There are more first-rate composers living and working in the UK than at any time in our history. Among others, Harrison Birtwistle, Brian Ferneyhough, Judith Weir, George Benjamin, Oliver Knussen, Mark-Anthony Turnage and James Dillon have all written major works across a range of genres. Sadly, in the cases of Dillon and Ferneyhough, their profiles are higher abroad than they are on these shores.

As controller of BBC Radio 3, I try to showcase the best of British talent and promote understanding of these composers. The station is the world's largest commissioner of new music, and this aspect of our work is particularly important to me. I feel strongly that Radio 3 is not a museum with a static collection; one way in which it can remain fresh and topical is by regularly including new work, juxtaposed with more familiar music.

However, there is no doubt that modern classical music is suffering from an image problem. As the nominations are unveiled for this year's British Composer Awards, which will be announced at the Hayward Gallery in London on 24 November, we are unlikely to see a huge surge of interest in the works selected or the composers honoured. This is the fourth year of the awards, organised by the British Academy of Composers and Songwriters, but I am no longer waiting with bated breath for extensive press coverage or a sea change in the public's attitude to modern music. I will not be surprised if such media interest as there is focuses on Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead and on if his work will win the Radio 3 Listeners' Award.

Compare this to the pull of contemporary visual art - the Turner Prize, for example, or the equivalent award for modern fiction, the Man Booker Prize. Both events generate reams of newspaper copy and huge public interest, leading to vast increases in the commercial viability of the prizewinner. Michael Finnissy won two of last year's British Composer Awards. Yet his name and music remain unknown to the wider public. His "English Country-Tunes" is one of the most important piano works of the past 50 years and yet it remains only rarely performed.

So, how has this problem arisen? I would suggest that there are two main reasons: how we experience the music and the language we use to talk about it. With a visual artwork, you can pause, often walk around the piece in question, and move on as quickly as you feel necessary. You can then choose to return to it whenever you want. Similarly, you can pick up and put down a book in your own time.

Classical music, on the other hand, demands concentration and commitment. In a concert hall, where the vast majority of new pieces start out, you are obliged to sit and listen - there is no realistic opportunity to walk out. After that, the experience is over and you will probably never have the chance to hear the piece again. How frustrating it is for the composer, and how difficult for the audience.

Second, we seem shy to talk about music using words with which we are more comfortable talking about other art forms - for example, colour, mood and energy. Our critical language slips too readily into musical terms that are meaningless to most people - "atonal", or "second Viennese school", or "new complexity". This encourages the idea that you need to "understand" new music before you can talk about it. People who don't feel they have an academic understanding of what they are hearing find it difficult to enjoy new music as a sensory experience.

It is tempting to think that we can solve these problems through better music education. In fact, progress has been made over the past five years, with increasing opportunities within the school curriculum to look at new music. I don't think enjoying new music should require an education, however - it should be a natural part of our lives, in the same way as pop is a natural part of the lives of the younger generation. In the past, there was not always this division between the popular and the new: in this Mozart anniversary year, it is important to remember how his music touched the popular imagination.

Neither is lack of funding now the sole issue. Throughout history, great composers have had to do work other than composing in order to buy time for their art. At Radio 3, we are privileged to be able to provide an outlet to those compositional voices that the market ignores. As I write, Radio 3 is broadcasting the nine symphonies of Sir Malcolm Arnold, in whose recent obituaries it was pointed out how, despite his stature, his large-scale music is ignored by orchestras and concert promoters.

However, even in the commercial sector this is a problem of will rather than means. Even with the necessary funding in place, concert promoters and festival organisers are often reluctant to risk putting on new music. The innovative Encore scheme, run by the Royal Philharmonic Society, provides opportunities for new works which have been well received to find further performances. But it has not been easy persuading promoters to engage with the scheme, even with extra rehearsals paid for and potential lost box-office revenue covered.

In order to sustain the public's interest in classical music as a whole, it is crucial that programmers play fresh and innovative work alongside the traditional repertoire. This means having the imagination - not only the funds - to keep programming as alive as possible. Some may argue that it is the composers who have lost touch with their audience. But it is we, the audience, who are in danger of losing touch with composers, and we are much the poorer for it.

The British Composer Awards will be presented on 24 November

Three to watch

Simon Holt Nominated in the "Instrumental Solo and Duo" and "Listeners'" categories

Holt won fame with Who Put Bella in the Wych Elm?, a stage work for Almeida Aldeburgh Opera in 2003, based on a press report about the 1943 discovery of an unidentified woman's remains in the hollow of a tree at Hagley Wood, in the Black Country. "I've no idea what it was about it - something seemed to come to me in a flash," he said. Other big influences are the Greek legends, on which he based The Icarus Trilogy (completed 1995), and Federico García Lorca, whose writings inspired Holt's first opera and his song cycle Canciónes.

Jonathan Dove Nominated in the "Choral" and "Community and Educational" categories

Dove's opera Tobias and the Angel was the production chosen to open the refurbished Young Vic theatre last month, where it received rave reviews. He specialises in work that involves the community, and says he likes writing tunes that "people will enjoy on a first hearing". Besides contributing music to various plays, including His Dark Materials at the National Theatre, Dove has written the operas Flight, set in an airport, and When She Died . . . (for Channel 4), marking the fifth anniversary of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.

Judith Bingham Nominated in the "Choral", "Liturgical" and "Stage Works" categories

Bingham's composition Chapman's Pool (1997) received more than 80 performances around the world in just four years, making her one of the UK's most internationally performed composers. To more recent acclaim, her choral work Hidden City, inspired by the nuclear attack on Hiroshima, was premièred at the closing concert of the City of London Festival 2006.

Research by Olivia Shean

Next Article