Good vibrations

New Music - A former Pogue is defying his critics to show the way forward for contemporary composers

In the middle of the ancient forest of King's Wood in Kent, you can hear, if you listen closely, water slowly dripping. A pipe sits at the mouth of a ten-metre-deep chamber in the ground, and as the droplets fall and splash from it, they hit water bowls and tuned percussion buried within, ringing them like bells. Magnified via a seven-metre-high brass horn that sticks straight out of the ground and stands among the trees, the sound carries far into the wood.

This is the composer Jem Finer's latest sonic adventure, Score for a Hole in the Ground. As a founder member of the Pogues, Finer may have an unlikely pedigree as a champion of new music, but since leaving the band he has worked on ever more expansive projects. His acclaimed Longplayer, for instance, began on 1 January 2000 at Trinity Buoy Wharf in London and will continue, without repeating itself, for exactly 1,000 years. A mix of electronic and acoustic sounds, the piece is generated by a computer program written by Finer himself.

For his latest work, however, he has gone in the opposite direction, away from technology and towards a dependence on the natural environment. Many composers would baulk at the idea of using such uncontrollable musical materials as earth, gravity and water, but as Finer explained when I accompanied him on a visit to the site for the piece, it's all part of the fun of composing. "I enjoy the randomness of what might happen. A computer program will have glitches in it that I might not have foreseen; the water drips in this piece will be determined by forces other than me. But whether I'm working with a computer or with natural forces, I like the fact that it's a kind of collaboration."

Finer takes as his focus the idea of time and place, forging music bigger and more long-lasting than any human performer could sustain. Once it is completed this autumn, his mega-instrument for Score for a Hole in the Ground will continue to "play" until it naturally decays. In the interim, the trickles and sploshes of water, along with the noise of birdsong, leaves and wind, will become part of the landscape: mesmeric, meditative, elemental.

"I wanted to have a hole deep enough that it would take more than a lifetime to fill with drips," he says. "Score for a Hole in the Ground is both a piece in its own right and also a musical instrument."

Were this music to be found in a temple garden in Japan (its reliance on water draws heavily on Shinto and Buddhist rituals), it would be celebrated, even revered. But it is in a wood near Faversham and its composer is more Kentish Town than Kyoto; thus it has attracted its fair share of criticism. Last year, the proposal for Score for a Hole in the Ground won Finer the inaugural New Music Award, funded by the Performing Right Society Foundation. The prize was an enviable £50,000 with which to realise the project. Almost as soon as the winner was announced, however, Finer's piece was widely criticised for not being "real music". One Telegraph writer questioned whether there was any "music per se" in the New Music Award.

Creatively treating and arranging sounds is the defining feature of music, and to dismiss it as anything else is shockingly retrograde. It seems bizarre that more than 50 years after John Cage's seminal 4'33" (in which a pianist sits at the piano and plays nothing for precisely four minutes and 33 seconds), the debate about new music has not moved on. There is a tendency among some critics to be wary of the new, or to talk about contemporary music in such alienating terms that most people feel that it is not for them.

Since Cage, we have had the electronic music of Karlheinz Stockhausen, out-of-synch tape loops from Steve Reich, and pieces for laptops from Jennifer Walshe. Finer's work is a continuation of these exploratory approaches. As he sees it, Score for a Hole in the Ground "is, in a sense, a completion of a cycle that has seen the digitised exploration of sound and music return to its prehistoric roots - the harmonics of the environment". In other words, even holes in the ground owe a debt to musical precedent and tradition.

His critics would also do well to remember their music history. Let's not forget that Mozart (whose music seems to us the epitome of balance, harmony and classical elegance) was also, once, a cutting-edge composer. Operas such as Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro surprised audiences with their depictions of erotic love and sex. Many characters had at their core a violent conflict and psychological depth previously unseen on the operatic stage. Shockingly, four, five, six or more characters might all talk at once. This was alien, unknown and exciting new music.

Many will say that contemporary music is thriving in the UK, that our concert halls are full and our composers are writing world-beating new music. True, but go to a few new music concerts and you will see the same faces time and again. There is an audience, but it is not as large or broad as it could be. Yet go to the Mostly Mozart festival, or an opera at the Royal Albert Hall in London, and you will see a completely different crowd - a bigger and more inclusive group of people, brought together by their appreciation of something that to them is meaningful, moving, unthreatening and enjoyable. New music has not quite achieved the same relationship with the wider public. Several millions might have heard John Williams's film scores, but fewer have heard a note of John Adams or Harrison Birtwistle. Fewer still would recognise the names of contemporary British composers such as Brian Ferneyhough, Michael Finnissy or Thomas Adès.

Though it is vital to have a connection with our past through its music, it would be a mistake to neglect the music of our own time - particularly while we consume contemporary art, cinema and literature with such relish. New music can and should stand as an eloquent reminder of our potential and an exploration of the world we inhabit. In Finer's case, it also happens to be rather beautiful. New music is out there to be enjoyed by all of us: we just need to pause among the dappled leaves - and listen.

Score for a Hole in the Ground will be open to the public from September at King's Wood, near Faversham, Kent.

This article first appeared in the 05 June 2006 issue of the New Statesman, False dawn for democracy