Avant-garde versus melody

An interesting article appeared in The Sunday Times last weekend (http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/news/article1542923.ece) in which music critic Dalya Alberge interviewed composer Howard Blake (of The Snowman fame) who expressed the view that both the BBC and bodies such as the Arts Council have been promoting “avant-garde” artists at the expense of composers who want to write “tunes that do not grate on the ear”.  This has certainly been my feeling for many years  –  but now I find myself both agreeing and disagreeing with Howard Blake on this.  I actually studied composition with Howard Blake for a short time and I have to say that he was a kind, gentle and encouraging teacher and I learned a great deal from him in a short time.  I have the utmost respect for him and his work  –  I love both his piano concerto and his violin concerto!

I was in contact with Howard Blake at a time when I was being interviewed for a place at one of London’s music conversatoires. My interview at the Royal College of Music was memorable for all the wrong reasons.  It was quite clear that I didn’t stand a chance of being offered a place simply because my music was far too traditional and melodic for the college’s avant-garde taste.  A year later I did secure a place on the composition course at the Royal Academy of Music, albeit on the commercial composition course, which was far more tolerant of a traditional, melodic style.

And that’s where I agree with Howard Blake about the BBC (and music for television in general).  When was the last time anyone writing for television composed a really memorable tune?  The seventies and eighties gave us many good examples of really good television theme tunes  –  The Good Life; To The Manor Born; Open All Hours  –  and soap operas such as Howard’s Way and EastEnders, both from the pen of Simon May.  The last really good signature tune to come from the BBC was that of Keeping Up Appearances, composed by Nick Ingman early in the 1990’s.  I can’t think of anything better since then.  And don’t we all want a stonking good tune to sing along to when our favourite TV programme comes on?  The theme tunes to Downton Abbey and Mr Selfridge are good enough, but just try singing them right now  –  I bet you’ll struggle!

It’s when it comes to the Arts Council funding etc that I might take the opposite view.  As I have already alluded to earlier in this blog, I have decided, after many years of working in a traditional style, to discover a new, more avant-garde voice for myself because I now feel that the discovery of new ways of working is maybe of more value that replicating the past with a few minor tweeks.

Howard Blake does go on to say that “there is the view that tonal music has all been done by the great composers and one should therefore be looking for new expression.  Nobody would disagree with that.  But that does not mean excluding music with melody”.  One cannot really disagree with this, and the conclusion I come to therefore is that there needs to be more of a balance in the funding and support of composers by bodies such as the Arts Council  –  supporting composers writing in a variety of styles, both the avant-garde and the more melodic.


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