MY STORY Taking new music out of its niche
Tim Williams, artistic director of Psappha
As the Manchester-based classical music ensemble Psappha, which specialises in modern classical music, marks its 30th birthday its founder Tim Williams has announced he is standing down as artistic director. Described by its patron Mark-Anthony Turnage as “one of the most important - and most capable - ensembles in the world”, its anniversary tour will see it playing in London, Cambridge, Halifax and Sheffield and of course Manchester, as well as Italy and the United States.
Psappha is the only profession group of its kind in the North West. How did it come about, and how did you arrive at the name?
I formed Psappha in 1991 as I was keen to work with living composers and support the development of music. The story begins considerably earlier. I attended a very average comprehensive school in a Liverpool suburb which had a fantastic music teacher. He organised regular trips to performances in and around Liverpool ranging from Contemporary Music Network tours to RLPO performances at the Philharmonic Hall. He was also a composer and wrote a xylophone concerto for me when I was 15 which I went on to perform with my local youth orchestra. This is where the fascination of working with living composers began.
When I graduated from the Royal Northern College of Music (as a percussionist) I realised that, apart from teaching, there was nothing to keep composers in the North West and that most moved south and didn’t return. For the past 30 years we’ve worked to develop a new music scene in Manchester and I’m proud of where we are today. The RNCM and University of Manchester offer fantastic courses for composers many of whom remain in Manchester and go on to form their own ensembles
The name is easy… as a percussionist I became obsessed with Psappha, Xenakis’s work for solo percussion - I didn’t want to call the group something like The Manchester New Music Group – so the name stuck.
Psappha: Left to right, Benedict Holland (violin); Benjamin Powell (piano and the new artistic director); Conrad Marshall (flute); Tim Williams (percussion); Dov Goldberg (clarinet); and Jennifer Langridge (cello).
You are a six-piece ensemble – percussion, violin, cello, piano, flute and clarinet. How did you decide on that formation?
Peter Maxwell Davies was the inspiration for the formation of the group. His own ensemble, The Fires of London, was active between 1965 and 1987 with its instrumentation based on Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire (flute, clarinet, piano, violin and cello) plus percussion. Max was a prolific composer and wrote a lot of excellent chamber music and music-theatre for that group of instruments. He also commissioned many works which gave a real treasure trove of music to explore.
In the early years we stuck to this core instrumentation, but as time went by I experimented with larger (and smaller) ensembles, varied the instrumentation and collaborated with musicians from different musical backgrounds including folk, African, Indian Classical and jazz. These variations to the initial core ensemble supported the creative output of the music creators we worked with, which has provided our audience with a unique offer over the years.
Your programme looks back at three decades of work commissioned by you. What have been the highlights, do you think?
It’s been an enormous privilege to be part of the creative journey of many hundreds of composers – too many to mention here. I would have to include two fantastic works written for Psappha by our patrons. First, Mr Emmet Takes a Walk by Peter Maxwell Davies, the first music-theatre work he wrote after a break of 17 years - we toured the work around Europe and recorded it on our own label. Secondly, Black Milk by our current Patron Mark-Anthony Turnage which we premiered in April 2021 as a live-stream for jazz singer Ian Shaw and an ensemble of 16 musicians. This was a piece Mark had wanted to write for many years and our first large ensemble performance since the start of the pandemic. The combination of the music and the sheer joy and energy of the musicians performing together was an amazing experience.
I would also like to mention a new recording we’re releasing in February 2022 as part of our 30th Anniversary celebrations. It includes six recent commissions that I’m particularly fond of and keen to share. The collection includes works by John Casken, Tom Coult, Ninfea Cruttwell-Reade, Alissa Firsova, Tom Harrold and George Stevenson.
New classical music generally has a small audience, and new composers have a notoriously hard time getting recognised. Has this changed during the pandemic and with the use of new approaches to audiences?
By using digital platforms such as YouTube and Vimeo we have turned contemporary classical music from a niche art form to something we can share with a worldwide audience. We were ahead of the curve when we started to film our live performances back in 2008. During the pandemic we took this a step further and gave a series of performances, presented by Tom McKinney, that were livestreamed from Hallé St Peter’s in the heart of Manchester. Our YouTube Channel now has more than 240 films of live performances and received more than 120,000 views from across the world in the past year. As well as the more familiar names in new music we also create films of new works written by the 24 emerging composers who work with us each year through Psappha’s Composing for… schemes. This approach has supported the career development of more the 140 emerging composers to date who embed the films in their own websites and use them to promote their music and apply for courses, competitions and schemes.
‘The changes over the past 30 years have been radical and liberating for composers and listeners’
How has new music developed over the last 30 years?
When I formed Psappha in 1991 we were still in the pre-digital age. Notation software was a way off and composers wrote everything by hand, sitting at the piano and using their imagination to hear the music in their head. There were schools of composers who followed a particular style and there were fewer opportunities to develop a work with the support of the performers. It was exciting but very different from where we are now.
The changes over the past 30 years have been radical and liberating for composers and listeners. There’s no path that needs to be followed, free expression is the order of the day, anything goes and creativity is alive and well. Performers are keen collaborators and the digital age has brought notation software and midi to support the composition process. The technical ability of performers has improved and composers have continued to push the boundaries of possibility. I think it’s fair to say that we’re in good shape and I look forward, with open ears, to what comes next.
With venues closed and touring at a standstill for at least 18 months, how has Psappha survived, and have you been able to continue commissioning?
Manchester was particularly badly hit by the pandemic due a combination of national and local lockdowns between October 2020 and May 2021, but despite the challenges we self-promoted seven live performances from Hallé St Peter’s which enabled us to stay connected with our audience and support our freelance musicians and technical team. The repertoire we performed called for ensembles ranging in size from 3 to 21 musicians and our programme included 14 world premieres and 2 UK premieres. Through workshops and our Composing for… schemes we supported 70 composers through 162 one to one workshops. We used a remote system that we developed in-house to provide CD quality audio and HD film facilitating meaningful interaction between composer and performers.
Has your overseas touring been affected by Brexit?
We actually have two trips planned for the 2021-22 season. The first, in early October, is a performance at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival and the second is a festival in Los Angeles in April. Brexit has made life more difficult and the newly required paperwork and the Covid traffic light system that’s currently in place.
There is no doubt that organising a trip abroad has become more time consuming and more costly due to the Covid testing required by each country. By working with the promoters we have found ways to cover the costs so that we’re able to continue to share our work with an international audience.
Even though they are still only partially open, confined to limited capacity still, venues are now welcoming audiences at last. Are they welcoming you too?
We have a full season of performances planned for 2021-22. It looks as though the plans for a vaccine passport to gain access to busy venues will not be realised. I hope that without restrictions many people will return to live performances, but I fear it might take some time for older members of the classical music audience to return to the concert hall. Only time will tell.
Do you think new music is properly served by the Proms and the BBC?
The BBC has been an enthusiastic advocate of new music since its inception and continues to broadcast music by living music creators through live performances, the Proms and the New Music Show. It’s impossible to say whether this properly serves new music as everyone will have a different opinion. The balance is difficult to get right but I would love to hear more. I enjoy listening to radio stations such as France Musique who include music by living composers throughout the day. I first heard some chamber music by Bruno Mantovani mid-morning which was a revelation!