Our latest NMC Archive blog is by designer François Hall. François designed most of our booklets and covers until 2017 and in this blog he tells us about his artistic process.
My links with NMC began in the early 1990s when I was commissioned to design a CD (and cassette!) for Bingham String Quartet. Back then, I was working at the Southbank Centre designing posters for Messiaen’s 80th anniversary, the 60th anniversary of Stockhausen, and the Schoenberg celebration concerts, which has proved not dissimilar to designing CD covers. Both need to have arresting images that are uncluttered, atmospheric and conceptual – this is what I try to achieve when designing for NMC.
By the time the design for the first NMC sampler was needed, it was clear that the look and sound of NMC’s recordings stood out from the crowd. The ethos of NMC was so different from other record labels and suggested the analogy of the black sheep. Adding NMC blue, turning the stray sheep around and using the Warhol style we created the Pastures New artwork and the distinctive blue sheep logo was born (you can learn more about our blue sheep here).
Being presented with such a variety of ideas and concepts each time I’m asked to produce a new cover remains the most enjoyable part of working with NMC. Sometimes I am able to hear the music in advance – this especially helped with Richard Ayres' NONcertos, which is among my favourite NMC recordings, along with Judith Weir, Howard Skempton’s Ben Somewhen and Jonathan Harvey’s Body Mandala. I also enjoy jazz improvisation, which is not a million miles away from the way my mind works when in designer mode. And it always helps if I can listen to my favourite composer Thelonious Monk when I’m working!
To encapsulate these musical ideas and references can be a challenge but also fascinating because it leads me down avenues I would never have ventured if not for the title of a piece or the notion of a composer. Once I have the idea I then need to decide how to creatively represent it. This could be photography through a blue plastic stencil ruler on Portland beach (Lento), borrowing a real human skull from the local museum (Vanity), waiting outside a block of flats from light to dark (Poles Apart), photographing Art Deco wax dolls (The Intelligence Park) or delving into the incredible NASA website to discover mysterious sounds from Saturn (Saturn).
My favourite covers are Divertimento, On Memory, Lento and Prime Cuts.
We continue our NMC Archive Series with a blog that Richard Steele, long-standing NMC supporter and former SPNM Administrator/Executive Director (1988 - 1994), wrote for our Friends Newsletter last year. He tells us about working at SPNM and the first days of NMC.
When I joined the Society for the Promotion of New Music (SPNM) as its Administrator at the beginning of September 1988, I knew nothing of plans to develop a music label. I had been interviewed twice before being appointed, and Colin Matthews was on the second panel, but it was only on my first day in the basement office of 10 Stratford Place that my colleague Philip Nelson told me of Colin’s plan to set up a new label called ‘New Music Cassettes’ with the financial assistance of the Holst Foundation.
Phil Nelson, now the founder of First Column Management and a very experienced artist manager, was extremely knowledgeable about the recording industry and a great help to me throughout our year together at SPNM. He told me that Jonathan Harvey’s Bhakti, which had been recorded by Spectrum with Guy Protheroe for the BBC in 1984, was to be the first release on this new label. It had also been suggested that Phil would handle the administrative side of producing the cassette.
It was just as well that Phil warned me, because on my second day in the office Jonathan Harvey rang up and asked what I was going to do about Bhakti! I had not at that stage met Jonathan and he was understandably fairly insistent on the phone. He wanted to know when his recording would be released – it had been made in July 1984 – and hoped that there would be as little delay as possible despite the change in SPNM management from Rosemary Johnson to me.
I recall ringing Colin shortly after the call to find out exactly what the plans were for this new label and over the next few weeks Phil Nelson with Colin prepared the recording of Bhakti for its release in 1989 as NMC D001.
SPNM was a membership organisation and its primary role was to provide opportunities for emerging composers to hear their pieces performed in concerts and workshops and the two, occasionally three, of us in the SPNM office were always extremely busy. In addition, we ran the British Section of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) and produced the monthly CCC new music brochure so holidays had to be very carefully planned to fit in with the brochure deadlines. On top of all this, we now had a record label to run. Fortunately Phil Nelson and his successors from September 1989, Jonathan Cooper and Hannah Taylor, had sufficient energy and enthusiasm to take on the extra work required to develop the NMC label. Over the next two years, the number of NMC releases steadily grew. Recordings by the Bingham String Quartet, Mary Wiegold’s Songbook with The Composers Ensemble, James Dillon’s East 11th Street and a piano recital by Michael Finnissy of his own music and music by Judith Weir, Chris Newman and Howard Skempton were all released over the next 18 months.
However, it was Howard Skempton’s orchestral piece Lento released in April 1992 (NMC D005) that showed the real potential of NMC. Lento had been premiered by the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican and then recorded in August 1991. It was the classic slow burn release in that it started selling well and then just continued selling to the extent that it remains the most consistently sold recording in the NMC catalogue.
Well, it became obvious by 1991 that NMC was too important and too administratively time-consuming to continue to be run from the SPNM office as an “extra” activity. With the agreement of the SPNM Executive Committee, which of course included Colin, I went to see our Arts Council music officer, Kathryn McDowell, now Managing Director of the LSO. I let her know that SPNM would be letting NMC go independent, thereby releasing Hannah Taylor to work for NMC exclusively, and be run from a different office, admittedly initially in the same building. Kathryn was most supportive and understanding, and in effect said that if we hadn’t taken this decision ourselves, the Arts Council would have insisted on it as NMC was taking up too much time and was not part of the portfolio for which SPNM received its annual Arts Council grant.
And so SPNM and NMC separated in the summer of 1991 and my involvement in NMC, which had always been very limited in the sense that I was never directly involved in producing or making any of the recordings, was over although I still have my cassettes of the early releases! I have watched its growth with huge pleasure ever since (around NMC D240 now) and was thrilled to be able to join Colin, Anne, Eleanor and Andrew Ward when Colin received the Special Achievement Award at the 2017 Gramophone Awards – hugely deserved recognition of the extraordinary vision of Colin and Imogen Holst.
NMC was created 30 years ago this month and to celebrate, our Founder and Executive Producer, Colin Matthews, reflect on the origins of NMC and Imogen Holst's impact on its creation.
In 2017 NMC reissued an album of chamber music by Imogen Holst. We were all surprised and delighted that, although its previous release had only been 8 years earlier, it received a huge amount of attention. This could hardly have been more appropriate, since if it had not been for Imogen, NMC would very likely never have come into being. When together we set up the Holst Foundation, not long before her death in 1984, she made it clear that its future role should not be to subsidise her father’s music in the way that most other composer trusts function. Instead she hoped that it would be able to support the work of living composers. Amongst other projects, we talked at length about the possibility of funding recordings, and although it took a while to get NMC off the ground – it was not easy to establish a recording company that could be a registered charity – I have always felt that the label was founded with her blessing, and I know that she would have approved wholeheartedly of what has been achieved since 1989.
NMC started with a mission: we were determined to remedy the very poor representation of living British composers in the record catalogues: extraordinary to think that, back then, Harrison Birtwistle had only one major recording available (now reissued on NMC D148), while Jonathan Harvey had reached 50 without a single significant disc (Bhakti was our first release in April 1989). In the case of Peter Maxwell Davies’ opera Taverner it took us over 20 years before the release was possible. Very early on we devised a ‘hit list of music we felt demanded to be released. That original list was gradually worked through, while it simultaneously expanded as new works were written, younger composers came into focus, and we moved into new and innovative areas, including creative digital platforms and our education work, assisting the development of emerging talent and engaging with younger audiences.
I don’t believe that at the outset we would ever have dared to imagine that so much could be accomplished over 30 years. With the Holst Foundation no longer able to be a major funder after the expiry of Holst’s copyrights, we rely on the support of ACE, trusts, foundations and many generous individuals to continue the work we do championing composers at all stages of their careers and inspiring new generations of listeners, artists and composers.
Colin Matthews (NMC Founder and Executive Producer)
Further reading: Imogen Holst: memories from Colin Matthews
For our second blog in our NMC Archive series, we're delving into unsual instruments with a two-part blog. In this first part, Brian Elias and Jonathan Cole tell us about the unsual instruments they used in their music, and Julian Warburton, BCMG Percussionist and Professor of Percussion at Guildhall School of Music & Drama, tells us a bit more about percussion on Britten on Film.
Brian Elias: Five Songs to Poems by Irina Ratushinskaya
I used large bell plates in my Five Songs to Poems by Irina Ratushinskaya because of the extraordinary depth of their sound. They are made from large rectangular sheets of metal, and are rather heavy; when the work was performed in Barcelona, an especially strong platform had to be built to accommodate the five plates I had specified. Therefore, I would not recommend their use without consulting the orchestral management! The range is from middle C down to low cello C, and the deepness of the sound and its resonance are very beguiling. Damping requires a great deal of effort, especially when several are ringing at the same time, and it is important to take this into account. I used the bell plates at the beginning of the work, when the poet is startled awake, and towards the end of the fourth song - both key moments in the piece that emphasise the darkness of the poet’s situation. The fifth song begins with lighter bells, a contrast made all the more dramatic by the dark tolling of the bell plates.
Jonathan Cole: NMC Songbook tss-k-haa
Julian Warburton: Britten on Film
When I first saw the instrument requirements for the Britten on Film recordings with BCMG, I knew I would have to do some substantial research before we started the project. Most of the instruments for the album were standard but the music for Coalface also required the following: chains; sandpaper; trip-gear; coconut shells, small cart on sandy asbestos; small drill; large drill; cup in bucket; rewinder; notched wood; hooter; metal sheet; and iron wheels.
For our 30th Anniversary, we're taking you behind the scenes and introducing you to the people that help us and guide us in our work, our Board of Trustees. First, we're meeting Jackie Newbould, who joined our board in 2015.
Music has been a central part of my life ever since I was conscious of hearing. It was recordings that brought me to it at a very young age. My parents would worry later on that I should ‘go out to play’ more - I did that too, but would be content to listen for hours to their old record player: all sorts - dance bands, musicals, some classics, and my favourite Peter and the Wolf was the one l learnt the word ‘again’ for. Didn’t understand many other words then, the music told the story. Some years later I found myself lucky enough to own a violin, play it well enough to get into youth orchestras and ensembles, playing my way through all kinds of repertoire opening up worlds for me.
More years later I found myself even luckier to be Executive Producer for one of the best ensembles in the land - Birmingham Contemporary Music Group. During the early years of BCMG, NMC (and its Blue Sheep) was also emerging onto the scene - a very fruitful and happy relationship between the two organisations producing some precious, treasured recordings of the most remarkable music of our times.
I love NMC’s philosophy: highest recording values, no compromises, dedication to composers of all ages and at all stages, grasping new technologies, tirelessly seeking out ingenious ways to engage as many of us listeners as possible - young and not-so-young - in the huge tapestry that is new music today. And if you fancy looking back a little for some context from the past, they do that too: they never delete so you can be sure to find that thing you’re seeking in their catalogue, and their charitable status gives them artistic freedom. No other recording company is able to achieve for contemporary music what NMC can. It was started by a composer and places composers at its heart: everything emanates from this, with a highly skilled and committed management team sharing that vision. You simply can’t get recordings of this quality and of this variety anywhere else. Their work is unique. And they may be based in London (in a tiny office in the East), but they reach all over the UK and far beyond.
When asked to become a Trustee it was the greatest honour. My experience at BCMG has given me tools to support them in bringing contemporary music to a wide audience in interesting ways, and through advocacy. Before I joined as a Trustee I was aware their remarkable ventures were borne out of shoestrings. Now I have a closer view I am even more in awe of their achievements and in such tough times for all arts organisations. If I was a millionaire NMC would be tops for me, but I don’t have to be one to give and make a difference. That’s a fine feeling.
For our 30th Anniversary, we are delving into our archives and sharing with you some of our Friends Newsletter articles from the past 30 years. First up, an article written by Tansy Davies, Richard Barrett, Richard Ayres and our former designer Francois Hall on choosing titles.
What’s the title Richard? You will have to call it something. OK, I must call it something, I must call it something, I must call it. Ah! "Something" - I can call it that! That would be a little bit juvenile I suppose, and there is also a chance that the piece might, in reality, deserve the title, "Nothing Much about Anything at All". Best not to tempt fate …