This week, Ed McKeon tells us what NMC means to him and how he became a Trustee back in 2012.
R.E.S.P.E.C.T. – what NMC means to me
Rendering full honour and respect to the late Queen of Soul, NMC means to me ‘respect’. Respect for the work of artists compelled to address time by composing with time. Respect for the resonant gap between the affect in duration and the durability of affection, of changing how we feel whilst feeling how we change. Respect for music that is generous to listening, repeatedly, that offers a certain pleasure in remaining forever incomplete, rewarding each new hearing. NMC is an archive, then, a history of British music, but one whose authority is dependent not on some founding masterpieces but on what is yet to follow: its future listeners and the composers and musicians that will renew the idea of what contemporary music in Britain could be.
Enjoying music came first. Being owned by a sound. Carried away – whether by Aretha or Grand Master Flash, Chopin or Coltrane, Berio or Ustvolskaya. I’d been drawn to new and experimental music because it wasn’t pre-owned; the jury of the ‘judgement of history’ was out (and doesn’t look like returning any time soon). Naturally, my teachers did their best to hide their anxiety at the vertiginous sense that music no longer came ready-wrapped in autobiography, ‘common practice’ tonality, predictable forms, and comfortable durations. In truth, they were a bit scared by it, loathe to dismiss it but lacking the same kind of critical cutlery with which to make it digestible.
So I studied music at university, listening to as much new music as I could, yet struck that even there the ‘latest’ music we touched was mostly at least 20-30 years old. It was still interpretive, as if nothing new could be made without mastery of what had gone before. That’s how I came to study music’s theory and ideas. That’s what I still do, only in a wider variety of ways, in particular by producing and commissioning new work, collaborating with musicians, composers and artists, and increasingly through writing.
Probably I was lucky. I approached the Society for the Promotion of New Music (which I would later run, briefly) for a placement, and was introduced to a co-tenant, the National Federation of Music Societies – now Making Music – which became my first employer. NMC was also sharing office space, making it easy to discover more new music, including by many composers I’d met and more I’d come to know. I also got to know the team, starting with Jenny Goodwin, then Hannah Vlcek, Anne, Ellie, Rachel, Lucile, and Alex.
Eventually, I was invited to become a Trustee, and also joined the Artistic Sub-Committee where we’ve explored ideas for means of expanding NMC’s musical reach and support for the wider community of composers. It’s a privilege to work with such a dedicated team to help, even in a small way, in shaping what a record company might become in this ever-changing digital world. Whilst production remains important – in the sense of finding and recording music we believe should be more widely heard – it seems that distribution has become much more important. With so much music online and more being added all the time, how can we help and encourage people to find their way to the new, lesser known music, that which hasn’t been pre-owned, made popular, knowable, and easily ‘searchable’.
Contemporary music is vulnerable in this global information environment, where popularity is measured in the millions of ‘hits’ and algorithms operate a partial and older model of Darwinism, where that which is ‘successful’ is boosted further. But survival depends not only on new variations and heterogeneity; what we’re now learning about brain plasticity is that we’re not only products of our genetic inheritance, our biology, but that we’re constantly remaking ourselves neurologically, bodily and technologically. The same applies to music, of course. NMC, and organisations like it, are essential for our future listening because it enables us constantly to renew what music can be and in the process to affect our understanding of – and how we listen to – music of the past.
That’s why it needs support: from the Arts Council, from Trusts and Foundations, and increasingly from individuals, all of us who care deeply about music, who can’t forget that feeling of listening for the first time, of being occupied by sounds previously unheard. Music psychologists emphasise that we like music more when it’s familiar, that repetition feeds our enjoyment. Like most people, I have my favourites, the music I return to over again. But if we want to go beyond this pleasure principle, we need to allow for a listening that is always – at least potentially – different. R.E.S.P.E.C.T. – this is what it means to me.
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