Graham Elliott recently retired as our longest standing Trustee after 12 years on the NMC Board. He tells us about his relationship to music and his role as an NMC Trustee.
I first encountered classical music when, as a child, I took over an acoustic gramophone from my mother, together with a stack of 78s. In true British style, it was the noise the music made, rather than the music itself, which attracted me. I picked out the sound of the clarinet from these 1930s/40s recordings, and resolved to take up the instrument.
Happily, the clarinet suited me as a player as well as a listener, and, at length, I obtained places at three music colleges, but decided, instead, to read history at university. The consequence of this decision, that I would only be an amateur, allowed me to indulge my fascination with early 20th century styles of clarinet playing, and to this day I play on instruments that are around a hundred or more years old. Compared to the bassoon and oboe, the clarinet has only developed in subtle ways since then, but the differences are important.
My amateur clarinet career has involved a wide range of activity. In the 80s/90s I belonged to the Royal Yeomanry, a territorial army band. This was not as mundane as it sounds. At one stage, we found ourselves playing for a composing competition restricted to new works for military band and church organ (a format that has not caught on). As it took place in Switzerland, and was supported by Swiss sponsors, the winning piece also featured an interlude for three alphorns.
More recently, since 2000, I have been a regular participant in a brilliant ‘non-professional’ orchestra – Kensington Symphony Orchestra – which plays a great deal of contemporary music. My interest in contemporary music has been engendered by playing it. And via that route, I now also enjoy listening to much of it. The KSO has allowed me to play works as diverse as two horn concertos, by Knussen and by Matthews, John McCabe’s Concerto for Orchestra and 4th Symphony, Phibbs’ Rivers to the Sea, (as examples of the many British contemporary works performed), and Lutoslawski’s 3rd Symphony, and Dutilleux’s Metaboles (my favourite Polish and French pieces, respectively).
It is fairly easy to pinpoint the attractions of playing contemporary music. The sheer rollercoaster ride, through rapidly changing and unfamiliar time signatures, keeps the player on his toes. You cannot sit in the middle lane, playing a piece the way you remember it from a recording. It’s all fresh and extremely demanding, even if not always in a purely technical way. Of course, that is not the same as listening to it, but in that context almost the opposite is true – the more you get used to it, the more enjoyable it is. The thing that makes contemporary music tricky for listeners is its unfamiliarity. The familiar material is in the world of pop. Contemporary ‘classical’ music inhabits a different world which listeners must embrace if they are to enjoy it.
So, when I was asked to join the Board of NMC, it was involvement with another aspect of contemporary music, its creation and preservation, that attracted me. But trustees must always understand that what attracts them to a charity is not usually what attracts a charity to them. The trustee must leave enthusiasm for the cause at the door, because their true function is to exercise their professional skills for the charity, not to luxuriate in a halo of ‘association’.
And that leads me to what I do to earn my crust. I am a niche tax advisor (mainly VAT), in the context of which I encounter a wide range of financial and business issues. This, combined with my MBA qualification, is what I try to bring to the Boardroom of NMC.
You are probably thinking there is no connection between my work and my musical ‘other life’, but the similarities are considerable. VAT, in particular, is a subject that mixes mundane, everyday things, with esoteric legal concepts, creating what one judge described as a ‘fiscal theme park’. It’s a Barnum & Bailey world, just as strange as alphorns in a concerto for organ and military band. If you don’t believe me, just consider whether Jaffa Cakes are cakes, or biscuits. Because that, precisely, is the most well-known, and oft referred to, example in the case law of VAT.
So, I guess my main skill is in dealing with strange and challenging ideas; and that is equally true of playing an instrument, working in tax, or helping NMC.
And I choose also to help NMC financially, because, by doing so, I assist the creative process at its source. Encouraging composers, by allowing their work to be preserved permanently, in outstanding performances and recordings, is the way to best enable them to continue their creative endeavour. Without that, the music stops, and we would all be the poorer.