The invitation to create a new piece of music came in terms that would be off-putting to most composers. “I was asked: ‘Have you any ideas that might resonate with the Olympics?’ I thought: ‘No!’ ”
Sally Beamish’s reaction was understandable. “Sport is not part of my life,” she says. “I’d never thought about it in terms of music.” Sport is corporeal and competitive. Music is creative and collaborative. But since the launch of New Music 20x12, a UK-wide programme for the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad, 20 composers, including Beamish, have accepted commissions to write something on a sport-related theme. Many of these pieces are to be premiered in coming weeks, and most will be performed at London’s Southbank Centre over a single weekend in July.
The more Beamish thought about it, the more she realised that “sport and music do have something in common. They both take you to another place. Music and sport are the two things that can turn a difficult child around. Both create a whole social life, based on a passion for what you do and a circle of like-minded people.”
But she still had to work out how the two could be linked in a creation of her own devising. “Then an idea popped into my head. I thought: ‘I’d love to do something with Melanie’ ” – newspaper columnist Melanie Reid, a neighbour in Scotland, who was paralysed from the chest down after falling from her horse in 2010.
“I had just read her column,” remembers Beamish, 55, “where she talked about how playing wheelchair rugby had lifted her spirits and of being inspired by the young people on her hospital ward, many of them injured doing sport. I hardly dared to ask her to write something but finally I did and she said ‘yes’.”
The result is Spinal Chords, commissioned by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, with funding from New Music 20x12. The piece was premiered in February, with actor Juliet Stevenson reciting Reid’s spare, robust text. Beamish takes a set of 12 chords, symbolising harmony, and by first deconstructing and then painfully reconnecting them, she makes her audience aware how the musical process mirrors a physical one.
If the “20” in New Music 20x12 stands for the number of pieces commissioned, “12” represents the minutes each is supposed to last. The idea came from husband-and-wife philanthropists David Cohen and Jillian Barker, who gave £20,000 seed funding.
More than 200 applications went before a panel of judges that was chaired by Roger Wright, controller of BBC Radio 3 and director of the BBC Proms, and included composer Judith Weir, producer Joana Seguro and DJ/musician Rita Ray.
“We wanted to make the selection in terms of musical quality but also to find innovative ways of presentation,” says Vanessa Reed, executive director of the co-organising body PRS for Music Foundation.
That part has not disappointed. Graham Fitkin’s Track to Track, for ensemble and string orchestra, will be heard by commuters on the seven-minute “Javelin Train” journey from St Pancras Station, in central London, to Stratford, next to the Olympic Park. Oliver Searle’s Technophobia has adopted techniques used by Drake Music Scotland to provide music-making opportunities for people with disabilities. Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Beyond This involves prisoners from HM Prison Lowdham Grange. But there are also straightforward concert hall pieces, such as a choral work by Aaron Cassidy for contemporary ensemble Exaudi.
Among the most ambitious is Joe Cutler’s Ping! for string quartet, four table tennis players and film. Cutler acknowledges that the concept “is not entirely safe, and if something is not safe it’s exciting. It’s good for new music to go outside its normal confines. That’s why these 20x12 commissions are so interesting. Composers love challenges: their work is bound up with problem-solving.”
But why should anyone want to make music out of ping-pong? Cutler, 43, explains that he grew up playing table-tennis and has a brother who is a leading player. His wife, meanwhile, is a member of the Coull Quartet, which has a reputation for openness to new ideas.
“When the call came for the 20x12 projects, we thought this was the perfect opportunity to bring our interests together,” says Cutler. “There are connections between table-tennis and the string quartet. There’s a two-way dialogue all the time and a ricocheting of sound. Table-tennis players have training drills that create regular rhythms and I thought I could use this as a kind of percussion instrument. The challenge was to make it seem natural, as if it had always existed.”
Ping! has emerged as an installation-type event, with choreography as important as sound. Cutler persuaded the Coulls to divide up so that there were two players on each side of the net, “which created the sense of two teams, and the whole thing changed”. He then brought in video artist Tom Dale to create a film “like a referee. People talk about the artistry of football, the beauty of movement, but we don’t consider sport to be an art form. I wanted to take both sides into a different environment and see if they stood up”.
Choreography is even more crucial to Gavin Higgins’s What Wild Ecstasy, which Rambert Dance Company premiered at Aberdeen in February and will repeat next month (May 15-19) at Sadler’s Wells in London. His challenge was to provide a contemporary response to Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, a ballet the company wanted to revive.
But what about the sporting connection? “The sport idea was just a way in [to the creative process],” says Higgins, 29, indicating that New Music 20x12 has not been overly prescriptive. “Mark [Baldwin, artistic director of Rambert Dance Company] had an idea for choreography inspired by Grecian urn paintings depicting Olympian activities. But the starting point [in art] is never where you end up. In the end, our sport-like element is the dance: these guys are athletes.”
What Wild Ecstasy turns out to be more of a contrast to the Debussy than a continuation of it. Higgins’s research showed him that a faun is an “aggressive animal – they tried to shag anything around, like a primitive form of sexual selection in the Darwinian sense”. So, unlike Nijinsky’s slow and sensual choreography for Debussy, “we wanted the flip side – something aggressive and Dionysian in its exuberance. We thought of nightclubs, where people have a good time and get a mate. I grew up next to the Forest of Dean, where there used to be illegal raves, with acid house music booming out of big sound systems through the forest. It’s interesting how those early experiences linger – it was the rhythmic drive that gave Mark his way into my music.”
Not every 20x12 commission is for indoor performance and some have little connection to physical activity. David Bruce’s Fire, for example, is designed for the outdoors, “more an inward-looking piece than a whizz-bang spectacle,” he says. Scored for choir, four horns and fire artist, Fire draws inspiration from the Olympic flame – “a connection to divinity and spirituality”.
Like Beamish, Bruce, 41, was initially flummoxed by the Olympic connection. Then his imagination began to work. Drawing on texts by Vikram Seth and by 6th-century poet Yannai, he envisages an audience of up to 300 inside a circle of choristers with sticks of flame creating a space for meditation within chant-like waves of overlapping sound. But will the atmosphere be sufficiently quiet when Fire is premiered in Salisbury town square on May 26, with later performances scheduled for other public spaces in Brighton and London?
Bruce sees music and sport as “different aspects of celebrating humanity, a parallel thing. The connection between believing in something and practice – the doing of it – has a great resonance, and in that sense playing music has a spiritual aspect for me. I’m sure sports men and women feel something similar. Whether as athletes or artists, we are trying to transcend our bodies and fulfil our potential.”
BBC Radio 3 will broadcast Sally Beamish’s ‘Spinal Chords’ on April 21
London’s Southbank Centre hosts New Music 20x12 commissions, July 13-15