The contemporary classical music scene in Sheffield and other local cities is, I sometimes think, possibly the most underground arts scene there is. Whilst abstract art exhibitions, modernist theatre and improvised comedy events thrive to differing extents, behind all this there are pulsing, energetic and creative groups of composers and musicians making music that is […]

The contemporary classical music scene in Sheffield and other local cities is, I sometimes think, possibly the most underground arts scene there is. Whilst abstract art exhibitions, modernist theatre and improvised comedy events thrive to differing extents, behind all this there are pulsing, energetic and creative groups of composers and musicians making music that is thought-provoking, boundary-pushing, sometimes beautiful, sometimes harsh, but ultimately the most original and exciting thing you might hear all year. But whilst the classical music mainstream performs the same small number of pieces again and again, the local contemporary scene plays to far smaller audiences than it deserves.

Let’s pause while I pay you a compliment. The average Now Then reader – in my mind, at least – is a discerning person, interested in new and exciting things, willing to try something different. So read on, find out what’s happening locally in the next few months and hear something you’ve never heard before. I’ve been speaking to Sheffield-based composers collective Platform Four and the new Manchester-based music ensemble Sounds of the Engine House.

Platform Four was established in 2011 by a group of composers tired of working alone and seeking some strength in numbers. A loose ensemble of friends has grown around the group to perform their music and they have built some exciting collaborative relationships with other artists. Notable amongst these are Ffin Dance from South Wales, who have commissioned new music from Platform Four and performed alongside them, as well as Sheffield sculptor Gillian Brent, who produced live art in response to improvisation from the composers.

Chris Noble from P4 explained, “To begin with, she seemed to be responding to our music, but by the end, it was us responding to the sculpture she created. Both the music and the sculpture were intrinsically linked in a way none of us could have planned at the outset”.

Recently they performed all of JS Bach’s ever popular Brandenburg Concertos over three nights of music, with their own works inspired by Bach’s masterpiece linked throughout the movements. I made it to two out of the three and was overwhelmed by the ingenuity, courageousness and above all beauty of the music I heard. Though I’ve been to new music concerts many times before, as an audience member and performer, I find I never tire of the excitement of a premiere – the knowledge that no-one has heard this music before, that anything could happen.

Manchester’s Sounds of the Engine House are currently touring a Sound and Music sponsored programme inspired by cities, architecture and urban environments. SOTEH is a small ensemble consisting of oboe, clarinet, cello, percussion and voice. Alongside music by some more established composers, the ensemble’s three in-house composers have all contributed pieces, including Eve Harrison’s ‘The Tin Man and The Mirror’, a music theatre piece inspired by the discord between old and new buildings, ‘Keeps Spinning’ by Steven Jackson, a fast-paced, vibrant piece driven by complex rhythms composed after watching timelapse films of cities being built, and ‘Revolution’ by Ben Gaunt, inspired by a love of steampunk and Victorian machinery. They’ll be performing at Sheffield University on 10 March.

Both groups are proud of their DIY entrepreneurial spirit and, though they do occasionally receive money from outside bodies, they are coming from a position where their own drive is enough to make things happen. But small audiences are a continuing frustration. Both groups are taking steps to make their concerts as open, welcoming and accessible as possible. People I speak to often worry about classical concerts being too formal, when in fact they’re anything but. SOTEH are increasingly taking their events out of typical concert venues and programming late night events in bars and cafes which are far more affordable than more mainstream classical events. Since 2013 P4 have operated on a ‘pay what you can basis’, so if you’re hard up you can see the whole thing for free.

Both groups were aware that the biggest barrier for many people to contemporary music was simply fear – of not liking the music, not knowing what to say, not ‘getting’ it – but both hope to find people willing to take a risk. Chris from P4 pointed out that every composer’s style is different, so there’s a huge variety of music to hear. And with the composers present at the concerts, you can always talk things through with them. Ben from SOTEH summed it up, “Not liking it doesn’t mean you don’t understand it. Just close your eyes, listen with an open mind, see what images come to you and revel in the joy of sound.”

Sounds of the Engine House
Platform 4 Composers
Sound and Music
sheffield.ac.uk/concerts

Ben Eckersley.