Top composers criticise merged music body

Leading composers including Harrison Birtwistle, Peter Maxwell Davies and Judith Weir have signed an open letter accusing contemporary music organisation Sound and Music of failing the sector and calling for a radical reorganisation of the industry body.

The letter accuses the organisation – which is tasked with promoting new music and which was formed in 2008 following the merger of the British Music Information Centre, the Contemporary Music Network, Sonic Arts Network and the Society for Promotion of New Music – of alienating “virtually the entire contemporary music sector”. It calls for the “reinstatement of the core functions of the founder organisations without delay”.

The letter states that SAM’s 2008 business plan, which was approved by Arts Council England, made it “clear that it would embrace and enhance the functions of the organisations which had been merged to form it”.

However, it adds: “Instead, within a remarkably short time, it abandoned virtually all the long-established and constructive activities of its constituent parts, largely in favour of a bland and unfocused endorsement of sound art and the promotion of relatively fringe activities which had little or no connection with the mainstream.”

The letter highlights a report published by new music charity the Holst Foundation in June last year that concluded: “SAM has lost touch with the sector.”

The letter raises particular concern about the “disappearance of the support for young and unestablished composers, which the founder organisations had successfully provided over many years”.

This includes the loss of initiatives such as concerts run by SPNM that showcased new work from composers and “the abandonment of any form of Music Information Centre in England”.

Responding, the trustee board of SAM said in a statement that the organisation recognises “it has not fully achieved the leadership role the new music sector has needed and deserves”. Yet the statement highlights work already done, including an online toolkit for composers, a summer school at the Purcell School in Bushey for composers aged 14 to 19, and a creative learning project for children called A Minute of Listening.

The statement adds that SAM is dealing with a 42% reduction in its funding from ACE and points out a staffing restructure is underway, which will see the recruitment of a new chief executive who will be able to “lead the organisation to its full potential”. The chief executive will preside over a “new and detailed” plan, which composers will be consulted on.

Meanwhile, ACE chief executive Alan Davey said: “The job of the new chief executive and chair will be to lead an organisation that answers the fundamental concerns that have been voiced and is relevant, functional and purposeful.”

He added that ACE was committed to supporting the work of composers and it wanted to “get things right”.

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The Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, London. Photo: Noel Foster