Three contemporary working-class composers of classical music
Thursday, 18 August 2022 14:22

Three contemporary working-class composers of classical music

Published in Music

Classical music does not really know how to deal with the working class – either as listeners or as artists working in it. My articles in the Morning Star and elsewhere have attested to this, and often complained that discussions of inequality very rarely consider class as an important element and barrier to the arts as a whole.

That does not mean working-class composers do not exist. Following on from my previous article where I shared some wonderful music from Nicaragua, now feels like an adequate time to show off three composers who see themselves as working-class. The question is, has this encouraged a certain political vigour, or have they sought other options to make their musical mark?

The three composers are David John Roche, a wonderful Welsh composer based in Cambridge, Gillian Walker, a talented young composer from Ayrshire, Scotland, currently studying for her Masters’ Degree in Guildhall, and finally Verena Weinmann, a Swiss composer causing political havoc in Barcelona.

David John Roche

My first encounter with David John Roche, was in Aberdeen in 2018, where we both had works for solo viola played by the viola superstar Garth Knox. Strangely, we quickly discovered we both spent our first degrees approximately 500m apart – I was studying at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama (Coleg Brehinol Cerdd a Drama Cymru), and he studied at Cardiff University.

Ben L Djr

Since our encounter, he has gone onto win numerous awards including the illustrious Takemitsu Prize which for many composers has helped escalate their careers.

Hailing from Tredegar, David John Roche’s music, worldview and sensibilities are unsurprising for those who have also come from a post-industrial region in Wales, Scotland, or England. When talking about being working-class and Welsh, he highlighted the particularly curious feeling of being from a region where musically the rock music scene, such as the Manic Street Preachers, expressed the feelings and culture of the region better than many esteemed classical composers could ever dare aspire to.

In discussion, he described how the division between the working class and the upper classes has become significantly more apparent now that he teaches. He described how his entry to music came from a mixture of Tredegar Junior Band and the rock and heavy metal scene. While studying in Cambridge, his self-assurance meant that he didn’t feel the burden of being a working-class lad in the very halls that have cultivated many of the Tories and Tory-lite politicians that exist today. Now that he lives in Cambridge, however, he sees how the easy access to the arts and cultural education that young Cambridge children are given underlines just how culturally deprived many working-class regions are.

The conversation then shifted to the wider issues within the industry as a whole. He highlighted the many problems that exist – the need of champions, the problems of the work conditions musicians and composers have to deal with, the instability, and the issues surrounding publishing and competitions. He nicely summarised it: ‘it’s hard to juggle it all as one lad’.

Looking at his own work, David put a large emphasis on the Psappha Ensemble, the Vale of Glamorgan Festival, and Ty Cerdd, who have championed his work and allowed him to carry on composing and build his reputation.

We also discussed how much he relates to being a ‘working-class’ and ‘Welsh’ composer, how much of that appears in his music, and the strange problems that working-class people face not only in the arts, but also in relation to being Welsh.

For example, David described how the native language of Wales was not his native language, and how certain sectors of Wales try to exclude working-class people from South Wales. He also highlighted how some parts of the Welsh cultural landscape prioritise certain elements of Welsh history over others – namely the proud history of the language and its literary and poetic outpouring, while at the same time pushing working-class history like Nye Bevan or the Merthyr Rising away from those who have real ownership of that history. He described this division as being ‘the pretty elements of Wales for some and a grey nothingness for the rest.’

He described how in his work Praise of Method he tried to tap into this strange sorrow/guilt that is associated with being from South Wales, and the sadness and deprivation that exist there, while also managing to escape it via music. He also spoke of how in recent years, his music has really taken ownership of this element – ultimately diving into a kind of modern realism which carries with it the burden, sadness, confusion, and lack of class consciousness that comes with the modern working-class world.

This is the most endearing quality of David and his music – a reality or realism that means his music is born from actual human living, instead of retreating into art that ponders other pieces of art or philosophy. He says that his retail job helped him stabilise and gave him a thicker skin than he would have cultivated in the arts alone. He is emboldened by the fight for access to the arts, but also with a genuine human understanding that, even though these areas may not have lots of classical music, there is still a lot of music there.

So although his experience, and a lot of research, shows that the working class do not have equal access to the arts, either as workers and performers or as audiences, it is heartwarming that such a clear-minded and class-conscious artist has managed to succeed in the arts without abandoning our class.

Gillian Walker

Initially studying with the Irish composer David Fennessy, Gillian has since graduated and started her Master’s degree in London. When conversing with her, you get a sense of the brilliance at the core of her pragmatic and egalitarian ethos. A proud working-class lass from Ayrshire, Gillian has a clear and concise vision of what it means to be working-class in the arts, and sees the problems thrown up by the attempts in classical music to address the inequalities that exist.

Ben L Gillian Walker resized

We started talking about her initial entry into the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. She mentioned her degree in education, and the strange pride and familiarity of being in a university room with a large collection of students from Ayrshire and other under-loved regions of Scotland. She jokingly suggested that one real class-conscious moment will be when all the working-class musicians prepare to be teachers first, to have a tangible job with some semblance of security, while also aiming to give back to their counties. Moving onto a composition degree, Gillian reflected on how most other students weren’t blessed with regional accents and how much of a class divide exists in Scotland.

Moving to London, her worldview hasn’t changed, but rather clarified and intensified. She described the gentrification surrounding the music colleges, the disappearance of working-class communities, and the incessant, almost hilariously painful, posh-ness of the musical environment – the strange contrast between how she traversed the early stages of Covid in her retail job, while her new colleagues described the daily rituals making sourdough bread.

She also reflected on how her work and the focus of her composing is often at odds with her contemporaries. Gillian highlighted that she hopes her music can both be a vessel to challenge the current norms we see, while also finding ways to utilise it to galvanise people like herself, to fight for this wonderful mode of expression which is so distant from the lives of so many working-class people. This concern and humanism is part of what attracts me to her work as a composer, and I feel the areas of concern for her reflect that.

Her musical responses to certain issues may be lost on an audience completely disconnected from the genuine feelings and concerns of working-class communities across Britain, but that does little to dampen the brilliance which is at play within it. She is a composer with a growing swagger and self-assurance, able to challenge the norms we are stuck with and help us see a path out of the quagmire that classical music is stuck in.

Verena Weinmann

Out of the three composers featured in this article, Verena Weinmann is the most politically driven. She describes how her political education started to develop during her pre-University years, so while her composing talents were also developing the politics cultivated also. During her study in Basel, Verena notes how her ‘main’ composition tutor Michel Roth was an important figure for her, while also noting how during her studies with Jakob Ullman he had been a supportive ear and always invested in the struggle of the students’ movement.

Ben L Verena resized

Verena highlighted how early works of Luigi Nono, especially those directed to the workers were the most inspirational, even citing that her current composition teacher had been a pupil of Nono, which was part of the attraction to studying with him. And the comparison with Nono feels apt in many ways, as discussions around the role of music and politics have always struggled to define what ‘Marxist music’ or ‘working-class political music’ sounds and functions like. With Nono, and Verena, we see composers looking to challenge the intellect of the masses – avoiding patronising sentiments but focusing on forcing a reaction or at least offering a political challenge to the status quo, in the hope of elevating class consciousness in the audience or musicians. She emphasised how she didn’t want to compose works which ‘glorified’ or ‘fetishised’ suffering or struggle, but focused more on creating something to move away from the morose reality which workers face.

Lenin famously described the energy of youth and how it can be utilised to aid the advance of the socialist movement, and this sentiment is certainly true of Verena Weinmann – a composer who has a fizzing political drive, which she is eager to utilise in her works, constantly looking how to use it for the benefit of others.

In discussing particular works, I was most struck by Nachtregen (Rainy Night) which has numerous versions, but the ‘original’ being for three singers and three electric guitars, a setting of a short segment of text from 10 Days that Shook the World. In my first listening I was curious at the choice in the setting, as there are numerous ways in which one could tackle the seminal words of John Reed. Verena described to me that she aimed to avoid texts which were too direct, instead opting for a segment which tried to evoke a particular sensation. This led her to the particular choice of a rainy night, just before the storm of revolution. The music manages to captivate that, with words and whispers firing around the room, with sudden chaotic gestures, which suddenly fade to nothing. Overall, the sensation is one of anticipation and hunger for action.

As Verena continues to grow, I have a feeling there will be a moment – either a certain piece, or political activity – which will somehow manage to be a tangible focal point for her work. What this is exactly is impossible to say, but when the moment arrives, we can hope it can shake the world.

These three working-class composers encapsulate the main strands facing the working class in classical music currently. How to overcome political apathy, where the arts don’t connect with the vast majority? How to improve accessibility, so that the working class get the chance to hear and engage with the rich history and future of classical music, and music in general? And how to overcome this hegemonic dominance of the middle class in the arts, which currently makes classical music look like a dying or niche luxury, instead of a living and breathing art that everyone can engage and fall in love with?