Ben Lunn

Ben Lunn

Ben Lunn is a composer, music critic, trade union activist, and helped found the Disabled Artist Network, an organisation which is bridging the gap between the professional world and disabled artists. He also has a monthly column in The Morning Star.

Three contemporary working-class composers of classical music
Sunday, 20 February 2022 10:59

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?

Lingering tones in the face of capitalist realism
Saturday, 11 December 2021 10:06

Lingering tones in the face of capitalist realism

Published in Music

Historically, lefties in the arts are as numerous as there are days in history. However, since the Cold War these numbers have dwindled as liberalism, postmodernism, or anarchism have become the trendy oppositional voice in the arts.

Thanks in part to Corbyn, the left has seen a militant resurgence which in the arts has involved a curious mix of individuals and styles. Lawrence Dunn sits within this curious position. Having first met him at a conference in Vilnius, his topic of discussion was on curious melodies – highlighting key examples like Catherine Lamb and Morton Feldman. Since that point, his music has taken a pretty meteoric rise with notable commissions and accolades including Ensemble Modern, Runner-Up in the Gaudeamus Music Prize, Wigmore Hall, Tectonics Festival Scotland, amongst many others.

Lawrence Dunn

In September, I was able to see him again, as he was in Scotland for a performance in Glasgow Cathedral. He presented a talk to the numerous young composers in the conservatoire about his music, its themes and topics, and his overall concern and pessimism about humanity. After the talk, we reminisced about the chaos of trying to deal with technical problems in Vilnius, caught up on things, and complained about numerous things politically – spanning from Chelsea supporters, the damp squib that is Keir Starmer, the failures of Corbyn, and numerous other things, including numerous jokes about how it is only a matter of time until I have an MI5 file comparable to Alan Bush.

I have known about Lawrence’s political leanings for a long while, but what has fascinated me is how he almost avoids directly mentioning politics in his pieces – instead focusing on being a concerned individual and shouting from the rooftops about various problems and injustices. This for me brought numerous things to mind. For those keen on the good ol’ Frankfurt school, Ernst Bloch might feel like a good comparison – trying to look inwardly for answers to the problems in the world. This also ties nicely with Lawrence’s music making, eternally dancing in the uncanny valley.

Diligent enthusiasts of the Frankfurt School may also remember Lukacs’ remarks, directed primarily at Bloch and close colleagues. Lukacs argued that due to surrealism’s nihilistic tendencies ultimately lent itself more closely to the right – mostly notably Nietzsche and fascism, though Bloch argued profusely against such accusations; what we can see in Dunn’s music today is the treading of pessimism and nihilism which Bloch initially defended in the 1930s. Pessimism is a wonderful tool for right-wing individuals in all fields, as it can negate any progress, or simply suggest nothing can be as good as ‘the good ol’ days’. Granted Lawrence Dunn is no Fascist, or even neo-con, he is very aware his musical fascination with pessimism is a topic more explored by the right; but Dunn strongly argues it is a fertile field which the left has a lot to gain from it. An ethos which can remind one of Le Front Populaire as every platform should be used to combat fascism.

CR

On further consideration of the work of Lawrence Dunn, I feel the stronger, and more compelling discussion is how he lines up with Mark Fisher, the author of Capitalist Realism. Fisher highlights how the influence of neoliberalism is so insidious it is almost impossible to imagine a way out – and how ultimately this creates a situation of agonising apathy and depression. Fisher also discusses how politics has also been tarnished by this hegemony, pointing to how almost all ideas born out of intense struggle have been usurped by the mechanisms of capital. One only has to watch all the rainbow flags appearing in July in multi-billion-pound businesses to show how much millionaires care about gays and trans people. As Fisher suggests, it is almost impossible to escape the influence of neoliberalism which leaves artists, in particular, having to either accept this realism or become forced into nihilism.

Lawrence Dunn appears to be a reflection of this problem. How does an artist use their art for good, without it being stolen by neoliberalism? Thus, creating a constant battle/dialogue where the hopes or attempts to build or improve either fail or defeated. A dance of hope and failure. Ultimately meaning there is always a smidgen of hope, a chance to break the cycle of hope and despair; and regardless of the chances, the attempts to fight bring a certain joie de vivre which even if it continually fails, still makes us feel.

The resulting sounds in Lawrence’s music, however, are quite fascinating. When one thinks pessimistic, one imagines darkness or at least a constant pain or fatalism. However, what we see in Dunn’s music is something so intensely familiar and ‘normal’ that it becomes a strange out-of-body experience. Ringing triads, quirky melodies, sounds of swans or calves, repeated ideas – all these things one can clearly hear and feel familiar with, but as Dunn almost drowns us in this familiarity, we reach a strange point of unfamiliarity. A desperate but disappointing musical voice: hope eternally tinged with pessimism or failure, and conversely, a pessimism curiously tinged with a tiny glint of hope.

In the aforementioned discussion in the conservatoire, Lawrence Dunn joked about his music being referred to as ‘magical realism’. Which I must admit, is quite a snazzy label name – which certainly makes labels like new simplicity sound even more ridiculous. Still, I feel capitalist realism would be  more fitting. Lawrence Dunn, like the rest of us in Britain, are forced to endure this neoliberal nightmare that Labour, the SNP, and the Tories are so eager to keep alive. Due to the various cuts, musical institutions are forced to ‘evaluate their value’ which has not used this as an opportunity to connect more with the working class, but instead to drift further into neo-liberalism, becoming wooed by ‘clickbait’ and abandoning substance for this quick buck. So, what is a serious artist to do?

Lawrence Dunn somehow manages to make beautiful emotive work despite this, his work doesn’t fall into the trends of ‘schools’ – and he’ll even admit the audience in Germany at his Ensemble Modern premiere was particularly frosty. He’ll probably hate me describing his music as original – either through embarrassment or simply pointing to numerous others he feels a musical closeness too – but the reality is there are few figures like him. Thankfully he isn’t some posh boy who has been sculptured by soft-Tory/New Labour ideals but has managed to stick to his convictions as an artist.

Some may worry, that the young ’uns are abandoning well-seasoned ideals like trade unionism or socialism. However Lawrence Dunn gives us some hope, he, like numerous others are raising their concerns, speaking out against the political quagmire we are stuck in; but without a suitable vessel in which to broadcast their vision. We can hope this changes, however until then we must admit Lawrence Dunn is an artist firmly of our time, politically concerned and awake, but politically homeless and refusing to let that slow his convictions. A fine example, in fact, of Antonio Gramsci's dictum - Pessimism of the mind, optimism of the spirit.

La Musica Sandinista
Saturday, 20 November 2021 11:25

La Musica Sandinista

Published in Music

On the 7th November, the Nicaraguan people went to the polls. Though met by the outcry of ‘sham’ and other nonsensical accusations, the Nicaraguan people returned Daniel Ortega to office, continuing the renewed Sandinista Government’s rule. Since then, Britain, Canada, and other lackeys of the US have stamped up their sanctions, in yet another attempt to cripple anything progressive or pro-human to develop in the Central American nation.

As artists, we can often feel powerless in such situations. However with the likelihood of more mud being slung at the Nicaraguan people, I would like to introduce you to some wonderful Nicaraguan artists who use their art either in support of the Sandinistas.

La Misa Campesina, by Carlos Mejia Godoy and Oscar Gomez, was completed in 1979. As the title suggests, the piece is a Mass for the peasants of Nicaragua. The work is a wonderful marriage of traditional Catholic liturgy, Nicaraguan folk music, and Marxism. Over the multiple songs/movements, the music alternates between revolutionary new texts reaching out to the morals of the peasants to rise up, returning to traditional mass elements like a Sanctus or Angus Dei.

The very first performance in 1979 was broken up by the National Guard of the Somoza government, followed by prohibition of performance by the Archbishop of Managua. This may in part have helped the work gain its cult status, although it has never been accepted by the official Catholic hierarchy of Nicaragua.

I believe in you, comrade,
Christ human, Christ worker,
victor over death.
With your great sacrifice
you made new people
for liberation.
You are risen
in every arm outstretched
to defend the people
against the exploiters;
you are alive and present in the hut,
in the factory, in the school.
I believe in your ceaseless struggle,
I believe in your resurrection

– Excerpt of La Misa Campesina, Carlos Mejia Godoy



Grupo Pancasan formed in 1975, and play Nicaraguan folk music as a cultural accompaniment to the Sandinista revolution. At first, they were a modest, ramshackle group of guitars and drums. Then in 1977 one of the original members Agustin Sequeira went to join the guerrilla FSLN, and their music became more pointed and political. Their first album, ‘Pancasan’, was recorded in slightly frantic fashion, however it was politically driven throughout, including a song La Hora Cero based on the poetry of Ernesto Cardenal. After the album was released, and their first payments came through, the group did not accept the money stating 'We did not touch one peso. The money went directly to the help the fight against Somoza'.

The second album, ‘We Are Making History’, was once again pointed directly at the Somoza government, including songs like Notes on Uncle Sam. Throughout their work the sounds and politics of Nicaragua have been in a close and intricate marriage, and many Nicaraguans have described them as the ‘sound of the revolution’.

Grupo Libertad were formed in 1982, equally driven by the revolution as their colleagues in Pancasan, add a slightly funkier edge to it. Though the Nicaraguan folk element is present, the rhythmic drive is of a different flavour, full of satire and musical skill:

 

The neoliberal government of the early 90s forced the a backward turn in music and culture generally, especially in pro-Sandinista varieties like Pancasan and Libertad. Privatisation forced music to effectively disappear from ordinary people in Nicaragua, and it became a treat for the wealthy and the tourists. However, since Ortega and the Sandinistas returned, support for the arts has been very strong, and it is only a matter of time before a brand-new generation of artists begin to take the region, and hopefully the world, by storm.

At the beginning of this year I talked to artists in Nicaragua, thanks to the Friends of ATC, see here. Juan, Isaura, and Marvin showed me some of the initiatives that are taking place including the Fundacion INCANTO which aims to bring more classical music to the people of Nicaragua. As long as Nicaragua stays on a politically progressive path, the musical future is very bright indeed. 

The dedicated life and music of Mikis Theodorakis
Wednesday, 15 September 2021 08:54

The dedicated life and music of Mikis Theodorakis

Published in Music

Mikis Theodorakis (1925-2021) has left the mortal plane, and one can only imagine he is flying the red flag in the heavenly realm – agitating alongside the great working-class heroes of history. He has been remembered warmly by the socialist world, by his own Greek party (KKE) and almost every other socialist party, while having little or no discussion from the classical music world, with the exception of a dedicated obituary in the Guardian, an honorary mention from Andre Rieu, and some nice anecdotes from composers who knew him personally.

For those who do not know the work of Mikis Theodorakis, his legacy and impact are hard to describe succinctly. However the simplest comparison artistically would be with composers Hanns Eisler and Alan Bush, as well as the writers Vladimir Mayakovsky and Christopher Caudwell. Like them, he was a composer whose output fitted the needs of the particular struggle or circumstance.

Like Hanns Eisler, Theodorakis made huge contributions to film, classical concert music, and agit-prop works. Theodorakis’ music for Zorba the Greek is what made him famous:


Canto General arguably stands as his most impactful piece of political music. Based on the texts of Pablo Neruda, the cantata was completed two years after the infamous coup d’état in September 1973, which the US carried out against the democratic government of Salvador Allende. The events sparked a large response from artists globally, and Theodorakis’ bold cantata is potentially one of the most renowned examples, receiving numerous global performances including an electric performance in Santiago in 1993.

As with many other of his works, the real strength in Canto General is the ability to incorporate Chilean traditional idioms (namely through the choices of percussion and instruments) to not only give an illuminating vision of Chile, but also to make the Chilean elements feel universal.

He produced numerous works for orchestra including seven symphonies, five operas, multiple concerti, ballets, and other works for musical theatre. Within the symphonies we see a skilful composer who was no stranger to modernism, giving the impression that if he wished to solely be a ‘serious’ composer he would have had every ability to engage with the idiom like his more ‘serious’ contemporaries like Karlheinz Stockhausen and the like. His second symphony Songs of the Earth is incredibly evocative and the orchestral colours it produces are wild and raw.

His life was surrounded by controversy, struggle, and politics. Despite being imprisoned and having his music banned by the ruling Greek junta, he never shied away from speaking his mind and doing what he believed was right and necessary, a resolute activist and campaigner until his final breath.

 The controversy surrounding him was not always simply for being a militant communist challenging a bourgeois world. His denunciation of the riots in Greece and his views on Macedonia were mistaken, but his political failings – like his short stint with the New Democracy party – are part of his journey as an individual and in no way negate the important humanism of his works. He fought against NATO’s attacks on Yugoslavia, he continued to protest against the invasion of Iraq, and he tried to mobilise artists against the IMF grant awarded to Greece.

He won many accolades, including the Lenin Peace Prize, as well as winning notable friends including Salvador Allende, Yasser Arafat, Pablo Neruda, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Tito, and François Mitterrand.

For many, Theodorakis will eternally stand as Greece’s champion against dictatorship and imperialism, and an example to live by – an example of how an artist can spend their life fighting for the good of humanity.

Like all great individuals, he was a complicated figure, but he leaves behind a legacy which hopefully will continue to stand as a testament of what music written with a vision of the advancement of the working class can look like.