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What is the Masterprize?

The Masterprize new music competition was established in 1996 by John McLaren, a former investment banker turned novelist. The last Prize took place in 2003 and announcements for the 2005-06 event are beginning to appear. One of the Masterprize's most notable features is the opportunity it gives members of the public to cast a vote for that short-listed work they like the most. The Prize is run in collaboration with Classic FM, Classic FM Magazine, EMI, Gramophone Magazine, the London Symphony Orchestra, and the US broadcasting organization, NPR. Associated with the Prize is an extensive education programme involving youth orchestras. The Prize's artistic director is the well-known conductor Mariss Jansons and selection panels have included Vladimir Ashkenazy, Andrew Davis, Riccardo Muti , Kent Nagano , Mstislav Rostropovich, Christoph von Dohnanyi, Sir John Eliot Gardiner, and the Beatles producer, Sir George Martin. Short-listed works are performed by the LSO in front of a Gala Concert audience at the Barbican Centre, London . The winning work attracts a prize of £25,000 that is awarded the composer by well-known celebrities. The Prize is funded by corporate sponsorship and donations from Trusts, Foundations and private benefactors.



By offering members of the public the opportunity to vote in a composition competition, the Masterprize resembles populist television programmes such as Stars in Their Eyes and Big Brother , which also employ audience participation. In the former, members of the public can vote for that contestant whose performance most successfully mimics a famous pop celebrity. In the latter, members of the public can vote for the expulsion of that occupant they most dislike.


But there are other similarities between the Masterprize and the examples taken from television entertainment. A yardstick not infrequently used in the judgement of new music is whether or not it is "well written". The judgement is essentially comparative, by which a measure is constructed to enable comparison with alleged best-practice. In Stars in Their Eyes , the measures in question are the performance styles and attributes associated with a famous pop star, and how best these are imitated. In the case of the Masterprize, the measures comprise the methods and techniques associated with past orchestral works that are regularly featured in concert programmes and that are deemed to represent a bench-mark of good practice. An examination of the short-listed and prize-winning works since the inception of the Masterprize indicates that the composers in question appear well aware of those triggers that will elicit the response, "well written".


What are those triggers? On the technical level, they comprise stereotypical methods of orchestration that, through repeated use, have become objectified to enable their efficient codification (however informally) and re-use. Their use enables composers to indicate to their listeners and prospective employers that they are technically proficient and willing to conform to so-called best-practice. A very large proportion of the works short-listed for the Prize during the past nine years exhibit these tendencies.


On the aesthetic level, such triggers comprise musico-linguistic and behavioural mannerisms whose response outcomes can be well controlled and all but guaranteed in advance. Indeed, all five works short-listed for the 2001 Prize contained some form of programmatic, extra-musical content or reference. Qigang Chen's invocation of water via babbling semiquaver woodwind figures is the most obvious example here, whilst Anthony Iannoccone's oboe melodies in Waiting for Sunrise on the Sound appear to be taken directly from the 'moving moment' section of emotional ready-mades.


From both perspectives, whether technical or aesthetic, value and recognition are conflated: if it is familiar, then it is deemed good, and the positive responses that such triggers elicit indicate the relief that listeners' experience when their expectations are confirmed. In this respect, such music corresponds to the most popular tenants of the Big Brother household, and is similarly rewarded for its readiness to conform.


The Masterprize is thus the most recent and overt attempt to subjugate composers to the priorities of the market, by rewarding and legitimating those composers most willing to fashion their product to the demands of consumers and the agendas of those organizations responsible for the music's performance and dissemination, agendas driven by product accessibility rather than factors that are artistic in orientation. By this process, new music is assimilated by the leisure industry and, in consequence, becomes subject to the same performance measures and controls that are applied to any other commodity operating in market society.


Clearly, composers of any ideological or aesthetic orientation are free to submit work to the Masterprize jury. The Prize's Chairman, John McLaren, asserts that "we've never said music should be tonal" (John McLaren, www.masterprize.com ). But let us imagine what reaction would be elicited by the submission of an avant-garde, serial work like Karlheinz Stockhausen's Gruppen for three orchestras. Is it likely that such a work would be short-listed by the jury for submission to the public? Given the manifestly conformist orientation of those works short-listed to date, this seems unlikely.


The Masterprize's 2005 entry conditions stipulate that works should be scored for "normal symphonic forces", should "not include any kind of electronic keyboard or amplification", and "should feature the orchestra as a whole and not solo instruments in a concerto-style form" (www.masterprize.com/rules2005). Such conditions are clearly an instruction to conform to that model of the orchestra established in the 18 th and 19 th centuries, a structural model allied to certain formal and aesthetic types. Such constraints place a prohibition on many of the most important developments and innovations of the 20 th century. But as so many eminent reputations are built and maintained on the perpetual re-cycling of a repertoire for which this orchestral model exists to maintain, there is much professional advantage to be gained in the suppression of any deviation from this arbitrary norm. In the performance of complex, avant-garde orchestral music such as Gruppen , a conductor's role becomes increasingly that of a time-keeper only, allowing few opportunities for the exaggerated, show-business mannerisms through which so many maestri assert and maintain their power, and through which marketing and promotions departments are able to sustain the myth of the omnipotent maestro.


But Gruppen represents that tendency which the Masterprize seeks to eradicate. To claim legitimacy, the Prize invokes and solicits mass public opinion, albeit an opinion on an already vetted list of candidates. But this public, trained and conditioned by the constrained and controlled horizons delimited by Classic FM, the BBC Proms, and subscription series, is one largely uncultivated in the complexities of music, art and ideas, and one that is, in consequence, open to manipulation by those agencies in whose interest it is that such incomprehension be maintained. Thus the Masterprize's desire to "bring listeners and composers closer together" (www.masterprize.com) refers only to those composers willing to place the medium and their artistic sensibilities at the service of commodity society.


What then is the Masterprize? Historically, international modernism, whether in the form of the Second Viennese School , the post-Webern continental avant-garde, or subsequent developments, has achieved a level of artistic and ideological autonomy unprecedented in music. In such music, the medium is prioritized and content is not determined by any perceived limitations or needs of recipients. In its refusal to subordinate aspiration to the demands of the market, such work is a direct attack on commodity society and a challenge to the application of liberal, free-market economics to all spheres of life, artistic or otherwise. It is this very autonomy that challenges the dominance of those sectors of the culture industry represented by the Masterprize, whether maestro, marketeer, promoter, or business executive. In consequence, the Masterprize can be seen as a concerted attempt at the restoration of those power relations that restore the composers' role of servility, which is the historical norm.


Though touted as a harmless, wholly benign contest, innocently functioning to further the understanding and appreciation of new music, the covert aims of the Prize are precisely the opposite. Rather, through a process of socio-cultural engineering, supported by extensive re-education programmes targeted at malleable young musicians at the very start of their careers, the Masterprize aims to restore composers' dependency and subservience to those values and priorities that characterize the efficient functioning of a market society. Within a purely musico-aesthetic context, such values are most efficiently expressed in the reinstatement and reassertion of those musical forms, styles, and tendencies associated with tonality, as the prizewinning and short-listed works amply illustrate. But the reassertion of tonality, even in the manifestly degraded form that Masterprize shortlists take, functions merely as a tool or vehicle through which to manipulate consumers , by exerting tight control over what products they are allowed to hear, and to manipulate composers , by censoring that expressive and technical repertoire available for creative exploration.


It is ironic, perhaps, that the Masterprize was established by a former investment banker, given the City's role as the command and control centre for the maintenance of a socio-economic system that places zero value on those products of human endeavour that do not conform to the priorities of the market. John McLaren, who is also a novelist, asserts that many of the ills of contemporary music can be sourced in state intervention, which has allowed composers who have been "subsidized up to the eye-balls" (John McLaren, www.masterprize.com) freedom to create unhindered by any notion of market utility. Given the poor financial rewards associated with creative endeavour of this kind, most composers will be unable to recognize this fabricated image. However, the artistic community at large needs no lessons from venture capitalists on the advantages or not of state aid, given corporate capitalism's readiness to enjoy the benefits of subsidy, protectionist economic policy, and the workhouse conditions of unregulated globalisation.


Capitalism is an economic system that only thrives through continuous expansion, in both material and ideological terms. With regard to the latter, conformance to this system can only be maintained by ensuring that those values and ideologies necessary for that system's maintenance are reproduced at every level of society. Within the sphere of cultur a l production, the Masterprize functions to support this process.


But given the Masterprize's mission to empower the consumer, perhaps the final words should be given to Mr. Thomas Coles, who kindly shared his thoughts about John McLaren's novel, Black Cabs , on the Amazon book review page: "This is an excellent book for entertainment. It may not qualify as fine literature, but for reading on the tube I've not found better" (www.amazon.co.uk, 2001).



© Gordon Downie, July 2005.

Gordon Downie studied music at the Universities of York and Durham and completed his PhD in computer science at Cardiff University . He is currently senior lecturer in computer science in the Faculty of Computing, Engineering and Mathematical Sciences, University of the West of England, Bristol , where he researches the application of evolutionary computational techniques to music composition. His BBC commission, forms 6: event aggregates , will be premiered by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales in 2005. His "Aesthetic Necrophilia: reification, new music, and the commodification of affectivity" will appear in Perspectives of New Music, Summer 2004. He is artistic director of the Contemporary Music Ensemble of Wales that regularly broadcasts for BBC R3.

A Reply to Gordon Downie

Gordon Downie's article ('What is the Masterprize'), is highly relevant at this point in time. He analyses clearly the ways by which institutions like the Masterprize act in such a way as to precipitate an increased subsumation of new music into the realms of commodity culture. Alas such developments pass by virtually unquestioned in many quarters, not least from those who are unwilling to criticise spurious criteria of 'accessibility' and the like. Others will dismiss the very act of entering into such debates, arguing that the only important thing is simply to produce good music. This position is disingenuous to a fault, and suits reactionary forces and institutions ideally. If they are allowed to have their way and dominate the discourse unchallenged, there will ultimately be little if any possibility for the production of searching new music other than in a few fringe private gatherings of the wealthy.

However, there are a few points in the article I would like to take up further. I wish to suggest an alternative view of certain issues discussed, from one like myself whose antipathy to many of the developments cited is no less passionate, but who views the nature of the situation and possible responses to it a little differently.

Downie rightly criticises the concept of the 'well-written' piece as it is commonly conceived, as betokening 'stereotypical methods of orchestration that, through repeated use, have become objectified to enable their efficient codification (however informally) and re-use'. The term 'well-written' can equally pertain to melodic, harmonic and rhythmic strategies as well, the perception of whose 'rightness' in such a context seems to a large extent dependent on their appeal to the familiar. Yet if we reject this concept entirely (not just its reified meaning), aren't we in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater? Is there not still a place for some notion of compositional competence, however slippery and problematic a process it may be to define it?

I can see how Bach's contrapuntal technique, whilst absolutely rooted in a variety of earlier traditions, constituted an unprecedented development of the art, in such a manner as allowed for new possibilities of musical expression. I can see how Brahms appropriated specific earlier models, structural, harmonic and otherwise, in almost all of his works, yet achieved a form of synthetic creation whilst continuing to inhabit these models (to the extent of sometimes undermining their premises). As a result, he was able to compose music that was absolutely his own and in no sense simply backward-looking. Brahms absorbed a vast amount of compositional technique but wasn't merely content with that: he expanded and enriched the very possibilities of technique. I can see how Barraqué, in works such as Au delà au Hazard or Le Temps Restitué , achieved a level of intricacy and dialectical interaction between different parts and parameters whose effect is always dynamic, without lapsing into empty repetition or other forms of samey banality. None of these things are easy to achieve; the works that many of us admire so much would have been impossible without the level of technique these and other composers exhibited. If 'well-written' is hardly the best term to describe precisely what makes these works so distinctive, surely some conception of compositional skill and ability remains necessary to account for their merits, if it can possibly be defined in a such a manner as not to create unwarranted exclusions? Doesn't Stockhausen's Gruppen exhibit a concomitant level of skill?

I have recently been looking through a wide range of scores of piano music by young composers and giving some advice on notational and performance issues. Some of these composers have quite a clear idea of the type of phrasing and articulation they require, though their notation, operating as it inevitably does within the field of received conventions, implies something else entirely. Isn't it surely reasonable to suggest that a piece that makes best use of notation in this respect will succeed better in terms of communicating compositional intent to performers (in those cases where this is desired in a relatively unequivocal manner - of course some composers, quite reasonably, prefer to leave some decisions to the performer)? A composer might also have a certain type of texture in mind, but hasn't always either tested or had an innate feeling for whether their particular configuration of lines or voices is likely to produce such a result? Sometimes a few suggestions in terms of modifications of pedalling, voicing, or even shifts of register, can make all the difference in this respect. This is not to imply that maximum individuated clarity of parts is the only ideal (that would be to impose a very particular aesthetic upon the music) - it is a perfectly reasonable prerogative of a composer to desire a more blurred or hazy texture sometimes. The issue at stake is simply one of finding the most effective way of creating whatever it is they wish. Complications in this respect are of course magnified when writing for orchestra, but can be apprehended and addressed with a fair degree of success, I believe. Sometimes those attempting radically new harmonic, textural, colouristic, structural possibilities stand less chance of always 'hitting it off' to optimum effect at first; this is always worth bearing in mind if one has to pass judgement on such pieces. Nonetheless, all these factors do have some palpable meaning in terms of a piece's being 'well-written' in a way that does not by any means necessarily imply a submission to reified techniques. This is probably not how 'well-written' is conceived by the Masterprize creators, of course; still, we would do well to consider better and more constructive ways of framing this concept.

Downie also writes that 'value and recognition are conflated: if it is familiar, then it is deemed good, and the positive responses that such triggers elicit indicate the relief that listeners' experience when their expectations are confirmed. In this respect, such music corresponds to the most popular tenants of the Big Brother household, and is similarly rewarded for its readiness to conform.' I agree strongly with his diagnosis and feel such unconscious assumptions and demands act as a constricting factor on a wide range of musical production, composition and performance, 'high' and 'low' music. But some degree of allusional recognition or other more immediate comprehensibility does not always have to serve backward-looking ends: as counter-examples, I could cite Mauricio Kagel's inhabitation of received musical genres which he hollows out, estranges, defamiliarises in such a way that the result can be profoundly unsettling and searching, much more than simple affirmation. Another example would be Michael Finnissy's bittersweet and murky arrangements of Gershwin, in which he uses a wide range of techniques to create disjunctions between melody and harmony, to turn an idiom against itself to near breaking-point, or simply presents the melody within a radically different style of performance (sometimes presented distant and aloof, sometimes hammered out in a strident, angry manner). All these strategies, applied with subtlety and intricacy as well as clarity, transform the songs into elaborate psychological dramas. The very fact that the melodies are 'known' or that their essential attributes are familiar and already-absorbed, allows a 'way in' to the music, enabling the listener can perceive the inner dialectic between source and setting more immediately than if the material were more abstract. Of course they could have been composed, or can be played, in such a way as to make them into essentially nostalgic homages (which would perhaps satisfy the powers-that-be at the Masterprize more), but this by no means necessarily need be the case.

Doesn't every good composer create some attribute of a work that can be heard quite clearly on first listening? In the high serial works that both Downie and I admire greatly (including those marvellous pieces of his own), one can perceive clear shifts in texture, density, register, etc. that are relatively unambiguous in their impact. These allow an uninitiated listener a corresponding 'way in' to the music from which vantage point it becomes possible to engage with the more intricate and microscopic details and processes. And whilst the particular configurations of such parameters may be new and startling, isn't 'recognition' still a factor in the listening experience?

Downie refreshingly attacks the 'maestro myth' when suggesting that 'In the performance of complex, avant-garde orchestral music such as Gruppen , a conductor's role becomes increasingly that of a time-keeper only, allowing few opportunities for the exaggerated, show-business mannerisms through which so many maestri assert and maintain their power, and through which marketing and promotions departments are able to sustain the myth of the omnipotent maestro.' But I'm not sure if this is a fair description of the conductors' (plural, as there are three of them) role in Gruppen . Whilst indeed the 'exaggerated, show-business mannerisms' that are so often studied and projected for cynical effect are hardly appropriate in the context of this work, the conductors can still use body language to convey something of the total effect desired without resorting to such easy tricks. This total effect is achieved through details of balance, dynamics, type of attack and articulation, etc. (as with any music) but the end result amounts to something frequently perceived as more than simply a rationalist agglomeration. Even a very 'geometrical' result itself expresses something (to me, something clean, refreshing, rejuvenating, even inspiring perhaps?). The conductors' gestures can communicate such a desired result to the players. In older music as well, the options open to a conductor aren't limited to either contrived and commodified 'Expressive' (with a capital 'E') gestures on one hand, or simple mechanical time-keeping on the other. Body language can be used constructively to express new things, new interpretative wishes that don't simply reiterate pre-formed expressive categories. I would think that most orchestral musicians who have played under the baton of Pierre Boulez are aware of his ability to communicate very subtle nuances through highly economical gestures. The same was true of Toscanini, notwithstanding his 'objectivist' tendencies. Karajan was a more obviously 'showy' conductor who played up his charismatic, mystical presence to the full, but at best (as in his performances of Richard Strauss or of early Schoenberg, say) his personality and gestures were distinctive and produced highly individual results.

I am just concerned when in response to the predominance of reified categories of subjectivity in music-making (which, of course, are in reality anything but subjective), one makes an appeal to idealised scientific rationalism in such a way that might seem to deny the value of the subjective per se . This is precisely the phenomenon that Adorno identified and criticised in his important essay 'The Ageing of the New Music':

'In the history of spirit [ Geist ], the relation between art and science is never slack, as if with progressive rationalization art would change into science and take part in its triumph. Art, and above all music, is the effort to preserve in memory and cultivate those split-off elements of truth that reality has handed over to the growing domination of nature, to scientific and technological standards that permit no exceptions. Art's effort has no place for any exalted terrain of the unconscious, no cozy little corners in the bright electrified world. Even as determinate negation, what art says is itself part of the world and subordinate to the law of enlightenment. The barbaric middle-class separation of feeling from understanding is only externalised when art is set up as a nature reserve for the eternally human and of comfortable immediacy, isolated from the process of enlightenment. The authentic artists of this age, Valéry above all, have not only obeyed the technologization of the artwork, but accelerated it; the whole development of modern music, since Richard Wagner, would be unthinkable without the determined absorption of technique in the broadest sense. But the result of this, as well as of the seemingly scientific methods such as impressionism and pointillism imported into painting, is not that art has been transformed into science or technology. The aim of the introduction of these technical elements is not the real domination of nature but the integral and transparent production of a nexus of meaning [ Sinnzusammenhang ]. When such transparency lets nothing glimmer through, when it is not a medium of artistic content [ Gehalt ] but an end in itself, it loses its raison d'être. Valéry himself forcefully emphasized this. The aesthetic rationality of the materials neither reaches their mathematical ideal nor dominates reality: it remains the mimesis of scientific procedures, a kind of reflex to the supremacy of science, one that casts into an even sharper light the difference of art from science the more that art shows itself to be powerless vis-à-vis the rational order of reality. Scientific art, art that would be nothing more than scientific, would be an arts and crafts analogue, no matter how rigorously it were organized. The necessity, indeed the justification, of musical construction is bound to what is to be constructed, to the composition, not to the mere fulfilment of self-posited mathematical norms, whose arbitrariness is only too easy to prove. The meaning of "technology" outside of the boundaries of the aesthetic sphere, of the sphere of play and semblance, is that of the performance of a real function: the reduction of labor. Since today as always the artwork lays claim to a sphere separate from that of practical cause-and-effect relationships, it can have nothing to do with technology in this sense, but must fulfil its own immanent order even where it participates in technique. If art forgets this, it becomes a poor third, aesthetically empty and objectively powerless, deluded hobby work. The vain hope of art, that in the disenchanted world it might sae itself through pseudomorphosis into science, becomes art's nemesis. Its gesture corresponds to what is psychologically termed identification with the aggressor. The mannerisms of a machine shorn of any utility only accentuate its uselessness in the midst of universal utility, a uselessness from which art's bad conscience derives, as well as much that art credits to itself as a triumph over romanticism.'

(Theodor Adorno, 'The Ageing of the New Music' (1955), translated by Robert Hullot-Kentor and Frederic Will in Essays on Music , edited Richard Leppert (University of California Press: 2002), pp. 192-194).

Many (not least the sympathetic musicologist Heinz-Klaus Metzger) have questioned how fair and accurate Adorno's diagnosis of the state and tendencies of new music in the mid-1950s really was. Even the most highly 'constructivist' works of high modernist music almost never fulfil the category of 'art that would be nothing more than scientific'. Subjective decisions are involved on many levels of the compositional process (most obviously, in the very decision to write such a type of work) which at the same time partaking of the possibilities of rational technique. In some ways I'd suggest that such subjectivity is rendered all the more powerful as a result, unrequiring as it is of manneristic projection. The awe-inspiring buildings of Mies van der Rohe are highly organised, rationalised, geometrical in their design and construction, but in their totality present a far-reaching subjective vision, one that I find captivating and inspiring. And I might describe numerous of Gordon's compositions in a similar manner.

I wouldn't thus extrapolate some pseudo-subjective 'anything goes' aesthetic by any means, though, by which any supposedly subjective work is fine so long as backed up by good technique (a common aesthetic position nowadays). On the contrary, it means something more ubiquitous when the subjective will of the composer is engaged with some manifestation of the wider world as expressed through musical convention and tradition. This can of course take numerous forms, including hyper-rationalisation as a strategy to transcend all perceived reified tropes as might be argued to occur inevitably within a more 'instinctive' approach to artistic creation (this is not exactly my position, but one I respect). And even to negate tradition is still a form of indebtedness to it. Top improvising musicians are as acutely aware as anyone of the difficulties and effort involved in attaining such a level of fluency and self-awareness as to enable one to achieve a genuinely subjective and spontaneous form of projection. Plenty of more naïve art imagines itself to be subjective, but actually reiterates, in a passive manner, those norms that have become lodged in the mind through an individual's exposure to the wider culture, with little or no mediation involved (the best 'naïve' art, such as that of Satie or Rousseau or Skempton, is quite different, though). The subject is in part shaped and formed by the wider environment they inhabit, but that in no sense precludes the possibility of dialectical mediation, directed both internally and externally. And in any period, the most lasting artistic works have resulted from such mediation, I believe, as much as a result of aptitude as simple 'ability' or 'talent'. This, of which Gruppen is an example but by no means the only type, is precisely 'that tendency which the Masterprize seeks to eradicate'.

As I hope is clear, I am not looking to attack Gordon's article by any means - it is important and vital - but simply to attempt to widen the scope of this debate (to which other responses would surely be welcome). The Masterprize operates absolutely according to the aesthetics of the marketplace - privileging essential sameness of production and reiteration of norms whilst also seeking superficial novelty in a manner that resembles the packaging of any other consumer good (how much real difference is there between 10 brands of washing powder and how much is really about the packaging and image?). This is what Adorno (incorrectly, in the context of jazz, I feel) identified as 'pseudo-individualisation'. If we are reaching a situation where the distinction between this and genuine innovation is no longer perceived, there is much cause for concern.

Ian Pace



© Peter Grahame Woolf