GUEST POST: FROM NEW CROSS TO A NEW MUSIC LIFE

British composer and recording artist Neil March, who received both his MA and PhD in Music at Goldsmiths, is currently a BBC Introducing Artist. He has played their stage at Latitude 2017 where he performed with his ensemble ‘The Music of Sound’. His music is regularly featured by BBC Radio 3, BBC 6 Music and BBC World Service. His latest single ‘Water (1st Movement)’ was featured on Stuart Maconie’s Freak Zone on BBC 6 Music in October 2017.

Below he tells us more about his time at Goldsmiths and career in music:


It is hard to believe that it is nearly ten years since I arrived as a mature part-time postgraduate student at Goldsmiths University. Sometimes when one embarks upon a journey wrapped up in such anticipation, the reality simply cannot match up. That was not a problem for me though. On the contrary, I could scarcely have imagined the extent to which Goldsmiths would change my life.

How it all began…

Neil

I chose to study music composition at Goldsmiths precisely because of its reputation for cutting-edge contemporary music. I was fortunate to have one of Britain’s most exciting composers of new music Roger Redgate as my course supervisor and it was a considerable bonus that I got to study with Keith Potter, Dmitri Smirnov [who in particular gave up generous amounts of his own time to help me] and John Dack.

I threw myself into my studies and, through dogged determination, I broke down barriers between composition and performance students and benefited by being able to call upon some wonderfully talented musicians to perform my works at the University’s live events.

After being rewarded with a distinction in my masters, I needed little persuasion to go on, following a year’s break, to undertake PhD study with Roger as my mentor. It was a gamble choosing to take the minimum time (two academic years and a completion period) but it paid off. I passed the first time and in February 2015, I was officially awarded my doctorate. It had been an amazing journey and I would need a whole other blog to talk about the relationships, events and opportunities that arose during that six and a half year period.

Thank you to Marilyn Wyers

However, it would be remiss of me not to mention the amazing partnership I formed with the hugely talented Marilyn Wyers with whom I participated in a series of joint presentations of our research in some fine institutions in the UK and Greece. It is a particular honour that Marilyn dedicated Chapter 7 of her ground-breaking book ‘Sound, Music and the Moving-Thinking Body‘, to talking about the use of movement and stasis in my piano music as a metaphor for events and behaviours in urban society. Marilyn’s use of my music in her amazing work has been inspirational for me.

Urban art music & the birth of Demerara Records

The purpose of this blog, however, is to talk about life after Goldsmiths. That too has been quite a journey. In fact, that journey began in 2014 between handing in my completed portfolio and receiving my official examination six months later. I decided to release what was, in essence, the album of my PhD. My thesis was entitled ‘Developing an Urban Art Music‘; not urban in the sense of Hip Hop and associated genres but urban in the sense that I used real recordings of everyday environmental noise (electric metal saws, motor engines, sirens, alarms, construction and commercial machinery etc.) not merely for sound effects but as instruments of pitch, playing alongside or in juxtaposition with notated instrumental parts. The sounds of the environment I lived and worked in influenced every stage of the composition process and my ability to synthesize, manipulate and alter their properties reflected the way a modern digitally driven world operates day to day. Accordingly, my album was entitled simply ‘Urban Art Music‘.

Since I was releasing an album, I needed a label to put it out on. So I chose the name Demerara Records as its light brown sugar reference could be seen as symbolising the coming together of different ethnicities [like my own family] and Demerara is in Guyana which is where my wife’s family originates from. I could also throw in an additional metaphor about sweet but subtle flavours! I had no idea what was to follow.

Of course, Demerara Records was not the first record label I had formed. In 2002, at a time when physical products [as in CD or vinyl] were still a necessity and downloads were only just attaining significance, I had launched Ravensbourne Records [in reference to the river running through Lewisham] in order to release the eponymously titled debut album by Soul artist Kevin East for whom I occupied the roles of songwriter, keyboardist and [unofficial] manager. It was a wonderfully successful venture but the label developed into a wider business which ultimately became a lot of work for little progress so I wound it up in 2007.

Fortunately, one of the key skills I had developed in my Ravensbourne years was how to get music placed on appropriate radio shows. In the seven years since winding that business up and forming a digital music label, that process had been made considerably more straightforward and cost-free thanks to electronic transfer, email and social media. All the same, I was sceptical about being able to get my new music, which was hardly the most accessible, onto national radio. So much so that I forgot to listen to ‘Late Junction’ on BBC Radio 3 and it was only because my good friend and fellow Goldsmiths alumnus Jerry Wigens texted me to congratulate me on getting my track SE13 played that I was able to switch on and catch the second half of the piece being played by Nick Luscombe. Tracks from the album would go on to be featured three times on the show, each time by a different presenter [the others being Max Reinhardt and Anne Hilde Neset] as well as on BBC 6 Music’s ‘Freak Zone ‘(with Stuart Maconie), Resonance FM’s ‘Hello Goodbye Show’, on Radio Dacorum in my hometown of Hemel Hempstead who invited me in for a live interview and played a selection of tracks and a variety of others both within and beyond the UK.

In particular, the opening track ‘Metal Cutter‘, on which I created a three and a half minute piece with multi-layered harmonies from 1.4 seconds of an electric metal saw on a local building site, became a talking point on social media and subsequently picked up nearly 7000 Soundcloud plays!

This is tomorrow calling: 10 Goldsmiths Composers

A year later my little label found itself in greater limelight thanks to a project which began as an opportunity to release music by some of my fellow Goldsmiths alumni and a few other composer friends. That process somehow snowballed and resulted in a three hours long compilation album of thirty tracks featuring the music of twenty-six composers and a variety of performers drawn from more than twenty nationalities and four continents. Moreover, the album This is Tomorrow Calling broke all the usual conventions and trashed demarcation lines, enabling a uniquely wide spectrum of music and sound art works to coexist.

This is Tomorrow Calling had the unusual distinction of being Late Junction’s featured album for two weeks (one each with Fiona Talkington and Max Reinhardt). It also grabbed the attention of Stuart Maconie on BBC 6 Music and a number of UK and non-UK media. The reaction was overwhelming. We even had a one hour special on Resonance FM dedicated to the album which consisted of the presenter Dan Ross, another Goldsmiths alumnus, chatting with me while we played selected tracks and periodically played pre-recorded interviews with some of the composers. The programme was recorded in Goldsmiths’ Electronic Music Studio.

The reputation of the label and the attention it was now receiving meant having to adopt a more professional approach to branding. With some generous help from others, my amateurish logo was replaced by a far superior version and the label’s online presence grew from a basic Facebook page to a website, Soundcloud page and a following on Twitter which, in a relatively short period, has grown to nearly 17,000.

One of the most pleasing aspects of the compilation’s success was that it had provided an international platform for ten Goldsmiths alumni. Namely Jostein Fretland (Fivrel), Joshan Mahmud (Moda Trio), Slavko Zagorac, John Strieder (Xelm Ya), Guy Avern, Coreen Morsink, Veera Lummi, Martin Gaughan, Andras Keri and I.

An international platform Goldsmiths alumni

With such momentum behind Demerara Records, it was not a difficult decision to decide my next move should be to begin releasing albums by some of these and other individual composers. Unlike the days of Ravensbourne Records, the costs were minimal and the distribution was genuinely worldwide and placed our music in every known digital store. In 2016 I released albums by Jostein Fretland (Fivrel), Guy Avern and by Joshan Mahmud’s Moda Trio. I also released albums by other [non-Goldsmiths] composers and artists like Nicolas Horvath from Monaco and the Spanish-Greek Duo Diez. I worked hard to get radio support for all these projects and was especially pleased to land a live session on BBC Asian Network for Moda Trio and more support from BBC shows for Guy Avern.

Yet it was the following year and the release of my own music that produced the biggest surprise. At the start of 2017, I had begun working with an old friend Dee Rose [who had been lead vocalist in two of my former bands] under the name Dreamscape City Sinfonia and our efforts had caught the attention of music and broadcasting legend Tom Robinson leading to airplay on BBC 6 Music. For a short time, my focus was suddenly back in popular music and my work in the contemporary classical and experimental music field took a back seat.

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BBC Introducing & Latitude 2017

Then in May 2017, I composed a quartet of pieces that built on my Urban Art Music concept (except that I had replaced the word urban with environmental as there was nothing exclusively urban about the sounds I was recording and synthesising). In a light-hearted reference to the use of everyday noise which also paraphrased a well-known sixties Pop song, I called them ‘Music to plan towns by 1 – 4‘. Slightly concerned that, at times, less tonally and modally challenging nature of the music might not be well-received by those used to the more uncompromising style of my previous works, I decided to send two of the tracks just to Late Junction’s Max Reinhardt who had been a particularly strong supporter of my music. To my amazement, Max’s response was not only highly enthusiastic but he announced he would be recommending me for the BBC Introducing Stage at Latitude, Europe’s largest music festival, with the caveat that I needed to recruit a live ensemble as opposed to “… just you and a laptop!”.

It soon became apparent that Max’s enthusiasm for the EP was rubbing off on others too. In a whirlwind of activity, I found myself being interviewed on shows on BBC Three Counties, BBC World Service and others. The aforementioned Tom Robinson featured the opener from the EP on his Saturday night flagship BBC 6 Music show twice as well as including it in the Mixtape show. Late Junction and Freak Zone picked it up too and my stalwart supporter and presenter extraordinaire on Radio Dacorum, Marc Ainscough actually played the entire four tracks back to back on his Friday drivetime show! I can scarcely imagine what his listeners made of that!

It didn’t end there either. When I arrived with the fantastic group of musicians I had assembled of old school friends and fellow products of the Hemel classical music system John Molloy (formerly of the 80s Synth Pop pioneers Mainframe), Mark Saxon and Mark’s sons Matthew and James, we were driven to the VIP eating area by Head of BBC Introducing Dan Roberts. He casually told me that, when the panel had whittled 230 recommended acts for Latitude down to 30, the panel members had been asked to compile their Top Eight choices and I was the only one to appear in literally every panel member’s selection. So I was the first artist to be confirmed for invitation. I was puzzled that such a niche area of music would achieve such universal support but apparently it was its utter uniqueness that grabbed them. So no pressure then!

It was a memorable day. Not only did I get to conduct my ensemble [and live electronics] at Europe’s largest festival on my 54th birthday but Late Junction broadcast part of the performance a few nights later and I was interviewed by Max Reinhardt who, both in the interview and on the edition of the show that played our live performance, reiterated his belief that what set me apart from other contemporary composers was the combination of my “… avant garde tendencies and pop sensibilities”. I have dined out on that fantastic [and entirely accurate] summary of my style ever since! Max would later provide the written submission supporting my [sadly unsuccessful] funding applications to the PRS Foundation and other funding bodies. His support and his sincerity as a leading curator of new music has been quite stunning.

More BBC support

In October 2017, I released the first single to be recorded by my ensemble Neil March & The Music of Sound. ‘Water (1st Movement)’ was the first piece in a quartet of movements paying tribute to the incredible power and versatility of water. It received more BBC attention including Stuart Maconie who, on Freak Zone, paid glowing tribute to it. In November I also signed a publishing deal with Sentric Music. It had been a satisfying end to the most important year of my career as a composer and recording artist.

Moderating & reviews writing for a music legend

There was one more surprise in store for me though. At the start of 2018, I received an email from Tom Robinson. It was an invitation to join his team of moderators and review writers for the Fresh on the Net Listening Post (at which I was a frequent visitor and voter). Particularly pleasing and unexpected was Tom’s comment that the team would benefit from my ‘knowledge and expertise’ about music. I had no idea that he knew I possessed any!

In the first third of 2018, I have thrown myself into this moderating role, having to find time to listen to approximately 200 new tracks a week by aspiring bands and artists. I have also discovered that there is a wealth of serious talent out there in the pop music world and the toughest part of the moderating role is deciding which tracks to knock out of my final selection each week. I am shortly about to write up the reviews of the public’s fresh faves (the ten winners of the weekly public vote) for the third time since becoming a moderator. It’s a part of the role that some of the moderator’s dread but unsurprisingly I really enjoy it!

Trust-The-Doc: New music blog

I have, in the meantime, launched my own new music blog ‘Trust-The-Doc‘, the popularity of which has been overwhelming. I am now bombarded with new music from across the widest spectrum of genres. The newest edition has short sections picking out recent highlights from Contemporary Classical and Leftfield, Jazz, Folk, Alternative, Urban, Pop and Dance genres. So when I say it is a new music blog, I am striving to make that a justifiable claim.

Demerara Records: A hub for new music HUB

Returning to my own music and to Demerara Records, I released a new EP under the name Environmental Sound Foundation this week and was delighted that Tom Robinson played it on BBC 6 Music. I am also about to release an album of my library music which demonstrates a less well-documented area of my work. The album, under my pseudonym Nielstromm, is available to stream in full on Soundcloud and is released on 1 June 2018.

Demerara Records has developed into a new music hub that houses my continuously expanding and already extensive ‘Guide to managing your music‘, the aforementioned ‘Trust-The-Doc’ blog, articles about music and related topics, pages about composers associated with the label and various links. So releasing music is just one of the label’s functions.

Opportunities for Goldsmiths musicians past & present

More exciting though is that I am about to embark on two projects which should be of benefit not only to fellow Goldsmiths alumni but to current students too. One is that I am curating tracks for a new compilation album; a single album this time and one that focuses on UK-based composers and performers. The other is that I have agreed on a deal with the PRS-licensed Ivy House, a beautiful venue in Nunhead, less than a mile from Goldsmiths University, to promote concerts on the first Thursday of the month on a bi-monthly basis starting in August 2018. The ethos of ‘Demerara Records Presents‘ will be a regular event showcasing contemporary music that broadly occupies the space where classical, electronic, experimental, alternative, world and related genres converge. If the first three gigs are a success, we may move to make it a monthly event. Either way, I want to hear from Goldsmiths musicians who are able to perform live sets of original music lasting at least 45 minutes.

Meanwhile, my relationship with key figures in radio and the wider music media is better than ever and there will be plenty of opportunities for fellow Goldsmiths musicians to enjoy a significant platform for their music. So it should be. I owe it to Goldsmiths and its inspirational music department that I have had the confidence to achieve so much in such a short space of time. It will give me so much pleasure to be able to keep on giving something back.

 

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