Roger Marsh Composer

A note on the Shaw Theatre show

Programme Feb 17, 1974 at the Shaw Theatre London.

Piaf for voice and two percussion                          Vic Hoyland

Mug Grunt for three performers with mugs.          Richard Orton

Ballad 2 for soprano and piano                              Bernard Rands

Scènes de ballet                                                     Roger Marsh

The show we gave at the 1974 Camden Festival in London has become legendary. I and others involved have regularly, over the years, referred to it as ‘disastrous’ and ‘our last concert’.  In fact it was neither of those things. It was disastrous in terms of the career development of the group; we might have hoped our first London show would be the launch-pad to greater things, but it was the opposite.  It didn’t stop us, but we continued with small scale appearances in college venues in the North and never troubled the metropolis again.

But the show itself was good, albeit impeded by some significant logistic problems which were really not our fault. To begin with, in negotiating with the festival we had been led to believe we might be appearing at The Place, the home of London Contemporary Dance, in their black-box theatre space with raked seating, ideal for our show.  At the last minute the venue was switched, for some reason, to the more conventional proscenium arch stage of the 450 seat Shaw Theatre.  That might have been OK.  But when we arrived on the day we found a full sized double decker London bus on the stage, in use for a current production, which could not be moved.  That meant we had to pull the curtains in front of it and work only with the shallow apron in front of the tabs.  Our programme had been worked out, as usual, so that individual pieces could be set up at the start, and we could move between them with a minimum of rearrangement.  The confined space made that impossible.  We had to move the piano, bring on percussion etc which destroyed the flow of the show.

The small audience looked even smaller in this large auditorium, and included a handful of the usual London new music critics who, of course, hated the show.  They found plenty to complain about, and I’m sure they had a point.  On the night we must have come across as very amateurish.  The Financial Times’ music critic Dominic Gill, a very nice guy whose opinion I respected, wrote:

The kindest advice anyone could give to ‘Clap’ is: Before you do your artistic reputation and your artistic selves irreparable harm, disband, and come back when you have something worthwhile to play, and someone worthwhile to play it.

I still don’t agree that we had nothing worthwhile to play, and I’m sorry that we didn’t manage to persuade otherwise.  As for the performers, we were committing the cardinal sin of the professional world: we were not professional.  Brigitte Schiffer, a German in her mid-sixties who wrote reviews of contemporary music in the UK for Melos and was a tireless advocate for new music in London, came to the show at the Shaw Theatre. I met her a few weeks later at another concert and asked her what she had thought of our Clap show.  She gave me a withering look and said “You are a composer, yes?”  “Yes”.  “Then compose!”    I have repeated this conversation endlessly to people, because to me it sums up the problem we faced, and which all young and not so young composers of music theatre face.  Opera Houses, with their big budgets and clearly demarcated roles, are set up to do opera. They do not commission young composers, unless they appear to demonstrate a willingness and ability to reproduce the kind of compartmentalised opera the opera houses expect from them. For any other kind of experimental music theatre, you have to do it yourself.  Indeed, if your vision includes actors who sing, instrumentalists who move and speak, it is often better to do it yourself than to invite in the trained professionals resistant to stepping outside their area of expertise.  The word ‘professional’ always stuck in my throat, because my experience was that I could find far more adventurous and willing performers among students and non-specialists.  I think the situation has changed a lot in recent years, and I like to think that we were part of a movement to change attitudes in that respect. As more and more centres of new music emerged, both in universities and colleges in the UK and elsewhere in the world, a much more open attitude and a new set of experienced practitioners emerged with them.  Also, perhaps, the available technologies now make it far easier for young groups to present their work with a glossy veneer that we could not achieve.

As a footnote to this, I remember being told in the 1990s, by a well established choreographer, that the work of Pina Bausch was scorned in the dance world, because she took good dancers and ruined them.  As a completely devoted champion of Bausch’s ‘tanztheater’ I was very shocked to hear this.  But then I realised that she was also committing the sin of asking her dancers to speak and, much of the time, to do anything other than ‘dance’.