Music Team Spotlight 2020

We've music recommendations galore this month as the year ends and we cautiously peer into 2021 to see what's on the horizon in the world of music. Our very own Joel Mills has been looking back over the year – read her Reelin' in the Year blog here – and if you're about to unplug the computer for a well-earned Christmas break, or just want a little distraction, we have a suitably soothing playlist for you: The Songs That Got Us Through 2020. Season’s greetings to one and all and here's to a far merrier 2021!


Spotlight on the future – what to look forward to in 2021

Here’s what we have on our music radar that is getting us fired up for 2021. 

Joel: The Barbican returns in the New Year with a series of hybrid shows – a small Covid-safe audience at the venue and online streaming. Two composer-artists, Anna Meredith and Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood join the string orchestra 12 Ensemble.  

Cathy: I had been looking forward to attending the Royal Opera House’s Current, Rising – the world's first hyper-reality opera – on 22 December at the recently refurbished Linbury Theatre. However, London now founds itself under tighter restrictions and venues in the capital are once again forced to close. However, this is still an exciting project and I hope there will be chance to see it in 2021. The ROH Audience Lab has been working for some time on reimagining opera, harnessing new technology and adventurous artists, and finding new spaces and new audiences. Inspired by the liberation of Ariel at the end of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Current, Rising will take four people at a time into its magical universe on a journey through the night, from twilight to dawn. Wearing virtual-reality headsets the audience will explore the multisensory set by award-winning designer Joanna Scotcher, immersed in music by Samantha Fernando, sung by soprano Anna Dennis. 

Leah: It’s fair to say we’ve missed out on fairground and festival fun in 2020, but London’s Somerset House promises something new and not-to-be-missed in the new year: Bumps Per Minute sees composer Anna Meredith and sound designer Nick Ryan – award-winning artists in residence with our friends Somerset House Studios – reinventing traditional dodgems to deliver a ‘high-octane interactive sensory experience’. Both artists have also worked with us at the British Council on projects over recent years from Georgia to Australia. As bumper cars race around, each collision and jolt will be tracked by bespoke wireless technology - the random movements generating a unique audio-visual composition, resulting in displays of light and sound across a Somerset House open air courtyard transformed by British-Nigerian designer Yinka Ilori. In a year of sitting in parked cars for drive-in film screenings and gigs, I can’t wait to properly get behind the wheel and drive … in this case, as badly as possible! 


Spotlight on Music News

Cathy: We’re pleased to welcome Jamie Njoku-Goodwin as the new CEO of UK Music. He is an accomplished, trained pianist and conductor, while his Twitter bio lists him as a ‘failed musician, onetime chess hustler, full-time politico’. He has a degree in music and a masters in international relations from the University Of Nottingham, and sits on the advisory boards of the London Philharmonic Orchestra and English National Opera. He is a man whose heart beats for the whole UK Music sector, speaking with appreciation and authority on all its diverse parts, from the big commercial players to those whose business model involves regular subsidy, and the remarkably vibrant UK voluntary music sector.  He appreciates the commercial success story that is UK music but also its power within cultural relations. He certainly has arrived with a particularly full in-tray, with the effects of Covid-19 and Brexit for starters. As UK Music Chairman Tom Watson says: ‘His experience of working at the heart of Government will be invaluable to the industry as we make the case to ministers that our sector needs further support as we return to being a net contributor to the country’s economy.’ We look forward to working with him. 

Above: this year UK Music appointed a new Chief Executive, Jamie Njoku-Goodwin

Cathy: Following our last Spotlights update, rich with awards news, here is one final celebratory ceremony from 1 December: The Ivors Composer Awards 2020. Once again, it was exciting to see that there were composers and music creators among the winners we have worked with over the years, including Yazz Ahmed (Innovation Award); Kathy Hinde (Sound Art); and Philip Venables, who won in the Stage Works category for his opera Denis and Katya. There were also some real discoveries for me in a ceremony where, thanks to BBC Radio 3, we got to listen to so much of the music. Congratulations to everyone.


Spotlight on British Council Music projects

Looking back over the year that’s passed, two major Music team programmes came to slightly premature ends this year due to Covid-19. In mid-March, composer Steph Singer was in residence in Ekaterinburg working with local composers during the latter part of our UK-Russia Year of Music. Though the pandemic forced her home a week earlier than planned, she was eager to make the most of what she had learnt and the ideas that had begun to take root during her time in Russia, resulting in the online commission ‘New Symmetry’ – a futuristic, surreal piece inspired by Laurie Anderson, Russian polyphonic choral music, and 1970s concepts of the future which premiered in October.

The UK-Russia Year of Music ran between April 2019 and March 2020 and celebrated the UK’s and Russia’s rich musical cultures through a programme – all across Russia from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok - that fostered people-to-people contacts and mixed showcasing, professional development and exchange, digital partnerships and media projects. A programme of excellence and such range that it found room for Black Midi, Shabaka Hitchings, John Eliot Gardener, George Benjamin and the Paraorchestra and had an overall reach of 48.3 million people.

Above: Paraorchestra in Moscow for the UK-Russia Year of Music. Photo credit: Yegor Sleezyak


March 2020 also marked the end of the British Council’s World Voice Programme after seven years in operation in over twenty-two countries. In partnership with governments, NGOs, UN agencies, arts organisations, head teachers, schools and some remarkable individuals, the programme trains teachers to use singing to develop musicality and as a tool for learning in the classroom. Starting with two modest pilots in India and Senegal, during the seven years of the programme we worked in 23 countries (Colombia, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, United Kingdom, Greece, Cyprus, Russia, Nepal, Hong Kong, India, Bangladesh, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Kenya, Senegal, Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Ethiopia and Morocco); trained 12,023 teachers; and reached 1.55 million children. The joy it has generated for everyone who has been associated with it - in any way - across the world is truly inspirational, and a ringing endorsement of the power of singing to improve lives.

The fourth edition of our Envision Sound programme for emerging composers working with film and moving image takes a new form in 2021. We have created an opportunity for emerging UK composers to collaborate with Ukrainian film directors, by launching our first Envision Sound Composer grants scheme. Three applicants will each receive a grant of £1,500 to realise a new score for a short film rooted in Animation, Documentary or Archive Footage. Each composer will be mentored by one of our previous Envision Sound tutors, Nainita Desai, Enrica Scandrione and Neil Brand. The final works will be premiered online at Docudays Festival in Spring 2021. 

We also look forward to another Film, Archive and Music residency with our partners Sensoria Festival and BFI. The week-long residency will feature screenings, masterclasses from established composers and directors, as well as practical workshops on scoring to moving image, 1 March to 5 March. As we speak, we are currently sifting through applications for early career and established composers who have an interest and curiosity of turning their artistic talents to composing for film and screen-based mediums. You can find out more about our ongoing Film and Music programme here.  

In 2021, Selector Radio will turn 20 years old and we've exciting news for the New Year on how we plan to celebrate, uniting our 4 million listeners in over 35 countries around the world.


Spotlight on Entertainment 

With a well-deserved and lovely bit of Christmas and New Year holiday downtime for many of us, grab a drink, your favourite snacks, put your feet up, and enjoy the time to catch up on those things you’ve been meaning to watch, read or listen to but never got around to. The Music team share their selection of highlights and recommendations.

Joel: Given 2020 has had limited opportunities for live concerts and cinema outings, I suspect most of us will have been getting our entertainment through television and computer screens. Well, as ever The Quietus are purveyors of some of the best music, arts and culture reviews. Here are their favourite film soundtracks of 2020 which also provides a mix of some of the best TV series and films to catch up on! From Devs – scored by Geoff Barrow, Ben Salisbury and The Insects – to The Deceived – scored by Northern Irish artist, composer and polymath, Hannah Peel – music scores have been a rich part of the soundtrack to the year.

Cathy: A shout-out for Spitalfields Festival six-hour online event on 5 December which I attended, featuring premieres by Victoria Benito, Joy Effiong, Bobbie-Jane Gardner, Millicent James, Sarah Rodgers, Jasmin Kent Rodgman, Susannah Self and Heloise Werner, alongside music by Errolyn Wallen. Fast Food, Fast Music is part of the festival’s pledge to Keychange, the international initiative to empower women to transform the future of music. There was an illuminating conversation on black musical history of the East End between an author and historian specialising in black British History, S. I. Martin, and Jon Jacobs. This was fabulously illustrated by the Chineke! Junior Orchestra performing works by Ignatius Sancho – born on a slave ship in the Atlantic in the eighteenth century and arriving in the UK as a slave; Amanda Aldridge – black British opera singer, composer and teacher, active in the first part of the last century; and Joseph Bologne Chevalier de Saint George – around whom there is a debate as to whether he influenced Mozart rather than the other way around. Add a spectacular concert by the Scottish premiere baroque ensemble, Dunedin Consort, and a song-writing showcase hosted by Errolyn Wallen, showing us her brilliance as a singer-songwriter herself, and you may wish to check this out for yourself. It can be accessed online on demand until 23.59 on 19 December. Enjoy!

Grace: A couple of lovely instrumental releases have kept me going this year when music has been a meditative and soothing comfort. Here’s pianist Sam Beste’s solo project, The Vernon Spring’s self- titled release, and To Cy & Lee: Instrumentals Vol.1 by Alabaster dePlume. I’d also recommend reading this Guardian article where Gus Faibairn (Alabaster dePlume) eloquently shows us how to turn the losses and the uncertainty of 2020 into learning, love and hope.

Stephen: I have to recommend the Sodajerker podcast over Christmas ... and beyond! The premise is simple – an eloquent pair of musical Liverpudlians interview songwriters and producers about their craft. However, where Sodajerker differs to many similar podcasts is their ability to pitch their questions to elicit explanations about the art of songwriting – how do ideas take shape or why was a particular production decision important? Even the biggest, most familiar acts of them all – including Sir Paul McCartney no less – have new things to say about this side of their business because, amazingly, they are so rarely asked. Like his music or not, a recent interview with Gary Barlow was a surprise delight – despite Barlow's huge fame in the UK as songsmith behind Take That, you've probably never heard him talk about his fascination for studio gear, his meeting with Prince or his penchant for a major ninth chord when the time is right! And if Gary's not your thing then you are bound to find an interview in the Sodajerker collection that you can settle down with as their archive now totals more than 180 conversations.

Joel: How exciting to hear that our British Council colleague, in our Festivals and Seasons team, David Elliot has written a book on pop music, 1984: British Pop’s Dividing Year. It looks a treat, and a real insight into an exciting time in music, that has influenced much of the music we are listening to today.