It would be difficult to find anywhere more perfectly historical than York – ancient but lively, with interesting old buildings at every step. But for musicians, York is the home of the new; enlightened, far-seeing musicians and composers have been pouring in and out of York University since the 1960s. Visiting the music department in full swing this week, I asked myself why York’s eminently successful methods have not been more widely copied elsewhere. In fact I arrived in the middle of a great big coffee break taking over the whole of the building’s many foyers and involving seemingly everyone in the department. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is one of the secrets of their success; actually talking to each other every morning.
In place of a century-by-century crawl through music history, students choose to join a series of projects, lasting several weeks and open to anyone in the department, on which they work collaboratively and intensively. I had the invigorating experience of talking to a large group of people working together, under the guidance of Roger Marsh, on a music theatre strand which involved piecing together the ‘tradition’ of this elusive subject area in preparation for new work devised, written and performed by themselves. Spending a few hours in their company, I felt my own commitment to the form strengthening.
Not surprisingly, there is a great new music scene in the city – the Spring Festival was just starting this week, featuring amongst others two super-inventive York grads, Anna Meredith and Steff Conner. Steff, whose musical activities are so wide-ranging that they just can’t be summarised, was in York to perform her music from The Flood, ‘the first ever CD of new music sung entirely in Sumerian and Babylonian’. And pondering Anna’s extraordinary compositional practice gives another opportunity to visit the remarkable BBC Ten Pieces project in which she plays a starring role.