Teach the Children Well
Tuesday May 9, 2000 - The Guardian

Gary Carpenter - composer in the July 18 Prom, and one of the judges in the young composers' competition - reflects on one of his musical influences

Dennis Carney introduced me to the Proms when I was about nine. I was a pupil at Henry Maynard Junior School in Walthamstow, East London, and a trip to the Proms was the first prize in a little music competition Mr Carney - the school music teacher - had organised. Shura Cherkassky played Rachmaninov's 3rd Piano Concerto and Sir Malcolm Sargent conducted.

Mr Carney - Dennis - also taught the recorder. After the first lesson I had a repertoire of five notes (left hand only) and could play a German folk song called Little Bird and the opening bit of Robin Hood. Lying in bed practising, I got bored and started changing the order of the notes. Next lesson: more notes, more re-ordering. Within a month I wanted to spend the rest of my life re-ordering notes and, what's more, I have done!

I studied composition and piano with Dennis until I went to college at 18. Dennis had, and has, conservative musical instincts. He had little time for any music later than Elgar. Schönberg, his disciples and the post-war avant garde (not to mention anything popular - "that Cliff Richard, he won't last") were anathema to him. But he was rigorous in his teaching, avoided cant, loved music with a passion and taught me to endeavour to seek and destroy anything in my work that wasn't fresh, new or honest.

Dennis also generated enthusiasm for "serious" music throughout the whole school. The Music Club had 80% of the school as members. This was largely "music appreciation" but on a highly imaginative level. Quizzes, prizes, competitions and concert trips were interwoven with hard-core analysis of big pieces (no Classic FM relax-after-a-hard-day-at-the-office prissiness for us). Hardly a kid walked out of Henry Maynard without a working knowledge of sonata form.

The Prom Concert prize was hyped to the skies. Everyone wanted to go. The anticipation was huge; the journey from the East End, getting to hear some of the music in advance (on scratchy old mono LPs) and going into the cavernous Albert Hall space and hearing the orchestra tune up was magic. Then hearing nigh-on 90 musicians playing, in front of your very eyes... well, it beat the scratchy old mono LPs, and actually, beats bright, shiny new CDs also!

Incidentally, everyone will tell you that buildings you revisit when grown up that you knew from your childhood seem to shrink. The Albert Hall is exempt from this.

If you, the reader, are coming to the Prom on July 18, the second half contains music you may, and probably have, heard before: Leonard Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from West Side Story (one part of which, the Mambo, is the music for the current GAP advertisement) with its staggering percussion display and brain exploding trumpet solos, Copland's El Salón México - a sort of Tequila-fuelled knees-up (brain surgeon on standby for the trumpet player again) and Ravel's jazz-inflected Piano Concerto which, for those of you with a taste for these things, is about the only piece of music to begin with a whip solo.

The first half you will have not heard before. This is the world premiere of a piece called Scry involving three young people's ensembles, the virtuoso pianist Joanna MacGregor (who also plays the Ravel Concerto) and the dynamic percussion group, Ensemble Bash - around 200 performers in all.

Peter McGarr, Alec Roth and Nitin Sawhney have each been invited to write a piece for and work with The New Century Strings (Bolton), the Finchley Children's Music Group (London) and the Junior Guildhall School Of Music Ensemble (London) respectively. Joanna and Ensemble Bash will also play with each group.

My job is that of a kind of sonic DJ, writing the Prelude, the Interludes that in effect introduce each "item" and the Finale - so I'm the only one that gets to play with all the toys at the same time. The global idea behind the project is "the future": to scry is to gaze into a crystal ball.

The "theme" of this year's BBC Prom season is youth. This concert is one in the series that puts its money where its mouth is. Each of us four composers lives and works away from the ivory tower; winning South Bank Show awards for innovative CDs or arranging for Damon Albarn or teaching in primary schools or exploring the world of the Indonesian Gamelan orchestra and much more.

All of us endeavour to write music that communicates and excites; challenges and innovates; whether it be through, say, Nitin's sample-based political explorations or Peter's phantasmagorical aural dream worlds. All of us believe in the power of the young, their "sod it, let's go for it" approach as performers, and their openness and perception as auditors. The future, for us, is you.

A thought to take away with you - and one for Dennis, if he's reading this: 40 years ago at the age of nine, experiencing as I hope you all will be, the first Prom, I wanted more than anything else to be down there myself as either composer or conductor or, even better, both. And guess what...?

© Copyright Guardian Media Group plc. 2000

 © 2000 Gary Carpenter