Black History Month: Philip Herbert

In recent times the arts world at large has seen a step change in being open to exploring the opportunities to enable BAME artists to be able to engage with the wider creative industries. A variety of reports and debates such as the ISM’s Composers and Survey Round Table Report, Creative Case for Diversity, the Brian McMaster’s Report, BASCA’s Conference held at the RNCM looking at Diversity in Classical Composition (sponsored by BBC Radio 3), and BASCA’s New Music Commissioning in the UK Report (which is not an exhaustive list of the activities) highlight some similar trends. That is to say that more opportunities could be made for BAME creative musicians in the current climate to participate in the world of classical music. Such a finding is ironic given the number of books that exist which highlight the number of prominent BAME composers in existence through the centuries. In turn the aim would be to enable BAME composers and musicians to create music that speaks to new broad based audiences, that will enrich the artistic climate in the UK.

This is not a new idea as the great Russian Composer, Sergei Rachmaninoff advocated that black composers should use the musical influences derived from their cultural heritage as a source of inspiration when composing. He says:

“There is a strong national characteristic in America, a characteristic born of her broad democracy, the gathering of many nations, a cosmopolitan note which your composers must catch and write into your music. How will it be done or when or where, no one knows. I am convinced however, that the plan of taking Indian themes, and [black] themes, is scarcely likely to produce great distinctive American music, unless these themes are developed by Indian composers and [black] composers. The highest quality of all art is sincerity.” (Sergei Rachmaninoff, ‘Etude Interview,’ in, The Californian Eagle, 18 October 1919.)

There is a parallel here with the wider debate about cultural diversity in the UK, where there is a need to invigorate the creative outlook with new work, new audiences and a new BAME generation needs to be inspired to carry on the creative mantle.

How will this happen? At present with cuts to the creative arts, arts funding, funding for those who wish to study music in higher education, how will a newly skilled creative work force be created? How will minority groups be able to access music as an art form if they are priced out of the market? There seems to be a lot of talk the moment about how to move things forward. Whilst this is useful to build trust, develop wider networks, debate strategies, canvass opinions through surveys and create short term budgets for projects, it is important to build infrastructures that enable the Cultural Diversity debate in classical music, to become mainstream, and also become firmly enshrined in the artistic landscape in the UK. For example, new research groups in higher education need to be formulated, with BAME creatives as part of this context and learning from the infrastructure that exists in the USA, which enables minority groups to find lifelong learning, education and international careers. In addition, more schemes that have real purpose in enabling BAME artists to signpost their careers through recording contracts, publishing deals, broadcast commissions and so on need to be created. Musical careers can only be forged through these opportunities which seem to be available for the privileged few. Significant amounts of funding for these initiatives would demonstrate that there is a commitment to establishing a thriving culturally diverse perspective to mainstream classical music, in which BAME musicians and composers play a central role. We have seen the birth of Chineke which is an exciting addition to the artistic landscape of classical music, which has facilitated opportunities to hear the music of invisible BAME Composers in their concert programmes.

It’s great that there is now a platform for discussing Cultural Diversity in Classical Music and I have benefited from commissions and performances of my compositions from a number of orchestras. On 6 October the BBC Singers performed one of my choral works in a programme of choral music by BAME composers at St. Gabriel’s Church Pimlico, which was broadcast on BBC Radio 3.

With the overtones resonating from the daily cacophonous sounds of Brexit, the question is, will all of this positive work grind to a halt and fade out, so that the work of enabling culturally diverse musicians to become mainstream, household names becomes once more an invisible vapour?

© Philip Herbert