08 Nov 21

20 Artists for 20 Years: Joanna MacGregor

Image of Joanna MacGregor

Continuing our interview series, celebrating 20 Artists for 20 Years, Polly recently caught up with Joanna MacGregor for a chat over the new café table that is Zoom.

Sound UK worked with Joanna MacGregor on a fascinating tour of Graphic Scores in 2013, a tour which also featured Elaine Mitchener, Oliver Coates, and Tom Arthurs. Previously, Polly was the press officer for Sound Circus (Joanna’s label) from 2001, and Producer of the Bath International Music Festival from 2006 - 2010, with Joanna as Artistic Director.

This summer, Joanna chaired the Paul Hamlyn Foundation Awards for Artists, which Polly was on the panel for.

Polly: I first met you when you released the Mercury nominated Play on your own label SoundCircus. For me this was so exhilarating, the idea that someone could inhabit the classical world, but simultaneously bring in jazz, blues, world music, all sorts.

What was the impetus behind Sound Circus, what is your perspective today with regard to recordings? What advice would you give to artists releasing their first album?

Joanna: I saw the writing on the wall in the recording industry! I’d been a very young artist and had a record contract with Collins Classics, which was an enormous label at one point. There was an absolute boom in recording in the 90s, everybody was putting something out - I was part of that as a very young artist. I made something like fifteen albums for Collins Classics, but I quickly saw when things started to go wrong. You could see how the industry wasn't working.

At that time, I was working with a lot of people like Andy Shepard and Moses Molelekwa, Django Bates, Human Chain and Iain Ballamy. I picked up that in the jazz world you often made your own recording, then leased it to an existing label. I was full of admiration for people who did this; it seemed to be the best way of being a musician. So it was just a step on from that to say: not only will I record it, but I’ll have my own record label.

With SoundCircus, we happened to hit the era of everything going online. That was all quite new - that idea that things would be sold, or you’d have a website and you could sell things off that. I know it's a bit laughable now, but it was a new thing back then. Before, you were reliant on distributors and shops; you’ll remember how rigid they were, still putting things in their special areas. None of the artists I worked with, or combinations I wanted to do, fitted neatly.

I made fifteen recordings for Collins Classics, including a big double album of Bach’s Art of Fugue and Nancarrow’s Player Piano Studies, and they quite literally said to me “well, we don't know where to put this. I mean, should it be under B, should it be under N, should it be under jazz, should it be under classical?”

That conversation really stayed with me. Part of my ethos as a live musician was putting jazz next to Bach, and I was doing this when I was very young; in terms of recordings it just seemed like a good step, and Play’s juxtapositions were iconic in that regard.

Polly: Having gone through many years of running the label as well as being a performer and a programmer and everything, do you have any advice for younger artists who are doing that now?

I would encourage all musicians to be as independent as possible; the industry around them is quite vulnerable. Shops close, distribution companies fold. And the deals aren’t that good. It's not a very generous world for an artist, so if you can be independent - and if you can find the money to pay for your recordings - that gives you so much freedom. I would play a lot of concerts, then just sink it into this label.

Things always move on, but one of the things I’ve learned is that once you've started something you have to keep on feeding it - it's like a monster! I've realised that you have to keep thinking about what the next project might be. In terms of my label I had great good fortune: I discovered Collins Classics were trying to sell off all their recordings, including the old recordings I’d made for them. They had gone bankrupt, and were parcelling up artists’ catalogues to sell off. So I pitched for my own recordings; I pitched lower than they wanted, but I got them. I now legally owned them, so I knew I’d be able to put them out. I would say to younger artists: try and own everything - it's easier said than done, I know, but it makes life a lot easier if you actually own everything you've recorded.

Polly: So we reconnected again to work together on Bath Festival, for several wonderful years. It was so inspiring and exciting creating that programme with you. You changed Bath Festival so much.

Joanna: Well, it was a real pleasure to work with you! What a great team we made, and how satisfying it was. I remember when we booked Ralph Stanley and he absolutely filled the Pavilion. One of the really good things we did was that scene of Americana – it was getting really big just then - and bringing that strand to Bath. We did some audacious things like Handel opera in the Roman Baths, newly discovered Angela Carter poems with Bishi and Marina Warner - all that kind of thing.

Polly: It's that generosity of spirit you have, of wanting to enable all sorts of artists to come together and give them a platform. It obviously makes you excited - that aspect of collaboration and bringing different people together - and I think that's something you've probably done all your life?

Joanna: It seems to be the way my brain works: thinking about how people can meet one another in a musical arena, and create something meaningful. Create something that might last, or might go on to the next stage. It's very gratifying if it does happen. I always feel that musicians - from whatever genre - have got parts of them that are underused in some ways, or overlooked.

I think of musicians as composers or creators - I'll be there as a sort of midwife, and just check everybody's happy, and growing. It's very exciting – I don't think it's easy at all, but it's an enthralling thing to do.

Being the director of the festival is one of the most fun ways of doing that, because you have venues and creative spaces to offer to musicians. At Bath Festival and Dartington Summer School I feel I've been able to create new friendships.

Polly: Of course just a couple of months before our chat, the Paul Hamlyn Foundation Artist Awards were announced. And you've been the Chair of the Artist Awards for many years.

Joanna: I think I’ve done seven or eight years, I’ve lost count! I was a judge one year, many years ago when Jonathan Reekie was Chair. Back in those days it was only three awards and the definition of what a composer was felt narrower than it is now. With Paul Hamlyn's huge support, I was pleased to be able to widen that definition, to meet this variety of work. There was a glorious moment when we went up to five prizes (like the Paul Hamlyn Visual Art awards), and this year we've made twenty awards, which is amazing. I think the sheer scale of the music - the breadth of what people are doing - is brilliantly represented.

Polly: It's a really exciting snapshot of the British scene; really exciting people and such an array of ages and styles.

Joanna: It’s such a joy to give out these Awards; it’s obviously tough times for the arts, and for musicians. These kinds of things are absolute beacons of light: look at all the fantastic people out there, doing what creative people always do.

I love the age range of the Paul Hamlyn Awards. So many prizes are targeted towards the up-and-coming, or people who are already well-known. The Awards give a sense of the long arc in an artists’ life and career. You could be in your 60s, 70s or even 80s, and you're still producing great work - and you may still need support. That is what's so great.

Polly: Is there something that you feel we should think about as a producer? What is our role, what can we do to help artists and people on the Paul Hamlyn list or artists across their career range? What can producers do to really support artists?

Joanna: That's a really interesting question: you've got such a range of work that you do already. What I love about Sound UK is all the different venues you've used. You don't necessarily go for the most obvious concert venues, which I think is something that's going to become more and more important now. We're all going to feel a bit more regional for a little while, which I see as quite exciting.

I think you're really marvellous at picking tremendous collaborators to work with; it’s similar to what I do, which is to try to look at the seeds of something. Very often people give you little clues about where they want to go next: a little clue that they really want to work with an orchestra, a visual artist or a dancer - that kind of thing.

And the multiple performances and touring aspect of your work is really important. I’m really aware throughout my career I’ve premiered pieces, but then what happens next is a bit of an issue. A really obvious example is Hugh Wood’s piano concerto, which he wrote for me. He wrote a marvellous, absolute smash hit of a piano concerto, which I premiered at the Proms. Then I recorded it with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. But the next time I played it was something like twenty years later at the Albert Hall, to celebrate Hugh's 80th birthday! That's a really shocking example of how somebody has the wonderful idea to commission something, it's a huge success, and yet what happens next? (Hugh Wood sadly died soon after this conversation, at 89; Joanna is playing in a memorial concert for him in December.)

I’m wondering if as producers, record label managers and festival directors we’re able to think about the afterlife of the work we're creating.

Archiving and making work available so it can be performed again is so important. I’ve realised I really need to properly write down all the transcriptions I’ve done over the years. I’ve written things very quickly for orchestras, created arrangements for all kinds of people, transcribed music, including these famous Piazzolla tangos - you know part Piazzolla, and part me. I’m trying to make a concerted effort to get all this onto Sibelius, because I’m wondering about the afterlife of these things that we do.

Polly: The pandemic has also made us think a lot about how people can access the arts, and about equality in general. How we make sure we give a platform to all talent.

Joanna: I’ve become more sensitive about how many women composers I’m working with. I was always aware of it - commissioning female artists, writing music myself - but I’ve found myself more urgently checking in on myself to see whether I’m overlooking female composers, and what can I do about that. I’m. also encouraging all my students to include plenty of music by women, as well as compositions out of their classical field.

Polly: It did make me check in on what I thought and the projects we put together. In discussions with artists, just prompting us all to make an effort to look wider, to look beyond people you know, to play with a musician that isn't from your background, genre, or history and is a new collaborator. Actually that's just going to make things much more creative and exciting. That bit of effort to broaden your knowledge and experience and who you might work with I think is going to be really worth that slightly uncomfortable feeling some people think they're going to have.

Joanna: It's interesting - I’m very familiar with that feeling of being uncomfortable! Since my early 20s I’ve been constantly in an uncomfortable situation. Feeling way out of my depth and trying to improvise alongside people who were fantastic improvisers: often feeling quite foolish, and then finding ways to be able to do something that worked.

I found teaching myself how to play John Cage and George Crumb - prepared piano, playing inside the piano - is fabulous if you find yourself on stage with a tabla player, for example! Like the track I recorded with Talvin Singh. Fantastic tools to fall back on. I felt I had something to bring to the table when I was working with musicians from totally different backgrounds or genres.

Polly: So what have you got coming up now?

Joanna: I have this wonderful job as Head of Piano at the Royal Academy of Music, looking after about eighty young pianists from all backgrounds. That's a wonderful thing to do, to watch them grow and flourish; to encourage them to become indomitable buccaneers, who want to do all kinds of exciting and amazing things.

I’ve just taken over as Music Director and Principal Conductor at Brighton Philharmonic, a well-established, professional symphony orchestra, which will be celebrating its centenary in 2025. One of the things I’m going to be doing with them (at the end of 2021) is a collaboration between Kathryn Tickell and the orchestra.

I hope to be doing a lot more composing and writing; I’m still doing a lot of performing. I’ve moved to a wonderful place in the country, somewhere I can be creative. I’ve spent a lifetime being busy and very active: making things happen, working with a lot of musicians, and creating concerts and festival series. I quite fancy just writing music and reading!

I’ve also been commissioned to write a book that I’ve wanted to write for a very long time, on the subject of practicing. I’m very interested in the psychology of being alone with your instrument. That's my favourite part of playing the piano – practicing. It’s such an important subject. When we walk on stage, we’re bringing ourselves as we are: the thoughts, emotions, history, backgrounds and psychological struggles we all have. I think to be alone and to practice is a very profound thing.

Visit Joanna MacGregor's website to find out more about her work.

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