Graham McKenzie: “hcmf is made of change”

The UK’s largest international festival of new and experimental music, Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival (also HCMF) has featured major international figures, guest composers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen, Louis Andriessen, Terry Riley, Brian Eno, John Cage, Steve Reich, Jonathan Harvey, Helmut Lachenmann and Sir Harrison Birtwistle. Its programme includes improvisation, installation, sound sculptures, happenings, new technology and free jazz. We spoke to the current director Graham McKenzie, appointed in 2006, about 2022 edition and Ukrainian music in it.

Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, the history overview 

It was founded in 1978. There had been a festival of early music for some years in the town nearby called York, quite famous early music festival, and there was some thought that it would be nice perhaps to have a contemporary music festival alongside. Starting very small but then over the years it grew primarily because it provided the first opportunity maybe to bring many European composers to the UK for the first time

All the kinds of great composers of the 20th century at one point were at HCMF — Stockhausen, Cage, Boulez, Messiaen, – very intriguing for the composers to be in this very small town in the north of England. The Festival was very much focused on that music and developed a very strong international reputation. Last year was my 17th as the artistic director. I originally agreed to do three years, but somehow there’s always another project you want to do.

“Chornobyldorf” (composed and directed by Ukrainians Illia Razumeiko and Roman Grygoriv) opened this year’s festival (Photo credit: hcmf/Brian Slater)

“The whole festival is made of change”

The Festival has had a strong core audience for a number of years which is great in terms of having that loyal audience, but maybe there comes a point where a festival knows everything about the audience that comes and not enough about the audience that doesn’t come. Why people don’t come? It seems to me that perhaps there was a need for the festival to a little bit more embrace some of the changes and practices in contemporary music and art, and different approaches to making new and experimental music, also adding the voice from the visual arts. It’s necessary that the next generations of artists are coming and promoting their work. In contemporary music what I found very strange was that the publishers kept talking to me about the 18th birthday of some composer, or the anniversary of someone who died 20 years ago. 

If you want to attract a younger generation of audience, you really put someone off their peers on stage rather than emphasizing the scene to be looking famous.

One of the changes I wanted to make was a very deliberate policy of giving the opportunity to younger generations of artists and composers. And I remember very clearly one of my first festivals, I think in 2007 we had a big feature on a composer based in the Netherlands, Yannis Kyriakides, and a press conference to announce this, the journalists were getting very angry. They said to me “Whoah, how can this young mind compose in the residence when there are some great masters which music is never heard?” What I answered to that was “Do you want to create another generation of neglecting masters or shall we hear what becomes a generation of doing?”

International work

For me, the festival became everything from noise music on one side to orchestral side on the other, it was mainstream and between sound art sound installation-based works, electronic music, and improvisations as well. The other thing I wanted to make was still look at the international work of the festival, I felt we had a solid international reputation, but that was all a little bit of work in one direction. We brought a lot of compositions to the UK from other countries of the world. I didn’t think that we created enough opportunities for young British artists to take their works within networking to open enough new markets for them, and so deliberately than to work with a number of new identifier partnerships and partner festivals we could co-commission and co-produce with. And starting a very deliberate policy that we could create opportunities for artists from different countries to work together, HMCF became much more of a producer of new work. 

2021 Oram Award-winner Maria Sappho leads a workshop on composing and improvising beyond the human, combining mycelial and neural network knowledge with an assortment of unorthodox instruments. (Photo credit: hcmf/Brian Slater)

I think we followed that by working with British Council, and other international partners to bring international delegates and key decision-makers to the HCMF. Here we can not just immerse ourselves in a great place to do music, but a great place to do business. Because at the end of the day, it’s about the art, but music and creative practices are also about business as well as creating opportunities for artists.

Online and offline: the history and the future

Online is here to stay. Many festivals have moved to the hybrid idea. There are people who often talk about the positive benefits of online, seeing this way to know people’s experiences to reach a wider audience and engagement. I’m a little bit sceptical about it. One thing about online is that you get no idea about the engagement level. The fact that someone clicked on the screen doesn’t mean that they’re engaged. They may have their laptop in the background doing the washing up. You get a sense of the level of commitment if someone leaves the house, travels to the concert space, sits there and listens, and then leaves and comes again. When things are online, you don’t really know for sure.

And also this idea of immersion. Yes, it doesn’t really matter if contemporary music or what it is when you get the real fun of accessing live cultural events… There’s a moment in your life, and it may have happened when you’re 6 or when you’re 66. A moment when you go to some event for whatever reason in the real life and amongst other people, and it blows you away. Online is not capable of doing that. Something can work online. We’ve done things like online workshops for mothers and young children that can access anytime.

Other thoughts on professional development that online workshops and also talks, we’ve developed a series of artists’ talks, where we take 2 artists, usually based in different parts of the world, usually of different generations and put them in a virtual room for 60 minutes, and we don’t speculate what they need to talk about, so we’ve developed an archive of these talks, things worked very well. When we’ve done online events rather than just play and record a concert we’ve commissioned small films designed to be on the screen. 

The negative side for me in some ways when you present the work online it creates a hierarchy, so the large orchestras, opera houses, and national theaters, they can all afford to work with broadcast companies that help them create an excellent quality online product. The smaller the organisation is, you have less possibility to do that, and you have less production. 

Huddersfield was made to be a live event

There is more common to come and immerse yourself, it is a place for the festival, it’s a small town, where everybody walks from venue to venue, and it is impossible not to meet, artists, industry guests, and audience. 

The Festival has at least 4 concerts a day. You’re in a small town, so why wouldn’t you go to them all? A big city is more distracting. Then on Monday we do a lot of short concerts, everything is free, and we do about 17-18 concerts, from midday to midnight. For some years, we had 3000 people that move from concert to concert. 

I always say to people that the perfect HCMF experience when you come to the festival is three things – one for something that you know and looking forward to, expectations, if there’s something you didn’t know, you went and really enjoyed that and if there’s something you didn’t know you went to you absolutely hate it, but you feel good for yourself for a try.

I want everybody to have those three things as the perfect experience. People don’t come for one concert, they tend to come for the least a day to immerse themselves, in a whole different range of genres and music across. 

When we did the digital work in 2020, one of the things that were a little bit controversial because that very often people go to online events they can join whenever they want, like on the YouTube channel or etc but in 2020 things were specific time. If it was 7 o’clock you had to join it, and when it was gone, it was gone. Because what I wanted to do was creating the idea of communal listening, and experience, people could come together to watch and then talk about it with their friends online. 

That was quite funny because we’ve got some kick-by from journalists who would say “I can’t be there at this time, can you send me the video”, and I usually would answer “Well no because it was online”. Now, when you even don’t have to leave the house, there’s no reason you can’t be there at this time if you really want to. 

Zubin Kanga performs a new work from the equally idiosyncratic Laura Bowler at hcmf// shorts programme. (Photo credit: hcmf/Brian Slater)

HCMF gained popularity, but how must the smaller festivals act to develop a wider audience?

A lot of 25-30 years audiences have been coming, but when I started, the percentage of the audience under the age of 35 was less than 5 per cent. Now it’s about 34 per cent, it’s a huge increase. Part of that was bringing younger artists on stage, so it’s more about what’s happening now than what was happening 80 years ago. 

And also partly about the different mix of music. It’s not like I’m going to programme all the names and artists that fall in the category new complexity. We’ve developed a reputation and trust amongst audiences, and I think that it’s interesting that it doesn’t necessarily work for a program that people make of big names, people really want to hear new things. 

Over 10 days as well you’ve got space, if you create a festival for 10 days you’re not just programming it for one audience, time and space, then think about different audiences that will come. Hugely successful also was 8 hmcf shorts on Monday, because of the things free, we generally do concerts for 20 min then 20-min break, and people are coming from all sorts of all backgrounds, able to come along, but also they come along and try because they know that they’re not going to be stuck in some environment they’re not comfortable. We developed this practice into the big international weekend. It’s a whole festival in a day. It’s growing the audience. 

The theme of the Festival

It’s a sort of language that very often contemporary music festivals use. But I hate when festivals announce “this year’s theme”. That seems to me that someone is trying to show “how clever we are”. For the person who’s not involved in contemporary art and then wondering how to get into it, the question is always “will I understand it?”. Well, I don’t know. 

You’re creating these little barriers, but it’s just music for me. I’m not a musician, I didn’t study music. I used to be a social worker for 10 years, and as part of that, I started curating the Festival. Eventually got into more cultural management. I just want to hear everything, since I was a teenager I’ve never understood people who want to listen to only that type of music from year to year. And if it makes sense to be in Huddersfield, I’m up to it. 

Graham McKenzie

People think theme is a good marketing tool, but it’s just another unnecessary barrier. You have to also realize that apart from the people who are involved in the industry, the other people who come, are choosing to come during their leisure time. You have to talk about it as an enjoyable experience. Contemporary music concerts are not just for industry people, for composers, other musicians… You have to try and communicate directly with audiences uninvolved — come along, this could be exciting for you even without a theme.

Festival nowadays. Cultural partnership with Ukraine

The Festival is held in November for ten days annually but we also do kind of pop-up editions o the festivals. We’ve done one in Mexico City, one in Brazil, we’ve done one in Lebanon, one in Philadelphia (US), and a few across different parts of Europe as well. 

There was a UK/Ukraine Season of Culture through the British seasons announced in 2021. And the timing of that was quite difficult for us because it was close to the Festival, so we intended we don’t feel we’re able to make an application to that. Partnerships, co-productions and commissions, as we work with the cultural institutes, and ministries of culture across different countries had already got a model which has been quite successful in working. Later then, independently of that, I had a conversation with the Ukrainian Institute about whether there was a possibility of developing such a partnership with Ukraine, and along the basis, I would have come to Ukraine to do research with it earlier in 2022. Of course, the circumstances overtook us all. 

Marco Blaauw plays trumpet alongside Gerhard Richter and Corinna Belz’s Moving Picture (946-3), Kyoto Version (2019-20). (Photo credit: hcmf/John Bonner)

But as part of that discussion, Ukrainian Institute has provided their offer support to look at Ukrainian artists being involved at HCMF this year as part of the Ukrainian season, and since then the situation has developed that the British Council in Ukraine has picked up that support.

And we presented our programme of Ukrainian events at hcmf// 2022, as part of Future Reimagined, the UK/Ukraine Season of Culture jointly supported by the British Council and the Ukrainian Institute. Originally conceived in 2019 and fully reimagined following the invasion, the Season runs until March 2023; the diverse programme of live events in the UK and digitally for global audiences included artist residencies, talks, open forums, film, music, literature and the performing and graphic arts, provides an array of opportunities for artists to connect and collaborate.

The ‘Future Reimagined’: bringing Ukrainian voices to hcmf// 2022

We’re very hopeful that this won’t be a single year of cooperation, and we will look to develop over the next 2-3 years further opportunities for artists and HCMF to collaborate with Ukraine, to bring Ukrainian artists to the UK, but also I’m just as keen when the circumstances allow UK-based artists to go to Ukraine and participate in projects festivals and events, that’s the very much part of our missions as well, we want to exchange in both ways. 

The start of our period is a journey of discovery forward, I usually would spend three months, I visit the country and am ready to carry there some proper research which I hope can happen as I said the near future as soon as possible but for the meantime, we will carry on and do what we can. We were delighted to have Ukrainians at the festival in 2022.

On Friday 18 November, “String Air Synthesis”. Volodymyr Voyt and Solomiya Moroz perform an entire programme of UK Premieres, including their own works and arrangements of pieces by John Cage and Julian Kytasty, alongside free and structured improvisations.

Knowledge of Ukrainian music

Obviously, you can’t go away by Sylvestrov, there’s a kind of famous master as there would be referred and there are the composers and artists who have been living abroad around Europe, and perhaps we would be more aware of and that changed a little bit after 24 of February as well. But now I think there’s a real desire around Europe to support Ukrainian artists at the moment and put Ukrainian culture on the stage and to make a statement of support by doing that, but I’m also very interested in the artists who have remained in Ukraine and find ways to support them it’s equally important. In Europe, we are looking to support the re-start of cultural life within Ukraine at the moment and support the artists there, so we are talking to one or two organizations at the moment about how we can do it at the moment, perhaps co-produce and work events that happen in Ukraine right now. I couldn’t have imagined seeing those terrific scenes in my lifetime in Europe.


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