Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival has an enviable international reputation but how does it go down with the locals? Sarah McWatt tells of activities and opportunities designed to reverse preconceptions.

Image of sound installation in Huddersfield shopping arcade
Mytologier sound installation in Byram Arcade

Brian Slater

Situated between Manchester and Leeds, Huddersfield is a large market town boasting a collection of some of England’s finest architecture, borne from its history as a thriving textile centre. Among the mills and between the canals that cross the town, a rich musical heritage of exceptional quality exists (including the renowned Huddersfield Choral Society and numerous brass bands) which has paved the way for one of Europe’s most revered contemporary music festivals. Now in its 37th year, Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival (hcmf//) is widely regarded as the UK’s foremost festival of new and experimental music. Taking place each November, the Festival attracts not only a local audience, but has a dedicated and expanding national and international following.

It is extremely important that the Festival is part of the fabric of the town and valued by its residents. It is true that some preconceptions around the Festival as a ‘non-mainstream’ artform do exist, that it caters for an elite few and as a result is inaccessible to the general public. The reality and beauty of experimental music is that it is far from exclusive. The nature of experimentation – that preconceived ‘rules’ or former precedents are being bent, re-moulded and at times entirely disregarded, broken or reinvented – means that people with no musical expertise, training or knowledge can easily be part of a creative process. Our role is to present activity and events that entice the public and challenge preconceptions by offering participants not only an inclusive educational experience but an enriching and enjoyable one too.

A vital step towards engaging with people who are not dedicated contemporary music fans is to offer a broad menu of choice with no economic barrier. So we have our annual hcmf// shorts programme: a day of concerts, offering the chance to see up to 18 short performances for free. They provide the opportunity to sample different aspects of contemporary music without the commitment of buying a ticket or dedicating time to a full-length concert.

A vital step towards engaging with people who are not dedicated contemporary music fans is to offer a broad menu of choice with no economic barrier

We also encourage the ethos that music lives in everything and is accessible in the ordinary. This year we are celebrating the Tour de France’s Grand Départ in Yorkshire by hosting a series of workshops to create instruments from bicycle parts. Taking recycling to a new level, we will be constructing instruments such as the handlebar trumpet and frame harp, teaching people how to play them, and forming an orchestra from participants who will perform as part of the Yorkshire Festival 2014 ahead of the Grand Départ. This project is also a great example of how we partner other organisations in the area. We are working with a local community charity, S2R, and North Huddersfield Learning Community, and aim to link our learning activity to regional events and activities.

We also seek to introduce contemporary music to artists and new audiences through links with other artforms and musical genres. By facilitating these links, we hope to lay ground for diversification and experimentation to create something progressive and original through innovative collaborations. A recent example of this is Mytologier. Inspired by connections between Nordic and British folk culture and mythology, the project explored folk culture’s influence within contemporary music. It had a strong emphasis on learning and participation activities, comprising a sound installation in a local Victorian shopping arcade, created from collected stories from the public in Huddersfield and Denmark. There were also local storytelling workshops, including a drop-in storytelling booth set up in a local shopping centre and a camper van travelling across Yorkshire, which took Danish and British folk and contemporary classical musicians to local folk sessions where they created new music, plus a dance session based around original music created from these folk workshops; and finally a full day of free performances by artists from the Nordic region and the British Isles at hcmf// 2013.

The commissioning of new work is central to our ethos, and we are dedicated to ground-breaking opportunities that involve communities. A notable example was Lifelines by John Surman. Commissioned by BBC Radio 3 and hcmf//, it was written for a male voice choir, saxophones, piano and organ. It was a brave, original jazz work, part-composed and part-improvisation, exploring the industrial revolution and the impact of industrial progress on nature. Working with the Yorkshire-based Bolsterstone Male Voice Choir (BMVC), which was formed 80 years ago by local miners, Surman produced an astounding work which was awarded the Contemporary Jazz Composition Award at the 2013 British Composer Awards. Having succeeded in surmounting the task of taking on a new and challenging style of music for a traditional male voice choir, BMVC has in turn commissioned Howard Moody, organist and pianist for Lifelines, to compose a piece for them for their 80th birthday celebrations in 2014.

And to the future. We are currently developing a health and wellbeing strand to extend our participatory activity to those who are most vulnerable and least likely to engage. We are working with a local facility for people within the community who are homeless, drug-dependant or suffering with mental and physical health problems, to develop activity to explore artistic potential, create links within the community, and promote wellbeing. We aim to provide participants with a positive, life-affirming experience and extend our reach yet further across the community while embedding the Festival firmly within the fabric of the town.

Sarah McWatt is Learning and Participation Officer at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival.

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