Ben Lunn

Ben Lunn

Ben Lunn is a composer, music critic, trade union activist, and helped found the Disabled Artist Network, an organisation which is bridging the gap between the professional world and disabled artists. He also has a monthly column in The Morning Star.

Grup Yorum - On the Move
Tuesday, 07 May 2024 13:01

Grup Yorum - On the Move

Published in Music

Grup Yorum on the move

Grup Yorum are an ensemble I have deeply admired for many years, and even had the privilege to bring them to Britain to attend the Workers’ Music Association Summer School in 2023. Its hard to describe the extent to which they’ll fight for their political beliefs, but their recent travels go a long way to demonstrate it.

Recently, the band made a daring visit to the contested Donbass People’s Republic, where they visited Luhansk, Mariupol, Krasnodor, and Severodonetsk meeting people locally, hearing about their experiences of the past 10 years, and performing their music to the people of these towns. At the time of writing, they went straight from there to Syria, where they are aiming to sing songs in solidarity with the Palestinian people, visiting Damascus and Aleppo, amongst other locations in Syria.

I was able to talk to the group about their motivations to travel to these places, what their experiences were, and satisfy a real curiosity to see what on earth they were doing – as very few bands are carrying out such daring visits.


I initially asked the band what drove them to the Donetsk People’s Republic, to which they said:

“We wanted to help the people here, and we were here in 2015. It is important now to report this trip, the Western media is filling the airwaves with misinformation. We are preparing a documentary about everything we have seen and the criminal acts of the US. The world is misinformed about the war and tell the truth about the Fascistic nature of the Ukrainian government. We came here to tell the truth”.

They informed me they started filming from their arrival, as well as writing in diaries about everything they witnessed, and collecting as much physical material they could. Alongside this, they wanted to share the stories of the people of Donbass, who have been completely isolated since the escalation of the conflict in 2022.

I asked what their overall feelings and experiences had been, being so close to the conflict. They said:

“When we were in Severodonetsk, the city was in a terrible state. Every building had been attacked by the Ukrainian government, and civilians were killed by the Ukrainian forces, and we saw lots of guns and bombs supplied by NATO.”

They went on to highlight that they were only 8km away from the frontline and could hear the noise of the war on the horizon.


Despite the horrific destruction they witnessed, they were eager to stress that the people were extremely happy they had appeared, because of how isolated from the rest of the world they are:

“In the West, we don’t see the reality on the ground, and the people [here] are eager that our efforts are being promoted internationally. They truth doesn’t find its way, we have to bring the truth out! The people who saw the concert were extremely excited that we were there. They wanted to talk to us. They were extremely happy with our support and solidarity, and we promised we will come again, and to make a bigger concert for them”.

The band performed their usual blend of their own Turkish radical songs alongside international hits like Bella Ciao! and Katyusha and the band informed me how enthusiastically they were received. When talking about the reception of their songs in Turkish, they told me they shared the meaning of these songs and some in attendance described the band’s political vision was ‘crystal clear’.

In our discussions, I asked what their of the war zones were:

“We were aware of the risks when we went to Donbass, but we took them. In our history, 39 years of making art, we weren’t just watching the events from a distance. To make these songs we have to be there with the people. We have been in Iraq and Syria in the past and in Palestine also.There are risks attached to this, and we know that, but we have to face the risk. There were some critical moments, the people are living these conditions every day, they protected us and showed us great solidarity, and kept us in secure spaces. There were risks of drone attacks at points, but we trust the people to protect us more than themselves – for us, there were many risks, but we had to do this”.

I asked about the documentary, and they informed me that the documentary will be about 90 minutes long, and they’ll promote it when it is ready for release. On the band’s future plans, they told me they were getting ready for Syria, where they’ll give three concerts in the conservatoires and the universities in the towns and cities they visit. They are also heading to Greece, Netherlands, Switzerland, England, and they were invited to two Italian universities.

Grup Yorum are a band like no other, and they are carrying out actions which individuals like Paul Robeson, the Workers’ Music Association Choir, and other radicals who put their safety to the side so they can reach the people in need.

Some people are often quick to flippantly brush aside political music, preferring to the espouse the need to respect ‘art for art’s sake’, but when a Grup Yorum is singing the song and walking the walk, you have to stop and pay attention to the political motivation of this great music. 


Using high art as an enrichment, not an escape
Wednesday, 03 January 2024 17:30

Using high art as an enrichment, not an escape

Published in Music

In October 2023, I had the pleasure of reviewing a book by Jack Van Zandt – Alexander Goehr: Composing a life – published by Carcanet Press, the book reflects on the important figure, and pre-eminent composer Alexander Goehr. My review in the Morning Star covers my joyous feelings around the book, which I believe genuinely reflects and explores Goehr’s life in a way which doesn’t try to deify him but doesn’t underestimate the influence and importance.

I had the pleasure to talk with Jack Van Zandt about the book and his feelings towards his teacher, as well as uncovering the cheeky opportunistic way in which the modest Goehr was eventually convinced to let this book come into being. Our conversation wasn’t particularly linear or structured, but I often find the best conversations with composers tend to meander around, eventually coming to an enlightening result – or a philosophical head-to-head.

After an initial moment of waffling about Goehr’s interaction with Edgard Varese, my first question to Jack was what pushed him to create the book:

“Sally Groves—who for decades was an executive at Schotts, and Sandy’s [Alexander Goehr’s] publisher—and I go way back, and are old friends and we both love Sandy to death. In 2016, I was in Paris for a performance, and I stopped off to visit Sally in London on my way to Cambridge to see Sandy for a few days. I told her about how Sandy and I have these conversations on Skype regularly about all kinds of things and I thought I should try and get Sandy to go on the record to maybe make a book about what we talk about. But I thought he would probably say he doesn’t want to do it or anything autobiographical and the stuff we talk about is just between us. Sally supported the idea of a book, so I said that I was going to try and convince him to do this. If he says yes, then we are good. If he flat out says no or is reluctant, I’m going to send you a text so we can double team him and try to convince him to do it.

The first night I stayed with Sandy we sat up half the night talking, and after a couple of Irish whiskies, I plucked up the courage to ask him, but before I could say any of my plotted speech Sandy said ‘oh so you want to make a book?’ – and then he immediately agreed to do it! But he says, you have to do all the work. I was happy to agree to that. I knew how to do it, having co-authored several books before in the 1990s when I worked as a book publisher, including with Irish nationalist leaders Gerry Adams and John Hume.

I suggested that we just keep chatting on Skype, and I’ll record our conversations, and maybe we can start talking about more specific things like your teachers, which he was very keen to do. So we made a list of topics. I wanted to start with his early life, as he didn’t really talk much about it. So I got him to talk about his childhood, and his memories are endlessly fascinating. From there we went chronologically through his teachers and mentors – Richard Hall, Messiaen, Eisler, Schoenberg and so on. Sandy highlighted how we are part of a great tradition, and each generation passes what they know onto the next. It got me thinking about the concept of musical DNA and how musical skills pass on and evolve through the generations and how we composers incorporate our teacher’s influence into our own music, and in turn pass these traditions on to our pupils. Once we explored Sandy’s experiences as a student and how he put those lessons to use as a composer, I then went on in my introduction and commentary to tie in my own personal connection to him and his influence on me to show how the transfer of this musical DNA works from my perspective.

Once I started transcribing the many hours of recordings of our discussions about his youth and his working with his teachers and mentors, I began to phase out my questions by incorporating them into the answers, mostly to give him as much space as possible to reflect on his life without any distractions from me. When we started discussing the compositional concepts and mechanics that he developed in light of the teachings of his mentors, we kept it more of a dialogue or dialectic.

Personally, I was also really interested in why he accepted this young American guy as a pupil and made me his teaching and musical assistant. I think part of it might be because the posh Etonians who went to Cambridge weren’t like him or me.  We both came from immigrant families and began composing relatively late in our lives, and had to work harder to just be there in Cambridge and truly appreciate it. Sandy’s parents had brought him as an infant to England from Hitler’s Germany in 1933.  My parents were Dust Bowl migrants to California during the Great Depression, and my mother grew up in the Grapes of Wrath camp. Our family members were all good Roosevelt Democrats! Consequently, the part of the book about Sandy’s American experiences was important for both of us, because he is fascinated by America and loved his time in the US, and I think that played a part in our relationship.

We decided to end the book with the chapter on his conductor, composer and Schoenberg pupil father, Walter.  Their relationship was complex and was sometimes a difficult thing to navigate. We wanted to show the reverence that Sandy has for Walter – but not overdo it! Ultimately his father was the biggest thing in his life as a composer and where it all began.”

Our conversation meandered further, and we spent a moment reflecting on Sandy’s position within British classical music and the contemporary music scene of his day and his position today. Because it is truly fascinating looking at Goehr for two reasons. Firstly, he spent a significant period on the outside of a very conservative musical landscape, but many artistically conservative corners of contemporary music today see Goehr as a staple, a solid part of Britain’s tradition.

Similarly, what is also curious about Goehr is that his influence is not because of international fame, like his contemporaries Peter Maxwell Davis or Harrison Birtwistle, who enjoyed a grand international reputation. I asked Jack his thoughts on this part of Goehr’s place within contemporary Britain:

“Sandy’s influence as a teacher of British composers is significant. He also had many American, Canadian and Australian students over the years. I should point out that I discovered the Manchester School composers from Thea Musgrave, my undergrad teacher at University of California Santa Barbara in the mid-1970s. It was Thea and my other teacher at the time, Peter Fricker, who recommended me to Sandy as a pupil. Sandy not only became my teacher, but a conduit to his colleagues Max Davies and Harry Birtwistle as well.  After my first 8 or 9 months with Sandy in 1976/77, he arranged for me to study with Max at Dartington and for a grant from the BBC to do so. This was also a huge educational experience in my life.

In addition, he introduced me to Harry who became a mentor to me as well. So, all of my composition teachers and mentors were British, including all three Manchester School composers! Certainly Max and Sandy were excellent and very effective teachers as well as influential composers. Harry was never what I would call a teacher as such, but the influence of his musical thought has been powerful by its example.”

We had pondered a long while about Goehr’s class consciousness, as well as his reverence for America. I mentioned that a parallel between Sandy and Alan Bush can be spotted considering Bush’s adoration of the North-East musical and political history. I was curious how Jack saw the role of politics within Goehr’s work:

“Sandy thought that Bush was a very good composer. Sandy was and is a man of the left, as I am, and he is very interested in politics. Early on as his student, I was really interested in Agitprop, and I had this idea I wanted to compose music with that political tinge, though I found it difficult to bring it to life. Sandy totally understood it, he gave me a reading list (including Piscator’s Political Theatre), and suggested I look at his friend Luigi Nono’s work, and that’s where I started, though it took me decades to figure it out and I have only recently managed to write such a piece, my 2022 The New Frontier: An Atomic Age Jazz Opera.

One of the wonderful things about Sandy as a teacher is that you could go to him with an idea like that and he would know how to help you find your way. He was aware of my interest in leftist political theatre was due partly to the fact that I came from a working-class family who had been kicked out of their homes during the Depression by the bastards in the banks. (It’s all in Steinbeck’s
The Grapes of Wrath.) Sandy really understood that, and respected I was upfront and honest about it. That’s one of the many reasons why he is so important to me. He never said my ideas were stupid. We would sit down and explore and analyse my ideas together, and he’d suggest books to read and musical examples to listen to, and we’d come back to these ideas over and over as I progressed in my learning about them.”

Personally it was interesting talking more about that side of Goehr, as many composers tend to be sanitised when discussing their music. In Goehr’s case commentators would spend more time on his theoretical and compositional architecture – which is important – but overlook the political elements which exist in pieces like my personal favourite Behold the Sun, which is  a three-act opera based in the city of Munster, looking at the radical Anabaptists of 1543.

After much more pondering and meandering around, our conversation shifted to another element of the book which I deeply admire – namely the book’s incredible ability to show how a composer interacts with their influences, this question of musical DNA, and how a composer can take their lessons and pass it down the line to their own pupils. The book highlighted the distinct differences in approach from Messiaen to Eisler or Boulez and his experiences in America. Jack recalled:

“One of the stories we tell in the book that I love is when Messiaen sent Sandy to do strict counterpoint study with Yvonne Loriod. He says that he learnt a valuable lesson from that experience, and that is that often your first solution to a musical problem isn’t the best, and you have to put some sweat into it to making it work by redoing and refining until you make it the better.  This is much the same way as he, and I, approach composition.

By the way, Thea Musgrave said the same thing about studying in Paris with Boulanger, where she learned that music is hard work (and you and I both know how hard it is to compose!).  You have to work your ideas like wood – you can’t just throw out rough wood but you must work and rework it and smooth it out with sandpaper to make it into something. For me, that was a big lesson I got from Sandy.

I think the title of our book is perfect because our life is composing, and we compose our life from our many influences. Everything in my life relates to me as a composer, as it does for Sandy and almost any other successful composer I know. Since we have a wide range of influences and experiences in our lives, in order to use them we need to assemble a “composer’s toolbox” that we add to throughout our lifetime so we can synthesize all these influences into our music. I often lecture on this subject and it’s something that I learned aspects of from both Sandy and Thea.”

I found that sentiment really wonderful – life is composing, and we compose our life. I’ve always been a strong believer that composers and their music are born out of the world they exist in. Their experiences, the way they came to music, the people they were able to work with and write for, and their reception all influence how popular a composer is and how much their music is remembered; as well as how the music can sound.

But none of this is particularly guaranteed. We can experience the most original experiences in life, and have a truly wonderful story to tell, but without the ‘composer’s toolbox’ we are unable to bring it life. The challenge we have is, we can always make ideas – but how do we make them? That is what our teachers do. By highlighting other things.

Overall, I would highly recommend the book to anyone, because it shows that we composers are very much creatures of the world – as opposed to divine beings who magically appear as artists. Similarly, discovering elements of Alexander Goehr’s life which are often overlooked – particularly his political leanings – deserves further investigation.

Chatting with Jack was a similarly lovely occasion, and it was little surprise to see Sandy gets so much joy from their discussions. But it was wonderful coming across many gems about Alexander Goehr – like his great opposition to royalty and having refused knighthoods – while also getting a real confirmation that he was is not some lofty ivory tower individual. He was someone deeply connected with life and humanity and readers of Culture Matters need to revisit Goehr’s music, as it gives an interesting light in how we on the left can use high art in a way which isn’t an escape from our class, but something that can enrich our lives – much like William Morris’s views of art.

Composing a Life is an important book, and I do sincerely hope future discussions on other composers will learn important lessons from it.

Bangaisa Crew and the politics and social problems of Kenya
Thursday, 06 July 2023 13:49

Bangaisa Crew and the politics and social problems of Kenya

Published in Music

Ben Lunn interviews Bangaisa Crew 

Since the middle of 2022, a collection of videos of a new hip-hop group who are militants in the Communist Party of Kenya have appeared, and their songs have gained a cult following, due to their creative talents and political leanings. Many in Britain have been fascinated as it is a rare treat to hear hip-hop in Swahili.

Their music is catchy, fun, and sticks in your brain. Their radical politics is at the forefront of their music. The history of hip-hop and rap is complex because it includes a number of socially conscious rappers, as well as the stereotypical hedonism, masculinity, and the glorification of violence.

I had the pleasure to have some correspondence with Bangaisa Crew, chatting about their music, politics and the social problems they face in their native Kenya. Below are edited extracts from some of that correspondence.


BL: Habari! Firstly, thank you for taking time to answer my questions. I wanted to first ask, mostly for our anglophone readers – what does Bangaisa mean?

BC: The term Bangaisa comes from the word bangaiza, which means relax or chill.

How did you all get started making music? Personally, I was a freestyler before meeting the crew. In 2021, I was approached by some of my friends who told me that Booker Ngesa Omole of the Communist Party was vying for the Gem parliamentary seat, and he wanted some youths to compose a theme song for the campaign. We decided to give it a try and we came up with the song Booker 2022 and this was my first time hitting the studio. We joined the Party, specifically the study cell Pio Gama Pinto, and from there the rest followed.

What drives you as a group musically, and who are the biggest inspirations for your work?

What drives as musically first is the passion and dedication we have for the art, which keeps us going amidst all the challenges we face. We also have the hunger to educate the masses and open their eyes to what is going on around them through our music. We also have musicians like Khaligraph Jones – personally I have learnt a lot from him.

I’ve seen you as a group have done a lot of collaborative online work with the likes of International Magazine and other online outlets. Do you have anything in the pipeline you can tell us about?

For the International Magazine, the likes of Debojit Banjree has been a friend to the Communist Party of Kenya, and when we did the Booker 2022 song they were impressed. We decided to work together to spread Marxist-Leninist theory and ideology and after long interactions we learnt that the same problems we face in Kenya are related to those faced in India – mainly neo-colonialism and imperialism. We have done two projects together so far, The International Magazine subscription song and Africa is crying.

For many in Britain, Kenya, like many former colonies is a blind spot, so as socially conscious artists, what is the political climate in Kenya today like?

Comrade, the political climate in Kenya is at its worst state because we have an ignorant and arrogant government and a self-centred opposition. We have a US-installed puppet government which ascended to power using the bottom up and ‘hustler’ narrative.

President William Ruto promised that once he got to power, he'd bring those at the bottom up and he'd make the prices of basic commodities fall. To our surprise, he is doing the exact opposite of what he promised.

His government is now forcing the salaried guys to accept a 3% cut, which he claims will be used in building houses for the homeless. This is a big lie – we know this money will be looted and they'll benefit themselves while the so called ‘hustlers’ will continue to suffer.

His government is also increasing fuel VAT from 8% to 16%, which will make prices of every commodity shoot up. When all this started, he threatened that any member of Parliament that was going to vote against this bill was going to face him, and would risk losing their political seats.

Everybody now in Kenya is against the current regime including those who voted them into power in the last general election.

Another big problem we have is the opposition. We have a weak opposition since the opposition leader, Rails Odinga, is also self-centred and an opportunist. He has a large following and he uses this to his own personal advantage. He calls for anti-government demonstrations to pressure the government to heed to his needs. After he gets what he wants he completely forgets about the common citizens who continue to suffer.

During the recent demonstrations many of his supporters lost their lives and many properties were destroyed, without compensation. This cycle always repeats itself after every general election, and now the masses are starting to get tired of him too.

We used to believe that only he could save us until he did the opposite when he entered the handshake government with the former president Uhuru Kenyatta, where things went from worse to bad and since he was part of government, he kept quiet leaving us disappointed.

We have now learnt that we as Kenyans can only get ourselves out of this mess and that's why the CPK (Communist Party of Kenya) has started some classes which we attend every Friday. Most of us are now awake and are ready to fight for true liberation and spread what we've learnt using our music.

As a band, there are always creative desires, could you tell us any hopes/dreams you have?

Our hopes and dreams as band is to be successful in spreading Marxist-Leninist theory through our music, and this has been quite tough due to financial difficulties. We also have dreams of performing in overseas countries like Britain. Generally, we want to be successful and we dream of having a bigger fan base, more views and traffic on our music, and finally to becoming financially stable.


As a group they are young, but passionate. We know from listening to artists like Hans Eisler, Ewan MacColl, Paul Robeson, Nina Simone, or Harry Belafonte that using music to spread political awareness, or at least increase sympathy or start a conversation, is not a new thing. However, it’s sometimes claimed that politically-inspired music is not possible anymore. This makes the passion and drive of Bangaisa Crew very refreshing, and culturally significant.

Let’s hope their musical life is long, and that they can build their popularity and get to be heard by even greater audiences.

Three contemporary working-class composers of classical music
Sunday, 20 February 2022 10:59

Three contemporary working-class composers of classical music

Published in Music

Classical music does not really know how to deal with the working class – either as listeners or as artists working in it. My articles in the Morning Star and elsewhere have attested to this, and often complained that discussions of inequality very rarely consider class as an important element and barrier to the arts as a whole.

That does not mean working-class composers do not exist. Following on from my previous article where I shared some wonderful music from Nicaragua, now feels like an adequate time to show off three composers who see themselves as working-class. The question is, has this encouraged a certain political vigour, or have they sought other options to make their musical mark?

The three composers are David John Roche, a wonderful Welsh composer based in Cambridge, Gillian Walker, a talented young composer from Ayrshire, Scotland, currently studying for her Masters’ Degree in Guildhall, and finally Verena Weinmann, a Swiss composer causing political havoc in Barcelona.

David John Roche

My first encounter with David John Roche, was in Aberdeen in 2018, where we both had works for solo viola played by the viola superstar Garth Knox. Strangely, we quickly discovered we both spent our first degrees approximately 500m apart – I was studying at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama (Coleg Brehinol Cerdd a Drama Cymru), and he studied at Cardiff University.

Ben L Djr

Since our encounter, he has gone onto win numerous awards including the illustrious Takemitsu Prize which for many composers has helped escalate their careers.

Hailing from Tredegar, David John Roche’s music, worldview and sensibilities are unsurprising for those who have also come from a post-industrial region in Wales, Scotland, or England. When talking about being working-class and Welsh, he highlighted the particularly curious feeling of being from a region where musically the rock music scene, such as the Manic Street Preachers, expressed the feelings and culture of the region better than many esteemed classical composers could ever dare aspire to.

In discussion, he described how the division between the working class and the upper classes has become significantly more apparent now that he teaches. He described how his entry to music came from a mixture of Tredegar Junior Band and the rock and heavy metal scene. While studying in Cambridge, his self-assurance meant that he didn’t feel the burden of being a working-class lad in the very halls that have cultivated many of the Tories and Tory-lite politicians that exist today. Now that he lives in Cambridge, however, he sees how the easy access to the arts and cultural education that young Cambridge children are given underlines just how culturally deprived many working-class regions are.

The conversation then shifted to the wider issues within the industry as a whole. He highlighted the many problems that exist – the need of champions, the problems of the work conditions musicians and composers have to deal with, the instability, and the issues surrounding publishing and competitions. He nicely summarised it: ‘it’s hard to juggle it all as one lad’.

Looking at his own work, David put a large emphasis on the Psappha Ensemble, the Vale of Glamorgan Festival, and Ty Cerdd, who have championed his work and allowed him to carry on composing and build his reputation.

We also discussed how much he relates to being a ‘working-class’ and ‘Welsh’ composer, how much of that appears in his music, and the strange problems that working-class people face not only in the arts, but also in relation to being Welsh.

For example, David described how the native language of Wales was not his native language, and how certain sectors of Wales try to exclude working-class people from South Wales. He also highlighted how some parts of the Welsh cultural landscape prioritise certain elements of Welsh history over others – namely the proud history of the language and its literary and poetic outpouring, while at the same time pushing working-class history like Nye Bevan or the Merthyr Rising away from those who have real ownership of that history. He described this division as being ‘the pretty elements of Wales for some and a grey nothingness for the rest.’

He described how in his work Praise of Method he tried to tap into this strange sorrow/guilt that is associated with being from South Wales, and the sadness and deprivation that exist there, while also managing to escape it via music. He also spoke of how in recent years, his music has really taken ownership of this element – ultimately diving into a kind of modern realism which carries with it the burden, sadness, confusion, and lack of class consciousness that comes with the modern working-class world.

This is the most endearing quality of David and his music – a reality or realism that means his music is born from actual human living, instead of retreating into art that ponders other pieces of art or philosophy. He says that his retail job helped him stabilise and gave him a thicker skin than he would have cultivated in the arts alone. He is emboldened by the fight for access to the arts, but also with a genuine human understanding that, even though these areas may not have lots of classical music, there is still a lot of music there.

So although his experience, and a lot of research, shows that the working class do not have equal access to the arts, either as workers and performers or as audiences, it is heartwarming that such a clear-minded and class-conscious artist has managed to succeed in the arts without abandoning our class.

Gillian Walker

Initially studying with the Irish composer David Fennessy, Gillian has since graduated and started her Master’s degree in London. When conversing with her, you get a sense of the brilliance at the core of her pragmatic and egalitarian ethos. A proud working-class lass from Ayrshire, Gillian has a clear and concise vision of what it means to be working-class in the arts, and sees the problems thrown up by the attempts in classical music to address the inequalities that exist.

Ben L Gillian Walker resized

We started talking about her initial entry into the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. She mentioned her degree in education, and the strange pride and familiarity of being in a university room with a large collection of students from Ayrshire and other under-loved regions of Scotland. She jokingly suggested that one real class-conscious moment will be when all the working-class musicians prepare to be teachers first, to have a tangible job with some semblance of security, while also aiming to give back to their counties. Moving onto a composition degree, Gillian reflected on how most other students weren’t blessed with regional accents and how much of a class divide exists in Scotland.

Moving to London, her worldview hasn’t changed, but rather clarified and intensified. She described the gentrification surrounding the music colleges, the disappearance of working-class communities, and the incessant, almost hilariously painful, posh-ness of the musical environment – the strange contrast between how she traversed the early stages of Covid in her retail job, while her new colleagues described the daily rituals making sourdough bread.

She also reflected on how her work and the focus of her composing is often at odds with her contemporaries. Gillian highlighted that she hopes her music can both be a vessel to challenge the current norms we see, while also finding ways to utilise it to galvanise people like herself, to fight for this wonderful mode of expression which is so distant from the lives of so many working-class people. This concern and humanism is part of what attracts me to her work as a composer, and I feel the areas of concern for her reflect that.

Her musical responses to certain issues may be lost on an audience completely disconnected from the genuine feelings and concerns of working-class communities across Britain, but that does little to dampen the brilliance which is at play within it. She is a composer with a growing swagger and self-assurance, able to challenge the norms we are stuck with and help us see a path out of the quagmire that classical music is stuck in.

Verena Weinmann

Out of the three composers featured in this article, Verena Weinmann is the most politically driven. She describes how her political education started to develop during her pre-University years, so while her composing talents were also developing the politics cultivated also. During her study in Basel, Verena notes how her ‘main’ composition tutor Michel Roth was an important figure for her, while also noting how during her studies with Jakob Ullman he had been a supportive ear and always invested in the struggle of the students’ movement.

Ben L Verena resized

Verena highlighted how early works of Luigi Nono, especially those directed to the workers were the most inspirational, even citing that her current composition teacher had been a pupil of Nono, which was part of the attraction to studying with him. And the comparison with Nono feels apt in many ways, as discussions around the role of music and politics have always struggled to define what ‘Marxist music’ or ‘working-class political music’ sounds and functions like. With Nono, and Verena, we see composers looking to challenge the intellect of the masses – avoiding patronising sentiments but focusing on forcing a reaction or at least offering a political challenge to the status quo, in the hope of elevating class consciousness in the audience or musicians. She emphasised how she didn’t want to compose works which ‘glorified’ or ‘fetishised’ suffering or struggle, but focused more on creating something to move away from the morose reality which workers face.

Lenin famously described the energy of youth and how it can be utilised to aid the advance of the socialist movement, and this sentiment is certainly true of Verena Weinmann – a composer who has a fizzing political drive, which she is eager to utilise in her works, constantly looking how to use it for the benefit of others.

In discussing particular works, I was most struck by Nachtregen (Rainy Night) which has numerous versions, but the ‘original’ being for three singers and three electric guitars, a setting of a short segment of text from 10 Days that Shook the World. In my first listening I was curious at the choice in the setting, as there are numerous ways in which one could tackle the seminal words of John Reed. Verena described to me that she aimed to avoid texts which were too direct, instead opting for a segment which tried to evoke a particular sensation. This led her to the particular choice of a rainy night, just before the storm of revolution. The music manages to captivate that, with words and whispers firing around the room, with sudden chaotic gestures, which suddenly fade to nothing. Overall, the sensation is one of anticipation and hunger for action.

As Verena continues to grow, I have a feeling there will be a moment – either a certain piece, or political activity – which will somehow manage to be a tangible focal point for her work. What this is exactly is impossible to say, but when the moment arrives, we can hope it can shake the world.

These three working-class composers encapsulate the main strands facing the working class in classical music currently. How to overcome political apathy, where the arts don’t connect with the vast majority? How to improve accessibility, so that the working class get the chance to hear and engage with the rich history and future of classical music, and music in general? And how to overcome this hegemonic dominance of the middle class in the arts, which currently makes classical music look like a dying or niche luxury, instead of a living and breathing art that everyone can engage and fall in love with?

Lingering tones in the face of capitalist realism
Saturday, 11 December 2021 10:06

Lingering tones in the face of capitalist realism

Published in Music

Historically, lefties in the arts are as numerous as there are days in history. However, since the Cold War these numbers have dwindled as liberalism, postmodernism, or anarchism have become the trendy oppositional voice in the arts.

Thanks in part to Corbyn, the left has seen a militant resurgence which in the arts has involved a curious mix of individuals and styles. Lawrence Dunn sits within this curious position. Having first met him at a conference in Vilnius, his topic of discussion was on curious melodies – highlighting key examples like Catherine Lamb and Morton Feldman. Since that point, his music has taken a pretty meteoric rise with notable commissions and accolades including Ensemble Modern, Runner-Up in the Gaudeamus Music Prize, Wigmore Hall, Tectonics Festival Scotland, amongst many others.

Lawrence Dunn

In September, I was able to see him again, as he was in Scotland for a performance in Glasgow Cathedral. He presented a talk to the numerous young composers in the conservatoire about his music, its themes and topics, and his overall concern and pessimism about humanity. After the talk, we reminisced about the chaos of trying to deal with technical problems in Vilnius, caught up on things, and complained about numerous things politically – spanning from Chelsea supporters, the damp squib that is Keir Starmer, the failures of Corbyn, and numerous other things, including numerous jokes about how it is only a matter of time until I have an MI5 file comparable to Alan Bush.

I have known about Lawrence’s political leanings for a long while, but what has fascinated me is how he almost avoids directly mentioning politics in his pieces – instead focusing on being a concerned individual and shouting from the rooftops about various problems and injustices. This for me brought numerous things to mind. For those keen on the good ol’ Frankfurt school, Ernst Bloch might feel like a good comparison – trying to look inwardly for answers to the problems in the world. This also ties nicely with Lawrence’s music making, eternally dancing in the uncanny valley.

Diligent enthusiasts of the Frankfurt School may also remember Lukacs’ remarks, directed primarily at Bloch and close colleagues. Lukacs argued that due to surrealism’s nihilistic tendencies ultimately lent itself more closely to the right – mostly notably Nietzsche and fascism, though Bloch argued profusely against such accusations; what we can see in Dunn’s music today is the treading of pessimism and nihilism which Bloch initially defended in the 1930s. Pessimism is a wonderful tool for right-wing individuals in all fields, as it can negate any progress, or simply suggest nothing can be as good as ‘the good ol’ days’. Granted Lawrence Dunn is no Fascist, or even neo-con, he is very aware his musical fascination with pessimism is a topic more explored by the right; but Dunn strongly argues it is a fertile field which the left has a lot to gain from it. An ethos which can remind one of Le Front Populaire as every platform should be used to combat fascism.


On further consideration of the work of Lawrence Dunn, I feel the stronger, and more compelling discussion is how he lines up with Mark Fisher, the author of Capitalist Realism. Fisher highlights how the influence of neoliberalism is so insidious it is almost impossible to imagine a way out – and how ultimately this creates a situation of agonising apathy and depression. Fisher also discusses how politics has also been tarnished by this hegemony, pointing to how almost all ideas born out of intense struggle have been usurped by the mechanisms of capital. One only has to watch all the rainbow flags appearing in July in multi-billion-pound businesses to show how much millionaires care about gays and trans people. As Fisher suggests, it is almost impossible to escape the influence of neoliberalism which leaves artists, in particular, having to either accept this realism or become forced into nihilism.

Lawrence Dunn appears to be a reflection of this problem. How does an artist use their art for good, without it being stolen by neoliberalism? Thus, creating a constant battle/dialogue where the hopes or attempts to build or improve either fail or defeated. A dance of hope and failure. Ultimately meaning there is always a smidgen of hope, a chance to break the cycle of hope and despair; and regardless of the chances, the attempts to fight bring a certain joie de vivre which even if it continually fails, still makes us feel.

The resulting sounds in Lawrence’s music, however, are quite fascinating. When one thinks pessimistic, one imagines darkness or at least a constant pain or fatalism. However, what we see in Dunn’s music is something so intensely familiar and ‘normal’ that it becomes a strange out-of-body experience. Ringing triads, quirky melodies, sounds of swans or calves, repeated ideas – all these things one can clearly hear and feel familiar with, but as Dunn almost drowns us in this familiarity, we reach a strange point of unfamiliarity. A desperate but disappointing musical voice: hope eternally tinged with pessimism or failure, and conversely, a pessimism curiously tinged with a tiny glint of hope.

In the aforementioned discussion in the conservatoire, Lawrence Dunn joked about his music being referred to as ‘magical realism’. Which I must admit, is quite a snazzy label name – which certainly makes labels like new simplicity sound even more ridiculous. Still, I feel capitalist realism would be  more fitting. Lawrence Dunn, like the rest of us in Britain, are forced to endure this neoliberal nightmare that Labour, the SNP, and the Tories are so eager to keep alive. Due to the various cuts, musical institutions are forced to ‘evaluate their value’ which has not used this as an opportunity to connect more with the working class, but instead to drift further into neo-liberalism, becoming wooed by ‘clickbait’ and abandoning substance for this quick buck. So, what is a serious artist to do?

Lawrence Dunn somehow manages to make beautiful emotive work despite this, his work doesn’t fall into the trends of ‘schools’ – and he’ll even admit the audience in Germany at his Ensemble Modern premiere was particularly frosty. He’ll probably hate me describing his music as original – either through embarrassment or simply pointing to numerous others he feels a musical closeness too – but the reality is there are few figures like him. Thankfully he isn’t some posh boy who has been sculptured by soft-Tory/New Labour ideals but has managed to stick to his convictions as an artist.

Some may worry, that the young ’uns are abandoning well-seasoned ideals like trade unionism or socialism. However Lawrence Dunn gives us some hope, he, like numerous others are raising their concerns, speaking out against the political quagmire we are stuck in; but without a suitable vessel in which to broadcast their vision. We can hope this changes, however until then we must admit Lawrence Dunn is an artist firmly of our time, politically concerned and awake, but politically homeless and refusing to let that slow his convictions. A fine example, in fact, of Antonio Gramsci's dictum - Pessimism of the mind, optimism of the spirit.

La Musica Sandinista
Saturday, 20 November 2021 11:25

La Musica Sandinista

Published in Music

On the 7th November, the Nicaraguan people went to the polls. Though met by the outcry of ‘sham’ and other nonsensical accusations, the Nicaraguan people returned Daniel Ortega to office, continuing the renewed Sandinista Government’s rule. Since then, Britain, Canada, and other lackeys of the US have stamped up their sanctions, in yet another attempt to cripple anything progressive or pro-human to develop in the Central American nation.

As artists, we can often feel powerless in such situations. However with the likelihood of more mud being slung at the Nicaraguan people, I would like to introduce you to some wonderful Nicaraguan artists who use their art either in support of the Sandinistas.

La Misa Campesina, by Carlos Mejia Godoy and Oscar Gomez, was completed in 1979. As the title suggests, the piece is a Mass for the peasants of Nicaragua. The work is a wonderful marriage of traditional Catholic liturgy, Nicaraguan folk music, and Marxism. Over the multiple songs/movements, the music alternates between revolutionary new texts reaching out to the morals of the peasants to rise up, returning to traditional mass elements like a Sanctus or Angus Dei.

The very first performance in 1979 was broken up by the National Guard of the Somoza government, followed by prohibition of performance by the Archbishop of Managua. This may in part have helped the work gain its cult status, although it has never been accepted by the official Catholic hierarchy of Nicaragua.

I believe in you, comrade,
Christ human, Christ worker,
victor over death.
With your great sacrifice
you made new people
for liberation.
You are risen
in every arm outstretched
to defend the people
against the exploiters;
you are alive and present in the hut,
in the factory, in the school.
I believe in your ceaseless struggle,
I believe in your resurrection

– Excerpt of La Misa Campesina, Carlos Mejia Godoy

Grupo Pancasan formed in 1975, and play Nicaraguan folk music as a cultural accompaniment to the Sandinista revolution. At first, they were a modest, ramshackle group of guitars and drums. Then in 1977 one of the original members Agustin Sequeira went to join the guerrilla FSLN, and their music became more pointed and political. Their first album, ‘Pancasan’, was recorded in slightly frantic fashion, however it was politically driven throughout, including a song La Hora Cero based on the poetry of Ernesto Cardenal. After the album was released, and their first payments came through, the group did not accept the money stating 'We did not touch one peso. The money went directly to the help the fight against Somoza'.

The second album, ‘We Are Making History’, was once again pointed directly at the Somoza government, including songs like Notes on Uncle Sam. Throughout their work the sounds and politics of Nicaragua have been in a close and intricate marriage, and many Nicaraguans have described them as the ‘sound of the revolution’.

Grupo Libertad were formed in 1982, equally driven by the revolution as their colleagues in Pancasan, add a slightly funkier edge to it. Though the Nicaraguan folk element is present, the rhythmic drive is of a different flavour, full of satire and musical skill:


The neoliberal government of the early 90s forced the a backward turn in music and culture generally, especially in pro-Sandinista varieties like Pancasan and Libertad. Privatisation forced music to effectively disappear from ordinary people in Nicaragua, and it became a treat for the wealthy and the tourists. However, since Ortega and the Sandinistas returned, support for the arts has been very strong, and it is only a matter of time before a brand-new generation of artists begin to take the region, and hopefully the world, by storm.

At the beginning of this year I talked to artists in Nicaragua, thanks to the Friends of ATC, see here. Juan, Isaura, and Marvin showed me some of the initiatives that are taking place including the Fundacion INCANTO which aims to bring more classical music to the people of Nicaragua. As long as Nicaragua stays on a politically progressive path, the musical future is very bright indeed. 

The dedicated life and music of Mikis Theodorakis
Wednesday, 15 September 2021 08:54

The dedicated life and music of Mikis Theodorakis

Published in Music

Mikis Theodorakis (1925-2021) has left the mortal plane, and one can only imagine he is flying the red flag in the heavenly realm – agitating alongside the great working-class heroes of history. He has been remembered warmly by the socialist world, by his own Greek party (KKE) and almost every other socialist party, while having little or no discussion from the classical music world, with the exception of a dedicated obituary in the Guardian, an honorary mention from Andre Rieu, and some nice anecdotes from composers who knew him personally.

For those who do not know the work of Mikis Theodorakis, his legacy and impact are hard to describe succinctly. However the simplest comparison artistically would be with composers Hanns Eisler and Alan Bush, as well as the writers Vladimir Mayakovsky and Christopher Caudwell. Like them, he was a composer whose output fitted the needs of the particular struggle or circumstance.

Like Hanns Eisler, Theodorakis made huge contributions to film, classical concert music, and agit-prop works. Theodorakis’ music for Zorba the Greek is what made him famous:

Canto General arguably stands as his most impactful piece of political music. Based on the texts of Pablo Neruda, the cantata was completed two years after the infamous coup d’état in September 1973, which the US carried out against the democratic government of Salvador Allende. The events sparked a large response from artists globally, and Theodorakis’ bold cantata is potentially one of the most renowned examples, receiving numerous global performances including an electric performance in Santiago in 1993.

As with many other of his works, the real strength in Canto General is the ability to incorporate Chilean traditional idioms (namely through the choices of percussion and instruments) to not only give an illuminating vision of Chile, but also to make the Chilean elements feel universal.

He produced numerous works for orchestra including seven symphonies, five operas, multiple concerti, ballets, and other works for musical theatre. Within the symphonies we see a skilful composer who was no stranger to modernism, giving the impression that if he wished to solely be a ‘serious’ composer he would have had every ability to engage with the idiom like his more ‘serious’ contemporaries like Karlheinz Stockhausen and the like. His second symphony Songs of the Earth is incredibly evocative and the orchestral colours it produces are wild and raw.

His life was surrounded by controversy, struggle, and politics. Despite being imprisoned and having his music banned by the ruling Greek junta, he never shied away from speaking his mind and doing what he believed was right and necessary, a resolute activist and campaigner until his final breath.

 The controversy surrounding him was not always simply for being a militant communist challenging a bourgeois world. His denunciation of the riots in Greece and his views on Macedonia were mistaken, but his political failings – like his short stint with the New Democracy party – are part of his journey as an individual and in no way negate the important humanism of his works. He fought against NATO’s attacks on Yugoslavia, he continued to protest against the invasion of Iraq, and he tried to mobilise artists against the IMF grant awarded to Greece.

He won many accolades, including the Lenin Peace Prize, as well as winning notable friends including Salvador Allende, Yasser Arafat, Pablo Neruda, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Tito, and François Mitterrand.

For many, Theodorakis will eternally stand as Greece’s champion against dictatorship and imperialism, and an example to live by – an example of how an artist can spend their life fighting for the good of humanity.

Like all great individuals, he was a complicated figure, but he leaves behind a legacy which hopefully will continue to stand as a testament of what music written with a vision of the advancement of the working class can look like.