By Christopher Morley

Originally featured on

Birmingham Contemporary Music Group kicks off its new season with a showcase of music responding to the political theories of Karl Marx, marking the bicentenary of the philosopher's birth.

No fewer than 14 world premieres feature in this project going under the title Wilde Lieder Marx Music, which will take in Birmingham, London and Trier, Marx' birthplace, the new works coming about via crowd-funded commissions through BCMG's innovative Sound Investment scheme and through a competition which filtered 71 entries from 16 countries, resulting in nine prize-winners.

Among the recently-announced winners is Birmingham Conservatoire graduate Alistair Zaldua (I had the nerve to teach him contemporary music -- he, who had worked with Stockhausen in Darmstadt, was charmingly tolerant), whose Manifesto, for speaker and one-to-a-part orchestra, gained the ensemble prize.

An early September showcase concert launching BCMG's new season will begin with a pre-event taster featuring two of the commissioned works, by UK composer Robert Reid Allan and Celeste Oram, hailing from New Zealand and the USA. Oram’s Pierrot Laborieux (work & The Work) includes an installation which will be on view at the Stadtmuseum Simeonstift Trier and the London Design Festival at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

"Where there is music, there are people," says Celeste. "Where there are people, there are structures of power; and where there is power, there is political charge."

Does she expect her audience to be politically engaged, regardless of the music they're listening to?

"I expect an audience to be humans, whose individual resources for listening and for responding to music are shaped - as are my own - by experiences and cultural histories that themselves have political resonances. There is no 'regardless of the music'; life is never so compartmentaliseable."

At the time of writing the title of Robert Reid Allan's piece had yet to be announced, but he was more forthcoming in his answers to my questions.

How closely do you think music and politics can be interwoven? I ask him.

"As I see it, politics is everywhere whether we like it or not. Music and politics are already inherently interwoven, since any given work is the result of the society its composer finds themself in. The world we find ourselves in is incredibly volatile politically, particularly in the past few years, and to say that that wouldn't influence what we put back into the world is nonsensical. The question therefore isn't really about how connected music and politics are, but how I, as an artist, might be able to explore this connectivity to create work which not only expresses the political issues which influence it but help to enable the changes we want to see in the world."

Does Robert expect political engagement from his audience before the music begins?

"It's funny you should ask this, because I've been really surprised with the apparent controversy surrounding the project since it's been announced - you'd be forgiven for thinking Karl Marx was a war criminal or something, given the scathing criticism levied at the project in BCMG's Facebook comments section lately! It's interesting to see how willing some people have been to write off the entire project before hearing a single note of any music produced for it.

"In terms of my piece, though, I'm less concerned about the way that an audience might engage with what they read about it beforehand than how they might reflect on it afterwards. I see the composer's primary role as something of a tour guide, leading a listener on a journey through the piece and delivering them somewhere new at the end of it. It's that destination, and the reflection on the journey that ended up there, that excites me as a composer, far more than where a listener might start off from."

Might this increasing involvement with organisations in Europe diminish BCMG's presence in Birmingham, I ask Stephan Meier, BCMG's artistic director.

"Partnering with organisations in Birmingham, across the UK, Europe and indeed the wider world is part of a strategy to secure the future of BCMG. In the long run our strategy is to perform ever more music in our city whilst building a global audience for our work.

"The funding climate has contributed to this decision but indeed I am passionate that we must turn our gaze outwards and embrace the whole international community in our activity for this is how we will ensure our continued relevance – over and above simple survival through times of austerity. The Wilde Lieder Marx.Music works are presented in Birmingham as well as abroad thanks to extra funding support."

How strong are BCMG's links still with the CBSO?

"I personally think it's quite unique for a contemporary music ensemble to be founded by members of an orchestra, and for the orchestra to have such strong links and access to 'their own' Contemporary Music Group, let alone one so well renowned internationally.

"Over the last years, we've been developing intensive exchange on programming, and found common ground; some of which was to be experienced during the Debussy Festival, and its reception. Mirga in her first season conducting BCMG in Town Hall (Celebrating Carter, 28 January 2018) strengthened links both with CBSO, and with the City. We have more ideas for widening these activities in the following seasons, in Birmingham as well as outside."