During this time of lockdown, we were lucky enough to have violinist Zoë Beyers speaking to our NEXT musicians online. As well as playing regularly with BCMG, Zoe also performs with the Hebrides Ensemble, the Fibonacci Sequence, the Endymion Ensemble and the Scottish Ensemble, and has recently been appointed leader of the BBC Philharmonic, alongside existing leader Yuri Torchinsky. Here’s what she had to say about her journey to where she is today, and her relationship with contemporary music.

Where to begin? When I started playing in South Africa, and until I was about 18, I didn’t really have very much contact with contemporary music. That was purely, I think, because I was really shielded from it by my teacher, he didn’t really like it all that much. I think Ysaÿe was his version of really modern and that’s it! Contemporary music was very much something that I hadn’t given any thought to. Very sadly my teacher died a year before I left school in South Africa and so I was left to my own devices with no teacher for a year. And you know that moment when you are a teenager and you are questioning everything anyway? I was like ‘what shall I do? I can choose now.’

Various people were very kind and slightly took me under their wing, one of whom was a composer called Hendrik Hofmeyr. He sent me some stuff and said: ‘Look if you fancy it, just learn it and see what you think’. And it was very much in the style of Ysaÿe; so contemporary music but not the sort of cutting edge of the likes of Lachenmann. Anyway, I played it, and I kind of liked it! It was good. He writes very good music, just in case you’re wondering!

Then I came to the Royal College of Music in London, and I was very very shy and kept to myself for a while, but I joined everything I could, because I had never played orchestrally before. I had never done any big ensemble playing ever, and I sort of just agreed. You know what it’s like in your first year of anything, there are loads of groups and conductors and composers going around asking ‘please will you play?!’  So, I just said yes. And one of those people was Huw Watkins, so I got immediately into playing his music, just by being there in the right place at the right time. Another person of course was Oli Knussen. He and Edwin Roxburgh were the two composition teachers and main influences at RCM at the time, so I was very lucky. Sometimes there are just perfect moments of serendipity and you’re there and it happens. I think if I hadn’t said yes, probably it wouldn’t have gone the way it has! So, I started playing in some of these groups which were doing pieces written by and conducted by Oli and Edwin and Huw, as well as people like Gabriella Swallow - who wasn’t actually composing at the time -  and Zoe Martlew and Matthew Sharp. People doing multimedia and cross boundary stuff who didn’t want to conform. And it is as much those people as it is Huw and Helen Grime and straight down the line composers who I have found it very inspiring to work with. It was really exciting to see people doing things at the time which were really frowned on – being lighthearted with music and having fun! I think that’s hopefully changing, people are seeing now that that’s quite a good thing.

After doing a lot of contemporary playing at college, my first job was at the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. If you are interested in contemporary music, a chamber orchestra is quite fertile ground for that, and the SCO were doing really interesting programmes. While I was in Edinburgh, I also started playing with the Hebrides ensemble, which is mainly contemporary music, but quite a mix of genres and again a lot of working with artists in different genres, different media. That’s cellist Will Conway’s group and he started that nearly 30 years ago. That and Psappha - which is the pre-Manchester collective collective, but still going strong – they are the two longest standing contemporary ensembles that are not affiliated to any bigger organisation as far as I can tell.

So, these two little kind of maverick groups were really exciting. I know there’s a lot more now, but back in the day when people founded these groups it was seen as quite a tear-away thing to do, especially as the two founders of those groups just kind of left their jobs and focused their energies on contemporary music. And so, with Hebrides ensemble came quite a long association with Peter Maxwell Davies and a continuing one with James MacMillan and other Scottish-based composers such as Judith Weir and David Fennessy. Again, I was massively lucky to be in the right place at the right time! Also just saying yes and giving it a go, and not being too embarrassed to do things that are maybe not in everyone’s comfort zone, like being dressed up as a statue of the Virgin Mary and having to play the violin with white face paint, which was in one of Peter Maxwell Davies’s community operas. That was probably a once in a lifetime experience! Also, that’s about the extent of my acting abilities, pretending to be a statue - nothing more!

“BCMG is absolutely the most pure, cutting edge contemporary music I can think of”

I’ve been working with BCMG for quite a number of years off and on now, and I’d say BCMG is the most hardcore group of all! BCMG is absolutely the most pure, cutting edge contemporary music I can think of. And you’ll probably find BCMG was one of the first groups to do mixed media concerts, or work with dance or a medium like that. BBC Philharmonic actually, of all the orchestras weirdly, is the most comparable to BCMG. They really like contemporary music and they eat it up more than any other orchestra I’ve been a part of. I quite like that aspect, that it’s not just playing the big symphonies in a symphony orchestra. The projects I’ve done with other groups over the years seem to follow quite a similar mould, so there’s a lot of pigeon holing that goes on. But I’m sure if you look at any season there’s a big mix. I imagine you’ll  find lots of similar people having similar ideas at similar times because one thing with contemporary music is it’s incredibly trend conscious, It has to be, to set the kind of tone that music is going.   

There are a few composers who just kind of stick to their guns and they really hone their voice and their art. Oli Knussen was a case in point, and Peter Maxwell Davies as well. I think there’s a huge amount to be learned from them. And I think as a performer or interpreter of contemporary music, we need to be as open minded as possible, and absolutely try to understand what the composer is wanting, and create it, and work in great detail. I was just reminded of Rebecca Saunders the other day and how exacting she was, the uncompromising need she has to realise the sound that’s in her head. I find that very exciting to be part of somebody’s creative process like that, though at the same time we can risk losing our own expression and our own sense of self sometimes in contemporary music. So, it’s a balance, and one that’s quite hard sometimes to achieve I find anyway.  I like to go really deep into the world of the composer because it’s fascinating, especially if the composer’s alive and you can get to know them a bit. I mean, I’ve done terrible things! I’ve gouged holes in violins thanks to the composer saying ‘Play louder! Play louder!’. There’s only so far you can go. There are a few kind of scarring moments like that that I can think of; I probably should have reined myself in at that point, but didn’t. It’s kind of walking a fine line between going all out and giving your all to realising and knowing when to say ‘excuse me, it doesn’t really work’ – or – which is much harder – ‘I can’t do it’. If you’ve got quite small hands and somebody’s asking you to do crazy stuff, it’s not worth ending your career over! But you can give it your best shot.

And now - with things being as crazy and difficult as they are - I think contemporary music is going to be more important than ever. If you look at history, all of these times that are impossibly difficult for people that involve trauma and terrible suffering, and being taken out of your lives and having them turned into something else by force, result in a huge burst of creativity. I think it’s sowing the seeds for the next generation to think and feel things in a completely different sort of way. Maybe that’s a positive that can come out of this. Maybe that’s almost necessary for things to evolve, because I feel like this trend of being a little bit gimmicky and jumping on everyone else’s bandwagon, has, in a way, possibly detracted a little bit from the music that’s being made. And now we’ve got something that gets all of that out of the way and we can focus on the response that’s coming out of that and what people are going through. I think that may be one way of looking at this, as a musician of any genre.