We were delighted Jolyon Lacock got in touch with us and kindly shared his recollection of his time at Arnolfini from 1979 as featured in Severnside Composers Alliance – Newsletter – Winter 2020/21
Conversations with Jolyon Laycock | Part 2: The Arnolfini years interviewed by David Greenhorne
You mentioned that, at the end of seventies, your career took a decisive turn?
Yes, when an advert appeared in the Guardian in 1979 for the post of Music and Dance Coordinator at Arnolfini, the temptation to apply was irresistible and influenced by many factors. I already knew of Arnolfini’s reputation as something more than just an ordinary art centre. Its policy, under the visionary leadership of its founding director, Jeremy Rees, of representing contemporary developments of the highest quality in music and dance as well as the visual arts chimed precisely with my own professional commitment to artistic fusions.
The job at Arnolfini seemed tailor made for me, and I for it. In particular I knew of the work of my penultimate predecessor Judith Serota in establishing a new music programme at Arnolfini in association with the embryonic Contemporary Music Network (CMN) pioneered by Annette Moreau at the Arts Council of Great Britain. I embraced these opportunities with enthusiasm.
The CMN was a touring scheme of leading international musicians and composers throughout the UK. Those ten years from 1980 to 1990 could be seen as the heyday of the Network. Names such as Steve Reich, the Percussions de Strasbourg, the John Alldis Choir, the Arditti String Quartet, the Nash Ensemble and many others passed through my hands during those years. Among the most ambitious productions I brought to Arnolfini were Opera Factory’s production of Birtwistle’s Punch and Judy, the London Sinfonietta’s performance of Messiaen’s Et Expecto Resurectionem Mortuorum at Clifton Cathedral, and Maxwell Davies’ Eight Songs for a Mad King by the Fires of London. The Network also toured jazz and improvised music with names like the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, Trevor Watts, and the London Jazz Composers’ Orchestra.
Beyond the CMN concerts, were you free to follow your own musical instincts and ideas?
I greatly admired Jeremy Rees for his vision and dedication, and above all his adherence to a clear-sighted artistic policy. I sometimes think that his relative lack of specialist knowledge in contemporary music allowed me to take a much freer hand in my music programming than was possible for my colleagues in the visual arts. Thus, I was very happy to provide a home for the Bristol Musicians Co-operative, a slightly chaotic group of improvising musicians and jazz players led principally by the brothers Will and Ian Menter, following the loss of their regular rehearsal base at the old Bristol Arts Centre. Their annual Festival of Improvised Music became a regular feature of the Arnolfini Music programme featuring such names as Andy Sheppard and Keith Tippett.
An important parallel strand was the Regional Arts Association New Music programme. The Regional Arts Associations came into existence during the 1970s. Very sadly they were abolished in 2003 when they became
the regional offices of Arts Council England. I served on both the advisory panel of the CMN and the South West Arts music panel during the 1980s and was able to participate in the formation of artistic policy of both organisations.
My immediate predecessor at Arnolfini was the composer John Hopkins who, though he had only occupied the post for about a year and a half, was able to carry on the work of the Arnolfini Music Workshop. This ground-breaking project, the brain-child of two former Arnolfini music programmers Judith Serota and Jane Wells, was directed by the composer Peter Wiegold and featured the newly formed Gemini Ensemble in residence, and was financially supported by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. It was through the workshop programme that I first met and established a long friendship with Peter Wiegold and clarinettist Ian Mitchell. This was one of the country’s most important pioneering initiatives in the field of creative music making.
Education has always been an important strand in Arnolfini’s ethos, how did that impact you?
Over my ten years as Arnolfini Music and Dance Co-ordinator I was able to develop a strand of composing in education and composing in the community with a succession of visiting composers and workshop leaders. It became for me an important principle of music promotion that, whenever possible, visiting musicians and composers should be invited to give talks, lead workshops and visit educational establishments including schools and higher education institutions such the University of Bristol and Bath College of Higher Education as it was then
Another factor that attracted me to Arnolfini was Jeremy Rees’ commitment to contemporary dance. I am no dancer, but collaborative projects with contemporary dancers and choreographers had been a recurrent feature in my own creative work since my student days and throughout my time at the Birmingham Arts Lab. Rees himself was a trustee of the Dance Umbrella Festival, newly formed in London by Val Bourne in partnership with the original highly successful New York-based Dance Umbrella Festival. Each year, we provided a platform in Bristol for dance
companies, mostly from Europe and America, that were appearing as part of the main London Dance Umbrella Festival. Again, the list of artists reads like a role call of leading artists in the field. Such a broad range of activities!
What stands out for you now as you look back at your period at Arnolfini?
I was privileged to be in at the start of the careers of so many composers and musicians, choreographers and dancers who have gone on to be leaders in their fields, some of them now household names. Choreographers like Richard Alston and Siobhan Davies; composers like Judith Weir (now Master of the Queen’s Music) and Colin Matthews; conductors like Mark Elder and Elgar Howarth; electronic composers like Trevor Wishart and Tim Souster – all passed through my hands at early periods in their careers.
One of the Arnolfini projects of which I am most proud was the international exhibition of sound sculpture I curated in 1985 called A Noise in Your Eye. With a catalogue edited by another old friend, Hugh Davies, himself a sound artist and former collaborator with Stockhausen, the exhibition featured ten sound artists from around the world including Max Eastley, Alvin Lucier of Sonic-Arts- Union fame, and the celebrated French sound artist François Baschet. The exhibition toured all over the UK generating a lot of interest including a mad dash to London in the
dark of dawn with a hired truck full of selected exhibits to appear on Blue Peter. Peter White from the BBC In Touch programme also caught up with me at the Lang Gallery In Newcastle on Tyne. As a blind man, he was fascinated by the idea of an art exhibition that was all about sound and touch.
What about your own development as a composer during this period?
As you might imagine, during those years from 1980 to 1990 I could spare very little time for my own compositional work, but there were notable exceptions. In addition to two mini music dramas for primary school children, there was one more ambitious project. Woden’s Dyke, written in 1987, was a collaboration with Trevor Iles, director of the South Bristol Music Centre Intermediate Orchestra. Based on a story about the building of the ancient earthwork known as Wansdyke derived from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, it took the form of an operatic melodrama with actors speaking against a soundtrack of orchestral music. The score for full orchestra was meant to introduce young instrumentalists to techniques of contemporary music composition. There were passages in all sorts of contemporary styles from the minimalism of Steve Reich to improvisational textures in the style of Stockhausen. There was even a folk band complete with Morris dancers and a sound effects group. We performed the piece on four nights in various school halls culminating at the Victoria Rooms in Bristol. It attracted a lot of press coverage, not all of it complimentary. One newspaper headline published a banner headline: ‘Cast at war with the orchestra’!
Bristol Evening Post, February 23, 1988 School’s musical marks the building of Woden’s Dyke
Your period at Arnolfini eventually came to an end?
My time there was certainly not without its problems. The arts under Margaret Thatcher were having a hard time. The 1985 report The Glory of the Garden delivered a dose of weed killer in the form of financial cuts to a great many small arts organisations. Arts Council support for Arnolfini was being channelled through the Visual Arts Panel for
quite a few years but some members of the panel now began to object to Visual Arts money being used to support Arnolfini’s wider artistic policy which included music, dance and cinema. Jeremy Rees resisted the pressure as long as he could but in 1986, unwilling to compromise, he was finally forced out. It became obvious that his successor had been appointed to carry out a hatchet job. The redundancies started in 1988. I avoided the first round, but in 1989 it was decided to terminate the music and dance programme and I was served with a redundancy notice. There was general outrage amongst many friends and supporters, including South West Arts. There are still those in Bristol the who lament the closure of the programme. Arnolfini, they say, has never been the same since.
I took the case to an industrial tribunal and won, but by the time the verdict came through I had already secured a new post.
One of the casualties of the programme closure was, or might have been, the tour of American minimalist legend Terry Riley with the Minneapolis-based group Zeitgeist. Arrangements were already at a very developed planning stage in 1989. Disaster was averted when I decided to take over the tour management on a free-lance basis, driving Terry and the other members of the group to venues all over the UK, including the Michael Tippett Centre, with a final concert in the Purcell Rooms at the London South Bank Centre. Riley was held in great veneration by several staff members at Bath College of Higher Education and it was probably my role in bringing him to the Tippett Centre that helped to secure my appointment as joint concert organiser at BCHE and at the University of Bath, but that’s a story for next time.