London’s contemporary music scene is unique. A perfect storm of engaged audiences, an urban landscape full of unusual venues and limited funding awarded only to the most creative has led to a surge of small organisations taking the music they love out of the concert hall and into new spaces away from the limitations of traditional concert-giving.
Listenpony, founded by composers Freya Waley-Cohen, Josephine Stephenson and William Marsey, seem to fit into this model, with events combining new work (often by themselves), with classical, folk, jazz and pop music in unusual venues. But their events are somehow different – less grand, less outwardly ‘ambitious’, they have for a few years now been quietly but confidently sharing the music they love with a growing and dedicated audience. I met with them as they prepare for their next event, and the launch of their new record label, on March 2nd.
How did you start Listenpony?
Freya: We’d all moved to London and were figuring out how being a composer works. We weren’t trying to start a concert series – we just thought ‘hey, let’s put on a concert for our friends!’ So we found a free venue and put on a concert.
William: We’d put things on at university, because there weren’t many performance opportunities available there for new music.
Freya: We chose some composers, and worked with them to create some 20-minute sets. The concerts we did were varied and fun, but there were so many people involved we weren’t going to be able to pay them all!
Josephine: Because we were bringing too many people and because there were so many musicians involved, we eventually had to leave our free venue and find a more manageable structure as we left conservatoire and became professionals. So now for each event we collaborate with three artists or ensembles, and one of them is a non-classical group. We commission with very few restrictions, and ask the performers to choose something from their own repertoire. Obviously we’re always looking for contrast, but that’s there anyway through the mix of genres.
Freya: From the very beginning we wanted to mix genres to make the events as inclusive as possible, and perhaps because of the loose way they were put together the events have a vibrant feel. I think we’ve managed to keep that while making it a bit more structured.
What’s your record label?
William: The label is the next step in getting the music out there. We always had this idea of making the events available digitally, and now we’ve got the structure in place we’re at the right stage to release recordings.
Freya: Through the label we’re opening up the concerts to a wider audience. We’re no longer geographically limited.
William: We’d started the series to reflect the playlists on our phones, which are classical with pop in between, and now we’ve come full circle by starting to put together EPs that are the same sort of mixture of different genres we like.
There does seem to be a growing trend of composers working in collectives – I’m thinking of Bang on a Can, for example. Do you fit into that model?
William: We’ve never thought of ourselves as a collective. We’re more like curators, and through Listenpony we’re creating a context for our work.
Freya: One of the ideas of a collective is that there’s a group ideology. One of the fun things about this group is that we are very different, and disagree about everything!
Josephine: We’re not trying to promote an idea. We want to be open and attractive to as many people as possible.
Freya: If we’re promoting anything, it’s eclecticism! We’re trying to broaden the aesthetic rather than narrow it.
William: We do all agree though that the context of a new piece of music is very important in how you experience it – it’s the small things, like not having the musicians on a raised platform, not having chairs in line and so on…
Freya: And because of all of this, I think we end up to some extent curating our compositions for the event – so the two things are interlinked.
Josephine: Listenpony isn’t just a concert where we put on our music, but a concert that we’d love to be at.
What are your plans for the future?
Josephine: Keep going!
Freya: We’ll be releasing our first few EPs, developing the label, and writing operas for a concert in the autumn.
Josephine: Actually we’re not too future-minded. We don’t set impossible targets for ourselves.
William: We focus on making something high-quality.
Freya: And we wouldn’t want it to get so big that it loses its intimacy.
Where does the name come from?
William: It’s a secret!
On March 2nd Listenpony are at St Ethelburga’s Centre in London. Eo Nomine and Mainly Two will play new pieces by Josephine Stephenson, Ryan Latimer, Dani Howard, Lawrence Dunn and William Marsey, as well as music by Gesualdo and Monteverdi and a closing set from HART.
Find out more at www.listenpony.com, www.facebook.com/listenpony and on Twitter @listenpony.
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