Steven Elcock, symphonist


Steven Elcock, master symphonist, currently at work on No. 5

Steven Elcock, master symphonist, currently at work on No. 5

You can imagine that, running a recording label, I get approaches from all sorts of people wanting their music to come out on CD. Every so often I come across an individual voice, but most of the time I am reminded that obscure music is obscure for a good reason. The music I’m offered is rarely individual enough to make the cut, but some does, of course: for instance, I hadn’t heard of Philip Spratley before his music was suggested to me, and now I’ve released two CDs of his music, the first for string orchestra and the second, not long out, for full symphony orchestra, including his Third Symphony; and there’s more to come. So I keep an open ear.

Last summer I was asked by a composer – a name I had never heard of – whether I might be interested in seeing some of his scores and hearing them as MIDI playbacks on CD-R; another composer, a mutual friend, has suggested he get in touch. Sure, I said – the fact that I hadn’t heard of him didn’t mean he didn’t have something to say, if you’ll forgive all those negatives. But when this chap, who introduced himself as Steve Elcock, told me that he didn’t work in music in any professional capacity, that his only formal qualification was an A-Level in music, and that he had nonetheless written four symphonies, my expectations fell back to their default position of not very high. And so for several weeks the package of scores and CDs sat on my desk and on the perimeter of my conscience.

Steve Elcock: Orchestral Music, Volume OneEventually I thought to myself: I must make time to listen to this stuff; this Elcock chap may be waiting for a response. And so I opened the package: scores and recordings of a symphonic poem called Wreck and Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4. I started with Wreck (1999–2000) which, in the composer’s words, ‘portrays man’s quest, drawing on the imagery of a ship at sea, battered by the elements but somehow struggling on’ – not the most original of premises, I thought, but let’s see. I was astonished by what I heard: a powerful, cogently argued piece in a confidently personal language that nonetheless took its place in the open-air symphonic tradition of men like Carl Nielsen and Robert Simpson. The two symphonies proper stoked up my amazement yet further: they confidently handle long-term symphonic tension (Elcock has, as Simpson put it, ‘the breath of a symphonist’), use the orchestra with natural aplomb, and leaven a grim, gritty realism with a sardonic sense of humour. The man is a natural. Over the next few weeks I played the recordings to friends and they, too, sat open-jawed in astonishment.

But the astonishment kicks in further up the line. Steve Elcock works not in music, as I mentioned, but in language services, in France, just north of Lyons, though he grew up in Derbyshire. He knows hardly anyone in the musical world – one of his few connections, a boyhood link, led to his only professional performance to date, when in 2009 James MacMillan conducted the BBC Philharmonic in the seven-minute Hammering. Apart from that A-Level in music, he is a self-taught violinist and has conducted amateur ensembles around his home in provincial France. And yet he’s plainly one of the more important symphonists at work today. Click on http://www.steveelcock.fr/ and judge for yourself. I’d recommend the Third Symphony as a good place to start. But spend some time pottering around his site and listening to more of his output. I guarantee you’ll be gobsmacked.

The next step, obviously, is to get some of this stuff recorded, and my CD label, Toccata Classics, stands ready. If there’s anyone out there with a chequebook big enough to turn this tale of northern perseverance into sounding reality, please get in touch.



  1. I went to the site and, despite a lousy Internet connection with frequent cuts in the audio stream, confirmed everything you said about Elcock’s work. I’m not especially perseverant, and it’s a tribute of sorts to Elcock’s music that I stuck with it. Everything you need to know about what’s wrong with the “new music” scene and at least the US concert milieu can be gathered from Elcock’s neglect. This is neither “stunt” music nor knock-off Romanticism, but someone in what used to be the mainstream of Modernism. Similar composers not on the A-list, like Lees, Rosner, Spratley, and Veale have endured similar problems. That wedge of Modernism, other than the well-known stars, has yet to catch on with programmers.

    • I’m not sure that one can truthfully speak of “neglect” with regard to
      my music. For there to be neglect, there first has to be awareness that
      something exists, followed by failure to do anything about it. SInce
      no-one knew anything about my work until last summer, largely due to my
      own lack of interest in, or time for, self-promotion, in tandem with
      total ignorance of what doors to knock on anyway, my work cannot yet, it
      seems to me, be said to have been neglected.Hopefully my period of
      neglect is only just beginning!
      Thanks for your encouraging comments!

      • I take your point. I have the fond notion that there’s no really good reason why music as fine yours shouldn’t be sought out and performed, simply because it *has* had exposure (despite your unwillingness to push it forward). To paraphrase what The Voice said to Kevin Costner, “Write it, and they will listen.” Of course, I also believe I will win the Powerball, if only my wife would remind me to buy a ticket. The composers I’ve met or am friends with huff like steam engines to hustle up performances, in addition to the hard work of thinking up the music and physically setting it down in readable form.

        • Steve (E) being a symphonist these days means an odd reward structure it seems :-). Martin and I were independently at the premiere of Simpson’s 8th 30 years back. It was one of those mind-blowing, walk-the-streets-and-wonder-afterwards experiences. But I doubt it’s been played since that time. Thanks to the Grateful Dead it’s on CD with the rest of Simpson, undead for eternity .. but the (fine) recording’s a dim shadow of that distant live shock, to the fairly-full RFH. We all feel cheated of further Simpson shows, in life .. but the few good ones were great. I reckon you owe it to one of your big orchestral pieces, to get it wobbling the air of a concert hall, even in a conservatoire. But there’s no shortage of quartets/chamber groups (with followings) looking for good new stuff in UK, and crowdfunding’s making the process possible from commissioning to show to recording … cf e.g. the venerable but progressive Fitzwilliam Qt. selling out King’s Place recently with unknown music, gig put together that way .. etc 🙂 Been wondering after further listening, what you feel the audience might be for your work.

          • It’s gratifying to be spoken of in the same breath as Simpson, and it seems that, as they say, the first performance is easy; it’s the second one that’s difficult to secure. There”s obviously nothing I’d like better than to hear one of my orchestral pieces performed. Maybe crowdfunding is the way to go, but I feel I would need help and advice to set that in motion so that it would work. As for chamber-size pieces, I don’t have much, but the divertimento for string quartet “The girl from Marseille”, which you may have listened to on my site, is being first-performed at Levoca in Slovakia in October, again thanks to Martin, via his friend David Conway (http://www.lblfestival.eu/programme%202014.html).

          • Thanks Paul! I realised that I hadn’t answered your question about what the audience might be for my work. I’m not sure how to tackle it: is there a subtext suggesting that there might not be an audience for this kind of music? I really have no idea, but I can’t believe there aren’t people out there who want to be moved and shaken by the sound of the symphony orchestra in full flight. From your comments,it sounds like you might be part of that audience.

          • No subtexts from me Steve. Just a curious Yorkshireman and lifelong part of the new music audience 🙂 I’ve been almost alone in some concert halls for some enjoyable premieres. Sometimes they fill. Stockhausen premieres used to be full in London halls, however outré the music, because the Stockhausen audience always turned up for everything and paid. We did Kontakte in the ’70s in Middlesbrough – no new-music oasis then, you have to say. And the local theatre was packed. Am interested in how composers see their listeners, whether they think that way, whether they like talking to audiences – it can help. I know the work just has to be, not suggesting ‘tailoring’. Wonder what the composer expects the listener to get out of it, standing in their shoes. Who the composer imagines (or knows) those listeners to be. A music-loving/playing friend of mine always says “I just want music to sing to me, not shout at me!” She’d (e.g.) be less your symphonies’ audience than my Andriessen/Prokofiev mate. I don’t think you shout, but you do the extended big moments well, and fast music, which the Brits are typically not so good at. Were it possible to get folk together for a London show eg., I wonder who they would be, and given a music biz sympathetic to good but approachable work, how best you’d reach them? The story of Tavener’s Protecting Veil is salutary. Not holding the work up as an icon in any way – more the process, the way the Beeb got behind it, then buried it down deep in a tough concert, but it soon became megaseller with an especially large audience of women, thence to Classic FM in short order. It was mainly down to the first minute (first three notes really) of a long, uneven work that does get shouty. http://bit.ly/1huMDPs

          • These are very interesting questions. Without getting into the vexed issue of what my music “means”, I do feel that it might speak to people who can feel its anger (what you call shouting) and its consolation (what you call singing). I can’t manage one without the other: there would be no light without surrounding darkness. The story of the Tavener piece strikes a chord. I remember when first hearing it my thoughts were 1) can that really be a cello?, 2) why didn’t I think of that?, and 3) this is proper music! By the last point I mean that I have no sympathy with music that (to paraphrase Deryck Cooke) requires the listener to learn a new language with each new piece, nor with music written for an intellectual elite bristling with music degrees. There is point beyond which musical syntax becomes unintelligible to the majority of goodwilled, musically cultivated listeners (I’m aware that there’s some question-begging in that), and beyond that point I cannot stray. The first three notes of the Tavener piece outline a major third: what Nielsen called “a gift from God”, and that such a basic element of musical language was still intelligible and pregant with meaning in the late C20, and still is today, underlines what I mean. I subsequently found the Veil to be overlong, repetitive and not such a particularly good piece, but when it came out it showed Tavener to be, for me, a welcome addition to that group of composers like Petterssen, Schnittke and Kanchelli that had not thrown away the syntax and that encouraged me to keep writing.
            A London show? That would be wonderful. Do you have any ideas how to make it happen?

          • Steve I expect Tavener and Stockhausen were both lucky in having the support/approval of the Beatles in the ’60s, a time of open ears and wallets 🙂 Tavener could offer solace at times to a world that wanted solace more than argument. I find his choral works moving – Veil is weak, rambling, my point being that it did not matter, because the very opening was the only soundbite needed to shift containers of CDs. Rest of the structure was not relevant, the nice front door sold the house. I wish e.g. Nick Maw had equal profile, but he did not do soundbites. I’ve been paying to hear new music for forty years, and I wish composers would consider more the listener’s creative and emotional response, our capacity for further engagement – the yield as we sit there can be very low. I guess I’d now like to hear more music that’s good rather than just quite interesting – whatever the syntax. Good in the way e.g. Schuberts Auflösung or Me mère l’oye are good. And even if one dismisses the work as PR or overblown, Stockhausen really engaged with his audience, and he gave straight answers to straight questions – lots to learn there I feel about communication. Many a symphonist pays us no mind at all. Growing a new audience that appreciates large-scale musical structures is another issue, and I really hope it happens (maybe your work could help there) – that’s linked to the issue of London shows. Performers can usually be found, what about the audience? Thinking.

          • Less woolly Steve: I’ll ask around and get back to you 🙂 Yr work’s good on Keller’s “large scale integration of contrasts” as well as colour and mood. Ref. shouting and singing – Strauss’s calling-card lied Zueignug says it all. Opens with heart stopping melody/harmony, ends in immediate fortissimo bombast. Makes a great encore for a certain audience, but Strauss goes from sensitive first base to a shouting climax in 90 seconds, like a teenage lover. That may be the point (unless you give the context of all of op. 10). But it’s the kind of thing that puts off newcomers – when even the best composers have great inspirations but don’t give them the right context, or stifle them too early with old-fashioned drama. Balance of dramatic, affecting, dynamic .. seems doable but elusive nowadays. Enough rambling from me.

          • There’s lots to meditate on there, Paul. Why am I not surprised to hear you say that many a symphonist pays us no mind at all? The result is music that at best is interesting, but I want more from music than that. Crossword puzzles are interesting.
            I personally can’t imagine not writing with an audience in mind. What I try to get is the balance you speak of. Of course you can’t expect all the members of a given audience to be looking for the same thing: some will want the affective, some the dramatic. Jungian analysis brought this home to me many years ago. If you put all the ingredients in there, there’s a chance you’ll be speaking to someone. And the marketing, the sound-byte, the trick that sets it all off, makes it sell, whatever… I think my piece “Haven” has that, with its re-composition of Bach, dunno…
            Great to have all this interest from you. I hope we can keep in touch and possibly meet one day.

          • Passing your music around a bit in London, Steve. My circles don’t match Martin’s tho. Have lately been getting a bit curmudgeonly with some of the standard rep., watching newcomers to Classical react etc. I’m being a bit devil’s advocate invoking Stockhausen (whose work and thought very often verged on the preposterous, or syntax-out-the-window as you say), because what struck me at the gigs he supervised (I saw mainly at Barbican) was how close he was to his audience, and approachable in person. So the collective thing was moving, wholly against expectation. A little bit of personal communication makes such a difference to a new music audience. Interesting ref. Jung, – our reactions to the differing moods of a piece vary day to day, too. Prob. easier these days tho to flog pieces with only one mood, at length 🙂 Easier, but not better.

          • I posted this reply some time ago, but it got stuck at the top of the page, so maybe you didn’t see it:
            One mood: I feel that too. Gorecki 3. What I’ve heard of Arvo Part. Kanchelli’s symphonies. Most of Delius. And yet they’ll then tell you that your pieces aren’t contrasted enough. What price the large scale integration of contrasts, then?. Fortunately, I’ve never thought of “flogging” my music, just written what I have to. Now that there is some interest in what I’ve been doing for the last 20 years I suppose the question has become relevant. Thanks for passing my music around. If you want to hear the full 3rd symphony, I can send it to you, the score also. I’m getting a bit self-conscious about adding to this blog: of the 16 comments, nearly half are by me, and I don’t feel that’s how it’s supposed to work.

  2. Thanks M., only had a chance to hear the Fourth Symphony and the Destruction piece. The latter reminded me of Russians like Boris Tchaikovsky and generation, if not quite gelling, but the symphony held my attention all through. And hey, these are midi files. I expect being outside the profession helps if anything, though I see he’s done his stint as an amateur conductor. Am not sure an orchestra could keep up with absolutely all of the MIDI-tempi, but a live show or filmed rehearsal with background prob. helps profile more than just a recording. Yet the market (numbers) for this kind of ‘open-air’ big-scale stuff is quite small (down to vanishing point), unless there are some comforting morsels to go with it – or a great story well-told, of course. ‘Breath of a symphonist’ was originally Schoenberg (1946) aligning his ‘expertise’ with common perceptions of Sibelius and Shostakovich. Interesting to read AS’s debate on neglect and relative musical evaluation (who says something is good?) in the context of 2014 – and of this Fourth, which does breathe.

  3. One mood: I feel that too. Gorecki 3. What I’ve heard of Arvo Part.
    Kanchelli’s symphonies. Most of Delius. And yet they’ll then tell you
    that your pieces aren’t contrasted enough. What price the large scale
    integration of contrasts, then?. Fortunately, I’ve never thought of
    “flogging” my music, just written what I have to. Now that there is some
    interest in what I’ve been doing for the last 20 years I suppose the
    question has become relevant. Thanks for passing my music around. If you
    want to hear the full 3rd symphony, I can send it to you, the score
    I’m getting a bit self-conscious about adding to this blog: of
    the 16 comments, nearly half are by me, and I don’t feel that’s how
    it’s supposed to work, though my knowledge of blog etiquette is