mon 04/03/2024

First Person: Natalia Franklin Pierce, Executive Director of Nonclassical, on 'creating a sense of belonging' | reviews, news & interviews

First Person: Natalia Franklin Pierce, Executive Director of Nonclassical, on 'creating a sense of belonging'

First Person: Natalia Franklin Pierce, Executive Director of Nonclassical, on 'creating a sense of belonging'

On bringing classical music to wider audiences - and appealing for help in a good cause

Natalia Franklin Pierce: 'one of my main motivations is to use my sphere of influence to make the classical or broader music sector a fairer place'

Despite my double-barrelled surname (my parents weren't married when I was born – so I was given both their names), a career within contemporary classical music definitely wasn't on the cards for me as a child. My Dad was a self-made man from a North London council estate, and while my parents loved music, classical music didn’t feature much and they regretted not being able to play any instruments.

My Dad used to tell us he would’ve been the next Miles Davis were it not for the fact his trumpet (shared with another kid on loan) was vandalised with a ball-bearing, thwarting his career. I recall him calculating how he’d fit in 10,000 hours of practice to become a virtuoso more recently but still don’t think he’s mastered a C major scale.

My parents' regret was channelled into sending me to recorder lessons, which, via an affordable Saturday music school and grammar school, led me to land a scholarship at Junior Trinity. It was there my imposter syndrome came to the fore – the impressive building and facilities, talented students and expectation I’d confidently sightread madrigals meant I’d pinch myself at how I’d landed there. But while daunting, it didn’t put me off studying music (with philosophy at university – I avoided conservatoires) and I was admitted to Glasgow on my ability to clap a 4/4 rhythm. [Pictured below: audience at a Nonclassical event] Nonclassical audienceSo here I am wondering how I wound up in a sector I still occasionally feel like an outsider in. Throughout my career, I believe I’ve been motivated by two key things.

The first is to empower artists to realise their visions – whether a piece of music, event or broader career aspiration. I’ve seen the careers of artists take off from Beatrice Dillon to Emma-Jean Thackray and Daniel Kidane through my work at Sound and Music, Multi-Story Orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra and Nonclassical. I’ve helped surprising things come to fruition from underwater concerts, car park concerts with 100 school children and an orchestra, and endured risk-assessment meetings about pitch-black concerts or transporting a several-ton bell from a west country farm to Barbican’s conservatory without giving anyone a hernia. 

The second is to use my sphere of influence to make the classical or broader music sector a fairer place. Since early observations about the lack of women composers applying to composer schemes as a whipper snapper, I’ve felt the desire to speak up for the underdog as I see the trends of who is able to seek out a career path in new music. 

My career is born out of empathy for creating a sense of belonging and a foot in the door for other unlikely souls. So it’s no coincidence that I was attracted to run Nonclassical with its mission to bring classical music to wider audiences – most famously through its club nights. Gabriel Prokofiev’s no frills approach with inventive programming in informal spaces combined with low ticket prices and borrowed marketing approaches meant audiences turned up in their droves (Gabriel Prokofiev pictured below with Nwando Ebizie and Sam Mackay at Battle of the Bands, 2023 )Gabriel Prokofiev and friends at a Nonclassical eventThis is fairly commonplace in the classical sector now, but simply changing how classical music is presented is no longer enough. These last years, we’ve been interrogating who makes up the charity, who we’re giving the stage to and how we make artistic choices (and with whom) to better reflect modern Britain.

At Nonclassical I’ve been deeply conscious of the part we can play in making the industry a fairer and I’m instinctively most excited about supporting artists/projects that have emerged through unconventional routes.

Simon Knighton (Nonclassical 2021/22 composer) was a sound engineer/rock musician who heard The Rite of Spring through the walls of his studio space from an adjacent ballet school – the catalyst for pursuing a career blending acoustic and electronic sound through his ‘sound sculptures’. (Recently nominated for an Ivor Classical Best Orchestral Award for his Nonclassical orchestral commission, his work will feature at our Southbank Centre gig next year.) 

I knew we had to release Disruptive Frequencies when I heard about Amit Patel’s research into (the lack of) ethical and cultural diversity in electronic music commissioning six Black and South Asian artists working in the field to better understand the barriers they’ve faced. 

Emily Abdy’s roots as a singer-songwriter are immediately striking paired with her contemporary classical practice (hear her brave work exploring the contraceptive pill using her voice, and electronic manipulation.

Our current Artists in Residence include a self-taught composer-come-trained solicitor using groove, extended techniques and electronic sampling, a composer from a dance background, an ex-circus performer who grew up playing bluegrass in an Amish community and bagpiper working with electronic music – highlighting the multitudes of backgrounds that should be present within the wider classical music scene!  Nonclassical quartet eventTime and again, what shines through artists' applications is a desire (albeit much more than we can supply) to work with Nonclassical because of our artistically open-minded approach (pictured above: Vulva Voce, Battle of the Bands 2023 winners).

The problem is that our principles of how to most equitably run our programmes are costly e.g. proper fees, mentoring, financial support etc and we are not regularly funded by Arts Council England so as Executive Director, I seek ways to sustain our work which allow us to put our money where our mouth is. 

That’s why Nonclassical is taking part in The Big Give's Christmas Challenge to raise £15,000 before 12pm on Tuesday 5 December (all donations doubled) to pay for our four emerging composers to write for orchestra – either Southbank Sinfonia or Her Ensemble. 

By donating or sharing our campaign or bidding on original watercolours by Bob and Roberta Smith you can help us ensure that those from "unlikely" backgrounds don’t feel like outsiders in classical music and we hear underrepresented voices approach the behemoth of an art form that the orchestra is, when almost 9 in 10 pieces performed by orchestras around the world are written by white men (Donne 21/22 report).

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