`The Proms? Do me a favour!'

Steve Martland, the would-be bruiser of the classical music world, is back on the road. He tells Phil Johnson about his hatred of the establishmen t and petty rules and... spirituality
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The idea of "the hard man of classical music", however ludicrous it might appear, remains a very appealing one. One fondly imagines EastEnders' Grant Mitchell as a conductor in dickie bow and cummerbund, vaulting over the podium to sort out a spot of bother in the strings, or Wimbledon's Vinnie Jones responding to accusations of serialism in a pre-concert talk by chinning the presenter. That the role of hard man (it's a tough job but someone's got to do it) should have fallen to the composer Steve Martland is even more unlikely, despite the fact that he used to go on training runs with the Arsenal. In conversation, his Liverpool accent is more cultured Lily Savage than Tommy Smith but, if you believe his press cuttings, he's the classical equivalent of the council estate skinhead who somehow bragged his way into the posh garden party, pushed the polite string quartet from the stage and then started to bawl out obscenities at the top of his voice.

It's a role that Martland -who is currently touring the country for the Arts Council's Contemporary Music Network - still tries endearingly hard to fulfil. A self-appointed Mr Angry, he's as full of controversial soundbites as any rent-a-quote Tory MP. The Arts Council? Get rid of it and start again. Fee-paying schools? Ban 'em. The Proms? Do me a favour! Cute little puppies and kittens? Remove them from their owners, forcibly if necessary, and subject them to a rigorous re-education in order that they may once again roam free in the wild like their ancestors. Actually, I made the last one up, but you get the picture. Though his celebrated skinhead crop has grown out into a rather neat flat-top with slight Mohican tendencies, the top-knot of hair gelled into vertical spikes as if by an off-duty squaddie on the razz, Martland remains convincingly rude.

Even from the conductor's rostrum of the concert platform he can't resist having a pop: at the boss of Radio 3 who didn't know he had an education department; at Michael Nyman, who commanded less applause than he did in a shared concert for Euro '96; at Steve Reich, whose Nagoya Marimbas has to be included in the programme because the Arts Council insisted on it. He also prefaces one number with an impassioned speech about the need to conserve our specialist music colleges in the face of all-party political threats.

But to his credit, Martland walks it as well as talks it. On Monday night, at the end of his rapturously received concert at St George's in Bristol, he spent ages talking with starry-eyed young music students, and he really does seem to care about education. He contradicts what he sees as the merely token respect accorded to workshops and out-reach projects by the broader musical establishment by working in schools and prisons, and running his own, non fee-paying summer school.

He's also, somewhat surprisingly, immensely likeable and, compared to the wonderfully leery and beery unreconstructed new lads in his band, he's actually a bit of a wimp, despite the haircut and the carefully wrought lean and mean physique. At the end of a long, ranting interview spent dissing absolutely everything about the classical musical establishment, he even reveals an unexpectedly spiritual side, like Vinnie Jones confessing he's a closet Buddhist. "Music is about the transcendent," he says, in the context of his admiration for the works of his hero, Michael Tippett. "This sense of transcendence is what people get into at rock concerts, and in a way all music is connected to that. Ultimately, it's a substitute for lost religious states."

Martland's reverence for rock music can come across as rather quaint, a kind of Seventies Rock Follies-era, proselytising for a form that hardly exists any more in any unified sense (or at least to anyone but "serious" composers). Interestingly, the band he would most like to work with is the Manic Street Preachers, whose music seems to offer exactly that lost, messianic sense of rock as a potentially transforming social force. "I'd love James Dean Bradley to sing with the band," he says. "In fact, it would be a pity if they did find Richie James in Goa because I think Bradley is brilliant."

In concert, Martland's new music remains hard on the surface, with dense, propulsive rhythms punched out at aggressive volume and tempi, but if you listen carefully (and that's not easy), there's a soft, even lyrical underbelly of quintessentially English origin; Purcell, Holst and Hovis as much to the fore as the European minimalism of his teacher, Louis Andriessen, or the power-chords of "rock". Played with passion by his brilliant band, compositions like "The Horses of Instruction", or "Eternal Delight" justify their Blakeian derivations, sounding like brutish muzak for the assembly- lines of those dark satanic mills.

Martland came to prominence in the Eighties as perhaps the only "proper" composer to take rock as seriously as it took itself. One of his first compositions (from 1981, when he was 22) was entitled "Remembering Lennon", after his hometown hero. Later, when he signed a record contract, it was with Manchester's Factory Records, the same fashionable label as Joy Division. After contemplating a career in the navy as a boy, he eventually trained in music, graduating in 1981 and going on to study in Holland with Andriessen, about whom he later made a film for the BBC.

His career since has been full of impressive commissions from home and abroad for dance works, brass band, chamber ensembles and orchestra, as well as his own musicians, and he has a new recording contract with BMG, for whom he is to go into the studio next week for a crossover project involving both the band and a couple of New York rappers. So why does he continue to bite the hand that feeds him?

"It's because of this class thing," he says. "I just have a real ingrained antagonism to middle-class things. I hate petty pretensions, stupid rules, everything that's expected of you. I am arrogant, but it's about the establishment, about what people will do for just one little performance at the Proms; about all these fucking brown-nosed composers who never say anything because they so desperately want to keep in with the BBC or the Aldeburgh Festival or whatever. And that's why everything they write is meaningless as far as I'm concerned..."

Though he admits that his outsider status might be the result of some kind of bad-boy compulsion, he insists: "The things I say aren't said just to keep me there. I actually believe what I say about education, about the establishment and who music is for, and the whole, hideous, class nature of English society. It's important to be on the outside because then you don't have to suck up to anyone." When I ask if his role as the conductor on the current tour, experiencing the hierarchical structure of a performance from, as it were, the very belly of the beast, has offered any fresh insights into the establishment, he laughs gleefully. "It's more like I'm up its arse," he says. "I'm an irritant to its bowels!"n

The Steve Martland Band's `The Horses of Instruction' tour continues tonight, 8.15pm, The Stables, Wavendon, Berks (01908 583928); tomorrow, 8pm, Newcastle Playhouse (0191-230 5151); Fri 21, QEH, SBC, London SE1 (0171-960 4242)