Steve Martland: Composer hailed for his hard-edged minimalism


The composer Steve Martland, who has died of a heart attack in his sleep at 53, was England's leading musical minimalist in the taut, hard-edged European style pioneered by his mentor Louis Andriessen, whose propulsive rhythms Martland partnered with strong socialist principles, an emblematically English tonal palette and an eclectic enthusiasm for rock music.

A 1985 piece, Remembering Lennon, invoked his fellow working-class hero from Liverpool; early albums were recorded for Factory Records, best known as the label for Joy Division; he revered what he saw as the messianic power of the Manic Street Preachers and collaborated with Spiritualized for Edinburgh's Flux Festival in 1998.

After an outstanding orchestral work, Babi Yar (from 1983, when he was 23) was premiered by near-simultaneous performances in England (by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under Nicholas Cleobury) and the US (with the St Louis Symphony Orchestra under Leonard Slatkin), Martland concentrated on writing for smaller forces, especially his own Steve Martland Band – who performed with vivid amplification, like a rock group – together with a small but wide-ranging series of commissions for dance, for voices and for strings.

Although he was part of a new wave of contemporary classical composers that included Mark Anthony Turnage, Martland did not, after early notoriety, enjoy the same level of acceptance and fame, due at least partly to his turning his back on the orchestra as the principal medium for his work. At the time of his death he had two major commissions on the go: for the 2015 Manchester International Festival (whose artistic director, Alex Poots, was a previous manager of the Martland Band), and for the BBC Singers.

Parallel to his composing career, Martland was one of the most committed and inspirational music educators the UK has known; his frequent workshops and self-financed summer school, Strike Out, helped produce a new generation of young composers. From 2002-04 he was the artistic director of SPNM (the Society for the Promotion of New Music), an organisation that had supported his own Babi Yar.

Always a rebel, Martland never ceased battling against what he regarded as the snobbery and elitism of the classical music establishment. He was also briefly a pin-up poster boy for the fashionable "new music" of the 1990s, his lean and mean physique and flat-top hairstyle photographed in a series of striking poses for album covers and publicity stills. White T-shirt and jeans was his uniform.

A combative, sometimes difficult man, Martland was also enormously likeable, warm and funny. At the end of a long interview with me for The Independent – in which he had advocated scrapping the Arts Council and the Proms, banning fee-paying schools, and railed against "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" – Martland then confessed to an abiding faith in the mystical power of music. "Music is about the transcendent", he said, in the context of his admiration for the work of his hero, Michael Tippett. "This sense of the transcendent 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."

Steve Martland was born in Liverpool in 1959, one of two sons; his father was a carpenter and his mother worked in a clothing factory. In a talk at the Purcell Room on London's South Bank in 2006 he told his audience that, like the fictional character Billy Elliot, as a child he wanted to be a dancer but his father wouldn't let him. He had considered joining the navy before he entered Liverpool University in 1978 to study music.

After Liverpool he won a Mendelssohn scholarship to study with the Dutch composer Louis Andriessen at the Royal Conservatory in the Hague. Later, Martland made a film for the BBC about Andriessen, A Temporary Arrangement with the Sea (1992). He also studied in the US with Gunther Schuller, the major theorist of the "Third Stream", an influential movement advocating the overlap of classical music and jazz.

For such a forthright man, Martland was extremely protective about his personal life. Chris Caldwell, who played with the Martland Band from 1996 and managed it from 1999 to the present, said, "It's amazing how much time I spent with Steve – trying to manage the unmanageable – and how little I knew. We'd meet in cafes in central London and he'd always turn up in his immaculate white T-shirt and jeans and it was always the same Steve, the full 110 per cent. But he would never talk about himself and there was never a retrospective moment."

Although Martland could be extremely demanding when it came to performance – Caldwell remembers numerous sound engineers suffering "the full, Alex Ferguson hair-dryer effect", which he attributes to Martland's pre-match nerves – he was loved by the members of his band, who would drop other commitments to work with him, and who he rewarded by refusing to accept "deps" for their roles.

Sally Groves of Schott Music – Martland's champion throughout his career, and with whom he had just signed a new contract – told me: "Steve was a great teacher and he only wrote when he felt it was necessary to write; unlike many other composers he was never on that treadmill of commissions. He was awesome, and if we thought Steve was stressful to be with, imagine what it was like being Steve. And people have the wrong idea about him: he wasn't just out to shock: he was absolutely rigorous, an old-fashioned composer in that sense."

As to why Martland felt compelled to bite the hand that fed him – and in his later career, perhaps failed to feed him enough – he was, in our interview, typically upfront.

"It's because of this class thing," he said. "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... And that's why everything they write is meaningless as far as I'm concerned... I actually believe what I say about education, about 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."

Phil Johnson

Steve Martland, composer: born Liverpool 10 October 1959; died Reading 6 May 2013.

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