Tell us how Music @ Malling got started

I’ve worked worldwide as a musician and started my musical journey in West Malling, where I used to have violin lessons when I was seven. I went back to my old school about five or six years ago and realised that the arts are virtually non-existent. I thought it was ridiculous that everything had dropped and that there’s no emphasis anymore on trying to enrich people’s lives with culture, particularly at a primary school level; I think that’s a great pity because it’s one of the things we’re really good at in this country.

Why set up a festival in West Malling?

It’s where I grew up. My family has lived there on and off for 400 or 500 years and it’s a very beautiful area. It’s quite rural and hugely historic, but at the same time it’s still a working town. It seemed like a good place and there wasn’t anything going on of that kind of quality in the area, which seemed a real pity, particularly for younger people.

What kind of music is on offer?

I have a lot of contacts within the music profession, so right from the outset we had an element of contemporary music. We’ve always had a jazz element, which has been hugely popular. It’s about trying to find a mix of music that appeals to lots of different audiences and a balancing act between combining things that people know and love with stuff that they might never have heard before.

Do jazz and classical music go well together?

The crossover between jazz and classical is a very rich theme. Music doesn’t exist in hermetically sealed boxes; it’s one subject, which is where the educational value of it comes in at a fundamental level, because you can teach lots of things through music being the link between all the other disciplines.

How is the event funded?

We’ve been very fortunate with our funding. We have public funding from Kent County Council and Tonbridge and Malling Borough Council, as well as funding from the Arts Council, the Prince’s Trust and the Cleary Foundation. We have money for the workshops from Soundhub and have some private sponsorship and corporate sponsorship, which is an area that I’m looking to expand. We have several fundraising dinners a year to raise money, so it’s a mixture.

It sounds like you get money from all over…

You have to have a mixed economy to raise the money. Just relying on the government is the road to not getting anywhere in the long-term. Everyone talks about sustainability, which is an issue with the arts, but you have to create as many opportunities as you can for funding and hope that there will be enough corporately to make it muddle through from one year to the next.

Does anyone get paid or is it all voluntary?

The musicians get paid and I get paid for the concerts I do, but I don’t get paid to organise it. I do it because it’s something that I believe is important to do, rather than a need to make as much cash out it as possible. If people don’t do these sorts of things then nothing happens, so sometimes you have to do the reverse in order to get the ball rolling.

You mentioned workshops – can you talk more about those?

It gives students and people who are studying music at college or university a chance to have a free lesson, a different perspective and some advice. One of the problems with the music industry is that there’s no blueprint to becoming a professional musician. Everyone has a different story, so to actually have advice from people who have managed to succeed can be a game changer and makes a huge difference.

Is children’s musical education important to you?

You can’t have one thing without the other; you can’t have high-level concerts on the one hand and then expect a new generation to become interested in ballet or theatre without the artists engaging with those people at a fairly fundamental level. But this isn’t about necessarily finding the next group of professional musicians – this is more about making arts relevant and available to people where they might otherwise not have the opportunity to see things on their doorsteps.

Are younger people a big part of your audience?

We’ve done a lot of work in schools and are trying to do things that involve families. You have to think about programming that’s quite inclusive without dumbing down the music. You’ve got to think about different thematic strands and what appeals to certain groups and what appeals to others. You have to experiment a bit and take risks if you’re going to build an audience, but you don’t need to do wall-to-wall Mozart to do that.

Any ideas on how to accomplish that?

With the younger children, they don’t differentiate between something that’s really hard-core contemporary and something that’s more mainstream; they enjoy it all, so the participation side is good for building audiences. In the 21st century, we have to look at different models of audience development, and geography plays a huge part in that. I wanted to set something up where people didn’t have to travel so far to hear that kind of quality of music making and to actually engage directly with the performers.

So, is it a festival for everybody?

We try and keep everything quite informal, so people can talk to the artists and there’s a relaxed atmosphere all the time in the venues that we use. I didn’t want to make it intimidating or too formal; you could easily have a Champagne tent and make it black-tie, but then you’re only going to reach a certain type of person through that. That has its place, but so does something that’s more inclusive as well.

In what ways do the venues add to the overall experience of the festival?

This year we’re performing in West Malling Abbey, which is incredibly historic and hugely atmospheric as a place. It has incredible architecture that you wouldn’t be able to see under normal circumstances. This is the first time they’ve allowed it to be used for public concerts, so to have a concert there is an amazing opportunity for people to see something they really wouldn’t see otherwise. Having concerts in those sorts of venues puts our own lives into some kind of context because people forget that we’re living in these very historic places without necessarily realising until they have to stop and think about it. Concerts can give you that opportunity.

Can those places compete with the likes of London?

It’s not so easy for people to go up to London to the Wigmore Hall or South Bank, especially in schools, as it’s too complicated, so it’s very much up to artists and artistic organisations to do the opposite and bring things out of London and into the surrounding areas if people are going to be engaged with the arts.

That must be tough to do with so many arts budget cuts…

The climate for the arts on one level is quite terrifying because of this culture of cuts, but at the same time it creates opportunities to think outside of the box. The whole point about the arts is about getting the community behind a project rather than trying to convince central government it’s a good idea. You have to think on a local level; an individual can’t transform the arts for the entire country, but an individual can make a huge difference in one area, which can be replicated elsewhere in the long run. It’s about trying to do well in an area and trying to show that something can be done without thinking too big.

Music @ Malling runs from September 20 to 27. To find out more or to book tickets, visit www.musicatmalling.com. You can also keep up to date by liking the festival on Facebook at www.facebook.com/musicatmalling or following on Twitter @musicatmalling

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