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Primary Education News
News Steve Martland obituary
Iconoclastic composer who crossed musical boundaries to create a distinctive, edgy sound
Steve Martland, who has died of a heart attack aged 53, was one of the most vibrant, unconventional and dynamic forces in British music. He first came to prominence in 1983 with Babi Yar, for large orchestra in three groups, championed by the Society for the Promotion of New Music (SPNM) and premiered separately on the same day by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Nicholas Cleobury, and the St Louis Symphony Orchestra under Leonard Slatkin. It was later recorded to critical acclaim.
After that, though, he avoided the orchestra, preferring, from American Invention and Re-Mix (1985) onwards, to compose for smaller ensembles, not usually exceeding 13 players, such as those scored for his Steve Martland Band (formed 1992), which toured internationally like a rock group; string quartets, as with his Patrol (1992) or arrangement of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor from the same year; and Wolf-Gang (1991), six operatic arias by Mozart reimagined for wind band.
He produced a series of successful choral works, including Street Songs (1997) for the King's Singers and percussionist Evelyn Glennie, carols and unaccompanied works such as Skywalk (1989), Three Carols (1997) and Tyger Tyger for Youth Music's "Sing Up" campaign.
Martland was born in Liverpool. He studied at Liverpool University (1978-81) and then attended the Royal Conservatory in the Hague on a Mendelssohn scholarship. There he was taught by Louis Andriessen, about whom he later wrote and directed a television film, A Temporary Arrangement With the Sea (1992). He also studied composition at the Berkshire Music Centre, in Massachusetts, with Gunther Schuller.
Martland pursued a highly individual, at times iconoclastic career as composer, performer and teacher. His pupils held him in the highest regard despite his demands of them, mainly due to his warm-heartedness and humour. He was involved in a large number of musical and composition projects in schools in the UK and elsewhere as well as the annual "Strike out" course for children.
Martland was an outspoken critic of academic dogma, believing diversity of musical influence was of far greater benefit, as his own compositions eloquently demonstrated. His style was rooted ultimately in an Andriessenesque combination of the minimalist style – advocated from the late 1960s in the works of Terry Riley, Steve Reich and John Adams – with more popular elements. The chugging, repeating syncopated ostinatos and rhythms played by instruments more common in jazz, pop and rock – saxophones, electric guitar and bass, drum kits with high-hat cymbals – gave his music a distinctive, edgy timbre, as in Beat the Retreat and Horses of Instruction (1995), but it was recognisable even when purely acoustic ensembles were deployed, as in Principia for winds and percussion (1989), later used as the theme music to the BBC's The Music Machine, or Crossing the Border for strings (1990).
The muscular cast of his music proved continually attractive to choreographers, as with Crossing the Border, produced as a ballet by the National Ballet in Amsterdam, and Dance Works (1993), written for the London Contemporary Dance Company, the music existing in two versions, for ensemble and two amplified pianos. Martland's music was also used in film and TV, including Albion (1988) – a multimedia work that gave voice to his left-of-centre political views, including an attack on Thatcherism and the poverty of its cultural legacy – and scores for the 1992 children's series Wilderness Edge, for Granada.
In the later 1990s, Martland's production slowed to a set of arrangements of Purcell. From 2000 to 2002 he concentrated on his role as artistic director of the SPNM, and resumed significant composition only in 2003 with a series of works for string ensembles: Plaint (2003), Tiger Dancing (2005, commissioned for the Henri Oguike Dance Company), Eternity's Sunrise, Reveille (both 2007) and the test piece for string quartet and percussion, Starry Night, for the Tromp International music festival in 2008. He served as composer-in-residence for the Etna music festival (2006-07) and in 2009 he returned to choral music composition with the cantata Darwin and Sea Songs (2011), written for the conductor and baritone Paul Hillier and premiered by Ars Nova in Denmark last year.
• Steve Martland, composer, born 10 October 1959; died 6 May 2013