The man still tagged as the "enfant terrible" of the classical music scene talks to Helenka Bednar about the joys of touring abroad, bizarre gigs, and even stranger audiences
It takes three attempts and a minor struggle with a mobile phone to get hold of Steve Martland, but although the wonders of new phone technology aren't high on his list of priorities, promoting new music remains his number one concern. Not often seen on the UK circuit, Martland spends much of his time touring abroad. He attributes his leap across the channel to a somewhat stoical reception on home turf, and a conservatism that has no room for new development. Having just performed at Henley Festival, the experience isn't about to change his mind. "It was very weird," recalls a slightly bemused Martland. "People just wondered about and it was totally formal. It was just completely not our audience."
Whilst grandeur and elitism seem to go hand in hand with many of the classical events hosted in the UK, it's these factors that deter Martland from using Britain as a base for his music. That and the fact that audience enthusiasm pales in comparison to the spirited response abroad. Further a field, his music receives the kind of enthusiasm only rock gigs can hope for here. "In Italy it's absolutely incredible," he enthuses, "the audiences' reaction and everything else - the insane enthusiasm. The English are just more reserved there is obviously some sort of following here, but I just prefer to go abroad. I particularly like Italy. It's mad in Italy".
So the Europeans outdo us on the passion stakes - not entirely surprising. Martland's music, branded as 'minimalist' has received a mixed response wherever he takes it. But what attracts him to his European audience is that they're not afraid to respond, whether they're fans of his sound or not. What Martland does go on to emphasise is the cultural difference between live concerts. The general picture abroad seems to be a more relaxed one. "The Queen Elizabeth Hall does nothing to help the atmosphere - it's dead in there and you just really have to work hard at it. So the audience is inhibited because of it," he reasons. "Whereas in Italy people are just generally more used to going out to these things. I mean you always play in theatres rather than concert halls. It's just totally different."
Throughout our conversation it becomes clear that Martland's music appeals to an audience that isn't easily categorised. They're not 'middle of the road' music fans that's for sure, but there's a diversity that encompasses a whole range of people. "It should be like that, " enthuses Martland. "I remember seeing an elderly lady at the front row of one gig and saying to her 'Oh this could be very loud for you'. 'I like it!' she shouted. I think, everywhere we go," he continues "there have always been people who are interested in new things and are just determined to carry on."
Perhaps it is the mix of students, defiant old ladies and even the odd US military general that creates the energy amongst his audiences abroad. It's hard to say. Martland himself struggles to sum up his audience when I ask him, and why should you even bother some people might ask? But although scouring the turnout gives an indication of who's turned up, it more importantly reflects who's missing. Classical and contemporary music is infinitely more accessible overseas. Industry attitudes are different, prices are lower and whole groups of people who would constantly be deterred from showing up at concerts in the UK are not dissuaded by the same restrictions. With London being as well known for it's high-end ticket prices as it is for its culture, expense swiftly alienates whole chunks of potential audience before you've even got onto the issue of snobbish attitudes and oppressive environments. And Martland appreciates that many people are simply put off by the idea of going along to a classical concert. "I can understand that sitting in a concert hall watching an orchestra play is just not very interesting. There has to be some way of presenting music that engages with the audience rather than musicians sitting on stage who don't even look at you. I can see why it's so off-putting for so many people - it's alienating. There's got to be an educational element to it that explains how music works to people."