UNESCO City of Music changes hands as Glasgow bids farewell to Svend Brown

Glasgow UNESCO City of Music, one of the leading organisations which delivered the cultural programme of the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games, will come under the new leadership of David Laing, Head of Music, Arts and Cultural Venues for Glasgow Life.

Svend Brown has been Director of Glasgow UNESCO City of Music since 2012 and was instrumental in bringing the UNESCO accolade to Glasgow, in recognition of its rich musical heritage.

Since then, both the UK and global Creative Cities Network and Glasgow City of Music itself have gone from strength-to-strength, and although he will continue to be involved in some projects, Svend feels the time is right to pass the conductor’s baton on to someone new.

The UKNC caught up with Svend to take a look back at his successful seven year tenure and what the future may hold for the UK’s UNESCO City of Music.

UKNC: What, for you, have been the main highlights from the last couple of years as Director of the City of Music?

SB: The undoubted highlight of the past few years has been the role UNESCO City of Music played during the cultural programme of the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. That really demonstrated how the designation could be used to nurture partnerships, build profile and to make a genuine difference to many people at all levels of the music world in Glasgow. At one end of the scale we delivered the Big Big Sing with 40,000 people joining us in the rain (it is Glasgow after all) to sing their hearts out all afternoon. At the other end we partnered with PRS for Music Foundation in creating the New Music Biennial and presenting 20 brand new pieces of music to an audience of around 4,500. Beyond that we had flashmobs with major stars (Nicola Benedetti), international connections with South Africa (Mzansi Choir) and a daylong music marathon to celebrate Scotland’s excellence in the field of classical music. None of those things would have happened without the designation.

Looking further back it has been a great pleasure to work with different partnerships to realise the various aims of the network. As you’d expect, those aims are open to very creative interpretation. Two of my favourite projects were to commission and produce Dear Green Sounds – a book and exhibition that tell the story of Glasgow’s music through its buildings from the middle-ages to now. No one had attempted it before us, and it was easy to see why: the story is not an A to Z – it is fragmented and partial and much of it belongs to oral traditions that left little trace. But Editor, Kate Molleson’s idea of commissioning many different writers to tell many different stories was genius – the resulting book is as voluble, passionate, eclectic, nerdy and engaging as Glasgow itself. In a very different way we spoke to Glasgow’s history when we invited the artist Bill Fontana to Glasgow to create a new art work out of one of our landmarks of Glasgow’s industrial age. He became fixated on the Finnieston Crane, a huge structure that was used to lift extremely heavy loads like locomotives from the quayside into ships. Bill attached cameras and microphones to the structure and beamed the resulting beautiful sounds and images into our Gallery of Modern Art where he made the crane sing beautifully. The piece was seen worldwide online, celebrating Glasgow’s built heritage with flair and imagination.

But, to finish on that question I’d have to say that much of the most valuable and enduring work of the past 7 years has not been highlights. It has been the small things that make a big difference like creating a truly accurate and up to date directory of music in Glasgow – or a website that carries the most comprehensive listings of music events and organisations in Glasgow.  These are not sexy and attention grabbing things, but they did not exist before (very, very few cities have them) and they are very heavily used.

UKNC: How you have seen the Creative Cities Network develop over the last seven years?

SB: Quite simply the network has grown and diversified dramatically. Taking just the music cities: when Glasgow was awarded the designation there were only two other cities in the music sub-network, Bologna and Seville. Now there are 9 cities on 4 continents – Europe, Asia, South America and Africa – and more to come later this year. That process has not been without its growing pains and it has taken a long time for the network’s governance and organisation to catch up with its ambitions – even now that is a work in progress. For the music cities it has been quite a journey and it has led to an enriched idea of what it means to be a Creative City.  For example the emphasis on music sector research in our recent planning meetings reflects an admirable commitment to tackle the many problems which stand in the path of truly understanding the music sector in a city.

UKNC: What have been the main challenges that you and the Glasgow City of Music team have faced?

SB: Glasgow was awarded the designation on the eve of a financial crisis and there has been no let-up in the challenges facing us since then. Funding is never easy; but perhaps even more difficult, especially in the early years, was lodging in people’s minds exactly what the designation was. Ever since 1990 Glasgow has been used to ‘Year of…’ festivals and events, so this designation which was not a festival, funding stream or programme of concerts took some time to be understood.

UKNC: What are your next steps and how, if at all, you do you expect to remain involved with Glasgow City of Music?

SB: Overseeing the designation for Glasgow has been just one of my jobs as I am a freelance creative director.  I continue to direct my East Neuk Festival and to programme in Glasgow’s Concert Halls. I look forward to keeping a link to the City of Music mostly through the Big Big Sing which remains the achievement I am proudest of: no other project comes close in the sheer joy it gives to such a wide array of people. Getting it off the ground was hard work (I started lobbying people in 2011) and it was my good luck that the Commonwealth Games came along to offer it a platform and funding. Since then it has gone from strength to strength and we are now preparing for a longer bigger deeper and hopefully even more rewarding next 3 years of the project.