Oscar Bettison Remembers Steve Martland

Steve Martland (1959-2013)

We’re saddened to learn of the passing of English composer Steve Martland at the age of 53. Composer and Peabody faculty member Oscar Bettison was kind enough to share the following remembrance of Martland with us. 

Remembering Steve Martland

by Oscar Bettison


“Where do you go to college?”

“The RCM.”

“Oh, that place is terrible. Actually, all institutions are terrible.”


That exchange was how I met Steve Martland. I was eighteen, just finishing my first term as an undergrad at the Royal College of Music in London, and the circumstance of our meeting was the BBC Young Composer of the Year competition, in which I was a finalist. A couple of days later, when the two winners were announced, I was fortunate enough to be one of them (the other was Tim Benjamin who wrote a lovely tribute to Steve on Slipped Disc today). I only mention my winning this prize, because I think it made Steve more determined to save me from what he felt was my naïve acceptance of… well, everything about the new music world. So, he took me under his wing as he did with so many young composers. He made me realise what was important, and he often put words to what I was feeling, even though I didn’t really know it yet. From the tributes to Steve I’ve been reading today, I know I wasn’t the only one who had that feeling.


That winter, Steve became something between a mentor and an older brother. I never really studied composition with him -I already had a great teacher in Simon Bainbridge- but we discussed composition, music and politics, in, I believe, equal measure (I don’t think that Steve thought of these things as separate entities.) The first thing he did was to introduce me to the music of his teacher Louis Andriessen. I remember this vividly: Steve putting on CDs (which were still quite exotic to me at the time) of Louis’ iconoclastic music and hitting pause every so often when something important came up (mostly, he said: “Listen!”.) I remember listening to “De Staat”, “Hoketus” amongst other pieces, and being completely stunned by what I was hearing. It felt completely radical and bold but also absolutely committed -exactly like the person who was playing it to me. I instantly knew why Louis music had had such an influence on Steve and I too felt deeply affected by it. Years later, I too would go to The Hague to study with Louis. It was Steve’s voice ringing in my head that finally persuaded me to go. Over that first year or so of my undergrad, we would meet up at the pub with a group of people, other young composers and members of his band, where Steve would hold court in his own inimitable way. I don’t recall him often letting us students buy him a drink and, when we went round to his his flat to talk about music, he never charged for his time nor did he watch the clock. Indeed, we would spend hours putting the world to rights and it was from him, perhaps more than from anyone else, that I learnt that composers can and should be real people. Steve was a real person. He had no airs about him (those photos of him in a white t-shirt, jeans and Doc Martens: that’s how he dressed all the time, including when he conducted and when he showed up to concerts.) He was brutally honest, very funny and kind to a fault.


Over the years, I saw less of him, but every so often we would speak on the phone (a phone-call with Steve would always last well over an hour) and I always felt that he was someone to whom I could turn to for advice and indeed the encouragement that I needed to find myself as a composer. Steve didn’t force his music on me, indeed I think I had to ask him a few times for recordings, but I’ve always been a great admirer of it. His music is, like its creator, honest and direct, but also passionate and physically exhilarating. All of these qualities however, are second to his work’s innate musicality. Steve was a great musician.


After I moved to Holland and then the US, I lost touch with Steve. I can’t remember exactly when the last time I spoke to him was, but I do remember he was the same as ever. He was railing passionately about the things that he thought were important. He was still concerned with the state of education in the UK and what was happening to the cuts in arts funding, but he was also thinking about a new piece and reminiscing about his time in The Hague. He was, perhaps most importantly, talking about working with students. Steve, even after he stopped teaching at the Royal Academy, the only institution at which he ever taught, would regularly work with students, be they composers or performers.


So, having said that he was a mentor and a big influence on me, I suppose the big question is what did I learn from Steve? Some superficial things: How to drink pint upon pint of Stella, that Marlboro Red were much better than Lights, but that I’d feel the difference the next day. I’ve given up such unhealthy things (save for beer, but never Stella) but, among the more fundamental things I learnt from him, are: that, in order to write music, you must commit everything to that endeavour: mind, body and soul. That one should be physically stimulated as well as mentally stimulated by the piece you’re writing. That, if you’re not passionate about what you’re writing, why should anyone else be? All institutions were terrible for Steve because, to him, they took young people who were full of vigour and possibility and stamped out that initial spark, turning them into mass-produced carbon copies of whatever qualities were they deemed important – the antithesis of what he thought composers should be. He always encouraged me to hold on to what I wanted to do, rather than what I thought I should do, and to care deeply about it. I can’t thank him enough for this. I think for Steve, the worst possible thing in life, as in composition, was not to care. I think that says it all.





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