Tom Service on British classical music label New Music Cassettes

You wait ages for a British composer to write a song - then 96 come along at once. Tom Service on an ambitious project to revitalise a dying art

As names for record companies go, especially labels devoted to the latest British classical music, New Music Cassettes doesn't exactly sound cutting edge. It seems a joke now, but when composer Colin Matthews founded the label 20 years ago, tape was still a viable medium. Since then, NMC has done more than any other company to promote British composers - from Harrison Birtwistle to Mark-Anthony Turnage, from Tansy Davies to Judith Weir.

This week, the label celebrates its achievements with 96 new commissions, performed in London over four days. All of these will feature on a new album, The NMC Songbook, the most ambitious collection of new British songwriting ever recorded - and as well as a cross-section of pretty much every stylistic trend in British classical music today. The Songbook has big ambitions: it seeks to revitalise a tradition of art-song in Britain. "The whole idea of songwriting was in danger of disappearing for today's composers," Matthews says.

Each of the 96 composers - including Peter Maxwell Davies and Jonathan Harvey, alongside emerging voices such as Emily Hall and Anna Meredith - agreed to write a song for nothing. Well, almost nothing: they will be given a bottle of English sparkling wine made by the Nyetimber vineyard, whose owner is a new-music fanatic. But why would this roster of (mostly) financially challenged British compositional talent work for free?

Because, in the cutthroat record industry, there's nothing quite like NMC. In the course of 20 years and 150 releases, NMC has recorded the sort of stuff that commercial labels recoil from in terror. Their catalogue is the only place you'll find Birtwistle's opera The Mask of Orpheus, or Howard Skempton's orchestral cult classic, Lento. It was the first to release Anthony Payne's completion of Elgar's unfinished Third Symphony. It's also a matter of principle that the label never deletes any of its releases, however little money they make. "Sometimes I wish we could," Matthews says. "Only half a dozen discs, including the Elgar 3, have ever done more than break even."

Matthews recalls an early Birtwistle recording that cost them £40 per disc to make. "That's a lot of money even now," Matthews says, "and this was in the early 90s. Harry hadn't been recorded that much. We wanted to do something that would make a mark."

You might wonder how on earth NMC can afford such risks, losing cash hand-over-fist for a CD that, whatever its historical importance, was never going to dent the charts, or even recoup its costs. The answer is Holst's The Planets. For many years, NMC was funded by the Holst Foundation, which was kept alive by handsome royalties from The Planets. This ended in 2004, however, when Holst's work came out of copyright. So NMC will soon be fighting for its life as a music producer.

Few can bear the thought of its demise. For composer Jonathan Harvey, NMC is "a window on to British culture". Errollyn Wallen, the first black woman to have a work performed at the Proms, and who both sings and plays her own song on the new album, sees NMC as "a wonderful resource, with its complete devotion to contemporary music".

Matthews believes his 96 composers reflect the varied landscape of British (and Irish) music. The lack of a single, identifiable tradition means anything can happen: so Mark-Anthony Turnage's camped-up football chant follows Luke Stoneham's inscrutable electronic soundscape; and Gerald Barry's declamatory Oscar Wilde setting comes hard on the heels of Judith Weir's pastoral, Blackbirds and Thrushes.

Although Songbook teems with diversity and energy, Matthews says he was surprised there wasn't an even greater range in what composers offered. They were given carte blanche over voices and a wide range of instrumental possibilities, but the vast majority plumped for solo voice with piano. There is nothing for bass voice, and only a handful rethought the relationship between singer and accompaniment. "I really like the zany ones," Matthews says, "like Claudia Molitor's or Luke Stoneham's. On the discs, the moment I am most pleased with is the way the last song, by Bryn Harrison, fades out to nothing, in true pop tradition."

The eight concerts at Kings Place, starting tomorrow, will be the most intensive concentration of world premieres ever staged at a London concert hall: a crash course in new British music, with the chance to hear composers such as Michael Finnissy and Huw Watkins perform their own works, as well as singers Claire Booth and Loré Lixenberg.

What about Matthews's own song, Out in the Dark? "I wanted to be one of the zany ones. But I sat down and it just came out, a setting for soprano and piano." It's a haunting, lyrical take on an Edward Thomas poem - and, if it doesn't exactly tear up the songwriting rule book, well, that's also the point of NMC, where composers aren't forced to compromise their own voices. Songbook could usher in a new age of songwriting in Britain. Not bad for a label whose first ambition was putting new music on to cassettes.

• The NMC Songbook is at Kings Place, London N1, from tomorrow. Box office: 020-7520 1490. The album is available at


Tom Service

The GuardianTramp

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