Composers, People and Audiences

I’ve been thinking a lot about this article on composition and audiences:

There’s no need for us to pick over every detail or weak choice of words but I do think, beneath it all, there is a valid point.

Simply, it’s no good us complaining that audiences are too small, or that second performances are difficult to come by when the kind of music we write is not designed to be populist. I think most of us are naturally more interested in creating good and thoughtful art than bums on seats, though of course we would rather every concert be full.

However, if what we make is worth taking seriously we can’t use this as an excuse to plough ahead with our ideas, with little regard for audiences and the rest of society, and then expect there to be much money to support it, or more general appreciation of all our hard work. At some point I think we do need to engage with people at large. For some composers this means engaging with an idea of society; either religious or philosophical. In many cases I think we have lost this though there are notable exceptions across the policital and philosophical spectrum and one thinks of the likes of Richard Barrett, Michael Finnissey, James MacMillan or Rolf Hind as notable examples. In each case there is something beyond the music of these composers that makes their work more intelligible and, I really think, more humane.

Patronising audiences with ‘spectral’ dominant 7ths because they are somehow accessible is obviously no way to proceed, but expecting any large group of people to engage with no more than ‘sound’ in the same way as they do with Brahms or Sibelius is, I think, going to be about as effective as asking audiences to engage with geometric shapes in the same way as they do with Michelangelo’s Pieta. Philosophy and politics provide a narrative to music and, can be for many people, a way in to a soundworld that is often highly disorientating. Indeed, there’s no reason why we should stop at politics and philosophy. Harrison Birtwistle has long been using Greek myths and popular stories in his operas and concert music and Oliver Knussen’s use of children’s stories points again to using kinds of narrative that are widely understood. Neither of these composers, or indeed any of the composers I’ve mentioned could be accused of pandering to the masses. They are not trying to second guess what their audiences will like but they are engaging with them.

Perhaps I might sum up what I’m trying to say as follows. Good art, that can be enjoyed by a great number of people is better than good art that is only appreciated by a small number of people, and there’s nothing artistically dishonest in trying to engage with people at large. In fact, if we are only writing for ourselves then the most artistically honest thing to do is just write electronic music for ourselves to listen to in the privacy of our own bedrooms. Needless to say, I don’t think we are in the business of creating ‘bedroom techno’.

Composition and the Art of Punning

What ho dear reader, glad you could be back with us so soon. Since my last post I have had a flash of inspiration. I will compose a piece for a solo instrument about the European discovery of the Americas and, specifically, potatoes. It shall be called ‘The Political Tuba’ (interested tuber players please email me

If the truth be told (and if not on the internet then where can you tell the truth?) I’m quietly quite proud of this idea and I feel its various layers are worth unpacking. It  starts with a pun and finish with something more serious. It touches on the mundane but does so in a way that reminds us of how different life must have been before potatoes were brought to Europe. Can you even imagine what dinner would be like without chips, mash, baked potatoes, waffles, shepherd’s pie, fries, croquet potatoes, sautied potatoes, hash browns, fritters, crisps, etc. Just think, William Byrd probably never ate a potato!

For me, the idea of a piece for solo tuba borders on the comical and I would very much like to get past that to something more profound and soulful (as Adam Gorb’s piece for tuba Straitjacket does superbly).

Moreover, I think there may be more than a superficial relationship between composition and the noble art of the pun. The humour in a pun usually comes from changing a noun or an adjective into a verb or visa versa by changing its context. I think music often works in much the same way. A motif or idea is presented, which is then repeated in different ways. Even if the essential elements remain unchanged there is a perceptible change in musical meaning. Beethoven’s Appassionata is a good case in point, also the 1st subject of his 5th Symphony as it returns in the finale. One might even use this to describe all of Bach’s fugues or perhaps the entire output of Palestrina, and if variation form be considered we might include a good deal more than that. But music doesn’t stop there. We normally think of a pun as something lighthearted; but in his 1st Symphony Gustav Mahler shows us how poignant the altered quotation of a nursery rhyme can be, and that just one small change can turn it from peaceful innocence to deep and desperate grief.

In fact, I’m beginning to wonder if composition is in fact the natural home of The Pun and that the little jokes on birthday cards are not just piggy-backing on a much more profound cultural phenomena. Perhaps for all this time we’ve had things the wrong way round and its actually music that is more of a loadstone in our culture than standup comedy. Oh for the golden age of classical music…

To be honest I doubt it. Most people get puns. It takes rather longer to ‘get’ Schoenberg’s Variations for Orchestra or Webern’s Variations for Piano. But perhaps puns might offer a way in for the less musically familiar; a small handle with which to grab hold of a very enigmatic kind of art. After all, there’re few things more  earthy and ‘democratic’ than a good pun.

Electronics are a Musical Fact (Part 2)

In my first post on this blog, back in July, I put forward the idea that friendship and human intimacy lie at the heart of classical music. To its devotees it matters that there is a real person or people on stage who understand and personally create every sound we listen to. It is culture in the sense it is about people. Electronic sound, when used in this setting, seems to compromise this in some way. Certainly not in all cases, but it is common enough for many composers and performers of art-music to feel uneasy about making use of electronics in performance, even as if they were somehow compromising the very essence of their craft.

For all the clever and sophisticated sounds being created by electronic composers it is the absence of a human being in the immediate production of these sounds that often means their pieces are more difficult to embrace and revel in than their wholly live counterparts.  Even the fact that we say one kind of music is ‘live’ has a curiously deadening effect on ‘non-live’ music. ‘Un-dead’ music perhaps? Yet, as I indicated in my previous post on this subject (Part 1), electronics have become all but unavoidable. To ignore them is to shut oneself off from the culture as it is actually experienced.

How then does one reconcile electronics in classical music with a tradition so firmly rooted in live performance? One possible way seems to lie in creating electronic sounds that are consistent with or support the intimacy of live pieces; electronics, that somehow acknowledge that communication in music is more than seductive sound-effects.

Two of the best examples of this are, to my mind Zerstören by the German composer Iris ter Schiphorst and Let’s Start Recording by the Irish composer Rúaidhrí Ó Mainnín.

Ter Schiphorst’s work, available to stream from the London Sinfonietta’s website, incorporates an electronic track with the word ‘listen’ occasionally whispered (and also amplified). The effect is extraordinary and one can feel the change in the way one attends to the music, as if willed by the composer to listen harder to the music in the ensemble. The overall effect is to wholly integrate the other electronic sounds with those coming from the live ensemble without any compromise in the musical intimacy of the music.

Mainnín’s piece is a delightful electronic miniature. At only 2 minutes long it is already a piece well disposed to being an intimate snapshot of sounds from a recording session. It is almost nostalgic in the way a voice with a distinctive French accent exclaims the words ‘let’s start recording’ and more emphatically ‘let’s use it’, the speaker’s emphasis acknowledging the seriousness of the work at hand. Occasionally Rúaidhrí himself is heard saying ‘recording’ and we are reminded of the context for all these sounds with a chord from a solo ‘cello whose sound is the very reason d’etre of the session. The nostalgia of Let’s Start Recording is made all the more poignant by the fact that these ‘secret’ words are only preserved on a sanitised, virtually inhumane microchip.

The above argument, combined with the fact that both examples stress the significance of human speech as a means to evoking a sense of human relationship via electronic media may lead the reader to believe this blogger really thinks that the most ‘intimate’ electronic sounds, and so those best suited to concert performances, would come from an episode of The Archers. In fact this isn’t too wide of the mark, but it isn’t a complete account of how electronic sounds are better when they demonstrate a more intimate character.

Indeed, Larry Goves’ ‘romantic piano concerto’ Things that are blue… manages to put a big 30-minute spanner in the works incorporating a range of electronic sounds and techniques without making any recourse to human speech. It is both abrasive and poignant. In fact here it is the ‘dehumanising’ effect of the electronic sounds that throws the intimacy of the live instruments into sharp relief, accentuating their most important feature; human identity and individuality. The result is a piece that comes across as wholly natural and strikingly modern but without failing to be thoroughly intelligible.

This is by no means meant to be a comprehensive account of how electronics ought to become more of a staple in art-music concerts, but following on from part 1 I hope that it does provide a way forward for use of electronics in concert performances much more widely and point to a coherent way in which electronic sounds might become a little less alien to classical musicians.

Electronics are a Musical Fact (Part 1)

I strongly suspect that, in spite of decades of technological progress, many modern musicians and composers of classical or ‘art’ music are uneasy about making electronically produced sounds an integral part of their work*. Granted, more and more composers are making use of them, but they are still not a staple of the modern symphony orchestra or the average music festival commission.

This was brought home to me by my teacher Joseph who observed during one lesson that, although recording technology was available in the lifetimes of Liszt, and Wagner we have no recordings from either of them. He supposed that these 19th Century celebrities simply didn’t see the new technology as part of their work. Even in the 20th Century, as Jazz and popular music were fast colonising the new world of bakelite discs and radio broadcasts, classical composers were still very slow of the uptake. One can of course point to the quality of electronically produced sounds as a pretty good reason for classical composers eyeing (or is it ‘earing) these new sounds with suspicion. Maybe the likes of Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker were just less discerning when they made their groundbreaking records back in the ’20s and ’40s, and didn’t mind that records sounded scratchy. However, I find this unconvincing. Even considering contemporary musical culture with its seemingly limitless possibilities for electronics, it is clear that pop music has far more of an affinity with new technology.

To take one example more or less at random, Simon Bainbridge had the world premiere of his The Garden of Earthly Delights premiered at Cadogan Hall as part of the BBC Proms (and incidentally broadcast on BBCR3), Muse’s latest offering Madness, was premiered without any live contribution from the musicians at all being broadcast solely on BBCR1 (incidentally it will also be performed live at some later date but were not really sure when this is and it probably won’t sound as good as the studio recording anyway).

Nonetheless, whether its recording, editing, broadcasting, streaming, typesetting, printing, studying or listening art composers are surrounded by electrical devices created specifically for creating music . If the power ran out, the composers life would be changed dramatically. Yet actual performances of ‘serious’ electronic music are very much on the fringe of the concert hall tradition where the inheritors of Beethoven prefer to keep the concert hall as he would have known it. Even such a guiding light as Boulez, author of such groundbreaking electronic works as Dialogue de l’hombre double and Repons seems to spend more time on his wholly ‘acoustic’ pieces Derive 2 and Sur Incises both of which were recently revised and toured.

In as far as concert music is reflects its wider culture, such apparent indifference to electronic sound is dangerous. For Liszt and Wagner an electric light would have been about the limit of their involvement with such innovations. We cannot say the same. We have made electronics a staple of our musical lives in every conceivable way except the most important one. We have embraced modernity outside of the concert hall on the condition that it is only allowed in on sufferance.

This is not to say that electronic works don’t feature in the canon of great 20th and 21st Century music. They do, but what has been a fringe interest for art-music composers should, I believe, become an integral feature of our work, and our anxiety over using electronic sounds more widely needs, somehow to be overcome. That said, deep-seated anxieties surrounding electronics don’t come from nowhere and it hardly needs pointing out that there is a right and a wrong way to make electronic music. These  sounds are still, to all intents and purposes new. They deserve to be treated with the care and attention that has always characterised our tradition. That however, is something for another post. We need is progress, not a revolution.


*sounds on electronic tape, fm radios, synthesisers, electronic processing or any sounds that come out of speakers or a gramophone etc.

Strangers in the land of Elite: Further Reflections on Elitism

There is an invisible barrier that stands between the mediocre and the elite.  The barrier cannot be seen, and is made not of bricks and mortar, but of tuts and frowns.  It is higher than man can scale, for who can surmount the point at which one can perceive one’s own nose?

Let me take, for an example, a recent trip to the Royal Opera House where the performance embodied all that is elite in music, theatre, design and dance. It comprised of a sequence of three dramatically contrasting ballets each related in some way to the choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton who created the first two works and arranged for the third to be staged. A glorious triptych presented by a cast of artistic virtuosi.

A group of friends, each one embroiled in the arts, taking their seats for an evening of delight; enjoying every moment with sheer elation. Our hearts leapt, our pulses raced and our breath was stilled by the passion of the dance; we even let out a giggle or two at the hilarity of a particularly comic scene – to our immediate regret.

For this, my darlings, was the ballet. It does not do to enjoy oneself; nor to titter at the amusing choreography. Were this Shakespeare, rapturous chortlings would have accompanied every pun and comic operas often descend into almost competitive jollity. This calculated merriment, it seems, is essential in order to prove exactly how au fait one is with the work in question.* But here, our genuine enjoyment was met with looks of disdain.

The crux came during the interval, when a fabulous young woman, with a regional accent (shocking, I know), offered to help me with my dress. “Oh no” she said, “I’m not supposed to talk to you, am I? No one ever talks to each other here.” She was at the Royal Opera House because she enjoys the elite and was brave enough to face the elitism that this entails, but she could never feel welcome in this world.

There, in the toilets of the Royal Opera House, it occurred to me why the artistic elite is perceived as unpopular and inaccessible to the general public. It is not the price; we paid less than a cinema ticket. It is not the availability; we bought tickets only the week before. It is certainly not the content of the piece; I’ve seen more complex plots in an episode of Doctors. It is the barrier, constructed by elitism that excludes those deemed unsuitable from feeling welcome in the world of the elite.

The barrier is entirely distinct from the elite and usually, the uninvited guest, for it is this barrier that prevents the relationship between the author and the audience from flourishing. Moreover, it is those who create the barrier who suffer most for they are too busy looking down from their lofty state to enjoy the beauty that lies before them.

Katharine J Longworth

* In order to achieve this effect, one might also consider breaking into applause before the final note has sounded.

Elitism and Art-Music’s Catch-22

Of all the things I would like most in this life (family and friends aside), it would be for more people to hear in Western Classical Music the same value that I hear in it. And not just more people but loads more . Enough to fill Wembly Stadium or Hyde Park put together, ten times over. However, after imagining what a concert of Beethoven and Rihm quartets might sound like in in such a large venue I’m torn between wishing that more people listened to Classical or art-music, and the fact that there are very few pieces of this kind that would benefit from being pumped through a huge PA in the open air.

The Wigmore Hall or Queen Elizabeth Hall are obviously much better venues, or one of London’s many church’s or art galleries. But there’s a catch; they are much better venues for Classical Music, but they only hold a handful of people. Even the Royal Albert Hall is still only 5,250 compared to Wembly’s 90,000. The second desk of Violas in the LSO may have more musical insight in their naval-hair than the acts that fill our largest stadiums, but the biggest audience they can play to is only 1/20th of the size of those at Wembly or Hyde Park.

I’m not naturally a pessimist, but these musings lead me to think that there is a problem in the kind of music that I love most,  or at least my aspirations for much wider appreciation of the art. It seems that even in its most basic characteristics; the places where it can be played, it is exclusive, even elitist. No matter how good a piece is, in its principle form of live performance it can only reach a small audience for no other reason than it would be lost in a larger venue. I feel that it is innevitable that Classical Music is usually special interest for ‘experts’ and ‘afficionados’, a bit like having a suit from Savile Row or only drinking wine from a particular Austrian vinyard. Of course, there have been attempts to ‘democratise’ Classical Music but these have rarely avoided the pitfall of making it seem cheap and insincere. One thinks of the TV programmes like Maestro or Classic Goldie which, although clearly well intentioned, did little to raise the profile of New Music or standard orchestral repertoire, and when composers are let loose on a mission to be ‘down with the kids’ I usually fear for the worst.

But, for all that, I do think there is one thing that Beethoven quartets and Ligeti Etudes, etc have that is very precious if also sometimes quite elusive, namely friendship. I believe that this is probably the most enduring value of Western Classical Music and something mass populism is unable to effect. The very fact that the musicians are on the platform in front of you, much like in the theatre, inevitably changes the nature of the art. It is not just a sequence of tones and effects that we’re hearing (exquisite as these are), but also a kind of expression directly from one person to another. In this I think there is both something truly wonderful and also truly ordinary, which are incidentally my two favourite qualities.