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’.


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.

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.