Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Zen and shit happens in the real world

Robert M. Pirsig, the author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance has died at the age of 88. That photo shows him with his son Chris, and the pair are the main protagonists in the book. Like many I was influenced by Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance at the time of its publication in 1974 and I have re-read it many times. The quasi-autobiography is enlightening and thought-provoking, but the little-known codicil is deeply disturbing. In later editions Robert M. Pirsig added an afterword, from which the following is taken:
The receding Ancient Greek perspective of the past ten years has a very dark side: Chris is dead.
He was murdered. At about 8:00 P.M. on Saturday, November 17, 1979, in San Francisco, he left the Zen Center, where he was a student, to visit a friend's house a block away on Haight Street.
According to witnesses, a car stopped on the street beside him and two men, black, jumped out. One came from behind him so that Chris couldn't escape, and grabbed his arms. The one in front of him emptied his pockets and found nothing and became angry. He threatened Chris with a large kitchen knife. Chris said something which the witnesses could not hear. His assailant became angrier. Chris then said something that made him even more furious. He jammed the knife into Chris's chest. Then the two jumped into their car and left.
Chris leaned for a time on a parked car, trying to keep from collapsing. After a time he staggered across the street to a lamp at the corner of Haight and Octavia. Then, with his right lung filled with blood from a severed pulmonary artery, he fell to the sidewalk and died.
I go on living, more from force of habit than anything else. At his funeral we learned that he had bought a ticket that morning for England, where my second wife and I lived aboard a sailboat. Then a letter from him arrived which said, strangely, "I never thought I would ever live to see my 23rd birthday."
His twenty-third birthday would have been in two weeks.
When I tell friends that I am off again to Muslim-majority Morocco they ask with real concern is it safe? In reply I point out that in the United States each year there are 3.9 murders per 100,000 residents, and in Morocco the figure is 1.0 murders per 100,000 residents.

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Danger of generalisations...

Dear Bob

Yesterday's post was enjoyable as always, but your assertion that you've never been to a concert where the musicians were dead came as a challenge to people like me, who love to find exceptions to every rule! So how about this?

Of course, it would be a Prom; how I agree with all your other comments...

best wishes

Angus O'Neill
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Monday, April 24, 2017

It is quality and not size of audience that is important

In a Telegraph article about the 2017 BBC Proms the concert series' director David Pickard raises hopes for an possible important change in direction. Discussing the move away from Proms themed to TV shows, Pickard observes that "what we need to be thinking of is nurturing a long-term audience for classical music". This statement may be blindingly obvious, but it is important for two reasons. First, it is a welcome sign that somebody at the BBC has finally realised what many of us have known for years, that dumbing down classical music does not build a long-term audience. The second reason why his observation is important is because it is a much-needed admission that quality and not quantity of audience is what matters.

In the past the spin-masters at the BBC have been eager to point out the numbers of first-time concertgoers at the Proms. For instance the number of 33,000 first-time concertgoers was trumpeted for the 2014 Proms season; but drilling down below that headline figure painted a very different picture. From data in the public domain, we know that the Proms audience expressed as a percentage of venue capacity dropped from 93% in the 2013 season to 88% in 2014. This means that the total attendance fell by 17,000, despite 33,000 Proms neophytes swelling the numbers. So in 2014 the Proms gained 33,000 first time ticket purchasers, but lost 50,000 of its existing audience, resulting in a net loss of 17,000 concertgoers. What matters is the net change in audience size - newcomers less non-returners; because that determines the size of the long-term audience. The figures I have cited show that despite what superficially looks like an impressive number of first-time attendees wooed by events like TV-themed Proms, the total audience size declined. That decline was due to a mix of two factors: one was that many first-time concertgoers attracted by untypical concert fare did not return, the second was the vitally important but ignored point that the loyal core audience is also shrinking.

David Pickard has at least realised that the new marginal audience is not coming back. But he and a lot of other people involved in concert planning also need to take on board that the core audience - which includes me - is becoming very reluctant to brave the contemporary concert ambiance; an ambiance that is being created largely by misguided efforts to attract the new marginal audience. In a 2015 piece titled 'What price classical music's new audience?' I reported here how for me a concert in France was marred by audience members eating a picnic, applauding during (not between) Mahler's settings of Des Knaben Wunderhorn, and, of course, using their mobile phones. Elsewhere I lamented how a performance at the Fez Sufi Culture Festival was ruined by the continuous use of camera-phones, and this weekend my wife email from Toronto lamenting how an Indian music recital was marred by a concertgoer texting and checking emails and Facebook.

The inflammatory subject of applause between movements makes an interesting case study. We are told that classical music must drop its silly conventions, and we are also told that silence between movements is one of those dispensable silly conventions. There is some historical justification for this argument, as going back many years it was, apparently, customary, for an audience to express its appreciation of particularly meritorious playing at the end of a movement. But in the age of the new marginal audience, applause between movements has in a remarkably short time become another silly convention. It is no longer an expression of praise for artistic excellence, because, dare I say it, many of those applauding between movements do not yet have the experience to recognise artistic excellence. Applause between movements is now something that the audience does, simply because the new silly convention says they should do it. Just one example was the apologetic dribbles of applause - is this where we should applaud? - between the movements of Tasmin Little's performance of Walton's Violin Concerto in Hull on BBC Radio 3 last week. (I emphasise that my criticism is of the applause habit and not Tasmin's artistic excellence!) The silly convention of dribbles of applause between movements started at the Proms but is now a global problem: we were subjected to it during a performance of the Brahms Violin Concerto in Rabat, Morocco recently.

If David Pickard wants to know why a core audience member like me has only attended one Prom in recent years - Alwyn and RVW in 2014 - and will not be buying any tickets for the 2017 season, I suggest he listens to the archive recording seen in my header graphic, which is a transfer of BBC broadcasts of two concerts. (I will refrain from using the BBC Radio 3 presenter's ghastly terminology of 'live concerts' as I have never yet attended a concert where the musicians on the platform are dead). Brahms' Third Symphony was recorded at a Prom in 1977 and Elgar's First at a 1976 Prom. On the transfers the hall ambiance has been left between the movements. Not only are there no dribbles of inter-movement applause, there is also none of the tubercular between-movement coughing that punctuates today's performances despite greatly improved health standards. Moreover the music itself is heard in rapturous silence, again without the intrusive noises of today's audiences. And if anybody tries to dismiss the background silence in those two concerts as lucky flukes, I refer them to other BBC concert recordings from the past, all of which lack audience participation; for example another Elgar 1, this time Sir John Barbirolli's painfully slow valedictory 1970 performance in the unforgiving acoustic of St Nicholas' Chapel, King's Lynn, and Bruno Maderna's Mahler Nine recorded in the Festival Hall in 1971.

It is quality and not size of audience that is important to nurturing a long-term audience for classical music. David Pickard's candid views suggest that there is some light at the end of the dumbed-down corridor. Let's hope that it is not a train full of audience-chasing BBC senior executives coming the other way.

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Sunday, April 23, 2017

One billion YouTube viewers cannot be wrong

More than 2 million cat videos on YouTube have generated in excess of one billion views, with one cat video alone viewed 77 million times. Cat pictures are more popular than selfies on social media, with around 4 million feline photos and videos shared each day, and 350,000 cats have their own Twitter or Facebook account. We know that cats have remarkable powers of hearing and exhibit an advanced form of synaesthesia by which they can switch sensory information between the visual channel (eyes) and hearing channel (ears) as required - e.g. while hunting. And there are long-established links between cats and classical musicians, with the feline friend of the legendary harpsichord Scott Ross being just one of many examples.

The cat is one of the few animals that is found on every continent except Antarctica. There are around 500 million domestic cats in the world and the annual global cat food market is worth US$70 billion. So it is surprising that there have not been many attempts to exploit the music for cats market. However one recent example was the release of the album seen above. Now although I am a cat lover I have to be honest and say that I was deeply sceptical when I read about Music for Cats by David Teie; because at first sight it seems to exploit the Mozart effect craze for cats and, moreover, is distributed by Universal Music. But a family friend who is more open-minded than me bought the CD for our resident feline, which allows me to report my paws-on experience.

Simply dismissing Music for Cats as a marketing gimmick is unfair. David Teie's has studied the auditory capabilities of mammals, and he theorises that every species has an intuitive biological response to sounds linked to their brain development and vocalisations; an approach that is supported by academic research. Based on this theory he composed his music for cats incorporating feline-centric sounds and their natural vocalisations, with the sounds matched to a cat’s audible frequency range. The result to the human ear is a well-crafted fusion of musique concrète, ambient sounds and the meditative sonic landscape explored by Eliane Radique, Nawab Khan and others, plus some cat-friendly infrasound. (View an explanatory video with music samples via this link.)

But what does a cat make of it? Fortuitously, an extended visit by my wife to Toronto has left me cat-sitting our energetic house cat, which has given me an opportunity to experiment with deep listening for cats. My experience, or rather Ginger's experience, is that Music for Cats does engage its audience, and it seems to induce subtle changes in feline consciousness. Yes, my subjective observations may be the result of auto-suggestion. But those subtle and inexplicable changes in feline consciousness are no different to the subtle and inexplicable changes in human consciousness that I experience when listening to a Rubbra symphony. And one thing that 67 years on this earth has taught me is not to dismiss phenomena that cannot be logically explained.

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Saturday, April 22, 2017

How many Mahlers does it take to fill the Albert Hall?

According to the planners of the 2017 BBC Proms, it takes five Mahler symphonies to fill the Albert Hall. In a year when there is not the usual excuse for overkill of an anniversary, half the composer's symphonic output is featured in one Proms season, with three of the symphonies played in a five day period. The five symphonies include the First; this has been performed thirteen times at the Proms since the turn of the century, with this year's performance the fourth in four years. That other perennial excuse of planners that a warhorse coupled with a 'difficult' work broadens audience tastes also doesn't apply. Two of the Mahler symphonies have no coupling, Haydn, Schubert and Dvořák are coupled to the other three, and the only paired contemporary work is a seven minute amuse bouche from John Adams.

That header graphic is a pencil sketch of Sir Malcolm Arnold by his son. Sir Malcolm wrote symphonies that surely would appeal to today's Mahler-satiated audiences, but, predictably, none of them are performed at the 2017 Proms. In a 1971 Guardian article Malcolm Arnold accused critics of having preconceived and narrow views which forced promoters to programme works by a limited range of composers, and ended by deploying an unfortunate analogy to declare: "Let us say down, down, down with the music critics before they make our music the arid and joyless music of the concentration camp".

In a similarly thoughtful but savage attack on fellow harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani in the current Van magazine*, Andreas Staier also directs his ire at critics, saying: "The press is at fault here too. In none of the interviews [with Mahan Esfahani] I cited was a single critical follow-up question asked. And the media has such a short attention span that contradictory and inconsistent statements are ignored even if they occur within just weeks of one other." Andreas Staier is right to criticise, but chooses the wrong target. Music critics now have little influence except as opinion formers on social media, and that is where the problem lies. The Mahler glut and Mhan Esfahani's attention-seeking antics are products of the so-called wisdom of crowds. When that great Proms planner William Glock was asked what he wanted to offer audiences, he replied "What they will like tomorrow". Five Mahler symphonies at the 2017 Proms is yet another illustration of how the wisdom of crowds and social media is a flawed tool for concert planners, because it only tells them what audiences like today.

* My thanks go to Andrew Morris' Devil's Trill blog for drawing attention to the Andreas Staier article. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.