Saturday, January 31, 2015

In search of the lost chords

Wars and tense political situations have had a profoundly negative impact on cultural life in a number of Arab countries and have endangered the transmission of musical tradition. Alongside Baghadad, Aleppo and Damascus belong to the most important music capitals of the Arab world and the cultural collapse underway in these places is accompanied by the loss of numerous historical documents, books, writings and artists' livelihoods and wisdom. By producing this CD we hope to save musical cultural assets from disappearing and, at the same time, to contribute something of our own. It lies in our hands to pass on traditions, to safeguard the fire and stoke it so that brilliant new colours may radiate from it.
That is Nora Thiele writing in the sleeve note for the new CD Ahlam Babiliyya (Babylonian Dreams). On it Nora Thiele plays frame drums with the Iraqi born oud player Saif Al-Khayyat in a programme of modern Iraqui maqam music - sample here. Middle Eastern music is based on a series of unique maqams or tone scales. In his fascinating new book Divine Attunement oud player and educator Yuval Ron describes how the rich diversity of the maqams has been distilled in the West down to the major scale (Ionian mode) and minor scale (Aeolian mode). He shares Nora Thiele's concerns, and argues in a chapter titled The Vanishing Modes that the globalisation - aka Westernisation - of Eastern music is putting at risk vital and diverse tonal traditions.

No review samples used in this post. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for the purpose of study critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

New audiences - give us the facts not the spin

Great numbers revealed at the Association of British Orchestras conference proclaims a Sinfini Music tweet. It refers to the good news given by the director of BBC Radio Helen Boaden in her keynote speech - see photo above - that 33,000 tickets for the 2014 BBC Proms were sold to first time purchasers. So as the good news has been widely circulated on social media, it is worth drilling down into the numbers.

It is difficult to obtain information on Proms audiences, because the BBC only releases figures that spin well. But 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 core audience, resulting in a net loss of 17,000 concertgoers. This picture is mirrored by Radio 3 audience figures for Q3 2014. In this period, which included live broadcasts of all the Proms, Radio 3 total listening hours plunged by 9.2% year-on year. Which paints a very different picture to the one painted by Helen Boaden at the ABO conference that "there is no crisis".

The new Proms audience of 33,000 was undoubtedly attracted by concerts which included the Pet Shop Boys, Chrissie Hynde, Paloma Faith, a BBC Sport Prom, and Kiss Me, Kate. But for me to imply that these attractions also drove away 50,000 of the core Proms audience would be playing the BBC's disingenuous game of taking numbers out of context. We do not know what impact these efforts to expand reach are having on classical music's vital core audience. But we cannot afford to ignore the impact, and we must not forget that the distasteful view so succintly expressed by Independent radio critic Fiona Sturges that "a large proportion of BBC Radio 3's audience should hurry up and die", is surprisingly widely held.

Total audience size is far more important than the number of new ticket purchasers. Because if, as was the case at the 2014 Proms, a gain in new audience is more than offset by a loss of established audience, the result is a net audience loss. It is very easy to make quotable keynote speeches talking up gains in new audiences. It is much more difficult to face up to the uncomfortable possibility that classical music's big new ideas - the latest is what Helen Boaden described yesterday as "creation of 'snackable' content" - may actually be driving the essential core audience away. Which is why I said in a recent post that "Listening to common sense and not to so-called 'industry experts' is another way of serving the music". Balance and facts are what is needed in the debate about how to reach new audiences, not self-interested spin.

* The accuracy of the 33,000 figure stated by Helen Boaden is open to question. When I bought my ticket for the Alwyn/Vaughan Williams Prom last year from the Albert Hall box office I was not asked if I was a first time purchaser. So it is very likely that the quoted statistic for first time ticket purchasers is derived, as is standard industry practice, from the venue's Tessitura box office system using customer address matching, with no address match defining a ticket buyer as a first time purchaser. As was explained here last year, there is a significant margin of error in this process. Which means that, if ticketing system data was used, the first time purchaser number is almost certainly overstated. This assertion is supported by a previous BBC report - conveniently ignored by Helen Boaden in her presentation, that "more than 32,000" bought tickets for the first time in 2013. The almost identical first time purchaser figures for 2013 and 2014 suggests that a fairly constant level of error in address matching is accounting for a material element of the reported first time purchaser number.

Header photo via ISM tweet. 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.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Stop trying to serve everybody, instead just serve the music

John Cage's 26'1.1499" for a string player became a signature work for cellist and icon of the avant-garde Charlotte Moorman. She embellished Cage's original score by adding a section in which she set her instrument aside and played the body of a half-naked Nam June Paik as if it were a substitute cello. Considering Cage's reputation as an iconoclast, it is surprising to learn that he disapproved of Moorman's embellishments. In her definitive life of Charlotte Moorman, author Joan Rothfuss describes how "Cage and some of those in his immediate circle began to dismiss her interpretation - and her work in general - as overly concerned with self-presentation", and quotes Cage as saying "Paik's involvement with sex, introducing it into music does not conduce towards sounds being sounds".

Today, classical music will try almost anything to reach new audiences, as can be seen from my header photo; a PR stunt for the 2014 BBC Proms so dire that even Norman Lebrecht disapproved. It is two years since Universal Classic's Sinfini Music web site started "cutting through classical" and Universal Music ceo Max Hole made his much spun pronouncement that classical music must 'ride the wave of change' or die. But you would have to be a fully paid up member of the Universal Music fan club - and there are many of those around - to argue that anything has changed in classical music; except for an acceleration in the rate of attrition within the art form. Yet more evidence that it will take an awful lot of Max Holes to fill the Albert Hall came earlier this month in the form of a rather secretive release by the conductor formerly known as an exclusive Deutsche Grammophon artist. Gustavo Dudamel's new Wagner download is listed on Amazon as released on the Gustavo Dudamel label, not on Deutsche Grammophon. Which suggests that the saviour of classical music is failing to perform the miracle predicted by Max Hole of turning the water of rock audiences into the wine of classical music sales.

Western classical music grew from the fertile soil of sacred music, and there are many parallels between the Western classical tradition and the great faith traditions. In his invaluable little book The New Religions, philosophy professor Jacob Needleman describes how established religions have, to their cost, dispensed with esoteric technique, method, discipline and rituals in their frantic search for new congregations. Despite established churches "riding the wave of change" in this way, congregations have continued to fall. Today just 800,000 worshippers attend a Church of England service on the average Sunday, a drop in attendance of more than 50% since the 1960s.

It is a sobering fact that religion is only proving resilient in its radical manifestations. My own fascination with the radically traditionalist and very resilient Catholic monastery of Sainte-Madeleine at Le Barroux in France has been the subject of many posts here. I am not a member of the Catholic Church, I abhor several of its teachings and disagree strongly with some of the views held by the monks and nuns at Le Barroux. But in a 2012 post I described the many positives that can be found at Le Barroux, and cautioned against the dangers of dualist judgements between normal and deviant. The guidebook published by L'Abbaye Sainte-Madeleine contains the following illuminating passage. "What purpose do monks serve? How many times do we hear the question?... Monks have no purpose. They serve a person - God". In the same way classical musicians serve no purpose other than to serve the lesser god of music. For many decades classical musicians have made the mistake of also serving celebrity and riches. But recently they have started serving another false idol - one dedicated to the vast and lucrative new audience that, if ever reached, it is believed will somehow solve every problem currently facing classical music.

As John Cage showed us, radicalism in classical music is a complex discipline, and the current fashion for "cutting through classical" and trying to serve everybody, simply confirms that for every complex problem there is a simple answer that is wrong. Following the example of contemplative traditions, radicalism is about serving the music at the expense of everything else, and that is not a simple task. It means serving all music from Joseph Haydn - not heard at the BBC Proms since 2012 - to John Luther Adams, and not just serving Mahler, Shostakovich and late Romantic birthday boys. Serving the music means giving performances in a sympathetic acoustic and ambiance, not turning it into vaudeville. Serving the music means acknowledging the importance of classical music's core older audience, instead of sacrificing it as cannon fodder in the search for the elusive young audience. Serving the music means valuing independent and professional music writing. And serving the music means returning challenging contemporary music its rightful place alongside the mainstream repertoire, instead of marginalising it.

Serving the music also means taking hard decisions. This means telling celebrity musicians that their profligate demands can no longer be met. Serving the music means embracing business models that secure the long term future for composers and rank and file musicians, instead of sacrificing their interests on the altar of new streaming technologies. Serving the music means rejecting the twelve pieces of silver offered by music festivals backed by repressive political regimes. Serving the music means dramatically reducing the influence of management agents, whose self-interest distorts the music. Serving the music means re-balancing financial models to reduce dependency on ethically tainted sponsors. Serving the music means thwarting the ambitions of cradle-to-grave corporations such as Universal Music, the BBC and Amazon. Serving the music means correcting the oversupply of classical music. Serving the music means putting music education back on the agenda. And serving the music means eliminating discrimination in every form.

Listening to common sense and not to so-called 'industry experts' is another way of serving the music. Max Hole made his infamous 'ride the wave of change' speech at the Association of British Orchestra's 2013 conference. The 2015 conference opens today, and the keynote speaker is Helen Boaden, director of BBC radio. Which, in view of the recent lamentable performance of Radio 3 both in terms of quality and audience size, is like inviting the designer of the Titanic to give a keynote speech on building an unsinkable ocean liner. There is more likelihood of pigs flying than of me being invited to give the ABO conference keynote speech. But if I was invited, my message to our orchestras would be short and blunt. Stop obsessing about new audiences, and stop trying to serve everybody. Because, by so doing, you are pleasing nobody. Simply serve the music. If you do, audiences - both new and old - will come.

* More on Helen Boaden's ABO keynote speech in New audiences - give us the facts not the spin.

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Sunday, January 25, 2015

Philip Glass meets the Pope

Well not quite: but during recent travels I came across the double CD seen above in a splendid shop selling monastic artefacts in the medieval city of Troyes. Dominique Fauchard (b. 1968) trained as a classical organist, but branched out into jazz. Ex Sermonibus is a sequence of variations on Gregorian themes for piano. But, fear not, there is none of the Marian piousness of Charles Tournemire and the other Gregorian extemporisers. Instead it is more Philip Glass meets Ludovico Einaudi and Keith Jarrett during Mass. No, it's not the Hammerklavier Sonata, but it is all done with a beguiling lightness of touch and lack of pretension. This is music you either like or hate, and I feel guilty about being in the former camp. In fact, given the music's provenance, my guilt forced me to confess to liking Dominique Fauchard's transmuted plainsong. As penance I was told to listen to BBC Radio 3's breakfast programme for a week. Such is the price of sin.

Ex Sermonibus is released on the Bayard Musique label, and samples can be heard on their website. Bayard Musique also released Jacques Burtin's 3 CD kora anthology that featured in a 2011 post. 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.