Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Why classical radio must change or die

Reaction to Alan Davey’s appointment as controller of BBC Radio 3 has been predictably facile. The Guardian fulfilled its role as an integral of the BBC PR machine with a sycophantic piece by arts editor Charlotte Higgins titled Alan Davey: why Radio 3 have hired well in this former punk enthusiast. It takes a lot to reduce me to tears of laughter, but Ms. Higgins assertion that “Within the BBC itself, audience figures are not the main priority for Radio 3” certainly had the tears of mirth rolling down my cheeks; as did her assertion that Alan Davey’s appointment was justified by the size of his CD collection. In the opposing camp, Norman Lebrecht’s vitriol suggests that the designate Radio 3 controller dented Lebrecht’s Rolls Royce in the Arts Council car park at some time in the past; either that or Lebrecht craved after the post that Davey was awarded. Among the fence sitters, the self-styled Friends of Radio 3 used the appointment of a new controller to express, for the umpteenth time, the hope that the classical network would revert to its former name of the Third Programme and that the presenters - sorry announcers - would once again wear dinner jackets.

Missing from the coverage by industry experts was one glaringly obvious fact - that the name in the frame is far less important than what is happening around the frame. Despite Charlotte Higgins’ risible assertion, the reality is that BBC Radio 3 needs an audience more than the audience needs Radio 3. Because new digital technologies in the form of mobile audio players, internet radio, audio-on-demand and, above all, music streaming, have made one-size-fits-all classical radio as practised by Radio 3 and its role model Classic FM redundant.

There is no mass market for classical music. What comes under the umbrella heading of classical music is actually a granular agglomeration of diverse but overlapping niches, and the new digital distribution channels enable listeners in all those different niches to very precisely personalise their listening. Classical radio audiences are not falling because classical music has become less appealing. They are falling because BBC Radio 3 and virtually every other classical radio station has chosen to ignore the increasing fragmentation of audiences, and, instead, has pursued a futile strategy of chasing a non-existent mass audience with one-size-fits-nobody programming. The reason why classical radio lost one million listeners in twelve months in the UK is that the early and mid-adopters of new digital distribution channels have abandoned traditional radio, and all that is left is a fast diminishing rump of technology late-adopters.

There is a future for classical radio; but only if the medium wakes-up to what is happening in the real world. Bland one-size-fits-nobody programming must be abandoned, to be replaced by granular niche content that adds the value of authority to the anonymous streaming that is fast becoming the distribution platform of choice. The rapid uptake of audio-on-demand apps such as iPlayer means classical radio has become an alternative form of streaming, and the big opportunity for BBC Radio 3 is to position itself as the primary source of rich niche content accessed both by real time broadcasting and streaming.

The current wall-to-wall easy listening programming must be replaced by a matrix of challenging and informative niche programmes - early, contemporary, sacred, world music, speech etc - edited and presented by people who know what they are talking about. But that will require a sea change at Radio 3: because among the many things lost from the station during the dark years of Nicholas Kenyon and Roger Wright has been authority, with knowledgeable and opinionated contributors such as Leo Black, Robert Simpson and Hans Keller being replaced by ex-Classic FM celebrity classical jocks such as Petroc Trelawny and Katie Derham. (The Guardian revelation that Petroc Trelawny was a contender for the Radio 3 controller post also reduced me to tears, but they were not of laughter).

Charlotte Higgins has never been more wrong when she opines that when Alan Davey arrives at Radio 3 he should “not rock the boat too much”. All objective measures show that Radio 3 is holed below the waterline and sinking fast. As I am not a beneficiary of the BBC’s considerable largesse, and as my Rolls Royce hasn’t been dented recently, I am not going to express a view on whether Alan Davey is the person to save the sinking ship. But what I do know is that it will take more than a very large CD collection to allow Radio 3 to survive the transition from the old world where it had a virtual monopoly on broadcast classical music, to the new world where Radio 3 is just another player on a large, crowded and not very level playing field.

Header photo first appeared in Do the arts need wide or deep audiences? 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.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Thought for the future

When one comes to think of it one cannot help feeling that nearly half the misery of the world would disappear if we fretting mortals knew the value of silence. Before modern civilisation came upon us at least six to eight hours of silence out of twenty four were vouchsafed to us. Modern civilisation has taught us to convert night into day and golden silence into brazen din and noise. What a great thing it would be if we in our busy lives could restore into ourselves each day for at least a couple of hours and prepare our minds to listen to the Voice of the Great Silence. The Divine Radio is always singing if we could only make ourselves ready to listen to it, but it is impossible to listen without silence… ~ Mahatma Ghandi
Photo was taken by me in Ladakh on the Bailey bridge crossing the Indus river approaching the Tibetan Buddhist monastery of Stakna which can be seen on the hill ahead. The bridge is so narrow that cars have to fold in their mirrors to cross it! 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, September 24, 2014

When classical music danced to the rhythms of Mother India

Edward Elgar, Gustav Holst, Kaikhosru Sorabji and John Foulds may seem unlikely bedfellows. Elgar and Holst have achieved global recognition if not acclaim, Sorabji has a small but select cult following, but Foulds lingers in the twilight zone between cultism and global acclaim. However, as recounted in an earlier post, the four composers are brought together in Nalini Ghuman's newly published Resonances of the Raj: India in the English Musical Imagination,1897-1947, because they share the cultural influence of colonial India. The accompanying photos capture the exotic and esoteric mysticism of a sacred tantric ritual in northern India, and the culture of pre-partition India permeated the English musical imagination via Theosophy, an esoteric philosophy that made this kind of exotic Eastern mysticism fashionable for Western dilettantes long before the Beatles visited Rishikesh.

Among those attracted by Theosophy were John Foulds (1880-1939) and his wife the violinist Maud MacCarthy. Foulds had his fifteen minutes of social media fame in 2007 when his theosophically-tinged World Requiem had its first ever Proms outing. It was an unfortunate choice, prompted more by spin potential than musical merit, because as Andrew Clement explained in the Guardian: "Most of the unwieldy and sometimes banal score lacks even the moments of originality that make some of Foulds's orchestral music intriguing". Coincidentally, another composer who dabbled in Theosophy, Edmund Rubbra, has also been victim of opportunist Proms programming - aka audience whoring - when his potboiler Ode to the Queen was programmed in the royal jubilee year of 2013 in preference to any of his magnificent and virtually unknown symphonies. Another English composer, Sir Malcolm Arnold, has suffered the same fate: his music has become a regular Last Night of the Proms novelty, and this year his Peterloo Overture was 'improved' by adding specially commissioned lyrics from - I joke not - Tim Rice, with the full approval of royalty conscious Faber Music and Arnold estate. Meanwhile, Sir Malcolm's masterly symphonies, one of which addresses the rampant jingoism seen at the Last Night, continue to suffer death by Mahler.

However, John Foulds has fared rather better despite the over-hyping of his World Requiem, and his more original and intriguing music has been championed in a more balanced fashion by, among others, Sakari Oramo. For those who want to know more, a double CD of Foulds' music from Sakari Oramo and the City Of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra on Warner's super-budget Apex label is recommended. This includes his Indian influenced Three Mantras from Avatara, which are orchestral extractions from his enigmatic and abandoned Sanskrit opera, Avatara.

At the core of Theosophy as espoused by H.P. (Madame) Blavatsky in Victorian times were telepathic instructions received by her from Himalayan Mahatmas - esoteric masters who dwelt in the Himalayas. Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947), who collaborated with Igor Stravinsky on the creation of the ballet The Rite of Spring, was a prominent Theosophist, and in 1925 Roerich's search for the legendary Himalayan Mahatmas took him to Hemis monastery in the disputed Ladakh region of India. The accompanying photos were taken by me during the sacred dance festival at Hemis. Located at an altitude of 11,800 feet in the Himalayas, Hemis is one of the most inaccessible Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, and its remote location meant it was the only monastery in Ladakh to escape plundering by Mongol invaders in the 17th century. Roerich may not have visited the monastery until twelve years after the infamous premiere of Stravinsky's ballet; but perhaps the Himalayan Mahatmas invoked the Law of Reversal to help him create its scenario. The Rite of Spring celebrates a pagan ritual, and Central Asian Shamanism influenced both Russian and Tibetan culture. Vajrayana Buddhism as practiced in Ladakh still contains elements of Tibet's indigenous shamanistic Bönpo religion, and it is surely not too fanciful to suggest that the masks and costumes seen in my photos could have come from a contemporary production of The Rite.

Masked dance rituals are a core practice in the Buddhist tantric Vajrayana tradition. Like the Kalachakra empowerment, these ritual dances are a form of divine blessing that is said to benefit both Buddhists and non-Buddhists. The Hemis monastery's official guide to the Festival says that among the auspicious benefits to those attending is that: "Their power will increase and local gods of the land will assist them". When I attended in 2014, the Hemis Tsechu Festival with its sacred masked dances took place on 7/8th July. The start is fixed as the 10th lunar day in the 5th Monkey lunar month of the Tibetan calendar, and the Festival celebrates Guru Padmasambhava, who was born on that day twelve years after the Buddha died. All the celebrants in the sacred festival come from the monastery's community of five hundred monks. The dancers, who represent protective and meditative protective deities, perform their solemn choreography accompanied by drums, cymbals and wind-instruments. The masks and silk costumes use visual cues originating from the 18th century Buddhist master artist Zopa Pale, and the origin of the dances goes back to 811 CE when Guru Padmasambhava performed the black hat tantric dance to banish evil spirits from the region. In my photo above, the sacred thangka that is displayed during the sacred dances, can be seen on the monastery wall.

The tantric masked dances at Hemis are a glorious expression of folk Buddhism, and I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to follow in Nicholas Roerich's footsteps to the kingdom of the Himalayan Masters, complete with John Foulds' Three Mantras on my iPod. Just as Tibetan Buddhism can be seen as folk Buddhism, so Sufism, which also practices sacred dance and, in some interpretations, incorporates Shamanistic elements, can be seen as folk Islam. While writing about the pursuit of esoteric knowledge, the 10th century Sufi Abu Said ibn Abi'l-Khayr, wisely observed that: "The first step in this affair is the breaking of ink pots and the tearing up of books and the forgetting of all kinds of wisdom". So, to the sound of breaking and tearing, not to mention forgetting, I take my leave of you for an indefinite period to explore new esoteric and overgrown paths. Take care.

No review samples, banner advertising or Sinfini Music commissions involved in this post. My self-funded travel in India and attendance at the Hemis Festival was arranged by Jane Rasch of the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery Trust. All photos are (c) On An Overgrown Path 2014. Any other 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.