Thursday, October 16, 2008

The innocent ear


These compelling images come from a lost age of musical innocence. When Christopher Nupen made his film of Jacqueline du Pré in 1967 he saw his task as putting as little as possible between the musician and her audience. The result is one of the most powerful advocacies of classical music ever made; an advocacy that sold thousands of recordings of the Elgar Concerto and introduced millions to classical music.

Disintermediation was the promise of the digital age. It happened in retailing when Amazon.com cut out the intermediaries. A direct relationship was established between online buyer and seller, and the customer became king. But the reverse has happened with music. In classical music today the commentator is king, and more and more filters are being interposed between musicians and their audience. Celebrity presenters force their way into the frame, continuity announcers explain why we should appreciate a particular work, myths and madness mean more than the score, and matching music to context is a new artform. Classical music YouTubified is the hot thing, spin is now mightier than the baton, and bloggers (including this one) position themselves as the new arbiters of what is musically cool.

I don't think anyone can accuse An Overgrown Path of being luddite, but I do think the music is being lost in explanation. Isn't there something to be learnt from the lost age of musical innocence? Do we really need all these intermediaries? BBC Radio 3 used to broadcast a series called The Innocent Ear which was presented by that polymath, Robert Simpson. In his biography of Edmund Rubbra (whose First Symphony was performed on The Innocent Ear) Leo Black describes how the programme:
... identified its constituent works only after they had been heard, so freeing the listener's mind of preconceptions.
The 'innocent ear' approach has also been used successfully in the concert hall, as was explained here last year by the composer Vanessa Lann, who co-founded the Newt Hinton Ensemble:
One of our practices was to hand out programme books/notes AFTER our concerts. That way the listeners would open their minds to the "experience" of a piece of music, without prejudging its merits because the composer happened to be male or female, young or old, living or deceased, famous or unknown, European or non-European, etc. It was amazing how the works on the programmes were appreciated for their intrinsic musical power, rather than for the biographical or historical contexts into which one otherwise might have placed them.
Countless blog posts have been devoted to ways of reaching new audiences. But surely it's as simple as 'opening their minds to the "experience" of a piece of music, without prejudging its merits'. Minimalism discovered that less music is more. Doesn't the same apply to commentary?

* The 2nd Amsterdam Cello Biennial, which runs from 17 to 25 October, offers some exciting experiences for innocent ears. These include a performance of the Elgar Concerto in the same programme as the Elliott Carter Cello Concerto (Oct 22), and the first performance of Vanessa Lann's new Cello Concerto Divining Apollo, which is given by Hans Woudenberg and the Schoenberg Ensemble (Oct 23). As well as the Vanessa Lann work there are world premieres of works for cello by Arvo Pärt, Oene van Geel, Dobrinka Tabakova and for ensemble by Toek Numan. This style of advocacy certainly works; as I write several of the concerts in the Amsterdam Cello Biennial are already sold out.

* The header images are original screen-grabs by me from Christopher Nupen's film Jacqueline du Pré - a portrait. The images are used for review purposes and the copyright resides with Allegro Films. All of Christopher Nupen's classic films are available from the Allegro films website.

Disintermediation -> Indeterminacy

And no, the irony of a 700 word post saying 'less commentary is more' is not lost on me. But nice pictures of Jackie. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk

5 comments:

Pliable said...

Now here is my first nomination for disintermediation (and a few other things).

Norman Lebrecht talks about the 'unaccountable whimsy of bloggers'.

On BBC i-Player until Oct 23 if you really must -

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L5C99JyP2ns

Stephen said...

I like the concept of the "innocent ear". However, to encourage audiences to participate, they need to have trust in the editorial decisions governing the music selected, i.e. will this be a worthwhile experience for me?

The lowest cost way for the audience to evaluate that level of trust is to have some known quantity - a brand if you will - that is already recognised associated with the event.

That almost certainly means a well known presenter/conductor/commentator/broadcaster any of which potentially runs contrary to the disintermediation you mention above.

In the case of the innocent ear, I suspect we do need intermediaries.

Pliable said...

Stephen, thanks for those thoughtful comments.

I agree that some form of intermediation is probably necessary in 'innocent ear' events. But the problem comes when the intermediary sees her/his role as putting their own stamp on the event, and that is exactly what is happening today.

Facilitation of meetings is a skilled and very productive function. But only if the facilitator stays in the background while drawing the best out of the participants.

That is what Robert Simpson did with The Innocent Ear on Radio 3 and it worked. It's also what is needed today, and the current generation of personality presenters are singularly failing to provide it.

Stephen said...

>>It's also what is needed today, and the current generation of personality presenters are singularly failing to provide it.

I quite agree.

Pliable said...

Quite by chance we watched Murray Lerner's film Festival last night. This documentary, which covers the 1963-66 Newport Folk Festivals and which was nominated for an Oscar, just confirms what can be achieved when the distorting filters between the audience and the musicians are removed.

Festival has no talking heads, no voice-overs, just performance footage linked by vox pop. Murray Lerner lets the camera linger on the performers instead of endless changes of camera angle beloved by today's directors simply because technology allows it.

Another classic example of music advocacy. Available on DVD and not to be missed.

'In 1980, Lerner produced and directed FROM MAO TO MOZART: ISAAC STERN IN CHINA that chronicled violin virtuoso Isaac Stern's 1979 goodwill tour of Red China. The best scenes involve Stern's tutoring and coaching of gifted Chinese students, and Shanghai Conservatory of Music director Tan Shuzhen's recollections of his travails in the less enlightened China of the 1960s. The film is extremely well balanced, treating Eastern and Western musical culture with equal respect and (sometimes) awe. FROM MAO TO MOZART won the Academy Award.'

http://theoscarsite.com/whoswho5/lerner_m.htm