Thursday, August 26, 2010

Who is pushing the classical envelope?

We all think of Lady Gaga as a real envelope pusher: she's doing new things in music, performance, and with videos right now; her costumes are otherworldly; and she refuses to be tagged as any kind of "type" at all. Whether or not you like her music, she's a good inspiration for anyone who's feeling frustrated by conventions or who just needs a pick-me-up after a tough day at school or work. But she's not the only eccentric in music history.
Reaching new audiences remains a preoccupation for classical music. Which means the quote above, from a website targeted at college age readers, makes interesting reading. The article showcases videos of ten entertainers who paved the way for Lady Gaga's liberating style and, unsurprisingly, not one of them is a classical musician. Which raises some interesting questions.

Who is pushing the classical envelope? Is classical music frustrated by conventions? Should it be making better use of the new digital tools? Does classical music have enough eccentrics? Videos and costumes are powerful words in the copy above, so does theatre have a role in the concert hall? Should audiences be able to see the music? Ravi Shankar played at Woodstock, Morton Feldman didn't; is world music popular with young people because it follows rock rather than classical performance conventions? Should classical music be performing outside the comfort zone? Was the great artist seen below, who combined exemplary musicianship with a love of music from the non-formal scene, the kind of eccentric classical music needs?

More questions than answers. But there is another important question, does the classical envelope actually need pushing? All the links above point to articles on this blog about envelope pushing; but it is also true to say that I have taken a dovish position regarding new methods of presenting classical music. But just recently I have had cause to question that position.

On Sept 5 Future Radio is broadcasting an exclusive interview I have just recorded with a senior musician who I have tremendous respect for. And in that interview, in answer to a question about the future of classical music, my guest says "Nobody should be deprived of classical music, least of all by silly conventions". Watch this space, meanwhile here is the link to Lady Gaga.


Now on Facebook and Twitter @overgrownpath. Image background FanPop, centre image is, of course, the classical chart topping André Rieiu. 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

6 comments:

Antoine Leboyer said...

http://beckmessersrants.blogspot.com/2010/08/who-is-pushing-enveloppe-art-versus.html

Best, AL

Pliable said...

That link above leads to an article written by Antoine Leboyer in response to my post.

Antoine's response is, predictably, thoughtful and thought-provoking -

'It is important to push audiences and bring them to our world but the challenge is to do this while not vulgarising works whose value can be appreciated only by active listening of the audience. As we say, art not enjoyment ...'

Dead right, and exactly the kind of debate I hoped my off-the-wall post would spark.

Pliable said...

'May I say a word about André Rieu? It is easy to look down at him and his style of presentation, to sneer at it as schlager or easy listening or glorified elevator muzak or whatever. I've done it myself...'

I have published this very useful comment from Dave Harmon as a separate post here -

http://www.overgrownpath.com/2010/08/may-i-say-word-about-andre-rieu.html

Paul said...

This article gave me a great deal of food for thought. One thing that struck me about the performers in the ten videos is that the great majority of them really experimented with performance styles while remaining relatively conventional in terms of musical content. I'll make an exception for Bjork, of whom I am a great admirer, and I can't comment on Lady Gaga, as I've yet to hear any of her music. But regarding the rest, I feel that they really pushed the envolope in terms of presentation, but by doing this managed to widen the audience for an already-existing musical style.
How to do this with classical music? At rock concerts, I thoroughly enjoy all the paraphanalia of lighting, amplification, spectacle etc. that goes with the music, but when I go to see a classical concert, I become a complete purist! I want my classical performances unamplified, with simple unobtrusive stage lighting and presentation. Give me a string quartet at the Maltings over an outdoor orchestral extravaganza with fireworks any day!
I guess what I'm inarticulately groping towards is whether a more flamboyant presentation style actually fits classical music at all, or would it just be an awkward mismatch, alienating existing audiences while embarrasing new ones (think middle-aged uncle trying to dance to The Prodigy at an 18th birthday party)?
I wonder whether the real key to expanding audiences is simply to get 'em while they're young? I put my personal love of classical music down to two influences in my childhood; my dad and my guitar teacher. Both men were passionate about classical music, and both conveyed to me that it was something to be enjoyed, and never a tedious duty. My tastes for more challenging modern music developed during my university years; the result of putting a malleable young brain into an intellectually adventurous environment?
One final thought; I was watching the BBC4 series 'Classical Brittannia' the other evening, and they showed a series of contemporary music performances in the upstairs room of a pub. The room was packed out with a young audience listening quietly and attentively to some very challenging music. So perhaps the key is not so much in the style of presentation, but in finding ways to make it easy and comfortable (and cheap!) for young audiences to come and experience uncompromised performances of the highest quality?

Sorry to ramble on; this subject has been very much on my mind lately!

Best Regards, Paul Morris.

Paul said...

This article gave me a great deal of food for thought. One thing that struck me about the performers in the ten videos is that the great majority of them really experimented with performance styles while remaining relatively conventional in terms of musical content. I'll make an exception for Bjork, of whom I am a great admirer, and I can't comment on Lady Gaga, as I've yet to hear any of her music. But regarding the rest, I feel that they really pushed the envolope in terms of presentation, but by doing this managed to widen the audience for an already-existing musical style.
How to do this with classical music? At rock concerts, I thoroughly enjoy all the paraphanalia of lighting, amplification, spectacle etc. that goes with the music, but when I go to see a classical concert, I become a complete purist! I want my classical performances unamplified, with simple unobtrusive stage lighting and presentation. Give me a string quartet at the Maltings over an outdoor orchestral extravaganza with fireworks any day!
I guess what I'm inarticulately groping towards is whether a more flamboyant presentation style actually fits classical music at all, or would it just be an awkward mismatch, alienating existing audiences while embarrasing new ones (think middle-aged uncle trying to dance to The Prodigy at an 18th birthday party)?
I wonder whether the real key to expanding audiences is simply to get 'em while they're young? I put my personal love of classical music down to two influences in my childhood; my dad and my guitar teacher. Both men were passionate about classical music, and both conveyed to me that it was something to be enjoyed, and never a tedious duty. My tastes for more challenging modern music developed during my university years; the result of putting a malleable young brain into an intellectually adventurous environment?
One final thought; I was watching the BBC4 series 'Classical Britannia' the other evening, and they showed a series of contemporary music performances in the upstairs room of a pub. The room was packed out with a young audience listening quietly and attentively to some very challenging music. So perhaps the key is not so much in the style of presentation, but in finding ways to make it easy and comfortable (and cheap!) for young audiences to come and experience uncompromised performances of the highest quality?

Sorry to ramble on; this subject has been very much on my mind lately!

Best Regards, Paul Morris.

06371671 said...

Paul makes a number of interesting points within the scope of this article (I question whether Lady Gaga is an artist worthy of examination in any respect other than in her phenomenon, which is something the classical world has a great need of nevertheless).

However, to imply David Bowie was lacking in substance and in pushing the envelope is a grievous error. The only person in the list who could even be justly compared is as you say Bjork, but few artists have had a greater impact on the course of popular music in the second half of the 20th century than David Bowie. Even fewer people have followed such a strong MO of experimentation and remaining fresh over a 30 year plus career.

For a start, if you're not already familiar, check out his so called Berlin Trilogy with Brian Eno. Impressive enough that Philip Glass created an orchestrated work based on some of the tracks (Low Symphony).

Unfortunately the video here is taken from the major lull in his output, the mid 80s.