Sunday, October 21, 2012

Thomas Tallis’ tipping point

While classical music’s movers and shakers were turning a mobile phone ringing in New York into a Mahler anniversary storm in a teacup, others were helping Thomas Tallis find his tipping point. Last week I published the Google Trends graph below and asked “would any reader like to make an informed guess via the comments who the trending composer is?”


It did not take composer David MacDonald of SoundNotion.tv fame long to identify correctly both the mystery composer as Thomas Tallis and the trend tipping point as the April 2012 publication of E.L. James’ novel Fifty Shades of Grey. And that leads down an overgrown path well worth exploring: because in their anxiety to keep the composer anniversary bandwagon rolling, the resolutely anti-elitist movers and shakers have dismissed erotic fiction as insufficiently elitist to be associated with classical music. Which overlooks the inconvenient truth that single-handedly E.L. James has managed to do for Tallis what the combined forces of journalists, PR consultants, artists agents, record companies and radio stations failed to do for Mahler, Cage, Liszt and Grainger.

I carry no torch for Ms James’ literary style, but there are some lessons to be learnt from Thomas Tallis’ tipping point. Classical music is becoming increasingly vertically integrated. The most obvious example is the BBC where the integration hard-wires developing musician's careers (BBC new generation artists) to managing BBC orchestras and commissioning new music for them to play, through to controlling “the worlds greatest music festival” (BBC Proms) and owning a proprietary distribution platform (BBC iPlayer). Vertical integration manifests itself in many other forms, for instance a leading management agency has diversified vertically into multi-media distribution, music journalists work for newspapers, broadcasters and management agencies, and major record labels bankroll 'independent' blogs. Vertical integration stifles innovation and creativity, and encourages corporately acceptable - ie safe - marketing. The result is integrated monodony in the form of the 'one trick pony' approach to promotion that puts an increasing number of eggs in the questionable composer anniversary basket.

The opposite of integrated monodony is creative polyphony, which is rather appropriate for a post about Thomas Tallis. Creative polyphony involves looking at problems from many angles and finding multi-faceted solutions, and it is a skill that vertical integration discourages. As a result classical music lives in an increasingly incestuous and rarified atmosphere that, with a few notable exceptions, excludes horizontal integration with other art forms such as painting, sculpture, literature, poetry, cinematography and even dance. This despite the indisputable evidence that creative polyphony in the form of Fifty Shades of Grey gave classical music its biggest recent sales hike. This despite the new audiences reached in the past by more edifying tie-ins including Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, Ken Russel's Elgar: Portrait of a Composer, and Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus. And this despite the Mahler boom itself being triggered in large part by Lucino Visconti's 1971 film Death in Venice.

There needs to be far more awareness of the insidious effects of vertical integration in the music supply chain. But there are other lessons to be learnt from Thomas Tallis’ tipping point. One is the importance of chance: Fifty Shades of Grey is an example of the ‘black swan effect’ whereby a surprise event has a major impact. And, of course, chance is the polar opposite of that ultimate expression of predictability, the composer anniversary. Another important lesson is that celebrity - the current holy grail of classical music – played no part at all in the upturn in the Elizabethan composer's fortunes. EMI’s Fifty Shades of Grey: The Classical Album – which incidentally contains an admirable introductory selection of music - features Peter Phillips and the Tallis Scholars' recording of Spem in Alium. Yet Google Trends shows no uplift at all for the search term 'Tallis Scholars', but does show a significant increase for 'Spem in Alium'. As Ravi Shankar once said ‘Get high on the music, it is enough’.



* Inevitably my soundtrack is Thomas Tallis, and if just one reader of Fifty Shades of Grey bought the Chapelle du Roi’s ravishing ten CD budget survey of Tallis’ vocal music on Brilliant Classics it would be reason to celebrate. Classical music should stop being so judgmental - does anyone remember Vanessa-Maes' t-shirt? - and instead start the search for new tipping points.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. I have not read Fifty Shades of Grey and I bought the Brilliant Classic's Tallis box in Prelude Records. 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

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