Monday, June 23, 2014

Why classical music needs to see the light


Morocco is a rhapsody in blue and many other colours; as can be seen from the accompanying photos which were taken during my recent stay in Sidi Ifni - a town named after a Sufi saint*. Colour plays an important part in the all night healing ceremonies called lila of the Gnawa brotherhoods in Morocco. The Gnawa practise a mix of mystical Islam and animism, and in their healing ceremonies music, incense and colours placate the spirits**. Trance inducing music plays as white smoke billows from a brazier burning musk, and, at the start of the lila, black and white benzoin incense is passed around. During the ritual Sidi Mimum is invoked; he is the patron saint of the Gnawa and his colour is black. The spirits in red follow led by Sidi Hamu, he is the spirit of the slaughterhouse and demands blood. As the celebrants emerge from the trance at the conclusion of the lila, lighted candles are passed around as a blessing - baraka - before being extinguished as the celebrants return to the black Mahgreb night.

The Gnawa healing ceremony is a multi-sensory experience which combines sound (music), vision (colours) and scent (incense). A classical concert should also be a form of healing ceremony that placates the spirit with sound and colours. In the West the ear gave way to the eye as the most important gatherer of information at the time of the Renaissance, when the printing press and perspective painting were developed. In a paper titled Acoustic Space - Explorations in Communication Edmund Carpenter and Marshall McLuhan explained that most of our thinking is done in terms of visual models, even when using an auditory one might prove more efficient. Since that paper was published in 1970, the swing from the auditory to the visual has been accelerated by the universal adoption of graphic interfaces for computers.

More evidence of the power of the visual - and also of the power of 5.1 surround sound - can be found right on classical music's doorstep. One of the few bright spots in the classical market is DVD sales. Andrew Cane, the proprietor of leading independent classical store Prelude Records, tells me that DVD/Blu-ray sales account for 12% of his turnover, with the overall industry percentage significantly higher, because sales by independents are depressed by Amazon's heavy discounting. In Prelude Records Blu-ray sales are showing double digit growth, and the Aldeburgh Festival Grimes on the Beach - a truly multi-sensory experience - was the store's biggest selling DVD ever.

The visual is an important part of the essential process that R. Murray Schafer describes as "the opening-out of the time-and-space containers we call compositions and concert halls". Yet, despite the efforts of Alexander Scriabin and others, classical concerts remain mono-sensory experiences rooted firmly in sound; with the much celebrated move away from formal concert dress doing no more than replacing black and white formal attire with all-black subfusc. Thankfully, some are trying to change this; these include kinetic artist Norman Perryman working with pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, and photo-choreographer James Westwood, who have both provided successful case studies in the power of the visual. While very recently respected critic Anne Midgette writing in the Washington Post described a choreographed - musicians not dancers - performance of Appalachian Spring as 'powerfully, viscerally emotional'. That performance, which is more healing ceremony than concert, can be watched here. By contrast, below is a photo I took from one of the better seats during a BBC Prom in the Royal Albert Hall. There is much to recommend the Proms, but that viewpoint does not exactly deliver a "powerfully, viscerally emotional" experience.



Another example of a powerful multi-sensory experience was the Aldeburgh Festival Earthquake Mass that I wrote about recently with unashamed enthusiasm. This was presented as a late-night event in Aldeburgh's long-running Faster Than Sound series, which, to quote the website, "joins the dots between musical genres and digital art forms". Yet, despite this clearly experimental context, the Earthquake Mass was universally dismissed by establishment music critics as failing to conform to the traditional mono-sensory model. What chance does classical music have of reaching new audiences when anything other than the stiflingly conventional is dismissed as "taking us back to the juvenile excesses of the Sixties"? And how is classical music going to survive in a fast changing sensory and technology landscape when any suggestion that the times they are a-changin' is greeted with a hysterical and self-interested defence of the status quo?

One of the biggest obstacles to breaking classical music out of the mono-sensory mindset is the misapprehension that sound and vision are two discrete sensory channels. Synaesthesia, the condition where information switches from one channel (hearing) to another processing track (sight), is prized among musicians. Yet, in fact, every human exhibits a subtle form of synaesthesia: as described in an earlier post, ultrasound - high frequencies beyond the range of the ear - are transmitted to the brain through the eyes, and, in a similar way infrasound - very low frequencies - can be felt as well as heard. As Jonathan Harvey explained in an interview with me, energy is basically vibration, and the energy of light and sound both come from the common root of vibration, albeit at different frequencies. Within the audio spectrum the felicitous combination of sight and sound creates a synergy where the sum becomes far greater than the parts, as happens in the balletic Appalachian Spring and the infrasonic Earthquake Mass.

Censorship based on misguided allegations of anti-semitism and discrimination based on the girth of a singer are wrong, and must be tackled. But eradicating those iniquities will not secure the future of classical music. However, making the music relevant by letting it speak in the contemporary demotic may well secure the future. Today's audiences are multi-sensory literate, and the classical music industry needs to wake up and smell the coffee. Changing with the times does not mean dumbing down or selling out. Dumbing down simply reduces the music to a bland zero-sensory commodity that is easily digested and just as easily forgotten. But perpetuating a performance tradition that was fixed more than a century ago is not the answer either. Instead there needs to be carefully considered accommodation of changes in sensory hierarchies - changes which mean that audiences now want their live music up close and visual.

A recent post pointed out that classical music is bad at handling paradigm shifts, and the inexorable shift from aural to multi-sensory acuity that started back in the Renaissance is a very far-reaching paradigm shift. Scott Ross' approach to Frescbaldi - tight but loose - should be the model for classical music: tight in the protection of core values, but loose in accommodating structural change. The next generation of audiences can only come from Generation M [mobile], a cohort whose cognitive processes are being rewired by prolonged exposure to the multi-sensory imagesphere and social sphere. Sorry if I am starting to sound like Max Hole. But art music can only survive if it is relevant to contemporary culture. Culture and technology has changed dramatically in the last three decades, while classical music stubbornly resists all but cosmetic change. It is not difficult to join up the dots.



* In typical fashion this path meanders a long way from its starting point in Morocco. But it is fair to say that none of my recent sequence of posts on psychoacoustics would have been written if I had not spent time recently in Sidi Ifni. Life in Sidi Ifni is a multi-sensory experience. There is the light and the riot of colours that my photos hint at. But there is also the omnipresent infrasound of the surf, which can be felt and heard as the waves roll in from the Atlantic. As R. Murray Schafer says in his seminal book The Tuning of the World: "The sea is the keynote sound of all maritime civilisations. It is also a fertile sonic archetype. All roads lead back to water." And, in another convergence of paths, Sidi Ifni lies to the south of Agadir, a city that was devastated by a terrible earthquake in 1960.

** One of my more enlightened - in more ways than one - projects was to broadcast a complete uninterrupted performance lasting more than two hours of the Gnawa 'black' lila. This was, I believe, the first and only time a complete Gnawa lila has been broadcast. The broadcast was on Future Radio in 2008 and was a collaboration with Kamar Studios in Marrakech. Unfortunately the stream of the programme is no longer available, but the linked post can be read here.

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1 comment:

Pliable said...

And that is an appropriate point to leave you as I go, once again, in search of more multi-sensory experiences in distant places.

Take care.