Friday, September 19, 2014

What is the sound of no audience clapping?

Of the Akhmatova Requiem of 1979, I certainly thought when I wrote it, 'this is the best of me' (as Elgar said about The Dream of Gerontius). I do not think that now, but I still think it's a key piece... The Akhmatova Requiem is extremely monumental in character. It lasts an hour, with soprano singing almost uninterruptedly throughout, with the exception of the bass solo intonings of Orthodox prayers for the dead... Gennadi Rozhdestvensky conducted it superbly at the première... He chose to perform it for his last concert as chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, first at Edinburgh on 20 August 1981 and then seven days later at his farewell concert at the Proms in London. In the event the tomblike structure of the piece was just too much for the audience and there was a mass walk-out. I was sitting there beside Father Sergei Hackel [who collaborated on the text] feeling extremely uncomfortable as many of the audience walked past me. Curiously, although it was unpopular with the audience, it was very popular with the critics.
That reminiscence comes from The Music of Silence: A Composer's Testament by John Tavener. The good old days when Proms audiences stormed out may have passed, but a new CD means you can relive them. On Sept 23rd NMC are releasing the BBC recording of that 1981 Prom performance of the Akhmatova Requiem, and it will be interesting to hear whether the microphones picked up the mass walk-out from the Royal Albert Hall. John Tavener's comment that although the Akhmatova Requiem was unpopular with the audience it was very popular with the critics, is revealing. In the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism, koans are given to practitioners; koans are questions that seem rational, but which have no rational answer, and they can only be solved by meditation. The practitioner has to reflect on the question for extended periods, and - most importantly - posing the question is more important than answering it.

Classical music practitioners can learn a lot from meditating on the koan 'What is the sound of no audience clapping?' Immediately there may seem to be no logical answer: because if there is no audience there can be no clapping. But meditate further. The sound of no audience clapping could be the sound of ethically compromised sponsors interested only in self-aggrandisement heading for the exits. It could be the sound of celebrity musicians returning their limited edition super cars. It could be the sound of embedded cultural commentators throwing their clickbait back into the murky water. It could be the sound of avaricious media corporations returning to the rock music they came from. It could be the sound of all those tiresome funding applications fixated with audience numbers and digital reach going through the shredding machine. It could be the sound of musicians making music because they love to, rather than because they are earning £20,000 a gig. It could be the sound of pure music - Nada Brahma. Could that really be so bad?

The concept of making music without an audience present should not be dismissed out of hand. Western art music developed from liturgical music that had no audience, madrigals were secular compositions sung for pleasure rather than an audience, and chamber music originated as communal music and not as a spectator sport. In modern times John Tavener composed liturgical music for the Russian Orthodox Church, while Benjamin Britten challenged the forbidding boundary between audience and performers with the communal hymns in his cantata St Nicholas. Speaking in a 2006 newspaper interview, Simon Rattle said:
Everybody can make music. Everybody can compose, somehow. When you want to teach children sports, they play football, or get given a tennis racket, they don't simply watch. But when we want them to be involved in music, we ask them to sit passively. This is surely not the right concept.
Engagement with audiences is the buzz phrase, yet in its frantic search for new markets, classical music has consciously disengaged. From its origins in liturgical music, where the audience actively made the music, classical music has progressed (?) to passive digital platforms, where Apple load music onto your mobile device whether you want it or not. Such is the power of the audience today that new music is exorcised from TV broadcast Proms, lest if precipitate a virtual walk-out. Such is the power of the audience today, that repeating that 1981 programme - Beethoven's Pastoral in the first half followed by John Tavener's "tomblike" Requiem - in the main evening BBC Proms slot would be unthinkable. The Akhmatova Requiem did not even make it into the Proms' late night new music ghetto this year. Yes, it is being given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra on October 5th in a BBC SO Total Immersion concert as part of the Barbican's John Tavener Remembered event. But, admirable though they are, the BBC's Total Immersion concerts are just another way to lock new music away in a safe place where it cannot turn round and bite (aka wake-up) the audience.

Classical music without an audience may be unthinkable. But the crucial balance between what the audience wants and what the music demands has swung dangerously in favour of the audience. Posing the question 'What is the sound of no audience clapping?' is far more important than coming up with the answer. A little more time meditating and a little less time chasing new audiences would do classical music a power of good.

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