Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Why is jazz ignored in the search for new audiences?


For the past seventeen years my listening room has contained a piano. It is a large room, and the piano was in an area well away from the listening area for my high end audio system. However, a recent rearrangement meant the removal of the piano, and the change in the sound of the audio system was marked. Which is not surprising, because even an upright piano offers many possibilities for sympathetic vibrations. Sympathetic resonances from passive strings add the tone colour to instruments including the sitar, while the use of extra, unstruck strings to enrich piano tone was developed by Bl├╝thner as Aliquot scaling and adopted by Faziola and Steinway as duplex scaling. Wise heads including Hazrat Inayat Khan and Jonathan Harvey have spoken of the importance of vibrations in music and beyond. The arcane science of Aliquot and duplex stringing does show how little we understand about the DNA of music - the sound - and it highlights the perils of digitally slicing and dicing into music unsympathetic zeros and noughts. It also poses the koan of what is the sound of the Hammerklavier Sonata recorded by a pianist with no piano in the studio?

Bill Cunliffe and his trio recorded their 2001 album Live at Bernie's direct to disc at Bernie Grundman's mastering facility in Los Angeles. (The digital file used for the CD/SACD releases was made in parallel). For the sessions Bill Cunliffe used a nine foot Hamburg Steinway signed by illustrious pianists including notable Rachmaninov interpreter Ruth Laredo. That Hamburg Steinway - sympathetic resonances and all - can be heard in magnificent voice in the moving solo rendition of John Lennon's Imagine that closes the album.

Trained in classical composition, Bill Cunliffe's output includes a piano concerto. Among the other tracks on Live at Bernie's are jazz takes on Samuel Barber's Four Excursions and, difficult to believe, a beautiful riff on the theme from the second movement of a piano concerto by one of Benjamin Britten's teachers, John Ireland. If all that isn't enough, Bill Cunliffe's Satisfaction album has a free transcription of the slow movement from Rachmaninov's Second Symphony. Jacques Loussier's 'play Bach' albums have sold more than six million copies and introduced millions to the wonder that is classical music. Sympathetic jazz treatments are an ideal entry point into classical music, particularly in an age of short form mobile listening. New audiences are the name of the game, yet classical music insists that balloons and mobile phones are the way to win new listeners. While you figure that one out I will be contributing two more post before taking a break from blogging and going in search of yet more sympathetic resonances.

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2 comments:

Halldor said...

At the risk of being unfair, I've sometimes remarked that the world of classical music is probably the only place where jazz is still considered a popular and widely-accessible art form. I can think of numerous instances in my own experience of classical promoters using jazz to try and find new audiences – a recent double concerto by Tim Garland being one that I particularly admired – and other genuinely intelligent and illuminating meetings between the two genres, such as Uri Caine’s various explorations of Mahler, Wagner, Beethoven, Bach and more.

Yet – and again, going just from my own experience – these have not drawn large audiences. The Garland concerto barely half-filled an orchestral concert hall and Uri Caine’s performances here have played to audiences in the 150-200 range, essentially the same as (and, as far as I could see, with quite a large crossover with ) audiences for our local contemporary classical music ensemble. This is in a conurbation of over 5 million people.

I make no comment on the fairness of these outcomes; whether these projects were as effectively marketed as they might have been, or the quality of the music. Certainly orchestral concerts of jazz-influenced music in the big-band or Broadway tradition (such as John Wilson's), draw large and enthusiastic audiences. But that’s not jazz. What I have observed, though, is that serious new attempts at exploring each other’s genres, sincerely undertaken by intelligent and inspired jazz and classical artists, keep failing to find large audiences. There are, of course, exceptions, such as Jan Garbarek’s work with the Hilliard Ensemble; I’ve not had the chance to hear them at first hand.

But to offer one possible answer to your headline question – again, at the risk of being unfair, and looking at this from the perspective of a classical music marketing department (devil’s advocate, if you like) – why would one expect a larger audience when dealing with one of the few genres of music whose popular reputation (again, I’d say unfairly) for being exclusive, esoteric, cliquey and convention-bound exceeds that of classical music itself?

Pliable said...

Halldor, you make a fair point. However, I would - subjectively - categorise Tim Garland and Uri Caine as 'progressive' jazz players. I was thinking more of 'accessible' exponents such as Jacques Loussier, and, indeed, Bill Cunliffe as a bridge to classical music. When Jacques Loussier played here at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival the concert sold out very quickly and was very well received.

I think we have to accept that reaching new audiences for classical music means a degree of compromise. As I say in the post Jacques Loussier's Bach introduced millions to classical music. For many, Bach swung by Loussier or Ireland extemporised by Cunliffe will be heretical. But, for me, it is honest heresy - unlike many other of classical music's big new ideas.