Wednesday, January 28, 2015
Stop trying to serve everybody, instead just serve the music
John Cage's 26'1.1499" for a string player became a signature work for cellist and icon of the avant-garde Charlotte Moorman. She embellished Cage's original score by adding a section in which she set her instrument aside and played the body of a half-naked Nam June Paik as if it were a substitute cello. Considering Cage's reputation as an iconoclast, it is surprising to learn that he disapproved of Moorman's embellishments. In her definitive life of Charlotte Moorman, author Joan Rothfuss describes how "Cage and some of those in his immediate circle began to dismiss her interpretation - and her work in general - as overly concerned with self-presentation", and quotes Cage as saying "Paik's involvement with sex, introducing it into music does not conduce towards sounds being sounds".
Today, classical music will try almost anything to reach new audiences, as can be seen from my header photo; a PR stunt for the 2014 BBC Proms so dire that even Norman Lebrecht disapproved. It is two years since Universal Classic's Sinfini Music web site started "cutting through classical" and Universal Music ceo Max Hole made his much spun pronouncement that classical music must 'ride the wave of change' or die. But you would have to be a fully paid up member of the Universal Music fan club - and there are many of those around - to argue that anything has changed in classical music; except for an acceleration in the rate of attrition within the art form. Yet more evidence that it will take an awful lot of Max Holes to fill the Albert Hall came earlier this month in the form of a rather secretive release by the conductor formerly known as an exclusive Deutsche Grammophon artist. Gustavo Dudamel's new Wagner download is listed on Amazon as released on the Gustavo Dudamel label, not on Deutsche Grammophon. Which suggests that the saviour of classical music is failing to perform the miracle predicted by Max Hole of turning the water of rock audiences into the wine of classical music sales.
Western classical music grew from the fertile soil of sacred music, and there are many parallels between the Western classical tradition and the great faith traditions. In his invaluable little book The New Religions, philosophy professor Jacob Needleman describes how established religions have, to their cost, dispensed with esoteric technique, method, discipline and rituals in their frantic search for new congregations. Despite established churches "riding the wave of change" in this way, congregations have continued to fall. Today just 800,000 worshippers attend a Church of England service on the average Sunday, a drop in attendance of more than 50% since the 1960s.
It is a sobering fact that religion is only proving resilient in its radical manifestations. My own fascination with the radically traditionalist and very resilient Catholic monastery of Sainte-Madeleine at Le Barroux in France has been the subject of many posts here. I am not a member of the Catholic Church, I abhor several of its teachings and disagree strongly with some of the views held by the monks and nuns at Le Barroux. But in a 2012 post I described the many positives that can be found at Le Barroux, and cautioned against the dangers of dualist judgements between normal and deviant. The guidebook published by L'Abbaye Sainte-Madeleine contains the following illuminating passage. "What purpose do monks serve? How many times do we hear the question?... Monks have no purpose. They serve a person - God". In the same way classical musicians serve no purpose other than to serve the lesser god of music. For many decades classical musicians have made the mistake of also serving celebrity and riches. But recently they have started serving another false idol - one dedicated to the vast and lucrative new audience that, if ever reached, it is believed will somehow solve every problem currently facing classical music.
As John Cage showed us, radicalism in classical music is a complex discipline, and the current fashion for "cutting through classical" and trying to serve everybody, simply confirms that for every complex problem there is a simple answer that is wrong. Following the example of contemplative traditions, radicalism is about serving the music at the expense of everything else, and that is not a simple task. It means serving all music from Joseph Haydn - not heard at the BBC Proms since 2012 - to John Luther Adams, and not just serving Mahler, Shostakovich and late Romantic birthday boys. Serving the music means giving performances in a sympathetic acoustic and ambiance, not turning it into vaudeville. Serving the music means acknowledging the importance of classical music's core older audience, instead of sacrificing it as cannon fodder in the search for the elusive young audience. Serving the music means valuing independent and professional music writing. And serving the music means returning challenging contemporary music its rightful place alongside the mainstream repertoire, instead of marginalising it.
Serving the music also means taking hard decisions. This means telling celebrity musicians that their profligate demands can no longer be met. Serving the music means embracing business models that secure the long term future for composers and rank and file musicians, instead of sacrificing their interests on the altar of new streaming technologies. Serving the music means rejecting the twelve pieces of silver offered by music festivals backed by repressive political regimes. Serving the music means dramatically reducing the influence of management agents, whose self-interest distorts the music. Serving the music means re-balancing financial models to reduce dependency on ethically tainted sponsors. Serving the music means thwarting the ambitions of cradle-to-grave corporations such as Universal Music, the BBC and Amazon. Serving the music means correcting the oversupply of classical music. Serving the music means putting music education back on the agenda. And serving the music means eliminating discrimination in every form.
Listening to common sense and not to so-called 'industry experts' is another way of serving the music. Max Hole made his infamous 'ride the wave of change' speech at the Association of British Orchestra's 2013 conference. The 2015 conference opens today, and the keynote speaker is Helen Boaden, director of BBC radio. Which, in view of the recent lamentable performance of Radio 3 both in terms of quality and audience size, is like inviting the designer of the Titanic to give a keynote speech on building an unsinkable ocean liner. There is more likelihood of pigs flying than of me being invited to give the ABO conference keynote speech. But if I was invited, my message to our orchestras would be short and blunt. Stop obsessing about new audiences, and stop trying to serve everybody. Because, by so doing, you are pleasing nobody. Simply serve the music. If you do, audiences - both new and old - will come.
* More on Helen Boaden's ABO keynote speech in New audiences - give us the facts not the spin.
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