Saturday, November 16, 2019

Bridge over troubled cultural waters

So Clara Schumann is the greatest composer of all time. Which means it is time for me to disappear off and try to reconnect with reality. Geo-culturally appropriate soundtrack for my bardo is Gnawa multi-instrumentalist Majid Bekkas' album Al Qantara. In Arabic Al Qantara means a bridge, and the title of the album is a reference to Morocco's position as a bridge between the all too often conflicting cultures of Africa, the Middle East and the West. Let me leave you with an anecdote about reality told by the anthropologist and cyberneticist Gregory Bateson:
There was a man who had a powerful computer, and he wanted to know whether computers would ever think. So he asked it, no doubt in his best Fortran: 'Will you ever be able to think like a human being?' The computer clicked and rattled and blinked, and finally it printed out its answer on a piece of paper, as these machines do. The man ran to pick up the printout, and there, neatly typed, read the following words: 'THAT REMINDS ME OF A STORY.'
Anecdote is retold from Uncommon Wisdom by Fritjof Capra. Any copyrighted material is included for critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). New Overgrown Path posts are available via RSS/email by entering your email address in the right-hand sidebar.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Today's audiences hear music differently

Prolonged exposure to digital technologies is retuning our sensory channels and changing the way we hear music, and that is something classical music cannot ignore. It explains why the full-blooded symphonies of Mahler and Shostakovich eclipse the more nuanced masterpieces of Mozart and Haydn in the concert hall. And it means that for millennials - classical's chosen target audience - all-immersive electronic dance music is the soundtrack of choice.

Seeing, hearing, touching, smelling and tasting are mission critical processes which are little-understood. These sense perceptions are the product of biological evolution over millions of years and the result is that that our senses are fine-tuned to the needs of Stone Age hunter-gatherers. Light is vibrating energy; hunter-gatherers needed to survive, so human vision is restricted to the very narrow wavelengths between 0.4 to 0.7 microns. (1 micron is one millionth of a metre.) This bandwidth is aligned with the midpoint of the solar spectrum where the sun's power is most intense, and we only see light with a wavelength in this narrow spectrum. If the bandwidth of our eyes could miraculously be increased, we would see a totally different reality because energy outside the 0.4 to 0.7 microns window would become visible. (This opens up a question far beyond the scope of this discussion - what is reality? It also throws interesting light - pun intended - on the Hindu concept of Maya which posits that the world is an illusion.)

Similarly the bandwidth of human hearing - 20 Hz to 20 kHz - is tuned to survival needs. Sound energy extends far above - infrasound - and below - ultrasound - the limits of human hearing. Once again extending the frequency range of the human ear would allow us to hear many new sounds, and that is not just fanciful thinking: a cat can hear up to 64 kHz, which is 1.6 octaves above the human range.

There is no credible evidence that biological evolution is increasing sensory bandwidths in the short term. But the new visual and sonic experiences made possible by digital technologies mean that we are increasingly using the upper and lower extremes of our sensory bandwidth. When I left university and joined the BBC in 1971 I wowed my friends with the sonic spectacular of Decca's newly released Solti/Chicago Symphony recording of Mahler's Eighth Symphony played on a then quite respectable hi-fi system powered by a Metrosound ST20 amplifier which pumped out 10 watts RMS per channel. Today in the domestic environment affordable surround sound 7 channel amplifiers rated at 150 watts per channel are the norm.

At a dance music festival attended by millennials the sound gets much louder. For the preeminent Tomorrowland Festival in Belgium the main stage sound is provided by 66 L'Acoustics LA12X amplifiers each delivering 12,000 watts. Repeated exposure to these sonic extremes is not only causing premature deafness, it is also rewiring sensory channels. This in turn is reshaping the expectations of audiences, which means, indirectly, that Mahler beats Mozart at the box office and classical programming becomes stuck in the Mahler/Shostakovich loop. (Let's also not forget that, whether we like it or not, it is scientifically proven that louder classical music is better classical music.)

That very striking footer CD artwork is from Bloom Ascension by ambient and electronic composer Steve Roach. One of the album's tracks is titled Synesthete and as reported in Psychology Today, Steve Roach experiences poly-synesthesia. Synesthesia is caused by cross-talk between sensory channels, and is thought to be caused by anomalies in the brain's neural circuits. It occurs when sensory information is switched from one channel - e.g. hearing - to another processing channel - e.g. sight - with the result that sounds are perceived as colours. There are more than sixty recognised synesthesia conditions, including grapheme-colour, where numbers and letters generate colours, and auditory-tactile, where sounds cause sensations in the body. (One amusing example of technology synesthesia appeared recently: University of Michigan researchers have been able to fool smart assistants into thinking light energy from a laser is sound energy from a human.)

Steve Roach's poly-synesthesia means that not only does he see colours when hearing music, but he salivates in response to sounds. He also experiences the very rare condition of mirror-touch synesthesia, whereby he senses in the same part of his body sensations felt by other people. Listeners have also reported synesthetic experiences when listening to Steve Roach's music and his credentials as a synesthete are impeccable. However claims to synesthesia elsewhere need to be treated with caution as the condition has become a fashionable affliction among non-classical musicians, with self-diagnosed synesthetes including Kanye West, Pharrell, Dev Hynes, and Lady Gaga. Reportedly Alexander Scriabin, Jean Sibelius, Olivier Messiaen, György Ligeti and Franz Liszt were among the classical composers who suffered from cross-over between sensory channels. However the degree of their affliction is now being questioned, with the case being made that Scriabin's experience of sounds as colours was due, at least in part, to autosuggestion.

Scriabin's experience of converging sound and colours has been dubbed pseudo-synesthesia and it is not unreasonable to suggest that the extremes of combined sound and visuals pioneered by electronic dance music create a different kind of pseudo-synesthesia. Dance music festivals are an extreme example, but there is no doubt that the digital zeitgeist is, in varying degrees, causing neural circuits to be rewired and sensory channels to be retuned. The classical industry's refusal to accept that audience expectations are changing is puzzling. Norman Lebrecht's Slipped Disc is the de facto online mouthpiece of the classical industry. Are the topics that are repeatedly discussed there really going to reshape classical music to meet the significantly changed expectations of its audience? The argument that classical music does not need to reshape itself is untenable. Classical concert conventions were not handed down on tablets of stone by the gods; they were established by orchestras and audiences more than a century ago when technology, culture, and sonic conditioning were totally different.

Classical music orthodoxy views the music - product - and the audience - customer - as two discrete entities connected only by supply and demand. However, Benjamin Britten’s visionary concept of a holy triangle of composer, performer and listener is a creative restatement of Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle which explains how the observer - listener - affects the observed - music. In subatomic physics the viewpoint of the universe as blocks of discrete matter has been superceded by the view that matter is no more than the expression of constantly changing relationships between different energy levels*. Classical music can learn much from this thinking: because if the listeners are changing, aspects of the music must also must change.

Amplified concerts, synchronised visuals and other heretical solutions may be a step too far. However there are solutions other than the dreaded dumbing down. To offer a minimally disruptive suggestion: if Mahler meets contemporary sensory expectations there are plenty of other full-blooded composers who could tick that box given a chance. I would cite Malcolm Arnold and Arnold Bax, others may suggest Tubin, Ives and their peers. Yes, Bax and Arnold may be death at the box office when offered as the headline work. But why not run double-header concerts pairing their symphonies with box office dead certs. No overture or concerto, two symphonies instead: Bax's Sixth with Shostakovich's Fifth, Arnold's Second with Mahler's First? Or even further beyond established comfort zones, projects such as J. Peter Schwalm's Wagner Transformed by electronics - see header graphic - could resonate with the sensory tunings of a new audience if given the right level of exposure. And how about my suggestion in a previous post of Beethoven's Ninth prefacing Steve Roach's essay in electronica Truth & Beauty? We cannot escape that sensory retuning and neural rewiring is changing the way audiences hear music. Disco lighting at the Proms is not the answer. But it is now time for some radical rethinking on how classical music is presented.

* Fritjof Capra's old but invaluable Uncommon Wisdom is recommended for its accessible discussion of quantum mechanics and, in particular, the work of Geoffrey Chew and Gregory Bateson.
No review samples used in this post. New Overgrown Path posts are available via RSS/email by entering your email address in the right-hand sidebar. Any copyrighted material is included for critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).

Thursday, November 14, 2019

So let's talk about keyboard skills in China

Simon Rattle and the London Symphony Orchestra and the BBC Concert Orchestra are the latest classical ensembles to tour China. Classical musicians have an admirable record of speaking out about human rights, with Sir Simon being just one of the many voices criticising the anticipated impact of Brexit on freedom of movement. So I must assume that he and others among classical music's great and good have not read the latest report by respected independent watchdog Freedom House on China's online censorship.

Even for a social media hawk like me the Freedom House report makes chilling reading. Freedom House scores online freedom on a number of parameters and use these scores to produce a country ranking. China is at the bottom of this global ranking of freedom on the net and is categorised as 'not free'. With a score of only 10 out of 100 China is worse than Iran (15 points), Syria (17 points), Cuba (22 points), Vietnam (24 points), Egypt (26 points), Ethiopia (28 points), Bahrain (29 points), Venezuela (30 points), and Russia (31 points). The whole report needs to be read to understand the enormity of China's online censorship, but here are just a few headlines quotes:

China was the world’s worst abuser of internet freedom in Freedom on the Net for the fourth consecutive year. The level of internet freedom in the country declined due to the new cybersecurity law, which strengthened repressive restrictions on online activities and placed onerous financial burdens on technology companies, independent media, and bloggers....

New regulations requiring online publishers to register for permits led to the closure of dozens of social media accounts that disseminated celebrity gossip or other entertainment news, signaling an expansion of censorship to a news sector that had been considered relatively free...Known dissidents received heavy penalties for their online activities in the past year, while religious and ethnic minorities continued to be heavily surveilled and persecuted for their spiritual and cultural expression or for criticizing and exposing rights violations against their communities.
As seen in the header graphic Simon Rattle has effusively praised the keyboard skills of China's young piano players. But the keyboard skills of China's internet users - young and old - are the most constrained in the whole world. It is time that classical music woke up and realised this instead of cosying up to a regime that ranks far below the country that everyone loves to vilify for interfering in democratic freedom - Russia.

New Overgrown Path posts are available via RSS/email by entering your email address in the right-hand sidebar. Any copyrighted material is included for critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).

Monday, November 11, 2019

Late night thoughts on listening to my latest CD purchases

Over the past 50 years I have been privileged to hear some truly great musicians in concert. I was also fortunate to work for one of the great classical labels towards the end of the industry's Indian summer in the 1970s. And I have an alarmingly large collection of classical LPs and CDs and listen to more classical music on a daily basis than most people. But when I look back at the many CDs I have bought in recent months* I find just one that fits into the classical category, and even that - the Kronos Quartet's disc of Terry Riley's Sun Rings - sits on the margins.

I don't expect for a minute that the classical industry's great and good will be losing any sleep over this trend in my music purchases; however I think it worthwhile devoting a post to the subject. But before doing that, let me dispose of the argument that I am not a typical classical customer. No, of course I am not a typical classical customer. For the simple reason that the concept of a typical classical listener is a convenient myth created by marketing gurus. As pointed out in an earlier post, the classical audience is richly diverse and constantly changing. Day by day listeners come to classical music, for varying reasons and from different age groups, and each day listeners also depart the art form for different reasons. The classical audience is not monolithic, and it is not 'old' or 'new': it is a highly granular conglomeration of listeners with slightly varying but complexly overlapping tastes. Which means, as another post pointed out, my music is not your music. Now, if you are still with me, let me share with you my recent listening.

Ahmad Jamal is one of my pianistic heroes and his latest album Ballades confirms that status. Exquisite solo playing backed by string bass on just three of the tracks proves conclusively that less is more, particularly when captured with impressively full-bodied piano tone. I feel very comfortable with the way that in jazz it is the music that matters, and the colour of the musician is subordinate to the music they make. On An Overgrown Path was a very early voice calling for musicians of colour to take their rightful place in classical music. I still feel passionately that much more needs to be done to correct imbalances in both ethnicity and gender. But I am also very uncomfortable with the way that ethnicity and gender have been hijacked and used to hype classical music's next big things. Classical music's virtue signalling is now so loud that I simply can't hear these next big things. So instead I buy Ahmad Jamal CDs.

Fazal Inayat-Khan was a maverick late-20th century psychotherapist and Sufi teacher. He taught that old thinking explains, new thinking demonstrates; old thinking puzzles things out, new thinking flashes with intuition; old thinking is the tortoise while new thinking the hare. Rather than reject one for the other, the truly happy person dances between them. For me classical music is becoming increasingly reactionary and falling back more and more on old thinking. Is it possible to turn on BBC Radio 3 without hearing yet another performance of Mahler's Fifth Symphony? Where are those essential flashes of intuition? Where is the vital the counter-intuitive 'crazy wisdom' advocated by Padmasambhava and Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche? Where is the new thinking that created the Paris premiere of the Rite of Spring? All gone - replaced by the dubious wisdom of the social media crowd.

Thankfully that crazy wisdom can still be found in other genres. I recently postulated that classical music can learn from a trance DJ, and I have been finding much food for thought on the fringes of what can loosely be termed psytrance. (Classical music obsessives should not forget that Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique was one of the first examples of psytrance.) Since 1979 Suns of Arqa have danced between old and new thinking. They are a World Music collective founded by Mancunian Michael Wadada, and since the group's formation more than 200 musicians from around the world have played and recorded with them. Michael Wadada's mission is to explore the infinite possibilities of fusing ancient Hindustani raga systems with styles ranging from Piobaireachd pipe music and Nyabinghi Rastafarian roots drumming to electro dub.

My recent purchases included Suns of Arqa's Kokoromochi first released in 2013. For this the band comprised the great Mumbian bamboo flute mastero Raghunath Seth, santoor player Dhevdhas Nair, Mick Ripsher on tabla, Aziz Zeria on tanpura, and Michael Wadada on bass. Beethoven it certainly isn't. But it is most definitely a powerful tool for that essential task that Alan Watts described as cleaning the ears of the musically educated. And anyway, there will be quite enough Beethoven elsewhere in the next year.

Sexism is, quite rightly, now unacceptable in classical music. But ageism is perfectly acceptable and, in fact, tacitly encouraged. Independent journalist Fiona Sturges illustrated this perfectly with her tweet "My column on the problem with classical music and how a large proportion of R[adio] 3’s audience should hurry up and die -" Elsewhere there are disparaging comments about 'coachload[s] of pensioners' and for years it has been open season on classical's 'ageing audience'. In the classical world young is the new black. Which means all BBC Radio 3 presenters older than 40 should be worried about job security. And male BBC Radio 3 presenters over the age of 40 should be absolutely terrified about job security. (While on the subject of all things feminine, as a parent of a daughter and now a granddaughter, of course I abhor any form of abuse. But am I the only one to find the obsessive gloating elsewhere over every detail of classical abuse scandals rather unhealthy?)

By contrast with its classical cousin, jazz considers advanced age a virtue not a vice. Yes, I have to declare a vested interest. This post is being written days before entering my eighth decade in my present corporeal incarnation. Coincidentally, because it is only the music that matters, Ahmad Jamal is 89 and another of my jazz pianist heroes René Urtreger is 85. René Urtreger studied classical piano before making his reputation in the famous Club Saint-Germain on Paris' Left Bank with his Bud Powell influenced style. He has played with many jazz greats including Miles Davis, and recorded the soundtrack to Louis Malle's film Ascenseur pour l'échafaud (Stairway to the Gallows) with Miles' band in 1957, and his later essays in post-bebop - notably Onirica - prove there is more than one ode to joy. A new CD transfer of early René Urtreger trio recordings from the 1950s is among my recent CD purchases and pleasures. And there is another important lesson for classical music to learn from René Urtreger: he attained the status of a demigod in the jazz pantheon without a Twitter account.

So those are just some late night listening thoughts. My world and my music are never the same, and my music is almost certainly not your music. But remember that in non-Euclidean geometry two parallel lines intersect in the infinite. Perhaps classical music's real problem is that it is stuck in the old thinking of Euclidean geometry.

* Streaming is not part of my listening regime, so CDs are an accurate reflection of my music purchases. New Overgrown Path posts are available via RSS/email by entering your email address in the right-hand sidebar. Any copyrighted material is included for critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

Classical music is not connecting with its rewired audience

A typical American adult spends more than 11 hours each day interacting with media. Our brains are being rewired by this extended use of all-pervasive digital technologies, and the resulting re-synapsing of neural connections is fundamentally changing behaviour patterns and value systems. My proposition is that classical music is not adapting to these fundamental changes with the result that the artform is failing to connect with a new audience.

A simple example of how quickly and easily neural connections are rewired is provided by an experiment carried out by the respected neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandaran. Test subjects viewed an image of jumbled black dots on a white background. After a short time the dots were seen to form a dog. Detailed brains scans taken during the recognition process showed that neurons in the temporal lobes became permanently altered once the dog had been recognised. That the dog was easily seen subsequently is confirmation of the new neural connections. Studies of musicians and of those practicing meditation have identified similar changes in the brain's structural connectivity.

Classical music's new audience is new not just because it hasn't yet learned to appreciate classical music: it is also new because it has different behaviour patterns and value systems to the traditional classical audience. It is an important but overlooked point that the traditional audience is also becoming 'new' as its neural connections are rewired by the extended use of new technologies. The defining characteristics of this rewiring are well documented: shortened attention spans, demand for instant feedback/gratification, decreased reliance on linear thinking, reliance on mobile technologies, increased visual acuity, multi-tasking capability, etc.

One expressions of this rewiring particularly relevant to classical audiences is the change in sonic expectations. Research has shown that listening via computer speakers - notoriously lo-fi transducers - was the most common way for Americans to listen to music (55%), followed by headphones on a portable device (41%). The traditional reference standard of a component audio system was the listening mode of choice for only 12% of research subjects. This research also identified that 52 per cent of on-demand music listening is via video streaming. As a Financial Times article explains: "Then there's where people listen to music. Not in solitary confinement, but out on the streets, on public transport, in the car and in their bedrooms. External sounds, even with whizzy noise-cancelling headphones, have a habit of interfering with music. And that's OK. No one minds".

For years classical music has been engaged in an obsessive search for a new audience. Yet it has singularly failed to recognise that new means fundamentally different. The most glaring example of this failure in cognition is the long-running saga of the acoustically perfect concert hall. As explained above, research shows that among the general music audience - very sadly - 'no one minds' about sound quality, and that accessibility is what really matters. Yet the the classical music establishment continues to devote huge sums to building inaccessible - public transport problems, urban crime etc - city centre concert halls with impeccable acoustics, instead of spending a fraction of the cost on taking classical masterpieces out into the provinces and into acoustically-challenged venues.

Classical's new audience must be drawn from the wider general music audience. Among the craved-for young demographic dance music is the genre of choice. Widespread exposure to EDM (electronic dance music) - it is a $7 billion global market - has dramatically rewired the sonic expectations of this market segment. Sound levels are higher, low frequencies dominate, and synchronised visuals are integral to the performance. But the classical industry still assumes that the neural circuits of its new audience were hardwired in 18th century Vienna. New technologies are still considered heretical in the concert hall, despite the invention of the ondes Martenot in 1928 and its adoption by Messiaen and others, and of the use of a synthesizer as an orchestral instrument in one of the unrecognised masterworks of the 20th century, Valentin Silvestrov's Requiem for Larissa.

It is one of many classical conundrums that electronic compositions are marginalised, while the huge new audience waiting on its doorstep listens to nothing but electronic music. Classical music's duplicitous attitude towards electronic music is shown by coverage of the award of the Giga Hertz Grand Prize to Éliane Radigue. Norman Lebrecht's Slipped Disc has been adopted by the classical music community as its 'go to' online resource. When covering the awardt Lebrecht piously lamented that it may represent "an epitaph for mid-20th century experimentalism". Yet a search of Slipped Disc reveals that Éliane Radigue had never previously been mentioned on the website. Presumably mid-20th century experimentalism died because it is not good click bait.

But some brave souls have tried to bridge the culture gap. Dutch composer Jurriaan Andriessen (1925-1996), who was brother of the better-known Louis Andriessen, studied in Paris with Olivier Messiaen and in the USA with Serge Koussevitsky and Aaron Copland. Although best know for his compositions for conventional orchestral forces - he composed for state ceremonies including the coronation of Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands and wrote the score for the Oscar winning film “The Assault” (1986) - Jurriaan Andriessen recorded three synthesizer albums in the late 1970s and the artwork for these provides the illustrations for my post.

Of particular interest is Jurriaan Andriessen's 1977 album The Awakening Dream which he sub-titled 'A Trance Symphony'. In a nod to the zeitgeist the album takes listeners on an electronic music, rather than hallucinogenic, trip. In a pre-echo of an Eliane Radigue performance and of Robert Rich's Sleep Concerts, Jurriaan Andriessen suggested - without success - that Amsterdam's Van Gogh Museum provide mattresses in one of their exhibition spaces so listeners could lie down and meditate to the music - listen to the album on Open Spotify via this link.

The Awakening Dream was created using a Minimoog Model D, a Fender Rhodes piano, a Hohner Clavinet and a Philicorda organ recording directly on to two-track Revox A77 reel to reel recorders in the Dream Studio, the home studio he built in The Hague; see photo below. What makes the album particularly relevant to this discussion of bridging the audience gap is its alignment with the sound of contemporary non-classical electronic bands such as Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk, rather than that of Stockhausen and his Darmstadt peers. One other very obvious influence is synthesizer pioneer Walter/Wendy Carlos - an important but now forgotten figure who was resoundingly successful at bridging the gap between classical and other genres with the 1968 album Switched on Bach.

My personal route to classical enlightenment was via 1960s/70s prog rock, and it puzzles me why today classical music does not make more effort to reach out to the progressive non-classical audience. This, of course, does not mean dumbing down the classical masterworks, so no Beethoven Nine with added synthesizer. However a recent post discussed the difficulty of finding music to preface that symphony. So how about Beethoven's Ninth prefaced in the first half with Steve Roach's essay in electronica Truth & Beauty? Or Pictures at an Exhibition paired with Brian Eno's 77 Million Paintings, and Mahler's Sixth Symphony following J. Peter Schwalm's The Beauty of Disaster?

Visionary composer and Renaissance man Jonathan Harvey was deeply committed to new technologies. In the 1980s he was invited by Pierre Boulez to work at IRCAM's cutting edge electronic studio in Paris, where he composed another overlooked 20th century masterwork Mortuos Plango, Vivis Voco - listen via this link - and his other notable compositions utilising electronic sounds include Bhakti (for chamber ensemble and quadraphonic tape), Advaya (for cello, electronic keyboard and electronics) and his Fourth String Quartet (with live electronics). One of his later and most ambitious works Speakings uses digitally manipulated speech blended with the orchestra through surround sound speakers, and the scoring includes a precise list of the work's technology requirments.

In a 2010 radio interview with me Jonathan explained that "Young people today, the mass of young people, don’t like concert halls, or not until they’ve been converted... They have no concept of what it is to hear music as soft as a pin dropping, and that kind of delicacy and refinement... I think what the future must bring is things which are considered blasphemous". Of course we can dream, but these blasphemous and, yes, worryingly disruptive ways of connecting with the rewired generation will never happen. Because the artistic alt-right has now comprehensively infiltrated classical music, while the stranglehold of the celebrity artist/super-agency cartel effectively blocks any radical change in the concert hall. Which leaves classical music to choose one of two options. It can continue the audience-chasing race to the bottom currently headed by Lola Astanova. Or it can continue with building acoustically perfect museums of sounds from the past curated by a comfortingly diverse cast of celebrity musicians.

No review samples used in this post. New Overgrown Path posts are available via RSS/email by entering your email address in the right-hand sidebar. Any copyrighted material is included for critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).