Thursday, August 29, 2019

Adding a visual element makes music more memorable

According to a recent study by the University of Iowa people are more likely to remember something they see than something they hear. Amy Poremba, associate professor of pychology at the university explains that "If you really want something to be memorable you may need to add a visual or hands-on experience". This visual bias is being strengthened by the preeminence of graphic content in digital media - video games, Instagram, Facebook etc. Early in the 20th century the importance of visual stimuli was recognised. Wassily Kandinsky, who was a trained pianist and cellist as well as artist, highlighted the importance of synesthesia, the cross-sensory perceptual fusion of colour and sound. In Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1911) Kandinsky wrote that:
Color directly influences the soul. Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand that plays, touching one key or another purposively, to cause vibrations in the soul.
During the intervening 100 years fusions of colour and sound have been exploited very successfully in events such as the wildly popular Elrow dance music parties - see photo below. Classical music needs to appeal to a wider audience and that means making listening to the music a memorable experience. But the possibilities offered by fusing sound and visuals are not being explored, despite pioneering efforts by synesthesia enthusiast Alexander Scriabin and 'Heavy Organ' exponent Virgil Fox. In fact, while colour and sound have converged in other music genres, they have diverged in the classical tradition, which remains fixated solely on acoustic excellence. Which is illogical given classical music's preoccupation with reaching a wider audience - a cohort steeped in visual stimuli.

But exceptions to this neglect of the visual can be found lurking on the unclassifiable margins of classical music. One of the boldest visual expressions of music comes from ambient composer Robert Rich with his latest and appropriately titled release Tactile Ground. The double CD comes in a gatefold digipak containing a 16 page booklet showcasing the composer's artworks created using the decalcomania technique of colour transfer - see accompanying visuals. In his autobiography the friend of John Cage and Zen proselytizer Alan Watts wrote how:
Conventional music, as well as conventional speech, have given us prejudiced ears, so that we treat all utterances which do not follow their rules as static, or insignificant noise. There was a time when painters, and people in general, saw landscape as visual static - mere background. John [Cage] is calling our attention to sonic landscape, or soundscape, which simultaneously involves a project for cleaning the ears of the musically educated public.
If you have a compatible replay system the track The Sentience Of Touch from Tactile Ground can be sampled streaming in the mp4 format with 442 kbps multichannel sound via this link. With this new multidisciplinary project Robert Rich builds on John Cage's sonic landscapes to create an immersive and engaging experience which provides much food for creative thought. The first step to solving a problem is understanding it. Ein Deutsches Requiem with disco lighting is quite obviously the wrong solution. But understanding and exploring the stimuli that the digital generation responds to is the first step towards solving the problem of how classical music can rejuvenate its audience. There is much that the classical tradition can learn from its trance music cousin....

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Tuesday, August 27, 2019

There are no 'old' and 'new' classical music audiences

There is much talk of classical music's 'new audience'. The belief is that suddenly a large cohort with similar tastes and demographics - hopefully young and cool - will miraculously appear and be drawn into classical music, to replace the 'old audience' - senior in years and most definitely uncool. But this view of the classical audience as two monolithic groups is simply an aberration of misguided marketing folk. There are no 'old' and 'new' audiences. There is one constantly changing audience. Day by day listeners come to classical music, for varying reasons and from different age groups, and listeners also depart the art form, either due to mortality or changed tastes. The classical audience is like water in a leaky bucket. Water drips in from a tap, and drips out through a hole. Each drip happens at a different time, and no two drips are the same. Therefore the water in the bucket is changing all the time. (In social science this is known as an open system.)

Once we understand that the classical audience does not comprise monolithic groups but is fissile and constantly changing, new perspectives open. Every day the membership of the global Western classical audience changes. Newcomers vary in age, income and outlook. But, irrespective of these differences, they share a single and vitally important characteristic - they are all conditioned by the digital zeitgeist. This zeitgeist is rewiring every single one of us: our visual acuity is increasing, speed of gratification is a priority, and attention spans are shortening dramatically. The average time spent by a web page visitor is 2 minutes 17 seconds and 55% of visitors spend less than 15 seconds on a page, while visit durations for the ubiquitous social media are even shorter.

But other than cosmetic tinkering such as informal concert dress, the concert hall has singularly failed to come to terms with this fundamental rewiring of audiences. Instead classical programming continue to be built around the traditional format of amuse-bouche - concerto - interval - symphony, but with added virtue signalling. It is one of many classical music paradoxes that the digital zeitgeist is zealously embraced in the recorded domain - streaming etc - but is viewed as heretical in the concert hall. However two innovative new recording projects acknowledge how the monkey minds of the digital generation leap from experience to experience at an ever increasing rate

Pianist Jeremy Denk's 'c.1300 - c.2000' originated from a 2016 Lincoln Center commission for the venue's innovative White Light Festival, with a brief to "come up with an unusual piano recital, something like a happening or an installation". In its double CD incarnation the project ranges across twenty-five different pieces from seven centuries in 100 minutes. In a startling example of the classical establishment's failure to grasp the digital zeitgeist, a damning Gramophone review of 'c.1300 - c.2000' criticised the inclusion of just a single movement of a Beethoven Sonata. The review then went on to lament the absence of virtue signalling - "And that’s even before we get into the objections of having the history of classical music told via a few works by a few great white men".

Another lower profile but no less notable example of programming for the monkey mind is 'White Light - the space between'. This is a Signum Classics release with the iconoclastic O/Modernt Chamber Orchestra from Sweden directed by violinist Hugo Ticciati with soloists Matthew Barley (cello), Soumik Datta (sarod), and Sukhvinder Singh (tabla). In 117 minutes this puzzlingly overlooked project traverses Arvo Pärt, Pēteris Vasks, John Tavener with sarod improvisations, saccharine free Lennon and McCartney arrangements, and a raga by sarod master Amjad Ali Khan. 'White Lights' caters with consumate flair and integrity for the musical monkey mind, but avoids sampling and even includes a complete performance of Pēteris Vasks' 32 minute violin concerto 'Distant Light'. (OK, the two Tavener tracks are excerpted from 'The Veil of the Temple', but the complete work does last for seven hours.)

Hugo Ticciati's 'White Light - the space between' is lovingly presented in CD format, with erudite sleeve essays and the Antony Gormley cover art seen above. The album takes its title, as does the Lincoln Center's Festival that commissioned 'c.1300 - c.2000', from Arvo Pärt. He explained how: "I could compare my music to white light which contains all colours. Only a prism can divide the colours and make them appear; this prism could be the spirit of the listener". That defining prism is being redefined by the digital zeitgeist. 'White Light - the space between' and 'c.1300 - c.2000' may not be game changers. But they at least recognise the urgent need to redefine the classical audience.

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Sunday, August 25, 2019

Petulance from an exhibition

With physical media still accounting for the majority of classical sales, and with attention spans shortening and visual cues becoming more important, it is a mystery as to why graphic design is the poor relation in classical music. It is doubly puzzling when taking into account that today's record label art directors have free rein over sleeve art. Back in the 1970s and 80s when sleeve design and liner notes came within my remit at EMI's International Classical Division, all the top artists had the right of artwork approval written into their contracts. Above is the sleeve for Riccardo Muti's 1979 debut recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra which was created on my watch. The venue for the photo shoot, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, was relevant, and in recognition of Muti's already super-sized ego we made sure not a hair was out of place. But the maestro ran true to form and hated the cover with a passion, and it took considerable persuasion before his approval was given.

The recording venue was the old and decrepit Met Church building in Philadelphia which was built as an opera house in 1908 by Oscar Hammerstein 1 (grandfather of the famous lyricist-librettist). The Met Church was in a very rough part of the city. I remember desperately trying to find a cab for Muti in the rather tough street outside the Met in tropical heat at the end of one session. Muti appreciated my efforts by saying - 'If this had been a Deutsche Grammophon session they would have arranged a limo'. And that is how you come to earn $2,716,488 a year.

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Saturday, August 24, 2019

In praise of background music

Background music in restaurants and elsewhere receives a very bad press from the classical cognoscenti. But others have a different view:
We must bring about a music which is like furniture, a music, that is, which will be part of the noises of the environment, will take them into consideration. I think of it as a melodious, softening the noises of the knives and forks, not dominating them, not imposing itself. It would fill up those heavy silences that sometimes fall between friends dining together. It would spare them the trouble of paying attention to their own banal remarks. And at the same time it would neutralize the street noises which so indiscreetly enter into the play of conversation. To make such a noise would respond to need.
Above is the album produced by Brian Jones and posthumously released in 1971 of the Master Musicians of Jajouka. Brian Jones discovery of the Master Musicians playing in Brion Gysin's Tangier restaurant 1001 Nights launched them on a global career and seeded the growth of the World Music market. My exploration of the legendary Jajouka musicians, written in collaboration with Rolling Stones biographer and Michael Jackson ghost-autobiographer Stephen Davis, can be read at Revisiting the Master Musicians.

But that quote does not come from anybody with connections to Brian Jones or World Music. Erik Satie influenced John Cage - the silence loving composer quoted the passage above in his mesostic 'James Joyce, Marcel Duchamp, Erik Satie: An Alphabet'. Satie was also an important influence on the evolution of minimalism. Today's social media homework assignment is to debate the proposition that Erik Satie was wrong about background music*.

* Quote is Erik Satie as quoted by Fernand Léger, in Alan M. Gillmor, Erik Satie (Boston: Twayne,1988),  232. 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).

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Imagine there is no audience

In a refreshingly thoughtful sleeve essay for the lovingly remastered and presented reissue of the 1980 double album Oregon in Performance the MOJO contributor Charles Waring writes:
Humans, it seems, appear to have a need - some would even call it a compulsion - to categorise everything they perceive and experience. While this is good for recognition purposes and can be used as a systematic index to classify things that we see, taste, smell and hear, this labelling can often fall short of what it's supposed to do (that is, distinguish one thing from another) and in some cases leads to confusion - after all, some things are beyond category and defy pigeonholing.

Take music, for example. It's an area of human creativity that for many years has been divided and subdivided into myriad styles, genres and sub-genres, initially largely for marketing purposes. Music is chopped up, dissected and compartmentalised into myriad boxes - from pop, classical, rock and Latin to country, jazz, blues, funk and many, many more. Then each category can be subdivided again several times more - jazz, for instance, can be broken down into bebop, post bop, free jazz, west coast jazz, modal jazz, spiritual jazz, smooth jazz and so on. But some artists' music doesn't fall comfortably into one distinct category or stylistic zone, and can overlap into and embrace several different genres, which only succeeds in making redundant the whole concept of classification.
Charles Waring's message is that acoustic ensemble Oregon defy classification, a sentiment I have expressed here before. But his eloquent argument against pigeonholing by genre can be extended beyond music to the audience. Western classical music dreams about a 'new audience' and a 'young audience', and the music industry categorises listeners into 'rock audiences', 'EDM audiences', 'jazz audiences' etc etc. But such segmentation is, as Charles Waring points out, a marketing artifact with little other real relevance. Is there a single person in this world who has listened only to classical or only to jazz? Of course not. There is a vast overlap between audiences, an overlap which is ignored by marketeers because it undermines their neatly compartmentalised promotional campaigns.

There is only one audience, and that comprises every single person who listens to music. If we accept there is only one audience it is a short but daring step to accepting there is no audience. Because an audience as a sub-group of the population - eg classical audience - can only be defined by that group's common characteristics. However there are no common characteristics: because we all hear music differently and have varying but overlapping tastes. If you drill down through the classical audiences they disintegrate into smaller and smaller sub-groups, until eventually the artificial concept of an audience disintegrates and disappears. There are no definable audiences; just a huge universe of listeners waiting to be inspired and moved by great music, irrespective of how that music is pigeonholed.

Imagine there's no audience
It's easy if you try
No critics below us
Above us only music

Imagine there's no social media
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to like or tweet for
And no Facebook, too

You may say that I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And music will be as one

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