Thursday, January 23, 2020

When the audience changes, classical music must change


Classical music has reached a crucial tipping point. Since Edison invented the phonograph in 1877 concert hall performances have been the reference sound against which recordings are judged. But recent fundamental changes in listening habits - mobile devices, streaming, Bluetooth, quality earbuds, etc - mean that recordings are now the reference sound against which most listeners judge concert hall performances. And the refusal of the classical industry to acknowledge that far-reaching change is undermining attempts to connect with a wider new audience.

This year we celebrate the Beethoven anniversary. In a 2014 New Yorker article Alex Ross described how Beethoven was "a phenomenon of dazzling and disconcerting force" and how due to his impact "listening underwent a fundamental change". It is incontestable that new technologies have arrived with disconcerting force, and that there have been axiomatic changes in listening habits. But where in today's classical music are those dazzling forces of innovation? How can there be fundamental changes in listening when the demand from the classical cognoscenti is for established reperoire played in acoustically-perfect concert halls conforming strictly to 18th century sonic conventions, and for new music that is really new old music? Classical music should be pushing the creative envelope. But in recent years it has become more about licking the envelope containing the approved next big thing.

Seven years ago I wrote about a new recording by the contemporary Catalan composer Ramón Humet. My piece was one of the few, if not the only, English language article drawing attention to this important emerging composer and to the new adventurous Spanish label Neu Records that made the recording. But in an otherwise positive article I questioned the wisdom of Neu offering an optional FLAC 5.1 download locating the listener in the middle of the musicians. At the time my view was that recordings should be accurate reproductions of concert hall performances, and the audience does not sit in the middle of the musicians in a concert. But I readily admit that my view has now changed dramatically. Because technology and audiences have changed dramatically. Listeners today do not want museums of sound, they want new experiences in sound - which is exactly what Beethoven gave his audiences.

Since 2013 Neu records has continued to put their music where their mouth is, and have followed up the Ramón Humet release with discs of music by, among others, Bernat Vivancos and Morton Feldman, all with hi-res and surround sound options. Their latest release titled 'Images of Broken Light' features music by the contemporary Catalan composer Josep Maria Guix who was taught and praised by Jonathan Harvey. The ensemble compositions are played by the London Sinfonietta conducted by Geoffrey Patterson, and there are chamber works for violin, cello and piano. 'Images of Broken Light' comes beautifully package with a standard 44.1 kHz 16-bit CD, an erudite sleeve essay by Ramón Humet, and a code for downloading HD FLAC, HD ALAC – Stereo and Surround 5.1 – 24 bit 96 kHz formats, see header image. Josep Maria Guix's preoccupation with the tersely enigmatic haiku form means his music is ideally suited to Neu's exemplary production values. As I have come to expect from the Spanish label, the music and technical execution are superb, and this time I will not complain about the surround mixes.

Neu Records's driving force Santi Barguñó was ahead of the curve with his surround sound and hi-res experiments in 2013 and I was behind the curve. The ubiquitous impact of digital technologies means that classical audiences have changed, and as Aaron Copland told us 'When the audience changes, the music changes'. But how can the music change when it is trapped in stringently curated museums of sound? Observations by well-qualified people that "Beethoven would be making electronic music today" and "If Beethoven lived today, he would perhaps he would have been found next to a DJ... he was an avant-gardist and modernist who experimented and tried things" have been studiously ignored by the classical great and good. In the established repertoire the score may be sacred, but the sound is not. New audiences want their music up close and personal, but instead they are given a sonic experience defined by 18th century conventions. Digital technologies present infinite experimental possibilities for sound shaping and immersive sonics. Wagner shaped the sound in his Bayreuth Festpielhaus with the Schalldeckel, a wood and leather diffusing hood over the orchestra pit. Where in a Beethoven score does it stipulate the acoustic in which the music must be played? Where are today's experimenters?

Claude Debussy famously declared that music is the silence between the notes; but with new technologies music can also be the space around the notes. In their artistic manifesto Neu Records describe how "21st century composers are in a unique situation, with an inexhaustible range of technical resources, highly refined musical languages, the aesthetic perspective gained from the cutting edge of the twentieth century, and technological developments that multiply exponentially the ways listeners can access music". I would extend that and say the 21st century classical industry is in a unique situation, with an inexhaustible range of technical resources available to connect it to an audience dramatically rewired by new technologies. What a crying shame that classical music remains in denial about this unique opportunity.

'Images of Broken Light' was a requested review sample. 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, January 21, 2020

All is not lost, but where is it?


Beethoven, Stockhausen, Beecham, Copland, Fauré, Dukas, Messiaen, Hovhaness, Orff, Handel, Marvin Gaye and Bob Marley are quoted in the artwork for fluid world music collective Suns of Arqa's album Shabda. Another of their albums featuring classically-trained Australian flautist Raja Ram (aka Ronald Rothfield) is seen above and provides my headline. Its title All Is Not Lost, But Where Is It? is a good summary of the state of classical music today.

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Saturday, January 18, 2020

Strange but true - Beethoven retired to Saudi Arabia


There is good news for those already tired of the hype surrounding the Beethoven anniversary: Beethoven has retired to Saudi Arabia. Yes, it sounds like a story from Slipped Disc, but this one is true. Beethoven was a race-winning stallion - offspring of the dam Moonlight Sonata - based in North America who has retired to Saudi Arabia for stud duty (If that doesn't prompt a Slipped Disc exclusive nothing will.) Read more in Thoroughbred Express.

Beethoven image transformed from Ale Montosi blog. 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, January 16, 2020

An African-American in Moscow


In 1938 Fritz Reiner conducted Henry Kimball Hadley's concert overture 'In Bohemia' at a memorial concert for the composer. Now a very powerful new video from Moscow of the Novaya Russiya Orchestra playing 'In Bohemia' conducted by John McLaughlin Williams - seen above - has appeared on YouTube. Today Hadley is a forgotten figure, but he once played a leading role in American music. In 1911 he became the founding conductor of the San Francisco Symphony, the first American-born musician to hold a major conducting position, and he was associate conductor of the New York Philharmonic from 1921 to 1927. As a major figure in the early years of Hollywood film music he conducted the New York Philharmonic for the soundtrack of Warner Bros' 1926 film Don Juan starring John Barrymore, which was the first movie with synchronized music. He composed the score for the 1927 Barrymore film When a Man Loves, and among his other compositions are five symphonies (listen to symphonies 2 and 4 here and here) and five operas.

This Moscow concert video intrigued me as today performances of Henry Kimball Hadley's music are very rare. So I asked John McLaughlin Williams for the backstory, which he provided as follows:

My agent is Lena Khandros of Momentum Artists. She made the gig happen. Lena is Ukrainian and Jewish by birth and a longtime citizen here. She worked her magic in ways unknown to me. An American organization called the Foundation for Cultural Engagement was greatly involved in making my appearance happen. The concert was under the auspices of the Moscow Philharmonic Society and the orchestra is Novaya Russiya, which is Yuri Bashmet's orchestra. The concert program was billed as "Hollywood Melodies" and it was conceived and largely programmed by the Ivanov Brothers, Mikhail and Andrey, who are famous Russian jazz musicians. The concert also featured three singers: Chuck Wansley (an American song stylist presently residing in Prague), Mariam Merabova (nationally famous over there as a blues singer), and Tatiana Pavlovskaya (world famous operatic soprano resident at the Mariinsky). The performance was in the famous Tchaikovsky Hall.

Though the program featured the Ivanov brothers, I was asked to provide a program opener and in keeping with the American orientation of the extant program, Hadley's showstopper came to mind immediately. The concert's first half began with that and continued with some famous Sinatra arrangements featuring Chuck. I did Morgen (from Strauss' Four Last Songs) with Tatiana (wonderful!) and also did some choice Mancini: Breakfast at Tiffany's, Charade, and his arrangement of Jesus Christ Superstar. Tatiana is a world-class singer: in fact, all these folks are famous in their own fields.

The second half featured the Ivanovs and was constructed like a detective story with music. This half began with Mancini's Pink Panther and went on to feature the big main title songs from James Bond films. The singers delivered these in various combinations along with copious extemporizations from the Ivanov brothers' and their two bandmates. All were excellent. The concert was sold out and was apparently a great success. There was a lot of P.R. for it and the entire concert will be available for online viewing. That's pretty much it. I got an opportunity and tried to make the most of it! I'm presently inquiring about future recording.
We can all learn from John's self-effacing observation that "I got an opportunity and tried to make the most of it". But this story raises two important questions. Why does Henry Kimball Hadley's music have to travel to Moscow to receive the attention it deserves? And why, despite the much-celebrated 'Sheku effect', does John McLaughlin Williams have to travel to Moscow to receive the attention he deserves?

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Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Why it is better to have your head in the clouds

Climbing to high altitudes takes you away from the human made world. It breaks you apart from the memes of everyday reality. And when you have set your mind apart, that's when you can receive a vision.
Tim Ward's Zombies on Kilimanjaro provides that quote and the headline is paraphrased from Henry David Thoreau - 'It is better to have your head in the clouds, and know where you are... than to breathe the clearer atmosphere below them, and think that you are in paradise'. That Alan Hovhaness' Symphony No. 2 'Mysterious Mountain' was championed by Fritz Reiner with his Chicago Symphony Orchestra is a very good reason for restoring it to its rightful place in the concert hall. Classical music's big opportunity is neglected music....

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