Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Classical music's cigarette habit

Edward Gardner's recent propitious appointment as principal conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra received widespread coverage in the classical media. While elsewhere the classical industry has gone all self-congratulatory about its 'woke' credentials - African American vernacular for social awareness - as instanced by Jamie Barton's antics at the Last Night of the Proms. But the London Philharmonic's long-term and sole principal corporate partner JTI has received no similar coverage. Classical fans can be forgiven for assuming that JTI is another one of the nice generous accountancy or law partnerships that conveniently provide a significant slice of classical sponsorship. It is an easy mistake to make: because clicking on every other corporate sponsor logo on the LPO website takes you to the sponsor's home page. But by an unfortunate - or possibly deliberate - oversight the JTI logo is not linked. So to further social awareness let me restore that missing link to the LPO's principal sponsor.

JTI is the international tobacco division of Japan Tobacco, the fifth largest tobacco company in the world with a stable of brands that includes Benson & Hedges, Silk Cut, and outside the US Camel and Winston. Japan Tobacco has a turnover of $20.1 billion and is also heavily involved in the e-cigarette market, a sector coming under increasing scrutiny because of potential health risks. JTI has been funding the London Philharmonic since 2009. However the orchestra is remarkably coy about its principal partner's business activities: my Google search for the term 'London Philharmonic tobacco' returned no results pointing at the orchestras website or that of JTI. But it does return a number of articles critical of the orchestra's long-term tobacco sponsorship, including On An Overgrown Path's 2011 post on classical music's ethically compromised funders.

There is an example of how JTI use their sponsorship of the LPO for ethical whitewashing in a case study by The Prince's Responsible Business Network. The LPO is not the only orchestra with a cigarette habit. Simon Rattle's band the London Symphony Orchestra proudly lists British American Tobacco - the world's second largest cigarette company - as a corporate sponsors; but at least the word 'tobacco' is not redacted on the LSO website. Of course classical music needs to fund its celebrity culture, and rank and file musicians also need paying. But here are the World Health Organisation's headline statistics on smoking. Tobacco kills up to half of its users, and kills more than 8 million people each year. More than 7 million of those deaths are the result of direct tobacco use while around 1.2 million are the result of non-smokers being exposed to second-hand smoke. Around 80% of the world's 1.1 billion smokers live in low- and middle-income countries. Which puts some of the other social causes that classical music gets worked up about into perspective - eg Brexit. It is time that classical music 'woke' up and smelled the smoke.

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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....

No review samples used in this post. My social media accounts are deleted. But 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, 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).