Building classical music's viral loop

Tastemaker blogs have replaced the mainstream media as the arbiters of cool in rock and my recent experience confirms that the same is happening in classical music. When the opportunity came to interview Jonathan Harvey I did not have to think twice about accepting and the photo below shows me with the compose during the recording. The interview for Future Radio was built around the new recording of his Speakings for large orchestra and electronics but it also contained a question about the future of classical music. As soon as I played back the unedited recording I realised that Jonathan Harvey's views on classical music's "silly conventions" were going to be of interest far beyond the usual niche audience for contemporary music.

Packaging the story in a reader friendly form on my own blog and via Facebook and Twitter, and in a press release for the mainstream media produced some interesting results. A number of tastemaker classical blogs picked the story up and ran with it, including Alex Ross via Twitter, Patty at Oboe Insight, James Primosch, Antoine Leboyer and Lyle Sanford. The mainstream media added to the momentum with the Observer running two separate stories. The whole of page 10 of the Observer news section was devoted to the story on the day the interview aired, with Julian Lloyd Webber appearing for the defence of musical conventions, while elsewhere in the paper Hildegard of Bingen's biographer Fiona Maddocks came up with this enlightened response to amplified classical music, "It's an idea, but I doubt it will catch on". Not to be outdone the Telegraph reminded us that silly conventions are alive and kicking by coupling the story with a photo of the Last Night of the Proms.

Despite this coverage in the broadsheets and on American blogs and a Jonathan Harvey Proms performance on the day the interview was broadcast, the BBC did not pick up on the story, not even a Buzz, and neither did the UK bloggers who freelance for the BBC. Which left it to two little known British websites to provide the most thoughtful responses, Scottish composer Thomas Butler's blog and Peter Woolf's site devoted to "niche musics".

So a little piece of pro bono work built its own viral loop and reached quite a lot of people who probably never listen to contemporary classical music. No, the interview did not change the direction of classical music. But emails from readers show it sold copies of Speakings and the Future Radio podcast logs show a record number of downloads for the programme. A pleasing result but we should not rest on our laurels. Rock music's tastemaker blogs seem to be better at breaking new talent, perhaps because they are more independent of the mainstream media than their classical counterparts. Classical music blogs, including this one, are also particularly insular, both geographically and stylistically; this insularity works against the collective creation of the all important viral loop that is the key to breaking new talent and reaching new audiences. Finally, we could do with some new, fresh and younger classical tastemaker blogs. I hate ageism, but the top 25 classical blogs are sporting a lot of grey hair these days.

But enough of putting the world to rights, let's get back to the music. An interesting Reuters article about rock tastemaker blogs says "Modern-day bloggers —who often have day jobs — only have time to write about bands they actually like". Which is my cue to share with you my enthusiasm for a new CD that features in the photos seen here and which certainly deserves to be part of classical music's viral loop.

Path from Louth Contemporary Music's own label is one of those rare 'stop you dead in your tracks' discs. From the very first bars it is clear that something quite exceptional has been captured; this is an intelligently planned programme of important music played by exceptional musicians and recorded in demonstration quality sound. Of the nine works on the disc, eight are given world premiere recordings including two by Arvo Pärt and two by John Tavener. The first two tracks are premiere recordings of two movements of Chang Music IV by the Uzbek composer Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky played by the Carducci Quartet and the price of the disc is justified by those 15 minutes of music alone. Add to that Ewige Ruhe (Eternal Peace) from another Uzbek composer, Polina Medyulyanova, a quartet movement from Georgian Zurab Nadarejshvili and The Spell III for violin and electronics by Serbian Aleksandra Vrebalov and you have what looks to be a strong contender for my 2010 disc of the year.

This post started out with Jonathan Harvey questioning some of classical music's silly conventions. Path also questions established conventions. The disc departs from the single composer and single work convention. Every featured composer is living, they are geographically and ethnically diverse, two are women, the music is performed by forces that range from a guitar quartet through to the combination of voice, flute and tampura (John Tavener's Sámaveda) and the recordings were made in four different locations across two countries . The release also swims against the download tide and comes as a beautifully packaged CD complete with that threatened artform of the MP3 world, session photos, some of which accompany this post. Finally, the introductory essay by Ivan Moody quotes Dostoyevsky and Nono rather than Charles Hazlewood.

Path is the second release from one of the smallest and most fragile of the new breed of musician run independent labels. On the day it arrived I had been listening to two disappointing new 'pot boiler' releases from independent label artists that are usually among my enthusiasms, Jordi Savall's Folias Criollas and the Hilliard Ensemble and Jan Garbarek's Officium Novum. When I heard Louth Contemporary Music's first release last year I wrote "If I were CEO of a major corporate record label I would send a copy of A Place Between to every member of my classical division". Can someone now please send a copy of Path to AliaVox and ECM?

* UK release date for Path is November 1. My copy was a review sample and the title is not a complete coincidence, as the 'thanks and acknowledgements' in the CD booklet confirm.

** Viral Loop is a new book by Adam L. Penenberg. Here’s how it works: you hear a piece of music you enjoy and you tell a friend. That friend tells another friend, the next friend tells the next, and so on and so forth, until the recording becomes that year’s word-of-mouth bestseller. That first recommendation gives birth to many. Simple, and the concept of pass-it-on is not so new and not so revolutionary, think Tupperware parties. But it is the business model which powers internet stars such as Google, eBay, Flickr and Facebook.

*** There is a good chance to get in the viral loop and discard some of classical music's conventions in the Britten Studio at Snape this Saturday evening (Oct 9). Composer Tansy Davies, who has been described as being ‘between Xenakis and Prince’ has worked with the Azalea Ensemble in an Aldeburgh residency creating music for a new CD . Saturday's gig showcases her new compositions and ends with a set from composer-DJ, Gabriel Prokofiev who has been described as ‘Stravinsky for the club generation'. Reassuringly Aldeburgh Music tell us that the bar will be open.

**** Terry Riley and Talvin Singh are appearing in a Louth Contemporary Music concert in Dundalk on Oct 29.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. My copy of Viral Loop was borrowed from Norwich Millenium Library. Photo 2 is (c) On An Overgrown Path 2010. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk V2.0


Pliable said…
Version 1.0 of this post misattributed a quote to Gabriel Prokofiev that was in fact made by Tony Wilson of Factory Records, not Gabriel Prokofiev. The quote has now been removed.
amazing blog!!!

hope you dont mind that I suggest you and your readers to listen to a different type of classical music

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