Classical music must return to its esoteric roots
"My column on the problem with classical music and how a large proportion of R3’s audience should hurry up and die - independent.co.uk/arts-entertain..."Let’s ignore the curious anomaly that on Twitter you can be ageist but not racist, and instead let’s drill down into that tweet. Arts commentator Fiona Sturges tweeted it recently to trail her column in the Independent which was headlined "Radio 3 needs an audience beyond this tiny elite" and which ended with this sentiment:
“...we can only hope... classical music will emerge from the dusty cupboard where it has long resided. And perhaps, by some miracle, it will persuade [BBC Radio 3's] longstanding, determinedly short-sighted, Twitter-loathing listeners to get with the programme and quit their bloody moaning”.You might not think so, but the irony is that Fiona Sturges and myself are saying the same thing – we both think BBC Radio 3 needs to change. But the difference is that, unlike me, Ms Sturges is an iPod generation journalist and therefore doesn’t do facts, she just does sound-bytes. As has been shown here previously by reference to independent audience data, there is no evidence of the existence of a mass market for classical music. And more importantly there is no evidence that social media coupled with entertainment-style presentation can create one. In fact the decline in the combined audience for Radio 3 and Classic FM shows that not only is the classical music mass market a fallacy, but the attempt to create one is alienating the existing audience. In fact many of classical music’s current woes can be attributed to futile attempts to herd minority interest groups spread across many small niches into a single mass market group that lacks any common interest.
It is difficult to grasp what solution Fiona Sturges is actually proposing other than sending Radio 3’s longstanding audience one-way tickets to the Dignitas Clinic in Switzerland and giving the station's classical jocks free rein. And that is the problem, sound-bytes solve nothing. Of course classical music needs to extend it audience, but it must also retain its core listeners, otherwise the baby goes out with the bathwater – which is what is happening at Radio 3. Ms Sturges’ article is also notably short of case studies illustrating how classical music can successfully extended its audience. Positive examples are something that are featured here whenever possible, and recently I quoted Norman Perryman reporting on one of his kinetic art experiments with pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard – here are Norman’s precise words "I’ve never seen hundreds of young people so happy after listening/watching, entranced with classical music. Don’t tell me there isn’t a future audience for the classics – and we’re talking about modern classics too!"
When I saw Norman and Pierre-Laurent's kinetic experiment at Aldeburgh - see header image - I was reminded of a quote from someone else who pushes the creative envelope, the Turkish Sufi musician Kudsi Erguner; they are words which echo Fiona Sturges’, albeit rather more eloquently:
Art must not be fixed in the past, or it becomes a dried-up tradition, comparable to a dead language. If an artist with a traditional heritage truly lives his or her art, it is contemporary art expressed in a specific language.Sufism is an esoteric tradition that uses kinetic performance to open the door to a new level of awareness and consciousness, and it does this by looking inward rather than outward. For years classical music has been trying to lead new audiences through a similar door to a new level of awareness, but the mantra of accessibility and the shadow of elitism has meant that it has shunned the esoteric. Instead classical music has taken the exoteric route using external stimuli such as celebrity presenters, classical charts and social media campaigns. Which ignores the vital point that appreciating classical music is an esoteric rather than exoteric experience, and the listener can only pass through the door to musical awareness when something is triggered within the self.
Kinetic performances are just one way of triggering esoteric experiences. Music education and its cousin music therapy are others, and heretical developments such as judicious amplification and etiquette-free concerts may also act as triggers, while convention-challenging contemporary music certainly has a role to play. But, above all, hearing - or even better performing - live music is the key to that crucial esoteric experience. Classical music should end its love affair with the exoteric and instead focus on replicating the epiphany that came in a far distant childhood when my parents took me to a Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra concert that ended with Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony.
In her chronicle of Joni Mitchell’s ‘blue’ period Michelle Mercer explains how “… studies have shown that the music we meet at our most self-involved, in adolescence, is the music that hits us deepest”. More than fifty years ago something happened inside me during the third movement march of Tchaikovsky’s symphony; although I did not know it at the time I had experienced an esoteric revelation which, literally, changed the course of my life. My first classical record was Karajan's account of the Pathetique, that is my 1969 Deutsche Grammophon LP above; it plays in all its vinyl glory as I write and still sounds persuasively esoteric. Fiona Sturges' tactic of ridiculing existing loyal audiences is counterproductive as well as offensive; if classical music really wants to emerge from the dusty cupboard and connect with new audiences it must return to its esoteric roots. There is more on the potential of this market in 'Classical music's $11 billion opportunity'.
* My header quote is from Journeys of a Sufi Musician by Kudsi Erguner, a musician who has challenged traditional mindsets by working with artists as diverse as Peter Brook, Maurice Béjart, Jean-Michel Jarre and Peter Gabriel. The importance of this book is indicated by Peter Brook supplying the foreword, and chapter headings such as 'Traditional Music and Modernity', 'Meetings with Peter Brook', 'Journeys in Afghanistan' and 'Islam, Sufism and the Modern World'. A CD of Kudsi Erguner playing the ney reed flute in traditional Mevlevi Sufi music is included. Need I say more?
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