Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Why classical radio must change or die

Reaction to Alan Davey’s appointment as controller of BBC Radio 3 has been predictably facile. The Guardian fulfilled its role as part of the BBC PR machine with a sycophantic piece by arts editor Charlotte Higgins titled Alan Davey: why Radio 3 have hired well in this former punk enthusiast. It takes a lot to reduce me to tears of laughter, but Ms. Higgins assertion that “Within the BBC itself, audience figures are not the main priority for Radio 3” certainly had tears of mirth rolling down my cheeks; as did her assertion that Alan Davey’s appointment was justified by the size of his CD collection. In the opposing camp, Norman Lebrecht’s outpouring of vitriol suggests that the designate Radio 3 controller dented Lebrecht’s Rolls Royce in the Arts Council car park at some time in the past; either that or Lebrecht craved after the post that Davey was appointed to. Among the fence sitters, the self-styled Friends of Radio 3 used the appointment of a new controller to express - for the umpteenth time - the hope that the classical network would revert to its former name of the Third Programme and that the presenters - sorry announcers - would once again wear dinner jackets while on air.

Missing from the coverage by industry experts was one glaringly obvious fact - that the name in the frame is far less important than what is happening around the frame. Despite Charlotte Higgins’ risible assertion, the reality is that BBC Radio 3 needs an audience more than the audience needs Radio 3. Because new digital technologies in the form of mobile audio players, internet radio, audio-on-demand and, above all, music streaming, have made one-size-fits-all classical radio as perpetuated by Radio 3 and its role model Classic FM redundant.

There is no mass market for classical music. What comes under the umbrella heading of classical music is actually a granular agglomeration of diverse but overlapping niches, and the new digital distribution channels enable listeners in all those different niches to very precisely personalise their listening. Classical radio audiences are not falling because classical music has become less appealing. They are falling because BBC Radio 3 and virtually every other classical radio station has chosen to ignore the increasing fragmentation of audiences, and, instead, has pursued a futile strategy of chasing a non-existent mass audience with one-size-fits-nobody programming. The reason why classical radio lost one million listeners in twelve months in the UK is that the early and mid-adopters of new digital distribution channels have abandoned traditional radio, and all that is left is a fast diminishing rump of technology late-adopters.

There is a future for classical radio; but only if the medium wakes-up to what is happening in the real world. Bland one-size-fits-nobody programming must be abandoned, to be replaced by granular niche content that adds the value of authority to the anonymous streaming that is fast becoming the distribution platform of choice. The rapid uptake of audio-on-demand apps such as iPlayer means classical radio has become an alternative form of streaming, and the big opportunity for BBC Radio 3 is to position itself as the primary source of rich niche content accessed both by real time broadcasting and streaming.

The current wall-to-wall easy listening programming must be replaced by a matrix of challenging and informative niche content - early, contemporary, sacred, world music, drama etc - edited and presented by people who know what they are talking about. But that will require a sea change at Radio 3: because among the many things lost from the station during the dark years of Nicholas Kenyon and Roger Wright has been authority, with knowledgeable and opinionated contributors such as Leo Black, Robert Simpson and Hans Keller being replaced by ex-Classic FM celebrity classical jocks such as Petroc Trelawny and Katie Derham. (The Guardian revelation that Petroc Trelawny was a contender for the Radio 3 controller post also reduced me to tears, but they were not of laughter).

Charlotte Higgins has never been more wrong when she opines that at Radio 3 Alan Davey should “not rock the boat too much”. All objective measures show that Radio 3 is holed below the waterline and sinking fast. As I am not a beneficiary of the BBC’s considerable largesse, and as my Rolls Royce hasn’t been dented recently, I am not going to express a view on whether Alan Davey is the person to save the sinking ship. But what I do know is that it will take more than a very large CD collection to allow Radio 3 to survive the transition from the old world where it had a virtual monopoly on broadcast classical music, to the new world where Radio 3 is just another player on a large, crowded and not very level playing field.

Header photo first appeared in Do the arts need wide or deep audiences? Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Thought for the future

When one comes to think of it one cannot help feeling that nearly half the misery of the world would disappear if we fretting mortals knew the value of silence. Before modern civilisation came upon us at least six to eight hours of silence out of twenty four were vouchsafed to us. Modern civilisation has taught us to convert night into day and golden silence into brazen din and noise. What a great thing it would be if we in our busy lives could restore into ourselves each day for at least a couple of hours and prepare our minds to listen to the Voice of the Great Silence. The Divine Radio is always singing if we could only make ourselves ready to listen to it, but it is impossible to listen without silence… ~ Mahatma Gandhi
Photo was taken by me in Ladakh on the Bailey bridge crossing the Indus river approaching the Tibetan Buddhist monastery of Stakna which can be seen on the hill ahead. The bridge is so narrow that cars have to fold in their mirrors to cross it! Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

When classical music danced to the rhythms of Mother India

Edward Elgar, Gustav Holst, Kaikhosru Sorabji and John Foulds may seem unlikely bedfellows. Elgar and Holst have achieved global recognition if not acclaim, Sorabji has a small but select cult following, but Foulds lingers in the twilight zone between cultism and global acclaim. However, as recounted in an earlier post, the four composers are brought together in Nalini Ghuman's newly published Resonances of the Raj: India in the English Musical Imagination,1897-1947, because they share the cultural influence of colonial India. The accompanying photos capture the exotic and esoteric mysticism of a sacred tantric ritual in northern India, and the culture of pre-partition India permeated the English musical imagination via Theosophy, an esoteric philosophy that made this kind of exotic Eastern mysticism fashionable for Western dilettantes long before the Beatles visited Rishikesh.

Among those attracted by Theosophy were John Foulds (1880-1939) and his wife the violinist Maud MacCarthy. Foulds had his fifteen minutes of social media fame in 2007 when his theosophically-tinged World Requiem had an Armistice Day outing. It was an unfortunate choice, prompted more by spin potential than musical merit, because as Andrew Clement explained in the Guardian: "Most of the unwieldy and sometimes banal score lacks even the moments of originality that make some of Foulds's orchestral music intriguing". Coincidentally, another composer who dabbled in Theosophy, Edmund Rubbra, has also been victim of opportunist programming - aka audience whoring - when his potboiler Ode to the Queen was programmed at the Proms in the royal jubilee year of 2013 in preference to any of his magnificent and virtually unknown symphonies. Another English composer, Sir Malcolm Arnold, has suffered the same fate: his music has become a regular Last Night of the Proms novelty, and this year his Peterloo Overture was 'improved' by adding specially commissioned lyrics from - I joke not - Tim Rice, with the full approval of royalty conscious Faber Music and Arnold estate. Meanwhile, Sir Malcolm's masterly symphonies, one of which addresses the rampant jingoism seen at the Last Night, continue to suffer death by Mahler.

However, John Foulds has fared rather better despite the over-hyping of his World Requiem, and his more original and intriguing music has been championed in a more balanced fashion by, among others, Sakari Oramo. For those who want to know more, a double CD of Foulds' music from Sakari Oramo and the City Of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra on Warner's super-budget Apex label is recommended. This includes his Indian influenced Three Mantras from Avatara, which are orchestral extractions from his enigmatic and abandoned Sanskrit opera, Avatara.

At the core of Theosophy as espoused by H.P. (Madame) Blavatsky in Victorian times were telepathic instructions received by her from Himalayan Mahatmas - esoteric masters who dwelt in the Himalayas. Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947), who collaborated with Igor Stravinsky on the creation of the ballet The Rite of Spring, was a prominent Theosophist, and in 1925 Roerich's search for the legendary Himalayan Mahatmas took him to Hemis monastery in the disputed Ladakh region of India. The accompanying photos were taken by me during the sacred dance festival at Hemis. Located at an altitude of 11,800 feet in the Himalayas, Hemis is one of the most inaccessible Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, and its remote location meant it was the only monastery in Ladakh to escape plundering by Mongol invaders in the 17th century. Roerich may not have visited the monastery until twelve years after the infamous premiere of Stravinsky's ballet; but perhaps the Himalayan Mahatmas invoked the Law of Reversal to help him create its scenario. The Rite of Spring celebrates a pagan ritual, and Central Asian Shamanism influenced both Russian and Tibetan culture. Vajrayana Buddhism as practiced in Ladakh still contains elements of Tibet's indigenous shamanistic Bönpo religion, and it is surely not too fanciful to suggest that the masks and costumes seen in my photos could have come from a contemporary production of The Rite.

Masked dance rituals are a core practice in the Buddhist tantric Vajrayana tradition. Like the Kalachakra empowerment, these ritual dances are a form of divine blessing that is said to benefit both Buddhists and non-Buddhists. The Hemis monastery's official guide to the Festival says that among the auspicious benefits to those attending is that: "Their power will increase and local gods of the land will assist them". When I attended in 2014, the Hemis Tsechu Festival with its sacred masked dances took place on 7/8th July. The start is fixed as the 10th lunar day in the 5th Monkey lunar month of the Tibetan calendar, and the Festival celebrates Guru Padmasambhava, who was born on that day twelve years after the Buddha died. All the celebrants in the sacred festival come from the monastery's community of five hundred monks. The dancers, who represent protective and meditative protective deities, perform their solemn choreography accompanied by drums, cymbals and wind-instruments. The masks and silk costumes use visual cues originating from the 18th century Buddhist master artist Zopa Pale, and the origin of the dances goes back to 811 CE when Guru Padmasambhava performed the black hat tantric dance to banish evil spirits from the region. In my photo above, the sacred thangka that is displayed during the sacred dances, can be seen on the monastery wall.

The tantric masked dances at Hemis are a glorious expression of folk Buddhism, and I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to follow in Nicholas Roerich's footsteps to the kingdom of the Himalayan Masters, complete with John Foulds' Three Mantras on my iPod. Just as Tibetan Buddhism can be seen as folk Buddhism, so Sufism, which also practices sacred dance and, in some interpretations, incorporates Shamanistic elements, can be seen as folk Islam. While writing about the pursuit of esoteric knowledge, the 10th century Sufi Abu Said ibn Abi'l-Khayr, wisely observed that: "The first step in this affair is the breaking of ink pots and the tearing up of books and the forgetting of all kinds of wisdom". So, to the sound of breaking and tearing, not to mention forgetting, I take my leave of you for an indefinite period to explore new esoteric and overgrown paths. Take care.

No review samples, banner advertising or Sinfini Music commissions involved in this post. My self-funded travel in India and attendance at the Hemis Festival was arranged by Jane Rasch of the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery Trust. All photos are (c) On An Overgrown Path 2014. Any other copyrighted material is included as "fair use", for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Monday, September 22, 2014

In concert halls expectation and experience must diverge

That header image comes from Fritz Lang's 1943 film Hangmen Also Die! which was scored by Hanns Eisler. My recent observation that classical music needs to see the light attracted a lot of interest. A useful perspective on that exploration of how in an increasingly multi-sensory age, classical concerts remain a mono-sensory experience, is provided by R. Murray Schafer's observation that to plot a sensory experience such as classical music accurately, the use of two senses is necessary. To date the laudable experiments with adding a visual component to classical music have focussed on making the imagery compatible with the music - Grand Canyon vistas to accompany Grofé etc. But R. Murray Schafer suggests that visual counterpoint, rather than visual compatibility is the way forward:
In discussing the prospect of the sound film Sergei Eisenstein noted in 1928: 'Only a contrapuntal use of sound in relation to the visual montage piece will afford a new potentiality of montage development and perfection. The first experimental work with sound must be directed along the line of its distinct non-synchronization with the visual images'. (Eisenstein did not, however, stick to his credo and, as his discussions in The Film Sense shows, his work with Prokofiev was directed along the very lines he wished to avoid. The first film composer to seize the concept was Hanns Eisler who applied Brecht's 'alienation effect' to film by counterpointing visual and aural images in a series of socialist documentaries.)
Bertolt Brecht's Verfremdungseffekt or alienation effect - applying an illuminating jolt - has implications for classical music far beyond the visual. In Which Lie Did I Tell? the Hollywood scriptwriter William Golman explains how the difference between art and entertainment is that entertainment either tells us lies or comforting truisms; whereas art tells us uncomfortable things that perhaps we don't want to hear, truths that we may not be comfortable hearing. Hard evidence shows that turning art into entertainment by dumbing down fails to attract new audiences, and the core doctrine of dumbing down classical music is that experience and expectation must converge. Or in other words, because audiences expect to stay in their comfort zone, their experience in the concert hall should keep them within that comfort zone. But with the entertainment option pragmatically discredited, a return to art is the only alternative. Which means leveraging the alienation effect by telling audiences things they may not want to hear. Concert halls should be places where expectation and experience diverge, not vice versa.

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Saturday, September 20, 2014

Doggie mandala

Photo was taken by me at the Tibetan Buddhist Hemis monastery in Ladakh. The visual link to Jonathan Harvey's Body Mandala can be found here and the esoteric link to Le Sacre du Printemps can be found here.

Photo is (c) On An Overgrown Path 2014. Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Friday, September 19, 2014

What is the sound of no audience clapping?

Of the Akhmatova Requiem of 1979, I certainly thought when I wrote it, 'this is the best of me' (as Elgar said about The Dream of Gerontius). I do not think that now, but I still think it's a key piece... The Akhmatova Requiem is extremely monumental in character. It lasts an hour, with soprano singing almost uninterruptedly throughout, with the exception of the bass solo intonings of Orthodox prayers for the dead... Gennadi Rozhdestvensky conducted it superbly at the première... He chose to perform it for his last concert as chief conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, first at Edinburgh on 20 August 1981 and then seven days later at his farewell concert at the Proms in London. In the event the tomblike structure of the piece was just too much for the audience and there was a mass walk-out. I was sitting there beside Father Sergei Hackel [who collaborated on the text] feeling extremely uncomfortable as many of the audience walked past me. Curiously, although it was unpopular with the audience, it was very popular with the critics.
That reminiscence comes from The Music of Silence: A Composer's Testament by John Tavener. The good old days when Proms audiences stormed out may have passed, but a new CD means you can relive them. On Sept 23rd NMC are releasing the BBC recording of that 1981 Prom performance of the Akhmatova Requiem, and it will be interesting to hear whether the microphones picked up the mass walk-out from the Royal Albert Hall. John Tavener's comment that although the Akhmatova Requiem was unpopular with the audience it was very popular with the critics, is revealing. In the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism, koans are given to practitioners; koans are questions that seem rational, but which have no rational answer, and they can only be solved by meditation. The practitioner has to reflect on the question for extended periods, and - most importantly - posing the question is more important than answering it.

Classical music practitioners can learn a lot from meditating on the koan 'What is the sound of no audience clapping?' Immediately there may seem to be no logical answer: because if there is no audience there can be no clapping. But meditate further. The sound of no audience clapping could be the sound of ethically compromised sponsors interested only in self-aggrandisement heading for the exits. It could be the sound of celebrity musicians returning their limited edition super cars. It could be the sound of embedded cultural commentators throwing their clickbait back into the murky water. It could be the sound of avaricious media corporations returning to the rock music they came from. It could be the sound of all those tiresome funding applications fixated with audience numbers and digital reach going through the shredding machine. It could be the sound of musicians making music because they love to, rather than because they are earning £20,000 a gig. It could be the sound of pure music - Nada Brahma. Could that really be so bad?

The concept of making music without an audience present should not be dismissed out of hand. Western art music developed from liturgical music that had no audience, madrigals were secular compositions sung for pleasure rather than an audience, and chamber music originated as communal music and not as a spectator sport. In modern times John Tavener composed liturgical music for the Russian Orthodox Church, while Benjamin Britten challenged the forbidding boundary between audience and performers with the communal hymns in his cantata St Nicholas. Speaking in a 2006 newspaper interview, Simon Rattle said:
Everybody can make music. Everybody can compose, somehow. When you want to teach children sports, they play football, or get given a tennis racket, they don't simply watch. But when we want them to be involved in music, we ask them to sit passively. This is surely not the right concept.
Engagement with audiences is the buzz phrase, yet in its frantic search for new markets, classical music has consciously disengaged. From its origins in liturgical music, where the audience actively made the music, classical music has progressed (?) to passive digital platforms, where Apple load music onto your mobile device whether you want it or not. Such is the power of the audience today that new music is exorcised from TV broadcast Proms, lest if precipitate a virtual walk-out. Such is the power of the audience today, that repeating that 1981 programme - Beethoven's Pastoral in the first half followed by John Tavener's "tomblike" Requiem - in the main evening BBC Proms slot would be unthinkable. The Akhmatova Requiem did not even make it into the Proms' late night new music ghetto this year. Yes, it is being given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra on October 5th in a BBC SO Total Immersion concert as part of the Barbican's John Tavener Remembered event. But, admirable though they are, the BBC's Total Immersion concerts are just another way to lock new music away in a safe place where it cannot turn round and bite (aka wake-up) the audience.

Classical music without an audience may be unthinkable. But the crucial balance between what the audience wants and what the music demands has swung dangerously in favour of the audience. Posing the question 'What is the sound of no audience clapping?' is far more important than coming up with the answer. A little more time meditating and a little less time chasing new audiences would do classical music a power of good.

Photo via Flickr. No review samples used in this post. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Ravi Shankar's embryonic opera is surprise success

Our tradition teaches us that sound is God- Nada Brahma. That is, musical sound and the musical experience are steps to the realisation of the self. We view music as a kind of spiritual discipline that raises one’s inner being to divine peacefulness and bliss.
An auspicious coincidence meant that after writing about the teaching of Nada Brahma a few days ago, I heard Ravi Shankar speaking the words above yesterday evening in an archive film. The footage was part of David Murphy's introduction to excerpts from Ravi Shankar's unfinished opera Sukanya. David Murphy was a pupil of Leon Barzin, assistant to Sir Charles Mackerras at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and English National Opera, and a longtime collaborator with Ravi Shankar. His technical credentials in both Eastern and Western music may be impeccable, but David Murphy's involvement with Eastern traditions has stll earned him the sobriquet of the 'yogic conductor'.

In 2010 David Murphy conducted the premiere of Ravi Shankar's Symphony with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. The collaboration between composer and conductor developed from the Symphony into the realisation of Ravi Shankar's vision for an opera that would unite Eastern and Western musical traditions while also communicating the Indian spirituality that was so important to him. At the time of his death aged 92, Shankar had sketched the melodic shape of the whole opera, and knowing that his time was limited, left instructions for its completions. David Murphy is working on the completion, together with the librettist Amit Chaudhuri, and the pandit's daughter Anoushka Shankar and wife Sukanya Shankar.

As well as being the name of the composer's wife, Sukanya is a heroine in the Mahabharata, and Amit Chaudhuri's libretto is based on a story from the Sanskrit epic poem. Among the organisations backing the completion and staging of Sukanya are the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 59 Productions, who contributed to the multi-media sequence for the opening of the 2012 London Olympics, and the Bagri Foundation, a charity that supports Asian cultures. Two leading provincial arts venues are also backing the project, Norwich Arts Centre where last night's pre-premiere performance took place, and the Curve Theatre in Leicester where the performance is repeated on 1st October.

At this point I have to confess I approached Ravi Shankar's embryonic opera with some trepidation. Readers will know I have huge admiration for Shankar's work with Indian classical music. But I find his Western-style compositions, the three Sitar Concertos and Symphony, less successful. In these, limited Indian forces - the Symphony also uses a sitar - are forced somewhat uncomfortably into dialogue with a Western orchestra. Ravi Shankar seemed to struggle with the Western concept of thematic development and resolution, which contrast strongly with the Eastern concept of non-linear exposition of which he was a master. As a result, the thematic development in his orchestral works sometimes verges on cliché. Also adding to the trepidation was my increasing disaffection with East/West musical fusions, which all too often end up as global muzak.

But it is great to be proved wrong, and proved wrong I certainly was yesterday evening. Sukanya is, in accordance with Ravi Shankar's direction, being prepared in two performing versions; an opera house version with a Mozart sized orchestra, and the chamber/touring version that was pre-premiered at the Norwich Arts Centre. In last night's performance in the intimate acoustic of a deconsecrated church, a core of four Indian instrumentalists - sitar, shehnai (Indian oboe) tabla and ghatam (clay percussion) - was paired with nine Western string and woodwind players, with the vocal parts being taken by soprano Susanna Hurrell as Sukanya and tenor Amar Muchhala as Chyavana. The result is a genuine dialogue between East and West, rather than the shouting match that occurs when small Indian forces are matched against a full-sized Western orchestra. In fact I would go as far to say that, judging by the preview last night, Sukanya is not an East-West opera as billed, but an Eastern opera that uses sparing Western forces to justify its categorisation. In fairness credit must go to David Murphy as well as Ravi Shankar. Someone who prepared Mozart under Mackerras is going to be very experienced in balancing the voices - instrumental as well as vocal - in opera, and that experience certainly shows in Sukanya. A video sampler of a preview at the Linbury Theatre of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden can be seen here.

Ironically, when I wrote that sound is God a few days ago, I also said that "It may be my age, but those moments when a piece of music really hits me in the solar plexus seem to get rarer and rarer". I went to the preview of Sukanya with trepidation; but not only was I surprised by what I heard, I was also surprisingly moved. Completing the opera as a performing edition is a long term project. The Royal Opera House has made a shrewd decision to back David Murphy and his collaborators. Sukanya, with its trans-cultural pedigree and message that there is life beyond Western materialism, may be just the opera to show that Anna Nicole is not the only way to attract new audiences.

My ticket for Sukanya was bought at the Norwich Arts Centre box office. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use", for the purpose of critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Spare us Lebrecht's Scottish fantasia

John Purser's book seen above tells the story of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (BBCSSO) from 1935 to 1987, and covers in detail the attempt in 1980 by the BBC's London management to disband the orchestra. The story of how that decision was overturned following a strike by all the BBC orchestras and support from leading musicians including Colin Davis, Pierre Boulez and Carlo Maria Giulini has been told here before. Over the years I have also recounted how, when I lived in Scotland during the 1980s, the BBCSSO played its heart out for its Stirling audiences at the Macrobert Arts Centre. Among the memorable performances I heard there was a Sibelius Sixth Symphony with Charles Groves, a Walton Viola Concert with a very young Nigel Kennedy and Mahler's First Symphony, conducted, if my memory is correct, by Jerzy Maksymiuk. More recently, as readers will know, I have spent much time with the BBCSSO recordings of music they commissioned from Jonathan Harvey, including Speakings and Body Mandala, and, in fact, Jonathan played in the back desk of the orchestra's cellos whe he was a post-graduate in Glasgow.

In a 2008 post written after a incandescent BBCSSO Rachmaninov Second Symphony at Snape, I asked Is this the best British orchestra? In that post I explained how "the orchestra's Scottish location has been a positive help... it gives them a wide geographic canvas to work on in contrast to the London orchestras who work in a claustrophobic, ego-ridden and often politically toxic atmosphere". An example of that ego-ridden and politically toxic atmosphere is a piece by Norman Lebrecht titled 'Scotland will lose an orchestra ‘the morning after independence’', written, quite unashamedly, to opportunistically exploit tomorrow's Scottish independence referendum. In a forensically precise riposte to Lebrecht's Scottish fantasia, Gavin Dixon points out that: "The text that follows doesn’t mention a source for this [headline], suggesting [Lebrecht] is quoting himself". While in a comment on Gavin Dixon's Facebook page another music journalist Andrew Mellor talks about "Norman's traffic-orientated tabloid pessimism". The latter comment is supported by my Google search which reveals that there have only ever been three mentions of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra on Slipped Disc, two in connection with the Scottish referendum and one when the orchestra cancelled a concert following the 2013 Glasgow helicopter tragedy.

My family has wonderful memories of the years we spent in Scotland, and our daughter was born there. But Doctor Who actor David Tennant had it absolutely right when he said: "As I chose to leave Scotland many years ago, I forfeited my right to tell Scottish residents how to run the country". My respect for the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra is boundless, and I wish it the very best for the future. I am quite certain the orchestra will continue to flourish whatever the outcome of the referendum; because it will still have that priceless advantage of being hundreds of miles away from the claustrophobic, ego-ridden and politically toxic atmosphere of the London music establishment.

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Monday, September 15, 2014

Assume all technology guilty until proven innocent

The photo above generated quite a bit of interest when it first appeared here a couple of months age. It was taken at 15,000 feet on one of the highest roads in the world and shows the Tibetan Buddhist monk Kenrap-la listening to Jonathan Harvey's Body Mandala. When I took the photo we were approaching Kenrap-la's monastery at Thiksay at the end of the 800 km drive across the Himalayas from the Gangetic Plain of northern India to Ladakh on the border of Tibet. Body Mandala was playing on my iPod Classic, and it had been ripped from an NMC CD bought in independent retail store Prelude Records. As readers will know, my listening model is a large CD/vinyl collection that is selectively ripped to portable media for mobile listening. It is a hybrid model that is used by a lot of people, and the listener is not the only winner, because the musicians get a fair royalty, independent record stores stay in business, and the listeners have control over the music they listen to, and how they listen to it.

But it is a model that may not be around much longer. In May Apple purchased leading music streaming service Beats, and just last week the iPod Classic, with its 160GB of storage capacity, was quietly discontinued as part of Apple's strategy of moving from stored to streamed music. Speaking in defence of streaming, Spotify's vice president of product Frederic Vinna has argued that "Streaming is about access versus ownership." An alternative view is that streaming is about sweat equity investors versus financial speculators. Benjamin Britten identified the holy triangle of composer, performer and listener, and at the heart of the streaming debate, and also at the centre of almost every other debate in classical music, is the shift of control from sweat equity investors - composers, performers and listeners - to powerful financial speculators who want to grab control of the music we listen to and how we listen to it. The agenda of those speculators is dictated by nothing other than short term financial gain, as the profile of investors backing the Groovebug streaming service, the technology partner behind Universal Music's new DG Discovery streaming app, reveals.

I continue to be surprised that many otherwise knowledgeable classical music listeners have little understanding of the dramatically different business model behind streamed music, with many thinking that downloaded and streamed music share very similar business models. This debate is not about new versus old technology, and it is not about CDs versus the classical cloud. It is about who controls the music. Virgil Thomson once wisely said: "Never underestimate the public's intelligence, baby, and never overestimate its information". A major problem with music streaming is the one-sided information about it. The next time you read a press release from Apple, Deutsche Grammophon, Groovebug or any of the other champions of music streaming, work your way through the following ten point checklist. It was compiled by Jerry Mander in 1991 when the digital age was just dawning, but, if anything, it is even more relevant today.

1. Since most of what we are told about new technology comes from its proponents, be deeply skeptical of all claims.

2. Assume all technology 'guilty until proven innocent'.

3. Eshew the idea that technology is neutral or 'value free'. Every technology has inherent and identifiable social, political, and environmental consequences.

4. The fact that technology has a natural flash and appeal is meaningless. Negative attributes are slow to emerge.

5. Never judge a technology by the way it benefits you personally. Seek a holistic view of its impacts. The operative question in not whether it benefits you, but who benefits most? And to what end?

6. Keep in mind that an individual technology is only one piece of a larger web of technologies, 'megatechnology'. The operative question here is how the individual technology fits the larger one.

7. Make distinctions between technologies that primarily serve the individual or small community and those that operate on a scale outside of community control. The latter is the major problem of the day.

8. When it is argued that the benefits of the technological lifestyle are worthwhile despite harmful outcomes, recall that Lewis Mumford referred to these alleged benefits as 'bribery'.

9. Do not accept the homily that 'once the genie is out of the bottle you cannot put it back', or that rejecting a technology is impossible. Such attitudes induce passivity and confirm victimization.

10. In thinking about technology within the present climate of technological worship, emphasize the negative. This brings balance. Negativity is positive.

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Friday, September 12, 2014

Nada Brahma - Sound is God

It may be my age, but those moments when a piece of music really hits me in the solar plexus seem to get rarer and rarer. But during my recent extended travels in India I was metaphorically punched time and time again when listening to ECM's Codona recordings on headphones. Recent posts have touched on the potential of virtual concert halls and the fact that no one mixes for speakers these days , and the Manfred Eicher produced Codona sessions from between 1978 and 1982 really demonstrate the impact of the up close and personal sound of headphones. The line up for Codona was African-American trumpeter Don Cherry, Brazilian percussionist Nana Vasconcelos, and Colin Walcott on sitar, tabla, hammered dulcimer, sanza, timpani, and voice. The band took its name from a circus trapeze act of the early 20th century called the Flying Codonas, and the three albums packaged by ECM for CD as The Codona Trilogy capture the peerless musicians-beyond-frontiers performing their creative high-wire act without a safety net in sight*.

Following John Coltrane's death in 1967, Don Cherry became the leading advocate of transcultural jazz, and in the process laid the foundations for world music. In the late 1960s and early 1970s he made a series of pioneering recordings in Germany working with producer Joachim-Ernst Berendt**. Don Cherry was increasingly influenced by the music of India; he studied with the Indian singing master Pandit Pran Nath - who also taught Terry Riley and La Monte Young - and for a period was a Tantric Buddhist practitioner who went into deep meditation before performing. In 1983 Joachim-Ernst Berendt wrote The World is Sound: Nada Brahma, a book exploring music and the landscape of consciousness. Nada Brahma is a Sanskrit expression with roots in Indian Vedic spirituality. It is most commonly translated as 'sound is God', but it also has the wider meanings of 'sound is the world', 'sound is joy', the Cageian 'sound is emptiness', and the ultimate 'sound is the central concept'.

In our doggedly digital age the idea that 'sound is God' is easily dismissed as spooky physics. But sound is vibration, and all matter is composed of vibrating energy. A belief in the centrality of vibration can be traced from the teachings of Hazrat Inayat Khan - "Spirit descends into matter by the law of vibrations" - through the spectralism of Jonathan Harvey - "It’s all vibrations, I mean music and the world, everything is oscillation" - to the marginally less spooky science of quantum entanglement. Digital is not not God, streaming is not God, CDs are not God, celebrity conductors are not God, teenage pianists are not God, and audience numbers are not God. Sound is God, and that mantra should be recited daily by everyone in the classical music industry.

* More on Condona in my 2009 post Every recession has a silver lining.

** Jazz meets India was another product of the late 1960s transcultural jazz movement in Germany; more on that legendary disc in These musicians play their very own music.

Apologies to any practitioners who find the image of the Buddha heretical. But it was not staged for the post, but was photographed by a family member at a third party event recently. No review samples used in this post. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Beware of classical music's new silly conventions

Speaking at the recent Salzburg launch of Deutsche Grammophon's Discovery classical music streaming app DG president Mark Wilkinson asserted that "The digital audience is our audience". If we leave aside concerns that the Discovery app - £2.59 a month to access more than 450 albums - will destroy rather than creates financial value, Mark Wilkinson's sound bite requires closer study. Speaking in a 2010 radio interview with me, the composer Jonathan Harvey said, quite rightly, that "nobody should be deprived of classical music, least of all by rather silly conventions, which we all tend to think are sacred". But in the intervening four years since that interview, the debate about classical music's silly conventions has been hijacked by a small but vociferous lobby that advocates abolishing a narrow range of concert hall conventions to further their own commercial agendas. This lobby is led to Universal Music's Max Hole, who has been dining out for years on his stories about classical music's silly conventions. The irony is that Max Hole is right, but he has been targeting the wrong conventions: what he should be targeting is fashionable silly conventions such as the one peddled by the president of DG - a Universal Music label - that the classical music audience is 'digital'.

Studying the facts - which music industry executives seem puzzlingly loath to do - proves Mark Wilkinson wrong. As highlighted in a previous post, the audience for CDs, not streamed music, is the most important recorded classical music market in fiscal terms, and will remain so for some time. But another silly convention rears its head here - the mythical 'digital audience'. Talking about a 'digital audience' as a separate entity to a 'non-digital audience' is nonsense. All recorded music delivery platforms - CD, download and streaming - rely on digital technologies, and from 1979 onwards vinyl LP's were cut from digital master tapes. And my inbox currently attests to yet another silly convention, that if you query any aspect of this binary hegemony, you are a luddite who does not embrace digital. Which, yet again, is nonsense - RTFB. However, the difference between embracing and fixating on new technologies is at the core of many of classical music's current problems.

In his spirited defence of collectable music formats Alex Ross highlighted the silly convention, that CDs are "space-devouring, planet-harming plastic objects". The extension of this convention is that those who still buy CDs are to despised and dismissed. This latter is more than a silly convention: it is a deeply unpleasant sentiment that found expression in this tweet by a Independent journalist: "My column on the problem with classical music and how a large proportion of [BBC] R3’s audience should hurry up and die....". That silly - no sorry, loathsomely stupid - sentiment morphs into the dogma that the only good audience is a young audience, and that the current ageing core of mature concertgoers is no more than cannon fodder to be sacrificed in the battle for the elusive digital audience. Again this dogma is proved wrong by facts: mature audiences are classical music's revenue earner, and, like CDs, they show no sign of relinquishing their preeminence.

Which leads to the ultimate silly convention, that there is any such thing as a single classical audience, yet alone a single digital audience. There is, undoubtedly, a large market for classical music, but there is no single mass market. Classical music is granular and is made up of lots of connected but different niche markets. Which means there is no 'one size fits all' classical music, and no 'one size fits all' delivery platform for recorded classical music. We need Harrison Birtwistle and we need André Rieu, and we need CDs, downloads, streaming and vinyl. And we also need young and mature, knowledgeable and neophyte concertgoers. Because when classical music is homogenised for the elusive mass - read digital - market it loses its essential appeal. Which explains why so much classical music today is bland and unappealing. Which, in turn, explains why classical radio in the UK lost one million listeners in just twelve months.

Venerating 'digital audiences' is just another form of the elitism that Max Hole professes to despise so much. Jonathan Harvey had it exactly right: nobody should be deprived of classical music. Least of all by silly new conventions which the high priests of Universal Music and other sects have declared sacrosanct.

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Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Confused by music streaming? So is the record industry

In my post Classical music sales - separating fact from fiction I made the appeal that "there is a shortage of objective data on this subject... if the professional analysts know better please tell me, and I will publish corrections". Dave MacDonald, whose activities include the excellent SoundNotion.tv, responded to my appeal with some very illuminating inside information which highlights how fact has become inextricably fused with fiction in the music industry. Below is my further commentary prompted by Dave's input, and, once again, expert corrections are welcome.

My earlier post attempted to identify how important music streaming by services such as Spotify is in relation to sales of albums in conventional CD/download formats. Nielsen SoundScan reported 118 billion music tracks accessed by paid-for streaming in the US in 2013, and I applied the download average of ten tracks per album to convert this to an equivalent of 12 billion albums accessed by streaming in the US. This compares with 289 million purchased in CD/download format in the same year, so, by this measure, streaming is far more important than CD/download sales. My logic and maths were correct, but Dave has pointed out that this is not how the record industry sees things.

The problem is that the legacy unit of the album - 70 minutes of music - is now redundant. Because first downloading and then streaming made music available in tracks, not albums. So, in our financially driven world, the album unit of 70 minutes of music/average ten tracks has been converted for sales reporting purposes into an album unit measured not by tracks, but by royalty revenue. This new unit of measurement is the streamed equivalent album (SEA). Nielsen compiles its SoundScan data for record companies and tacitly acknowledges the significantly (shockingly?) lower royalty rate on streamed music by applying in 2013 the formula of 2000 streamed tracks generate the same royalties as one CD/downloaded album. (The number of tracks in an SEA decreases to 1500 in 2014, presumably to reflect marginally increased royalty payments). If a conversion of ten tracks per album is applied, for all music genres the consumption of streamed music in 2013 was, measured in royalty equivalent revenue, 59 million albums.

Let's try to summarise this conflicting and confusing data. In 2013 sales of CD/downloads in the US was 289 million units. This compares with 12 billion streamed albums if streamed tracks are converted into the legacy unit of ten track albums, or 59 million streamed albums if converted into royalty equivalent albums (SEA). Or in simple terms, when measured by album units, streaming is infinitely more important than CD/downloads; but when measured by royalty revenue, streaming is considerably less important than CD sales on their own (165 million units), yet alone CDs plus downloads (289 million). This surprising finding that in royalty terms the CD/download format is still the dominant for all genres should be read in conjunction with the fact that classical music takes a significantly lower share in digital formats; which means that in royalty generation - ie money - terms the CD is still by far the dominant player in the classical music industry.

If you are still confused, you are not the only one. But what this discussion does highlight is that any attempt to compare the consumption of streamed music with purchases of CD/downloads is meaningless. Because streamed music and collected music - CD/downloads - are different commodities serving different markets and meeting different needs. There are very important lessons to be learnt from this conclusion. First, despite received wisdom in the music industry, streamed music is not a replacement for collected formats - it is a complement. The low level of royalties on streamed music reflects, in part, financial opportunism on the part of the music industry; but it is also an admission that streamed music has considerably less impact and longevity than a purchased album. Secondly, again despite received wisdom, CDs are still the most important classical music format in fiscal (SEA) terms. Thirdly, every classical musician should be alarmed at the admission that streamed music generates a fraction (0.5% in 2013) of the royalties generated by an equivalent CD/download. Fourthly, at a time when financial pressures dominate the classical music agenda, record companies, orchestras and opera house should reflect on the vastly different royalties generated by streaming and CD/downloads before jumping on the streaming bandwagon and helping to kill collected music formats.

Finally, anyone suffering from digital fixation should take on board Dave MacDonald's revelation that vinyl sales increased by the same percentage (40%) in the first half of 2014 as streaming. Which means vinyl presses are currently at maximum capacity to keep up with demand; however, nobody is setting up new presses because it is uncertain how long the vinyl trend will last. Which at least gives me an excuse to reprise that header photo from my 2007 post Move over iPhone - here comes vinyl. Thanks go to Dave MacDonald for providing light rather than heat. As I said in my previous post, I am just a retired guy with an insomniac cat living in rural Norfolk; if the professionals know better please tell me, and I will publish corrections.

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Monday, September 08, 2014

This digital fixation is damaging live classical music

A personal view: the fixation to "digital" solutions in the world of (performing) classical music continues to be a damaging distraction - partly because the economic realities are so little understood or examined. Digital streaming has been shown to destroy, rather than create, financial value in recorded music: and when I read comments from "music lovers" describing how they'd rather spend money on the Berlin Phil digital concert hall than on tickets to hear their own local live performances, I start to wonder if it isn't damaging the financial value of live performance as well.

And yet it's received opinion in the sector that "digital" is the miracle technology that will save the finances of flagging promoters and ensembles - though no-one can say precisely how. It stems from incomprehension: I'm reminded of the adage about "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic". In parts of the classical music sector, digital technology is still perceived as a magical pot of gold. Just one that no-one has yet worked out how to open.

To be fair, plenty of concert and venue managers are very aware that this is not the case. Yet major state funders such as the Arts Council England continue to insist, over and over, on the vital importance of "digital" (digital what, exactly, is rarely specified; the magic word is itself sufficient) and expect client organisations to continue making costly sacrifices to that particular golden calf. Public money (and all the real creative opportunities that it might make possible) is being squandered on "digital strategies" that are at best almost wholly ineffective; at worst actually damaging the long-term value of the art form that they're supposed to promote. As I need hardly tell you...
That comment was added to The original master tapes have been sadly lost by 'Halldor', which is the online alias of someone with considerable experience at the sharp end of classical music. The view that digital streaming destroys, rather than creates, financial value echoes my post lamenting the damaging oversupply of classical music, and the relevance of Halldor's comment is underlined by my recent analysis of classical sales trends, which identified how streaming has eclipsed all other methods of music access. Revitalising classical music requires complex and long term solution, and an evangelical belief in the 'silver bullet' of digital solutions, particularly on the part of agenda-setters such as Arts Council England, is at the best misguided and at the worst damaging. Particularly because, as Halldor points out, no one can say how digital solutions will actually revitalise classical music. And particularly bearing in mind that the only authoritative research on this topic suggests that the currently fashionable belief in digital solutions may be no more than "wishful thinking".

The key word in Halldor's comment is 'fixation'. Of course digital solutions have an important role to play in the future of classical music: this debate would not be taking place without the digital solution of blogging, and hybrid services such as the Naxos Music Library are valuable resources. But what has been lost is balance, with digital fixation replacing plural approaches. During my recent visit to India I was struck by how digital solutions have been assimilated into everyday life without dispensing with the richness and ambiguity of the analogue world. Our young Ladakhi guide on the overland trip from Delhi to Leh was a committed Tibetan Buddhist with a degree in electronic engineering, who mixed writing online poetry about impermanence with maintaining his cousin's trekking website, while at the same time taking a distance learning degree in philosophy. In the priceless Full Circle Bookshop in Khan Market, New Delhi, the 10-day MBA sits alongside Everyday Osho: 365 Daily Meditations For The Here And Now, and both titles attract the same buyers.

One of the books I brought back with me from India was Sudheendra Kulkarni's Music of the Spinning Wheel. In it Sudheendra Kulkarni proposes a connection between the power of the Internet and Gandhi's teachings on self-sufficiency and mutual co-operation. While this optimistic thesis may be difficult for cynical Westerners to accept in totality, it does contain the important messages that the potential of digital technologies can only be unleashed when they are combined with counterbalancing analogue values. In Gandhi's teachings these analogue values are symbolised by the charkha - the spinning wheel - which represents self-sufficiency underpinned by mutual co-operation. In the frantic search for new audiences classical music has lost the balance between digital solutions and analogue reality - between virtual concert halls and the human interplay of experiential live music. Schadenfreude needs to be indulged in very sparingly. But Halldor's comment did remind me of my 2010 heretical re-working of Britten's celebrated Aspen Award acceptance speech:

Anyone, anywhere, at any time can listen to the B minor Mass upon one condition only - that they possess a computer. No qualification is required of any sort - faith, virtue, education, experience, age. Thanks to the internet music is now free for all. If I say the computer is the principal enemy of music, I don't mean that I am not grateful to it as a means of education or study. But it is not part of true musical experience. Regarded as such it is simply a substitute, and dangerous because deluding. Music demands more from a listener than simply the possession of a computer. It demands some preparation, some effort, a journey to a special place, saving up for a ticket, some homework on the programme perhaps, some clarification of the ears and sharpening of the instincts. It demands as much effort on the listener's part as the other two corners of the triangle, this holy triangle of composer, performer and listener.
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Sunday, September 07, 2014

Introducing Britten's heir apparent

Some of us received news of Roger Wright's appointment as chief executive of Aldeburgh Music with trepidation. The PR photo released announcing his arrival in Aldebugh has done little to change that.

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Friday, September 05, 2014

What if it's really avant-garde and rubs me the wrong way?

Defending the decision to cut new music from television relays of Proms, a BBC spokesperson has explained that: "...the Proms team and the commissioning editor have to bear in mind the audience and that newer works are often less familiar to them". Which reminds me of the following passage from Jesse G.L. Stewart's biographical quest R. Murray Schafer and the Plot to Save the Planet.
The conductor, Kazuhiro Koizumi, takes to the stage. From the audience's reaction, it's clear that conductors enjoy celebrity status in Japan. I'm interested to see how this conductor will handle Murray's music. And how will I handle it? I was moved by his music in last summer's forest production but Murray's symphonic work is new to me. I like classical music but what if it's really avant-garde and rubs me the wrong way? What would I say about it? What would I say to Murray about it? I suspend my worry and remind myself of words once spoken to me by a teacher, "Never listen to a piece of music for the first time".
Header photo was taken by me during a 2011 performance of Louis Andriessen's Workers Union by Aldeburgh Young Musicians at Snape and first appeared in Louis Andriessen in the sky with diamonds. Any other copyrighted material is included as "fair use", for the purpose of critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Classical music sales - separating fact from fiction

Sales of recorded classical music are an important measure of the health of the art form. Yet, despite this, there is a paucity of informed and objective commentary on the sales trends. Instead industry commentators such as Norman Lebrecht offer quick and dirty comments such as: "Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s Bach on DG follows with 211 sales... that’s in the whole of the US market of 314 million people". Predictably, Alex Ross offers a more level-headed commentary in his New Yorker article The Classical Cloud, but it strikes me that some background data would usefully complement coverage of classical music sales elsewhere. So this post presents an objective analysis using data for the US market, in an attempt to separate fact from fiction.

In the US total album sales - all genres - increased by 7.7% from 2012 to 2013. This category of 'total album sales' includes physical product, downloads and streamed content from outlets such as Spotify, with streamed tracks converted to 'track equivalent albums' by applying a ratio of ten tracks per album. The overall increase of 7.7% was the result of three conflicting trends. First, there was a massive 32% increase in streamed music tracks. Secondly, sales of digital tracks dropped by 6%, and, finally, sales of physical product (CDs etc) dropped by 13%.

In 2013 118 billion music tracks were accessed by paid-for streaming in the US. If a ratio of ten tracks per album is applied, this equates to 12 billion albums. In the same period 289 million albums (physical and downloads) were purchased. Even allowing for errors in converting streamed tracks to album equivalent, these figures show the astonishing (frightening?) dominance of streamed over dowload/CD music consumption. But the figures also show the danger of guaging the health of classical music sales by the weekly sales of physical/downloaded albums: because, even allowing for the smaller participation of classical on digital platforms - see below - unit album sales are now an unreliable measure of the health of classical music.

No data is available to me for classical as a percentage of streamed music. But available data does show that classical represents 0.5% of digital track sales. If this figure is modified to acknowledge the fewer tracks on a classical album (uplift 0.5% by 2), classical music is under-performing quite badly in digital downloads and only achieving approx 1% of total sales, a trend that is likely to be mirrored in the streamed market. By comparison classical is achieving 4.9% of CD sales, a figure that has held up remarkably well for decades despite repeated predictions of the death of classical music.

Trends within the different access platforms are illuminating. As already highlighted, across all genres streaming is the ascendant star with a 32% year on year increase, while yesterday's star of downloads showed a 6% decline, and CDs and other physical formats declined by 13% decline. Physical product sales outnumber downloads, with CDs and other formats accounting for 57% of the non-streamed market. There has been much hype surrounding the revival of the vinyl market, but this is supported by market data which showed vinyl sales growing in the US by 33% from 2012 to 2013, and accounting for a remarkable 3.5% of total physical format unit sales.

The analysis above has been produced using data for the US market that is in the public domain. I did end my career working for Nielsen, whose SoundScan data is used in this post. But I have had no professional connection with Nielsen for years and no access to privileged data. This post has been compiled by a retired guy living in rural Norfolk, because there is a shortage of objective data on this subject. If the professional analysts know better please tell me, and I will publish corrections. All the commentary above attempts to be objective, and to it I would add the following subjective commentary.

Downloading is a spent force in the music market; CDs are also in decline, but they retain the larger share of the non-streamed market. Classical music under-performs in the digital domains but remains strong in the CD sector. This, again, emphasises that the markets for classical and rock music are fundamentally different, and trying to force classical into the rock model - the Max Hole fallacy - is foolhardy. For this reason, attempts by the major record companies to write off the CD format to suit their own commercial agendas should be resisted, simply because classical does not currently have a strong enough digital franchise to survive.

But the trends in downloaded and physical formats are completely overshadowed by the huge growth in streamed music. Classical musicians, whose livelihood depend at least in part on the health of the recorded music market, have shown remarkable little interest in the potential impact of the massive growth of streamed music. Whereas prominent rock musicians - as Alex Ross points out in his article - have raised the question of can music survive in the streamed era? The exorcising of three minutes of Harrison Birtwistle from a BBC Prom TV broadcast, which is currently generating much attention, is calamitous. But the inexorable rise of streamed classical music with the associated introduction of a totally different business model, could be livelihood threatening. Is classical music fighting the right fight?

Header photos shows my trusty Thorens TD125 Mk II/SME Series IIIS/Audio-Technica AT-F3 turntable set-up - vinyl sales up 33% - and comes from Beethoven pure and simple. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use", for the purpose of critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.