What is a music festival?

Iraqi visual artist Riyadh Neam supplies the three accompanying graphics which are used in the booklet for Rahim AlHaj's new CD Letters from Iraq. Riyadh Neam explains that in his paintings depicting the children of post-invasion Iraq in the streets of devastated Baghdad “I’m always trying to show the relationship between stasis and movement, between a still life and a moving life.” He uses color to symbolise the dynamics of his war-torn country, with the dominant grey, black and white symbolising destruction, bright green indicating grief, and red signifying inextinguishable hope. This use of colours to symbolise emotions is a form of the cross-talk between different sensory channels known as synesthesia . Music appreciation involves cross-talk between hearing and emotion, and many celebrated musicians have experienced synesthesia in various forms, including Alexander Scriabin, Amy Beach, Olivier Messiaen and György Ligeti, while the word raga from the Indian classical tradition translates from Sanskrit as 'tone' or 'colour'.

Synesthesia is an example of how key creative building blocks are shared across global cultures. We live in an age of globalisation and multi-culturalism, yet classical music festivals are retreating further and further into retrospective mono-culturalism. For instance the 2017 BBC Proms season is programmatically themed around two anniversaries - the Russian Revolution which took place 100 years ago and the Protestant Reformation of 500 years ago. The Russian Revolution strand conveniently allows three Shostakovich symphonies to be programmed including the warhorse Fifth, which will be its ninth Proms outing in seventeen years. Elsewhere in London the SouthBank Centre has been celebrating Belief and Beyond Belief with a festival that does not include even a single piece of non-Western music, but which managed to squeeze in a Shostakovich symphony. Nowhere at the two festivals is there the searing relevance of Rahim AlHaj music and Riyadh Neam's graphics.

Classical music festivals should be wide-ranging, joyous and relevant celebrations of the rich variety of the great music traditions. Instead they have become po-faced rituals which plough their way laboriously through the output of Mahler, Shostakovich and a few other favoured composers. Mixing music traditions in a single concert is a notoriously difficult and sensitive task; the Western masterpieces must never be neglected, and fusion projects such as sitar and oud concertos have, rightly in most cases, been greeted with derision. But mixing traditions within a festival - kudos to this year's Aldeburgh Festival for its ragas in Orford Church - or between the two halves of a concert is a realistic proposition.

The Salzburg Summer Festival's Ouverture Spirituelle was an outstanding example of the broadening of the festival vision, and Salzburg bravely commissioned programme essays from me for their forays into Sufi and Hindustani music. However this year's Ouverture Spirituelle has drifted back towards the tokenism of the other major festivals and includes the obligatory Mahler symphony. If the reason for this drift is commercial pressures - which I suspect it is - that reason needs examining. Defendants of the classical status quo - and they are many and vocal - will plead that programming is unadventurous because adventurous programming is not commercially viable. Which I do not disagree with; but I do disagree with the view that we have to accept the current stifling business model which dictates that status quo.

Classical music festivals are dictated to and dominated by touring celebrity orchestras. The infamous Mahler One at this year's Proms is part of a Pittsburgh Symphony touring programme, and the Shostakovich Five comes from a peripatetic Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra. And financial reality means you can't pay the Pittsburgh Symphony to play Mahler in the second half of a concert with musicians from a non-Western tradition in the first half. Celebrity touring orchestras may fill halls, but they have forced classical music into a repetitive holding pattern whereby festivals have become commercially viable but increasingly irrelevant museums of sound. The stranglehold of the 'London today Edinburgh' celebrity bands - Gergiev and the Mariinsky also play the 2017 Edinburgh Festival - needs to be broken to inject freshness and relevance to the major festivals. Ironically the BBC is perfectly placed to do this with their roster of house orchestras. The BBC orchestras should be differentiating themselves by pioneering adventurous and diverse programming both by widening the repertoire within the Western tradition and by partnering in split programmes with ensembles from diverse backgrounds. But instead all the BBC orchestras aspire to is lucrative overseas tours, preferably to the Gulf States or China.

Steve Jobs told us that "A lot of times, people don't know what they want until you show it to them". There is a surprising appetite for music from outside the Western tradition. On An Overgrown Path may not represent a statistically significant measure, but it does provide a useful guide. Recent posts here about music from outside the Western tradition and from the Islamicate world in particular - e.g. Bab Assalam from Syria, Rahim AlHaj from Iraq, and the culturally-diverse Haz'art Trio - have attracted very large audiences. Broadening the repertoire at festivals is almost certainly not financially viable within the current top heavy financial structure. But if classical music itself wants to defend its position as an important cultural institution it needs to become more relevant and diverse, and that means changing the current highly restrictive business model.

Also on Facebook and Twitter. Any copyrighted material is included as "fair use" for critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).


Philip Amos said…
Just a personal comment upon synesthesia, if I may. I think the bulk of material found on Google and such re this may be misleading. This I say as a synesthete myself. Almost all those identified as having synesthesia associate it solely with evocation of colour by sound. There can be much more to it than that, as in my case. Music can in me evoke quite overpowering reactions from my senses of sight, taste, smell; indeed, an holistic reaction that can and almost always does invoke a sense of time, place, atmosphere, light, weather, of the general culture of that time and place, artistic, social, political, philosophical. I may add at this point that most synesthetes are quite happy to experience the phenomenon. I am not so much so. The emotional reaction produced by holistic synesthesia is for me often so overwhelming that I must be careful re what I listen to. I love the music of Debussy and Ravel, but for some years I found it nigh impossible to listen to it because of its effect on me. The same may be true, for example, of the music of Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Butterworth, Warlock, Bax, et al. I must always ask myself not just what I would like to listen to, but also what I can stand to listen to.

So it also is with the music of other cultures and traditions. I am careful about Flamenco. I used to produce concerts of Flamenco music and dance, something thought slightly odd by many, given that I am pretty obviously English, though resident in Canada. But there is something little known about one association of Flamenco. One hears in it the music of India, the Middle East, North Africa and Spain, but as an historian of ideas, one other thing that very much drew me to it is its association with German Idealist philosophy. I must for reasons of space leave this a bit dangling, but it is apparent in the poetry of Gustavo Adolpho Becquer -- half German, half Spanish -- and that links to the poetry of Lorca. And this ties in to the idea of the Duende in Flamenco, the indefinable essence, and the latter is surely at the heart of all music, regardless of its roots. It is why so much music not in the mainstream of programming would go to the heart of listeners if they were but given the chance to hear it.
Pliable said…
Philip, a few years back at the Barbican we saw Faiz Ali Faiz's Qawwali Flamenco project which privides an different perspective on the two venerable art forms - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wfCenzJjD68

And incidentally Philip, thank you for treading once again where others fear to tread.
Philip Amos said…
My thanks to you, Bob. I was not expecting your link to lead to a complete Qawwali Flamenco concert just a little shy of two hours! I was fascinated, moved and delighted, and so too would be a Proms audience. This is, of course, not 'World Music', purely a corporate marketing ploy. But nor is it 'Fusion Music', the ingredients of which I have very rarely heard fuse. I think of Faiz Ali Faiz' project rather as a homecoming, a reunion of the flower from which came the seed of a musical mode with that mode's last blossom -- Qawwali with Flamenco, together with the entire family tree gathered from India/Pakistan through the lands traveled between there and Andalucia. The understanding and collegiality evident in the concert was wondrous. I thought it especially evident in the sequence from 00:56 to 1:06, and it was at the 1:00 mark that I got the lump in my throat that I had the other day listening to Sir Adrian's Proms Elgar First.

It would fit nicely, I think, and I have a memory re that which still makes me smile. Paco de Lucia said in an interview that classical musicians are intolerant of Flamenco, but then cited only Narcisco Yepes' reaction to Paco's way with Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez. Au contraire, the Flamenco company for whom I produced gave two concerts with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra or as part of one of their concerts. What I recall was Yan Pascal Tortelier, Christopher Parkening and just about all the orchestra gathered round the Company afterward, battling with delight to get a grip on the more complex Flamenco rhythm. I think only Parkening met with any success, but there was no intolerance there. All is one.
Pliable said…
Philip, from what I understand British Sufi musician Ali Keeler's new album which is released in May incorporates flamenco elements - Ali lives in the heart of flamenco country in Granada - http://www.overgrownpath.com/2015/11/classical-musicians-brave-journey-from.html

Le Concert de Nanterre released in 1998 brought together an eclectic mix of musicians including Sufi singer, flamenco exponent Pedro Soler, Turkish ney master Kudsi Erguner, French/Iranian percussionist Keyvan Chemirani and string bass virtuoso Renaud Garcia-Fons - https://www.amazon.fr/Concert-Nanterre-Yusuf-Bilgin-Granada/dp/B00004S6ZO/ref=tmm_acd_title_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=

Recent popular posts

All aboard the Martinu bandwagon

Great music has no independent existence

Who are the real classical role models?

Mahler that dares to be different

The Berlin Philharmonic's darkest hour

Will this attract young audiences? - discuss

Master musician who experienced the pain of genius

Whatever happened to the long tail of composers?

Closer to Vaughan Williams than Phil Spector

Classical music should exploit its healing power