What we can learn from Thomas Adès' classical ecstasy

Over the years On An Overgrown Path has argued the case for classical music embracing the visual as well as the auditory, with one post arguing with tongue only half in cheek that sleeve artwork changes the sound of CDs. Classical music's de facto spokesperson Norman Lebrect has turned textual click bait into an Olympic sport. Yet Slipped Disc, which is supported by all the major classical labels and is acknowledged as the state-of-the-art classical website, has decidedly amateurish graphics - see typical example below.

As the information age morphs into the experience age, visual cues are playing an increasingly important role in the overall experience. To quote an authoritative source:
The human brain can process images seen in just 13 milliseconds... Given that most information transmitted to our brain is visual, and the brain processes images faster than text, it is crucial that websites, blogs, and social media posts, use effective visuals, images, and graphics, that immediately spark the interest of the visitor / viewer and increase customer engagement.
Yet, despite craving for a new and younger audience, classical music - with the exception of opera and ballet - has been in denial for years about the importance of visual content. This myopia has been driven by the myth that the classical CD with its sleeve artwork is moribund, and that streaming is now the only game in town. The reality is that almost 60% of classical sales in the UK are CDs and there is a resurgence in vinyl. Both formats offer the opportunity to leverage graphics as part of the listening experience. So why does classical music scorn graphics best practice in its increasingly desperate search for a new audience? Thomas Adès' orchestral tour de force Asyla is a useful lesson on this subject. In an interview the composer explained that:
In one section [of Asyla], I wanted to evoke the atmosphere of a massive nightclub with people dancing and taking drugs. So I bought some techno music and listened to it, just quietly, to get the structure rather than blast my head off.
Classical music lusts for a new and younger audience, so the connection between a major work from a contemporary composer and electronic dance music surely cannot be ignored; particularly when it is realised the value of the global electronic dance music industry is $7.4 billion. Majoring on that icon of rave culture the yellow smiley face seen on the sleeve artwork above may be a step too far for a classical CD. But does the artwork seen below for EMI's CD release of Asyla, conducted by Simon Rattle no less, evoke any experience other than a massive yawn? Will it engage with a potential new listener for more than 13 milliseconds? And that EMI artwork is not just a one-off lapse by a pressured art director. It summarises the lack of graphic flair and disdain for the visual experience that is endemic today in classical music.

Deutsche Grammophon's artwork for Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla's CD of the Weinberg Symphonies is just another example of anachronistic graphics. A recurring theme on An Overgrown Path is that to reach the source you must go against the flow and challenge orthodoxies. So to conclude, here is an example of fusing cherished classical music with rave culture - listen via this link and prepare to be shocked. Way beyond our comfort zones that may be, but don't let's forget that none other than Thomas Adès reworked music from the same composer - listen here and prepare to be moved.

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