Wednesday, August 07, 2019

My music may not be your music


That header image shows Steve Roach's 1988 double album Dreamtime Return. It is one of a number of albums of what can loosely be termed classically-oriented electronica that have provided me with much rewarding listening over the years. For me there is 'something' to listen to in this music with its slowly floating but potent textures. Few of us have the technical expertise to appreciate music as a purely abstract art form, so for the majority it is the evoked associations that determine the emotional appeal - or otherwise - of music. Words are a very fallible way of communicating these deeply felt emotions and associations; but I have tried to do so in posts such as Inner Landscapes, which took its title from an album by Steve Roach's ambient composer colleague Robert Rich.

I have no problem accepting that others may fail to find 'something' to listen to in the music of Steve Roach, Robert Rich, J. Peter Schwalm, Brian Eno, Éliane Radigue and others who lurk on the electronic fringes of art music. But I would have a problem if a critic declared, 'Bob Shingleton is mesmerised by this music. But I wonder why – there’s nothing to listen to'. Which is precisely what the Guardian critic Philip Clark said about Ludovico Einaudi's music. For Philip Clark there was nothing to listen to. But for the audiences at seven sold out Einaudi Barbican concerts that gave the pianist standing ovations there was clearly something, and Philip Clark was wrong not to recognise that.

In an early review of Dreamtime Return Linda Kohanov described how Steve Roach's music brings "our most elusive dreams and ancient memories into focus". What the new classical elite do not understand is that any music, even Ludovico Einaudi's, can evoke the associations that trigger the vital engaging 'something'. But that vital 'something' is highly personal and varies dramatically from person to person. Philip Clark's taste in music is definitely not that of an Einaudi audience, and my music may not be your music. Everything depends on association; as the Russian philosopher P. D. Ouspensky explained in his commentary on the mystical teachings of G. I. Gurdjieff:

You think, for instance, that a funeral march should provoke in everyone sad and solemn thoughts and that any dance music, a kamarinskaya [Russian folk dance] for instance, will provoke happy thoughts. But in actual fact this is not so at all. Everything depends upon association. If on a day that a great misfortune happens to me I hear some lively tune for the first time this tune will evoke in me sad and oppressive thoughts for my whole life afterwards. And if on a day when I am particularly happy I hear a sad tune, this tune will always evoke happy thoughts. And so with everything else.
The hegemony of social media means that the dividing line between amateur opinions and professional criticism has become blurred, or, in some cases, has disappeared entirely. Which is very worrying: because a professional critic carries immense responsibility as both judge and jury. Philip Clark and the Guardian abused that responsibility by indulging in click bait journalism that shed no light whatsoever on why Ludovico Einaudi is so popular.

If classical music wants to reach a wider audience it must first understand that new audience. That new audience is more likely to be found at the fringes of classical music - among Ludovico Einaudi and André Rieu fans for instance - than among devotees of death metal and dubstep. (A sobering observation by a reader about André Rieu should be compulsory reading for all critics - follow this link to read it.) Critics, and, indeed, the whole classical fraternity, could learn much from studying the Compassionate Listening Project*. Members of this non-profit project have trained themselves in deep listening, which is something the visionary Pauline Oliveros advocated. This involves listening with care, attention, and deep compassion to every side of a difficult situation, with the goal of transforming separation and conflict into an opportunity for connection.

Compassionate criticism would achieve far more in the search for a new classical audience than a sneering Guardian review. A critic listening to Ludovico Einaudi and André Rieu with genuinely open ears to identify their compelling appeal - that engaging 'something' - would be worth a thousand destructive reviews. Can the equivalent - or even a distant cousin - of that engaging 'something' be found in the mainstream classical repertoire without resorting to desperate dumbing down? Is there a route from Ludovico Einaudi's sub-minimalism to Philip Glass' seminal minimalism? Is there a route from André Rieu's waltzes to Gustav Mahler's ländlers? It could be that the conclusion is there is no commonality between the two very different musical worlds. But at least that conclusion would have been reached by compassionate and deep listening, and not by trotting out deeply ingrained prejudices. Compassionate criticism should reflect this teaching of Albert Einstein, which applies to music as well as life:

A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.
* As discussed in earlier posts the music of both Steve Roach and Robert Rich is influenced by Buddhism. The Compassionate Listening Project has its roots in the Quaker movement and in the 'compassionate Buddhism' of the Vietnamese Zen master Thích Nhất Hạnh. This post in turn is influenced by the classic text A Path With Heart by teacher, psychologist and meditation master Jack Kornfield. It should not be overlooked that the Einstein quote reflects both basic Buddhist wisdom and the waḥdat al-wujūd - oneness of being - teaching of the twelfth-century Andalusian Sufi mystic, poet, and philosopher Ibn 'Arabi.


New Overgrown Path posts are available via RSS/email by entering your email address in the right-hand sidebar. Any copyrighted material is included for critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).

3 comments:

Mark said...

"That new audience is more likely to be found at the fringes of classical music - among Ludovico Einaudi and André Rieu fans for instance - than among devotees of death metal and dubstep."

I wonder. Einaudi and Rieu might well satisfy their audience(s) such that no further steps are taken, whereas devotees of death metal and dubstep often show themselves to be interested in music in a more abstract, questing way and will sample (!) other musics (think of the 'Arabic' scales deployed in metal, the different borrowings heard in dubstep). Such devotees have an openness that i don't find in the fans of Einaudi and Rieu that i know; theirs tends to be a more closed approach to what they require of music.

My own interest in classical music developed long after a lengthy detour through improvised and other musics which, I see in retrospect, taught me to both listen more closely and not rush to judgement. And once of the best comments on recorded classical music I've ever heard came from an acid house producer who didn't get why there was no bass in the symphony orchestra.

Pliable said...

Mark, you are probably right and I too came to classical music by an arcane route.

What I should have said is "If, indeed, there is a large new classical audience, that audience is more likely to be found at the fringes of classical music - among Ludovico Einaudi and André Rieu fans for instance - than among devotees of death metal and dubstep".

I am unconvinced that there a large new classical audience waiting to be engaged. But, if there is, a more compassionate attitude must be adopted towards Ludovico Einaudi, André Rieu et al.

If there is not a large new classical audience waiting to be engaged, let's stop all this talk about accessibility and popularisation.

Pliable said...

Typically penetrating and thoughtful discussion by two music critics of the responsibilities of a critic here -https://twitter.com/RichardBratby/status/1159814625103425536

Those who, like me, were unaware of the meaning of 'TF' should follow this link - https://www.dictionary.com/e/acronyms/tf/

And that, dear readers, is classical music in 2019.