What classical music can learn from a trance DJ

That is trance DJ Paul Oakenfold above playing his historic set at Stonehenge in September last year. His performance at the genuinely iconic venue received widespread coverage in the media. Yet, despite its high profile and some surprising nods towards classical music, the event passed the classical media by. Which should not have been the case: because classical music can learn much from the Sunset at Stonehenge project.

No musician has ever played at Stonehenge before and the sunset session came about through a collaboration between the DJ and English Heritage, the organisation that manages Stonehenge and more than 400 other historic sites. Stonehenge is a UNESCO World Heritage site; because of its fragility only 50 invited guests were permitted and all the equipment had to be set up in 30 minutes after the last visitor had left. Digital art company Motion Mapping provided the stunning digital light display seen in the footer below. To avoid attracting unwanted visitors and because of time constraints, Paul Oakenfold's set was relayed to the guests through 'silent disco' headphones instead of conventional speakers, although foldback speakers were used in the DJ booth. An album taken from the Stonehenge set has been released with proceeds going to English Heritage. It includes one straight classical track, which is - rather predictably - Andrea Bocelli's Nessun dorma!, plus William Orbit's jarring mash-up of Barber's Adagio, and two cuts from orchestral film soundtracks.

Dance music offers much food for thought about age. Its classical cousin takes a simplistic view of audience age - young equals good, old equals bad. This coupled with a stratified view which places audiences into hierarchial categories defined by their age means that youth is used as the main marketing tool both to promote musicians and define markets. As a result a cohort of young classical musicians is being brought prematurely to prominence before they have reached artistic maturity. Yet when Paul Oakenfold played his Stonehenge set he was forty. He was joined at the gig by the iconic Carl Cox who was forty-six. In 2016 Carl Cox played the closing set when Ibiza's legendary Space shut its doors for the last time. He had been resident DJ at Space for fifteen years and worked closely with the clubs owner Pepe Roselló who was born in Ibiza in 1937. The electronic dance music market is now worth $7 billion annually, and nobody is demanding the old codgers are put out to pasture and replaced by wunderkinder.

Age, like social class - remember ABC1s? - is a fallible demographic tool in the digital age. As an example the dance music audience is stereotypically defined as young and down market. Yet British Airways, which has a business-oriented customer base, commissioned a 100 minute long inflight mixtape from Paul Oakenfold as part of the airline's current centenary celebrations. It is also food for thought that there is not a single female DJ in the DJMags influential 2019 top 10 ranking. Correcting the gender imbalance in classical music is essential and absolutely the right thing to do. But it is is a mistake to think that correcting the imbalance will attract a new audience, and that mistake is currently being made by virtually every classical marketeer.

In his introduction to Christopher Scoates' 'Brian Eno Visual Music' the artist and theorist in the field of cybernetics and telematics Roy Ascott reminds us that second-order cybernetics explains that attempting to measure cultural location is relative, observer dependent, unstable, shifting, and open-ended. This means that observers, in the case of music the audience, are themselves part of the system they engage with.

Second-order cybernetics provides a far more erudite exposition of a recent thread Overgrown Path - my music is not your music. A listener's micro and macro location, Head Related Transfer Function, mood, and many other factors mean nobody hears the same music the same way. Yet classical music denies the observer dependency effect. Pedantic BBC Radio 3 presenters not only tell us how well a piece of music was played, or more accurately their interpretation of how well the piece was played, but also, quite unbelievably, also try to tell us how we should respond to it. Dogmatic classical experts lead the futile search for a one-sound-fits-all acoustically perfect concert hall. This again denies observer dependency, or in the case of the notorious vineyard configuration of the Elbphilharmonie, seat location dependency. This doctrinal rigidity is reflected in the increasing centralisation of classical music into a few major metropolitan designer concert halls and elitist rural country house opera venues, despite ceaseless chanting by classical's great and good of the accessibility mantra.

In contrast to this imposed rigidity, dance music exploits observer dependency in a wide range of environments. Paul Oakenfold's Stonehenge set has been preceded by similar live-streamed projects at the Everest base camp and Great Wall of China. Electronic dance music (EDM) was born in Amnesia and other open air clubs on Ibiza before new noise control laws made roofs on the island's dance floors obligatory. The scene spread to beach parties in Goa where psytrance was born, and thrives today in the hugely popular Tomorrowland and other al fresco festivals. EDM's subtle drift towards the classical audience continues. In 2013 leading Dutch DJ Armin van Buuren famously performed with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in front of a 15,000 audience that included the newly crowned King of the Netherlands Willem-Alexander and Queen Máxima. In October Tomorrowland celebrates its 15th anniversary with a two day dance party in Amsterdam that includes Metropole Orkest, a Netherlands-based orchestra founded in 1945 to explore the boundaries of jazz, popular and classical music. In the photo below leading dance DJ Hardwell is performing with the Metropole Orkest.

In fairness the BBC Proms has made very small incursions into the same territory. In 2015 a late-night Prom of Ibiza Classics was performed by Jules Buckley - currently chief conductor of the Dutch Metropole Orkest - and the Heritage Orchestra to a mixed reception. The Ibiza Classics formula fronted by dance DJ Pete Tong has subsequently been highly successful, but the Ibiza Prom was parachuted into an otherwise conventional season and lacked any wider context. The BBC Proms in the Park take classical music out of the concert hall. But they are distinctly Radio 2 rather than 3 in content - this year Barry Manilow is headliner - with the classical superstars staying within the safety of the acoustically (im)perfect Albert Hall to be relayed to the provincials in the park on big screens.

I have been privileged to hear some of the finest musicians performing in legendary concert venues around the world. Proof of observer dependency is provided by my ranking of a performance of the Mozart Requiem by the modest L'Orchestre Philharmonique du Maroc in a Moroccan school gymnasium as one of my most moving musical expereiences. a 1970s Mahler's gigantic Eighth Symphony conducted by Sir Charles Groves in the acoustically improbable Alexandra Palace is another of my second-order cybernetics affirming great musical experiences.

Elitists doubtless will argue that classical music's native environment is the concert hall. Which is simply not true. London's first and very fashionable music venues were 19th century Pleasure Gardens at Vauxhall and elsewhere. Thomas Arne, composer of Rule Britannia, was Vauxhall’s musical director from 1745 to 1777, Handel was a star performer at these pleasure gardens, and in 1764 the eight year old Mozart performed on the harpsichord and piano at Ranelagh Pleasure garden. If classical music really wants to reach a wider audience Simon Rattle and the LSO should perform a Mahler symphony at a free concert in Hyde Park. But of course that will never happen: because Sir Simon will demand an acoustically perfect orchestra shell costing many millions of pounds.

Regular readers may be surprised at my suggestion that classical music can learn much from a trance DJ, because in the past I have railed against dumbing down. But as Gandhi told us "We must care for the truth in front of us more than consistency". Next week I will have been blogging for fifteen years. During that period I have seen classical music slowly ossifying. A new audience is failing to emerge and efforts to reach it are largely misguided. More seriously, reactionary attitudes are hardening despite profound and irreversible shifts in technology and consumer behaviour. Much that I admire The Immortal Hour it saddens to read comments like 'Will be interested in the Glastonbury Festival when it gets back to its original roots of producing cycles of operas by Rutland Boughton'*.

A defining characteristic of the digital generation is that they consume music on the move. As the accessibility-obsessed classical establishment moves closer towards building yet another city centre ivory tower with an allegedly acoustic perfect concert hall in the basement, it should ponder on the thoughts of dance music entrepreneur Nick Halkes about Paul Oakenfold's Stonehenge set: "One of the greatest things about dance and electronic music is that it gives you the possibility of having amazing experiences anywhere." Great classical music will always find its ultimate and undiluted expression in the world's finest concert hall. But there needs to be a lot more give and take around the edges of that pinnacle if the art form really wants to rejuvenate its audience.

* Let's dispose of this nonsense about 'stalking' on social media. If you put your views in the public domain on Twitter don't complain if those views are discussed publicly. If you don't want them discussed then change your privacy settings or kick your social media habit. And before complaining about selective comment moderation, please try commenting on certain other high profile music blogs. Please remember that On An Overgrown Path is a personal blog not a public forum. If you want a platform from which to express your own divergent views without selective moderation, there is a very simple solution: start your own blog. Then after fifteen years of dealing with comments you may start to realise how tiresome it is moderating classical music's rampant egos.

No review samples used in this article. The Nick Halkes quote is taken from The Second Summer of Love: How Dance Music Took Over the World by Alon Shulman. Any copyrighted material is included for critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). New Overgrown Path posts are available via RSS/email by entering your email address in the right-hand sidebar.


Joe Shelby said…
"Its classical cousin takes an increasingly simplistic view of age - young equals good, old equals bad."

Uh, don't you mean the opposite? Aside from performance halls, where they're constantly bidding for new ones in order to get a perfect sound, and the occasional worship of the next child protege (who, btw, is a protoge at OLD music) everything about classical is 'old'.

Pieces after 1920 are rarely played with very few exceptions (Prokofiev, Copland), and living composers are literally unheard of, conductors tend to be over 45, the Proms playlist, as has been noted repeatedly over the years, has a lock on a subset of composers for the orchestral slots (with Mahler always making the cut and a great number of British composers left to the sidelines year after year).

Classical radio, often public supported (here in the States) and therefore under tight budget constraints, makes this problem even worse as it eschews modern music not because of the lack of a potential audience, but because of the costs - a LOT of money is saved when they don't have to pay royalties.
Pliable said…
Thanks for that Joe. What I meant was 'Its classical cousin takes a simplistic view of audience age. The post has now been amended to make my intended meaning clear.
Pliable said…
The Metropole Orkest conducted by Jules Buckley play at the BBC Proms tonight August 21st - https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m0007rjw

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