Let's give classical music a Stockhausen makeover

That CD of Péter Eötvös conducting Stockhausen's Gruppen* and Punkte is relevant to classical music's search for a new younger audience. What you see can change how you hear music: the artwork, which is the work of the Hungarian GAB/MER Design Studio whose other credits include the United Colours of Benetton brand identity, bridges the gap between the psychedelic art of the 1960s and the more recent visionary art of Alex Grey. Stockhausen himself bridged the same gap: his influence on 1960s counterculture was recognised by his presence on the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album artwork, while his cycle of seven operas Licht (Light) composed between 1997 and 2003 inhabits a parallel universe to Alex Grey and other contemporary cybernauts.

Among other 'mystery school' composers inhabiting this parallel universe are Olivier Messiaen, Jonathan Harvey, Arvo Pärt, and John Tavener. In his fantasy novel Pawn of Prophecy David Eddings explains that:

There's a world beyond what we can see and touch, and that world lives by its own laws. What may be impossible in this very ordinary world is very possible there, and sometimes the boundaries between the two worlds disappear, and then who can say what is possible and impossible?
Today multi-sensory artists are making those boundaries between the two worlds disappear by combining music and visuals at hugely popular events such as the biennial Boom Festival in Portugal. Their music may not be your music; but anyone who wants to understand what connecting with a new classical audience involves should watch the Boom video via this link. As has been explained here previously, a young and affluent audience of 400,000 attends the similar Tomorrowland Festival in Belgium - the world's best music festival? - over two weekends.

At first glance there may seem to be no similarity between the Boom Festival and classical concerts. But digging deeper disproves this. Boom belongs to a the genre of transformational festivals - another is Burning Man in Nevada. Transformational means breaking down the boundary - fleetingly or more enduringly - surrounding the world beyond. Which is exactly what happens when a listener is moved by a Mahler symphony, or by a trance session in the dance temple at Boom. But this is where we hit the disconnect. The coveted non-classical audience is getting deeper and deeper into the unsettling liminal zone between the possible and impossible at Boom. But to entice this coveted audience, the classical industry is emasculating the music by making it an easy listen and non-threatening.

Contributing to this disconnect is the fallacy that everyone hears classical music the same way. Wrong - we do not 'hear' a violin. Vibrations in the violin strings and resonances in the instrument's body are transmitted by airborne vibrations. These sound waves are gathered by the outer ear and travel down the ear canal to the eardrum. This vibrates, setting three tiny bones in the middle ear in motion. The fluid in the inner ear (cochlea) then moves, causing the hair cells in the cochlea to bend. These change the movement into electrical impulses which are transmitted to the hearing (auditory) nerve and on to the brain. Every human ear is physically different - ears make better unique IDs than fingerprints. So different ears hear the same sound differently even before the brain is involved.

But that's the easy bit. Because the brain then has to parse those electrical impulses to create an infinitely nuanced three dimensional sound picture. This parsing process forms the basis of our neurological consciousness, and only a few minutes on Twitter or Facebook tells us that everyone's brain is different. Which means parsing produces a different sound picture for every single person. So my music is not your music, my acoustically perfect concert hall is not your acoustically perfect concert hall, and my definitive performance is not your definitive performance.

The fallible nature of our hearing mechanism also means that there's a world beyond what each of us can see and hear as individuals. So to break out of the current impasse, classical music needs to recognise this. In his Aspen Award acceptance speech Benjamin Britten told us "music demands ... some preparation, some effort, a journey to a special place, saving up for a ticket". Just look at another video via this link of the Boom Festival held in a remote part of Portugal: that elusive new, young covetable audience is prepared to make a big effort to hear the right kind of music. They do not need to be spoon fed classical music. The fashionable and all-pervasive 'Classic FM' makeover has failed dismally to connect with a new audience. Young vibrant audiences don't want baby food, they want chewy music. So as part of the new normal let's ditch Classic FM and give classical music a Stockhausen makeover.

* To be perfectly accurate Gruppen is also conducted by Arturo Tamayo and Jacques Mercier as it is composed for three orchestras. Heads up for James Oroc's The New Psychedelic Revolution: The Genesis of the Visionary Age which influenced this article. 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).


Unknown said…
Why, during this time of social distancing, does the Helicopter Quartet come to mind?
Pliable said…
Thanks for that interesting contribution. The Helicopter Quartet is more Boom than Barbican - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7ykQFrL0X74

But Boom probably wouldn't allow it to be performed. Because, unlike classical events the festival is very environmentally conscious, and helicopters can't run on waste vegetable oil - http://www.powerful-thinking.org.uk/casestudy/boom/

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