'I dig Strauss and Wagner – those cats are good'
That photo shows Jimi Hendrix headlining at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival. In his memoir The Last Great Event about the Festival, its co-founder Ray Foulk reveals that during the planning for the event there was a meeting with Harold Lawrence who was then General Manager of the London Symphony Orchestra. Harold Lawrence was responsible for the high profile appointment of André Previn as Principal Conductor of the LSO in 1968, and Ray Foulk's vision was for the LSO to appear at the Festival "not only to accompany some of the acts, but also to give their own performance of music from 2001: A Space Odyssey and other suitable works" . But the LSO's busy schedule combined with doubts about the final venue for the Festival meant that, sadly, the LSO did not join Hendrix, The Who, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Joan Baez, the Moody Blues, and Leonard Cohen on the Isle of Wight.
Ray Foulk's brave attempt to involve a symphony orchestra is a reminder of how in 1970 the barriers between music genres were not as insurmountable as they are today. In a Melody Maker interview that appeared during the Festival, Jimi Hendrix explained "I dig Strauss and Wagner - those cats are good, and I think that they are going to form the background of my music". Alas it was not to be: eighteen days after his Isle of Wight appearance Jimi Hendrix died, apparently of a drug overdose.
Cellist Matt Haimovitz perpetuates that link between Jimi Hendrix and classical music by including his own take on Hendrix's legendary version of The Star-Spangled Banner on an eclectic triple album which ranges from Golijov and Ligetti to Lennon and McCartney. In a recent post I proposed that to reach cosmopolitan millennials classical music needs to be far more diverse in the genres it embraces, and Hendrix aspiring to the Western classical tradition and a classical cellist exploring Hendrix are examples of that much-needed but increasingly rare artistic diversity.
As my earlier post pointed out, classical music is an infinite multi-dimensional labyrinth and there is a similarly infinite number of entry points into that labyrinth. Film music, musicals, the easy listening fringes of World Music, and yet more Mahler have a place in winning new classical audiences. But that elusive new audience has more teeth than it is given credit for. Which means more chewy fare should also be part of the mix, but that is conspicuously absent from classical music's attempts to win a new audience.
Jimi Hendrix shared a management agent with the progressive rock and jazz fusion band Soft Machine, and Soft Machine supported Hendrix on his 1968 North American tour. In 1970 William Glock was Controller of the Proms. On 13th August 1970 - just two weeks before the Isle of Wight Festival - there was an all-Bach Prom at 7.00pm in the Royal Albert Hall with a star-studded cast including Neville Mariner, Philip Ledger, David Munrow, and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields. This was followed at 10.00pm by a late-night Prom with Soft Machine, the BBC Symphony Orchestra and conductors David Atherton, and Elgar Howarth. This concert, which was broadcast on BBC TV, opened with works by Terry Riley and Tim Souster, and then showcased three tracks from Soft Machine's Third album. Can you imagine the outcry from on Slipped Disc and in The Spectator if that daring experiment was repeated today?
Emerson, Lake & Palmer was one of the bands at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival and back then they played an important role in introducing a young audience - including myself - to classical music. As Carl Palmer explained: "I think the fact that Emerson, Lake & Palmer ended up playing things like Pictures at an Exhibition by Mussorsky introduced all of those young people to this great classical music. They could go and get a recording of it by an orchestra. We weren't there to educate; we were there to entertain. But we actually did open up the doorway".
In Silence John Cage explained: "What is the nature of an experimental action? It is simply an action the outcome of which is not foreseen". Our social media culture, with its obsession for approval in the form of 'likes', 'followers' and traffic metrics, deters any action likely to produce an outcome other than approval. And without experiments that push beyond the limits of approval, classical music will continue down the road of becoming a sad parody of itself.