What do new young audiences want from classical music?

Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco for pre-recorded eight-track tape was commissioned for IRCAM by the Centre Georges Pompidou. It was created by Jonathan Harvey at IRCAM in 1980 by digitally manipulating the sound of the great tenor bell of Winchester Cathedral and the singing voice of Jonathan's son Dominic, who was then a chorister at the Cathedral. Jonathan embraced digital sound shaping in many of his compositions, notably in Speakings composed in 2008 which uses an electronic transformation application developed at IRCAM to make an orchestra ‘speak’. (See my 2010 interview with Jonathan in which he introduces Speakings with a detailed description of that transformation process.) 
Despite using none of the instruments found in a conventional Western classical orchestra, Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco is Jonathan Harvey's best known work. The reason for this is suggested by a Google search for Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco. The first of the 20,800 results lists the streaming options for the work which Google categorises as 'Rock' music. In an analysis of Jonathan's music Michael Downes explains that "Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco is a significant landmark not only within Harvey's career, but within the history of IRCAM; it showed that the institute's apparently esoteric research programme could yield music appealing to a wider audience". Which leads me on to the vitally important but all too often ignored question of what does that elusive new young audience want from classical music?

Music visionary and iconoclast Michael Wadada, who sadly left this earth to return to the great spirit in the sky a few days ago, concluded an interview with me last year by expressing the view that there is "truly a need to bring back music as 'ceremonial innertainment'". Before dismissing 'ceremonial innertainment' as fey pretension, please consider that classical music is rooted in ceremonial conventions defined by concert etiquette and venue, and that there is surely no better example of 'innertainment' than a Mahler symphony.

But does art music have to be defined rigidly by conventional classical forces? Much of Jonathan Harvey's music was influenced by what he modestly described as his 'Buddhist tendencies'. In a very thought-provoking talk Amaro Bhikku, a teacher from the Thai Forest Buddhist tradition, explained that we love music "not because we like the sounds themselves, we love music because of the place it takes us to". After the philosopher and pychologist William James sampled nitrous oxide he explained that "Our normal waking consciousness... is but one special type of consciousness, whilst all about it, parted from it by the filmiest of screens, there lie potential forms of consciousness entirely different".

The great mythologist Joseph Campbell explained that what we're really after is a deeper experience of life, not the meaning of it. Great music's appeal is its ability to transport the listener to a different experience and a different place, irrespective of the instrumental forces and venue. That is why, whether the classical purists like it or not, huge young audiences attend the Tomorrowlandelectronic dance music festival in Belgium which has an annual attendance in excess of 400,000. And that deeper experience is what new young audiences want from classical music. 

Jonathan Harvey controversially suggested that the stuffy conventions surrounding the concert hall should be abandoned to attract new audiences. One of those stuffy conventions is that only stereotypical classical musicians make great music. This convention explains why Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco is categorised as 'classical music' and as a result has received three BBC Proms performances. But other similar electronic works from beyond the classical stereotype such as Eraldo Bernocchi and Bill Laswell's Hooked Light Rays which samples the chants of Tibetan Buddhist monks, and Steve Roach's A Soul Ascends which is a distant cousin of a Mahler symphony, are dismissed as 'not classical music'

Electronica is just one neglected path to a deeper musical experience. Non-Western classical traditions, particularly those from the Indian subcontinent, remain badly neglected in the West, despite their proven ability to unlock different realms of consciousness without the chemical intervention used by William James. Once stuffy conventions are forgotten we can appreciate that a late Beethoven Quartet and the raga Maru Bihag are both equally valid examples of innertainment.

In his memoir My Festival Romance Womad co-founder Thomas Brooman lists a 1967 Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra concert as one of his ten life-changing gigs, together with performances by, among others, Jimi Hendri, Led Zeppelin, The Clash, Sabri Brothers and Drummers of Burundi. New classical audiences want deep experiences, and the music of Mahler and Shostakovich proves that deep experiences do fill concert halls. But to attract new and younger audiences classical music must become more diverse. Which means taking diversity far beyond the laudable but limiting definitions of gender and ethnicity to bring into our concert halls the cornucopia of great music from beyond the historic Western classical tradition.


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