For young classical audiences the sound is the message

In David Hepworth's recommended history of EMI's Abbey Road studios he makes an observation that may just hold the key to unlocking the new younger audience that classical music has sought for so long in vain. Writing about the increasing importance of pop music in late 1950s Hepworth explains that "whereas the people working in classical music wanted to record music, the people in pop increasingly wanted to record sounds". The ultimate example of studio-created sound taking priority over music culminated in the seminal “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band" which took five-and-a-half months of sound-shaping at Abbey Road for the album's13 tracks to be completed.

Classical dogma dictates that the music takes priority - note perfect interpretations, historically informed performances, pedigree of the musician, concert hall etiquette etc. In the classical world sound is the servant of music, as in the never-ending search for the acoustically perfect concert hall. By contrast popular non-classical music is improvised, has no original score for the performance to be judged against, and the character of the performance is heavily influenced by electronic sound-shaping. Recent scientific research has started to identify the important role played by infrasound vibrations in the 35 to 75 Hz range - gamma rhythms - in human consciousness and perception. The preponderance of these frequencies in popular music compared with classical may well explain why the classical genre struggles to engage with younger audiences.

In the vain search for a new classical audience the music has been placed centre stage, with sound taking a back seat. The recent transmogrification of BBC Radio 3 is a prime example of this. Music has to be easily digestible by cutting anything remotely challenging - like Vivaldi's Four Seasons for heaven's sake - into small chunks that can be swallowed without chewing. Music must be easy to listen to: preferably film music or any mainstream work that sounds like film music.  Music cannot speak for itself, it has to be 'explained' by a presenter reciting chunks from a children's encyclopaedia of music, a travesty that is now creeping by osmosis into the concert hall. And, above all, music cannot contain any sounds that are not comforting. So no primetime for Xenakis' gamma rhythm-rich Pléïades. In my header image Pléïades is seen being performed by Les Percussions de Strasbourg - video via this link

There are two steps to solving a problem. The first step is to accurately identify and understand the problem. The second step is to create a solution. For several decades in its search for a new younger audience classical music has been trying to solve the wrong problem. Putting the music through a programmatic blender to produce the aural equivalent of baby food is not the solution. New audiences are bass literate; for the younger audience the sound is the message. Sonically chewable music is already in the repertoire - Pléïades, The Rite of Spring, Arcana, and so on. Sometime DJ Mason Bates is mining this mother lode very successfully with his works for orchestra and electronics. An example of how to set the gamma rhyths bouncing is the bass reproduced in the Grammy-nominated San Francisco Symphony's SACD of Bates' Liquid Interface

Classical music must also look beyond existing repertoire to give new younger audiences the sound fix they crave. Digital technologies now make sound-shaping experiments possible. Yet the classical music world throws a hissy fit anytime anyone mentions tampering with a concert hall sound that is defined by listener expectations from 150 years ago. What is worse, some open-minded experiments giving younger audiences the sound they want, or turning the classical music into a moribund easy-listening museum for an ageing audience à la BBC Radio and Classic FM?


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