22 November 2012

Training the Audience


It would be fascinating to know how many music students there are in the world.  I am quite sure that if all those studying music at universities, colleges and conservatoires around the globe were herded together they would number well into the hundreds of thousands, if not more.  Almost certainly they would outnumber those currently employed in one form or another in the music business.  Instinct tells me that there are more putative pianists than there are pianos, enough optimistic orchestral players to fill all the professional symphony orchestras of the world several times over, more budding opera superstars than there are opera houses and certainly more ardent drummers than there are rock bands with vacancies.  A perennial question from those of us who see these vast numbers coming through the doors of educational establishments around the world is, why do they do it?  We all know that there’s not much money to be made out of music, that it’s a life of solid drudgery and endless disappointments, and that for every concert, recording or gig we manage to secure, there are a thousand that have gone to someone else.  I’ve lost count of the bitter organists who moan – “How come HE gets to play there?  I’m much better and I’ve never been invited!” – or the bitchy sopranos who claim that “SHE only got the role because she’s had a boob job”.
Success in the music world is down to ability (5%), hard work (20%) and good luck (75%), and the competition is so intense that a single misjudgement can kill a career stone dead.  I well remember a brilliant pianist who, given his break and asked to present a 45 minute recital at London gallery, blew it all by playing for around  30 and seeing his audience walk out demanding their money back for short measure.  I run a course at Middlesex University which is intended to provide students with the elements needed to recognise what hard work is needed to fill the necessary 20% work and to recognise when a bit of luck comes along and how best to grab it; it remains to be seen if this helps them in their future careers, but it certainly stops them thinking that the world owes them a living just because they got distinction at grade 8.  But the sad fact is, the vast majority of music students will not find a music job at all and end up as company directors, government servants, hotel managers, train drivers, cleaners, insurance salesmen or, in the worst-case, bankers and financiers.  Have, then, their years of dedication to the cause of music and their commitment to educational courses been a waste of time and resources?

Not a bit of it, for they have been trained to be something far more vital to music than mere players, promoters or pushers.  They have been trained to be members of that most elevated club, the audience.  And there are many, many vacancies for good audience members.  We are desperate for people to fill all those seats in all those auditoria in which we have been able to secure an engagement.  True, there is no salary, but there is something much more valuable on offer; an enriched and profoundly enhanced life
The value of training people to be an audience is usually understated.  After all, the argument goes, anyone can buy a ticket to go to a concert, so why bother with any formal training?  The same argument goes to driving – anyone can do it, why take a special test to be a bus or truck driver?  Just look at the moronic imbeciles who take to the roads of Malaysia and Thailand and you will soon see why special training is a necessity if not an actual requirement.  The popular karaoke singer, lauded by his drunken peers in the seedy surrounds of the bar, may well stagger home under the impression he can sing, but put him on a stage with several hours of Wotan in front of him and he will very soon buckle under pressure.  In every human activity, proper training is of inestimable benefit.  I’d hate to think my train driver has not been trained, and if my cleaner hadn’t had some proper instruction, my toilets would soon smell like they do in China or India.

By trial and error any fool could get a train to move, and most human beings could wave a mop over a urine-stained floor unaided, but how much better the job will be done and how much more satisfaction you will receive from the job if you have been thoroughly trained and have the confidence to handle every eventuality. So it is with an audience.  We can all sit there and feel bored or excited.  But what’s the point?  A quick thrill (or short period of tedium) can just as easily be had seated on a (clean or dirty) lavatory.  Music is something special which can enrich our lives.  But only if we approach it properly; a lot of people have had a revelatory moment listening to music, but for those of us trained in the art of listening experience such things far more often and infinitely more profoundly.  To understand anything is to appreciate it all the more.  By training hundreds of thousands of young people to understand and appreciate the intricacies of music, a generation is being built up which will find great enrichment from a concert and will not only regard it as an essential part of their life, but will help spread the news to those who have not had the benefit of a similar education.
When the Malaysian Philharmonic started up, we devised an education programme designed to train an audience - to explain the music to them and to give them a thorough grounding in the skills needed to listen intelligently to the kind of music we played.  Once the intellectually challenged moved into the driving seats, that all went off the agenda in favour of a so-called “educational” programme designed simply to get children into the concert hall. The idea was as simple as the brains behind it;  pull in the kids, give them a good time, and they will come again with their parents.  So every few weeks on a Saturday and Sunday morning  the hall was packed with noisy children who were faced with the spectacle of an orchestra trying to look as if they were having fun while a funny man dressed himself up (a football shirt sticks in my memory from one of the more pathetic shows) and played small bursts of insignificant fifth-rate music (often signature tunes from long-forgotten British shows of no relevance whatsoever to the children in the audience) on a motley assortment of non-musical instruments.  It barely kept the children entertained at the time, and if any of them ever came to a formal evening concert, it’s inconceivable they would have drawn any connection between 90 seconds of Pop Goes Bach and 90 minutes of Bruckner Seventh.

If we want loyal and enthusiastic audiences in the future, we need to train them properly, not push pointless and irrelevant music-related entertainments at them.  Listening to music is a serious business and needs proper training.

04 November 2012

Critics Copyright

Here in the UK there's something of a maelstrom building up following the demands of an organisation called the Newspaper Licensing Agency that artists, agents and concert-promoters pay a royalty for every quote used from a published review.  These royalty demands move into the tens of thousands of pounds.

As a critic I am well used to seeing my words used without my express permission to promote an artist, to boost concert ticket sales or to help sell a CD and I not only have no objection (even when my words are taken dramatically out of context) but have always assumed that it is part of the unwritten contract that goes with the job.  My understanding has always been that an integral function of music criticism is to provide artists with legitimate quotations for their marketing; just as political journalists are aware that part of their function is to influence the thinking of their readership, so the music critic is conscious that what he writes is boosts or suppresses interest in a particular musician.  In fact, I would suggest that without this element, a lot of published musical criticism is pointless, and I see newspapers cutting back still further on this aspect of their work.

On the surface, it would seem that the Newspaper Licensing Agency is merely trying to secure extra money for critics, whose hard work and dedication is, in general, unrewarded financially.  Except, of course, that neither I nor any of my colleagues have ever received a penny from the Newspaper Licensing Agency.  Where the money goes is a matter for concern, but if someone is charging someone else to use my words, I want that payment; after all, I did all the work.

Luckily many of us are sufficiently well known in the musical community for our names, rather than the publication for which we write, to give legitimacy to any quotes.  The obvious thing, therefore, is to bypass the scurrilous activities of the Newspaper Licencing Agency by providing artists and agents with the quotes direct.  Already I see quotes from this blog appearing on international agency websites and on artist support publicity, and I am not just happy about it, I positively encourage it.  Anyone can quote up to 10 percent of any posting on this blog free-of-charge, provided they acknowledge it duly.

It is, however, utterly wrong both ethically and legally, to reprint in a personal blog with free access a review you have been commissioned to write for another publication, whether or not that publication charges for access.  I have, in the past, re-published here criticisms I've written for others, but only long after the original has been in the public arena on its commissioned source for some time.  Even then, I've been on dubious legal ground.  Usually, when an exceptional performance, artist or recording comes my way for review, I will write the commissioned one first, see it in print and only then write a completely new one for the blog. 

This, though, brings its own issues. Sent what I regarded as a brilliant recording on the Guild label of the Carl Rutti Organ Concerto, I decided greater interest would be garnered were my review to be published in a recognised international publication, so I urged the editor of theclassicalreview.com to carry my review.  He agreed and I duly wrote and submitted it.  After several weeks it still had neither been published nor had the editor come back to me with the usual pre-publication proof, so I assumed he had decided not to spike it.  I then re-wrote it substantially and posted it here, only to receive a curt letter from the editor complaining that I had breached the exclusivity rules.  And I had, and hang my head duly in shame (even if I cannot expect to write for theclassicalreview.com again).

So it seems that those little quotes in brackets which pepper concert and opera posters and CD label adverts are to disappear.  And if the result is that audiences are no longer tempted to buy tickets for a concert or an opera because no respected critic is quoted on a notice near the box office as suggesting "This is a tenor in the Pavarotti mould", and CD sales plummet because those tempting phrases - "Stunning performance - stunning sound" - are no longer around to lure the uncertain buyer, then we know who is to blame.  If the Newspaper Licensing Agency is not intent on wiping classical music from the face of British life, then they might do well to re-think their money-grabbing scheme.

02 November 2012

What is Malaysian Music?

Apologies to regular readers of this blog for the long absence.  A change of location, a change of job and a change of time-zone have kept me otherwise occupied.  But the dust has settled and normal service can now be resumed.  Thanks to all who have expressed concern and regret at this temporary hiatus in activity.

For the next few months at least I am based in the UK from where I get a very different perspective on musical life in Asia, although when I presented my weekly lectures at Middlesex University this week I was both surprised and delighted to bump into a gaggle of former students and colleagues from UPM in Kuala Lumpur who were there to present a demonstration on Malaysian music. Sadly, I wasn't able to make their show; the fact that for the rest of the week I am working at the University of St Andrews, some 800 kilometers away, meant that as soon as I left the lecture theatre I was in the car and heading north.

But I would have loved to have been there, not least because I wonder what is meant by Malaysian music.  When, about 20 years ago, I was involved in collecting and recording the ethnic music of Sarawak, we ran up against a lot of official opposition; the music of the indigenous peoples of Sarawak did not reflect what the government wanted to promote as Malaysia's Islamic Heritage.  (The fact that there is virtually no Islamic Heritage in Sarawak was conveniently overlooked in a governmental attitude which, as I have often said, takes the view that history is a reflection of the present.)  We were forced to remove the lovely Bidayuh art from the cover and replace it with a rather insipid drawing of traditional Malay dancers, and the inset essay was obliged to refer to the Muslim influence despite the fact that this was not apparent from the music on the disc. 

I understood totally the government's point of view.  Malaysia is a new country (formed in its present guise, for those who do not know it, in 1965 - although west Malaysia secured Independence from the British in 1957) and to recognise the ethnic and cultural diversity which many feel is one of the strengths of the country is to undermine the desire, so persistently voiced by the then Prime Minister, for Malaysia to be regarded as a single nation.  Chinese, Indian, Indonesian, Polynesian, Indigenous art, enjoyed by the diverse ethnic groups in the country, was seen as divisive, and the push was to subjugate that into a "Malaysian" art which reflected what the government wanted to project to the outside world as the country's uniqueness.  The dominant peoples in west Malaysia, where the Prime Minister lived, were Muslims, so it seemed natural that ethnic arts were absorbed into an over-arching artistic identity which reflected Islamic principles.

Which would have been fine were it not for the fact that, glorious as so much Islamic art is, music does not feature significantly in it.  As a result, while Chinese, Indian or other ethnically specific musics could not be labelled "Malaysian", that left a vacuum since there was no significant Islamic music to take its place.

Attempts to introduce Western Music through the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra, met with almost overwhelming opposition from those who saw it merely as artistic colonialism, while new native-born composers, desperate to show that Malaysia could hold its own on the international music front, too often presented their work before they had matured sufficiently to sound anything other than derivative or, more often, imitative.  Gamlean groups took the music of one of Malaysia's neighbours - Indonesia - and tried to argue that close proximity was roughly equivalent to indigenous, while the colleges that grew up to encourage Malaysian musicians, saw success as commercial rather than artistic, resulting in a vast output of bland and inane pop music, linked by slow tempi and minor keys, a desperately unhappy marriage between Indonesian Dangdut and Afro-American Soul.

So I really would have liked to know what my good friends presented to the students and staff of Middlesex University as Malaysian Music?  Can we really say that such a thing exists?