26 January 2017

The Cult of the Unlistenable

Preparing some concert notes for a rare performance of Samuel Barber’s Cello Concerto, I came across a wonderful phrase in an article by Paul Tobias, published in The Strad magazine in 1996.  He had written a passionate defence of Barber’s Cello Concerto, explaining its failure to gain a foothold in the repertory on a whole range of issues, none of which was the fault of the composer.  Much of what he wrote accorded with my own interpretation of the situation, not least his suggestion that in the immediate post-War years, American composers had become so obsessed with breaking away from the pre-War notions of music as a means of communication and emotional display, that they had created the “Cult of the Unlistenable”.

What a brilliant phrase and how right Tobias was in highlighting it as a significant problem facing music in the second half of the 20th century. 

We can trace it back to the Second Viennese School, but the Cult really originated in the “Darmstadt School”, where a number of leading avant-garde composers – Nono, Stockhausen, Boulez among them – promoted a compositional ethos which was almost exclusively concerned with addressing complex mathematical problems of their own devising.  Music was seen as an esoteric intellectual exercise; something to be studied and read rather than listened to.  As Boulez went on to show, if you followed this path to its logical conclusion, the whole raison d’ĂȘtre of music ceased to exist and music itself became redundant. 

We know that now, but in the 1950s and 1960s such was the originality and forcefulness of their ideas that they spread like wildfire across the conservatories and universities of the world, encouraging academic and student composers to indulge in intellectual exercises divorced from the actuality of audience accessibility.  Even today, there exists in most advanced musical institutions a body of academic composers who solve problems and address issues through composition which bear no relationship to the kind of music which the public – who are, after all, the principal consumers of music – identify as being relevant to them.  There has long been a fundamental disconnect between much of the composition craft taught in universities and the reality of composition in the musical marketplace.  But that is just how it should be; student composers should be taught to pose and then solve intellectual problems as a means of perfecting their art before they go out into the Big Bad World. 

However, during the last century, it became fashionable – trendy, if you like – to regard such academic experimentation not for what it was but as a substitute for the music people wanted to hear, and to present it as the only legitimate path for music to take in the name of progress.  Thus the music of the mid-20th century became so thoroughly associated with desiccated intellectualism that any music which attempted to entice listeners through recognisable melody, coherent harmony and identifiable rhythm, and especially that which attempted to entice through an open expression of emotional and sensual elements, was dismissed by the trendy gang as “irrelevant, out-dated and inappropriate”.  Composers who wrote this kind of music well into the 20th century – Barber was one, but others included Rachmaninov – were castigated by those critics and commentators who had swallowed the rhetoric of the academic brigades and believed that the only “real” modern music was that which caused, if not pain and distress, certainly confusion and puzzlement.  In short, the “Cult of the Unlistenable” had been created.

Of course, we should all now see that for what it was; a passing fad which has a slight legacy in the music of today, but which in its extreme anti-traditional concepts was more concerned with revolution than survival.  But sadly, not all of us do.

Only the other day I read a piece in which the writer described listening to Rachmaninov as a “guilty pleasure”.  Rather like the consumption of chocolate is seen in some quarters as something of which to be ashamed and preferably to be done in secret, so listening (and enjoying) Rachmaninov is seen as something slightly perverse; an escape from modern-day reality.  This is arrant and unacceptable nonsense.  If Rachmaninov was writing in a musical idiom which was different from those of some of his contemporaries, who is to say who was right and who was wrong, who was revolutionary and who was reactionary.  If Rachmaninov chose to entice rather than alienate listeners why was that wrong, and why should we today feel guilty about accepting his musical message?

Similarly, while in my youth it was very common for people to dismiss “Modern Music”, assuming that the Cult of the Unlistenable encompassed every piece of music written during the 20th century, I am delighted that such blanket prejudices seem to be on the wane.  Yet still I read of audiences “not liking modern music” as if everybody naturally likes everything written before 1900.  I believe audiences are much more discerning than that, and while they may well register their disapproval of the Cult of the Unlistenable, they do not assume that the Cult of the Unlistenable and Modern Music are synonymous. 

The Cult of the Unlistenable did untold damage to music, not only encouraging a jaundiced view of the music of Barber, Rachmaninov and others, but actively suppressing great works of the mid-20th century like the Barber Cello Concerto.  Time has come for the damage done by the Cult of the Unlistenable to be undone; try to be at Singapore’s Esplanade Concert Hall on 13th April to hear cellist Qin Li-Wei perform the Barber.  Unless you are something of a dinosaur and still subscribe to the Cult of the Unlistenable, I suspect you will be in for a glorious musical treat.  And as an added pleasure – with no hint of guilt attached – the concert also includes Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony.

18 January 2017

Off-Message Missionaries

How well do orchestras know their audience?  Having worked in the backrooms of several orchestras, I know there is a huge deal of effort put into attracting new audiences and devising innovative programming to lure in those who might seem repelled by the notion of sitting in a concert hall quietly listening to music surrounded by others who are quick to draw attention to individual solecisms of their neighbours.

Guides are issued, often in kiddie-language with cartoon-style illustrations, to tell you what to expect and how to behave, with much explanation of what to wear and when to applaud.  Such things are good and help to illuminate what, from the outside, appears to be a very elitist and secretive activity.  Orchestras try all sorts of things to widen their audience base; non-traditional programming, movie-soundtrack evenings in appropriate costume, entertaining events, performances in informal settings, dress-down concerts and concerts featuring actors and comedians.  There’s even a whole industry out there of actor/musicians who devise portable concerts which they sell to orchestras under the banner of attracting new and (invariably) younger audiences.

And, to a certain extent, it works with new and younger audiences coming to these special concerts.  I have yet to be convinced, however, that those new and younger audiences translate into regular attendance at mainstream concerts, but that’s another issue.

But in all this striving to find new audiences, how many orchestras really think about their existing ones?  Audiences are loyal and it takes a lot to drive them away;  whether they face up to the fact or not, too many orchestras take this for granted, pour their energies into widening the audience profile while exercising minimal thought on retaining existing audiences. 

The issue comes to mind following a request for clarification from my sister, who lives in a city which does not have its own professional orchestra but plays host several times each year to a regional one which does the rounds with classic programmes taken from their season programmes put on at their perfuming home several hundred miles away.  My sister has long since retired from her teaching post and, along with a coterie of friends, is a loyal supporter when the orchestra visits.  They relish the opportunity to enjoy a professional concert close to home and, since all of them have some connection with music (at the very least, they learnt the piano as children) they understand all the niceties that go with concert attending and which makes the experience, for those in the know, all the more enjoyable.

Recently, my sister tells me, they have noticed that when the orchestra visits, they do not bring a conductor.  Instead the leading violinist starts the performance off and then plays along with the rest of them.  Matters came to a head at the orchestra’s last visit when the solo pianist (in Beethoven’s “Emperor”) occasionally got up from the piano to conduct the orchestra.  “Are we being cheated?”, asks my sister, suggesting that because the orchestra is just visiting, they might be saving money by cutting down on the number of musicians sent and cutting out the star conductor?

I am happy to write back to my sister that, no, far from treating you with contempt, the orchestra is actually showing you respect by bringing to your city a style of performance which is considered correct amongst the cognoscenti. In the interests of historical accuracy, orchestral music pre-Beethoven is now usually performed by smaller-sized ensembles without a conductor, while it is becoming increasingly accepted practice to perform Beethoven (and other 18th century) keyboard concertos without a conductor and directed from the keyboard by the soloist.  Hopefully, she and her friends will appreciate that the orchestra is not treating them as second-class audiences and will continue their loyal support.

My sister’s concern, however, must be shared by others.  It is a potentially sore point in the UK.  The practice of a professional orchestra regularly going out from its home-base to perform in provincial cities as part of an outreach programme, can seem as if they are some kind of Cultural Missionaries, taking orchestral music out to the yokels in the sticks and implying a lower level of cultural receptivity amongst those in the provinces.  Orchestras have to be very sensitive to this.  I know with orchestras with which I have been associated, that tours to the provinces so often take programmes deemed as “populist” simply because it is believed that provincial audiences will not have the sophisticated tastes of those in the metropolis; but, perhaps, there is more validity in this argument in south east Asia where Western Classical music is less deeply embedded in the cultural consciousness of the general population.

Had I not been around to answer my sister’s query, I wonder whether, the next time the professional orchestra paid its visit to her neck of the woods without a conductor, she and her friends might have decided they had enough of being short-changed, and decided to choose theatre over concert.  And that makes me wonder how many other loyal supporters of orchestral concerts have been put off by a wholly unintended but genuinely perceived slight?

Orchestras will point to the efforts they make to keep in touch with their regular audience base.  Questionnaires get sent round (and hardly ever returned), occasional market-surveys are conducted by co-opted students whose presence during concert intervals is annoying when you are more concerned with catching up on old friends or getting served at the bar, and every concert programme gives you contact details offering you the opportunity to voice your concerns to some nameless person who will send a stock reply and leave it at that.  Pre-concert talks are not the way to go – especially when so many of the presenters are inexperienced as audience members themselves and often out of touch with what an audience really wants to know – and programme notes often concentrate on technicalities which seem irrelevant to the majority of an audience, who are just there to enjoy the sound of orchestral music.  Audiences just want to go to a concert and hear music; they do not want to fill in forms, answer questions, attend lectures or go through the tiresome business of post-mortem analysis; none of these attempts at two-way communication will ever succeed.

The mature, the retired, the elderly; they constitute the bulk of most orchestras’ loyal audience.  They have the time and the income at their disposal to be loyal.  They have the understanding and experience to appreciate the music.  They have the patience and tolerance not to be offended by the continual barrage of publicity orchestras put out aimed at the young.  None of us is young for long, but all of us get to be mature, retired and old, and often seem to spend the greater part of our lives in that state.  Orchestras should not forget this. 

How often does the leader, the soloist or the conductor come on to the stage before a concert and actually tell the audience why they are doing something, why they are playing this piece or why they are performing it in this way?  Very rarely in my experience.  Yet that simple gesture could ensure the continued loyalty of an audience who have long since become accustomed to the notion that they are largely overlooked by the people they pay to support.

17 January 2017

Pop or Classical - Where does beauty lie?

“Music is Emotion.  I think most of us can agree with that”.  So begins an article reporting on research into “Music-Evoked Sadness”.  The original research was published in 2014 by Liila Taruffi and Stefan Koelsch of the Department of Educational Sciences and Psychology of the Freie UniversitĂ€t of Berlin.  (You can read their paper here Music and Sadness).  I find this a fascinating topic and one I might be tempted to return to in some detail at another time.  But what pulled me up short was the opening of the article which directed me to the original research paper.  That article was by Lian Xiao Ling from Sydney, who was, to be fair, seeking to address parents’ fears about their children’s’ listening habits; “If your teenage child is constantly listening to emo songs or minor key symphonies, you may not have an immediate cause to worry”. 

Lian also declared that “whether you’re listening to classical or pop, music is created to share an emotion”, and with part of that statement I have to take issue.  Certainly pop music is.  Its whole function is to engender and share an emotion.  That is why it is so phenomenally and universally popular – all humanity experiences emotions and this common factor means that all of us are receptive to the content of pop music; it speaks, as they say, our language.

But classical music is not, and if one ever wanted to put into simplistic terms what differentiates classical and pop music, one could do a lot worse than say that the latter focuses purely on the emotion while the former focuses primarily on the intellect.  All humanity possesses an intellect, but this varies widely from person to person, being the product of a complex range of elements including culture, environment, education, heritage and so on, all of which are unique to the individual.  For that reason, while we might all have as common experience the emotions represented in a piece of pop music, our response to  a piece of classical music in infinitely more individual and complex. 

I have often argued that while any piece of music triggers an emotional response in the listener, in the world of classical music, that emotional response varies widely, because triggering an emotional response in the listener was not the original intention of the music’s creator.  For that reason, no two people really hear a single piece of classical music the same way.  I have heard different people respond to Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings as “indescribably sad”, “deeply moving”, “gorgeous”, “ecstatic” and “boring”, all emotional responses, but none, it would seem, intended by Barber himself who, when he wrote it, was simply exercising his skills in the technical aspects of writing for a string quartet.  These responses may differ widely and they may not be what the composer intended, but they are legitimate responses all the same, indicating that, once in the public arena, a composer no longer has control over how his music is perceived.

We perceive music according to our own emotional state, and if Barber’s music can prompt both tears and yawns, that implies fault with neither composer nor listener, but underlines the fact that classical music is NOT emotion, but it can trigger an emotional response in those who hear it.

We frequently hear it said that Bach’s music is “beautiful”.  Yes, to my way of thinking a lot of it is (and a lot of it is not).  Yet, once we make this statement as if it were inalienable fact, we are obliged to accuse those who hear the same piece of Bach and describe it as “dull”, as not recognising beauty. And that simply reveals our own failure to appreciate what Bach’s music really is.  The perception of beauty is an emotional response, and while I find my own wife and daughter to be the two most beautiful people in the world, I accept (admittedly grudgingly) that others may disagree, pointing to their own (to my way of thinking) hideous wives and grotesque daughters as finer examples of beauty.  On top of that, the beauty I identify in my wife and daughter is derived as much from my individual knowledge of their inner beings as from their superficial appearance.  Certain people are beautiful to our eyes, but on closer acquaintance, we realise they are ugly to our intellects; and that, perhaps, is a parallel for our difference of approach to pop and to classical music.

Dealing only in emotion, there is no need for pop music to involve itself in more complex issues; those will largely muddy the water and compromise the music’s original intention.  But because classical music does not deal in emotion – an emotional element is peripheral rather than central – our response is a reflection of our perceptions of those other elements.  Put it simply, if classical music for you is emotion, you are missing its whole purpose.
Music and Sadness