Spotify just got a whole lot easier for classical listeners

One year ago, practically to the day, I posted this picture of what it looks like to search the complete Haydn symphonies on Spotify and lamented

“Please: we’ve had digital music for nearly two decades now. Can we start to get our act together on this?”

Haydn-metadata

I mean, that list of results is basically useless. The legacy of a digital music tagging system that is designed for songs and albums, not works and movements.

Well, thanks to a tip-off from Ulyssestone (now on Spotify’s staff), whaddya know – today, the same page looks like this:

Haydn-dorati

Good work everyone who made that happen. This is more like it.

The news gets better: slowly but surely, composer names are being added to the database too. Take a look at this image (from Ulysses’ blog):

Now we really are getting somewhere. It’s not ideal, sure – where there’s a second performer it’s not immediately clear which name is the composer and which is the performer. And the composer names thing only applies to Naxos-distributed labels so far – but that’s tens of thousands of albums already. However, this is definitely progress (from a very poor starting position), and it’s good to know that people are at least working on this stuff. Before long it will be possible to do a classical search on Spotify and reliably be able to find what you were after. Imagine.

 

Secret Music: April

(Click for the background to the Secret Music listings.)

Again, some horrible clashes here. Also, if anyone knows of anything happening in the second half of the month, feel free to add to the comments.

Until Saturday 5 April, and Monday 2 – Sunday 8 June: Frontiers Festival, Birmingham | venues, prices, times vary

Birmingham Conservatoire’s annual contemporary music festival this year celebrates the music of Downtown New York. This was originally planned to coincide with the presence of Robert Ashley to receive an honorary doctorate, an event that will sadly not now take place. Ashley’s music is well represented, however, including the complete world premiere of String Quartet Describing the Motion of Real Bodies on 2 April. Other highlights (of many – see the full calendar) include Apartment House playing Songs for Drella (30 March); Pauline Oliveros in conversation (31 March) and a Deep Listening meditation (2 April); early Philip Glass (1 April); Carl Stone (2 April); as well as music by David Lang, Michael Gordon, William Basinski, Elliot Sharp …

Thursday 3 April: Silk Street Music Hall | Guildhall New Music Ensemble | 6:00pm | FREE

James Weeks conducts the Guildhall New Music Ensemble in a programme that includes premieres of works by Edmund Finnis and Thomas Fournil, and music by Aldo Clementi and Salvatore Sciarrino.

“The Guildhall New Music Ensemble is dedicated to the performance of music from the last 30 years, with each project curated by a different member of staff or by a guest curator. For the launch of the ensemble’s regular performance series at the School, Associate Head of Composition James Weeks has curated a programme of local and global compositional activity that will form the foundation of the ensemble’s future concerts.”

Thursday 3 April: Cafe OTO | Dumitrescu and Avram | 8pm | £8 adv/£10 on the door

Iancu Dumitrescu brings his Hyperion Ensemble, and his unorthodox performance practice, back to Cafe OTO for more spectral excursions and seat-of-the-pants musical phenomenology.

Thursday 3 April: Studio Theatre, Library of Birmingham | Automatic Writing | 7pm | £12(£8)

Fresh from giving the UK premiere of Robert Ashley’s masterful Automatic Writing at Cafe Oto, Object Collection (Kara Feely, Travis Just, Aaron Meicht, Daniel Nelson, Tim Parkinson, Fulya Peker) bring the work to Birmingham’s Frontiers Festival. Concert also includes New York Girls by Kara Feely and Travis Just.
Sunday 6 April: Charlie Wright’s International Bar & Jazz Lounge, 45 Pitfield St, London | John White Birthday Concert | 4pm | FREE but pre-booking essential
Performances by Gavin Bryars, Dr. Margaret Coldiron, Carole Finer, Julian Haxby, Chris Hobbs, John Lely, Kaffe Matthews, Tim Parkinson, Michael Parsons, Andrea Rocca, Hugh Shrapnel, Dave Smith, John Tilbury, John White; and by various ensembles, namely: Bad Dog, LelyWhite, Live Batts; and by the official orchestra of the Institute: The London Snorkelling Team.

There will be participatory performances of The Drinking and Hooting Machine and the Newspaper-reading Machine – a more detailed programme will be emailed before the event.

Thai food available from the kitchens. Tickets are free (a hat will be passed around) and open to all, but they are also limited; people must be on the guest-list to attend, and specify if bringing a guest. To get on the list write to: editor@atlaspress.co.uk without delay.

Tuesday 8 April: St George’s RC Cathedral, Westminster Bridge Road | Ian Wilson’s Stations | 7:30pm | email enquiries@matthewschellhorn.com to join guest list

Matthew Schellhorn performs Ian Wilson’s monumental solo piano masterpiece, Stations. Inspired by the Catholic devotion of the Stations of the Cross, Stations is a fourteen-movement work divided into four ‘Books’. Matthew Schellhorn has premiered the work in stages over two years, giving a performance of its final part at Wigmore Hall in 2008. His recording of the piece will be released on Diatribe Records this month, and this concert is the first in a tour that also takes in Glasgow (10 April), Dublin (13 April), Blackheath Halls (14 April), Edinburgh (15 April), Cambridge (16 May), Thorpe Bay (18 May), Wymondham Abbey (29 June) and Ripon (10 July).

Tuesday 8 April: City University, Performance Space | James Saunders portrait | 7pm | FREE, booking essential

Programme: Everybody doing what everybody else is doing; With paper; So many territories (first performance); Things whole and not whole; Everybody do this

Performed by Plus-Minus.

Friday 11 April: Schott Recital Room, 48 Great Marlborough St, W1f 7BB | 7pm | £10

Tim Parkinson plays premieres of new works by Laurence Crane, Matteo Fargion, Joseph Kudirka and himself, plus recent pieces by Jürg Frey and Chiyoko Szlavnics.

Saturday 26 April: Cello Factory, Cornwall Road, London SE1 | 7pm | £8

Swiss percussion trio DeciBells are joined by flautist Jenni Hogan in a programme of Lou Harrison, Scelsi, Pierre Favre, Benjamin Graves, Gwyn Pritchard and Siegfried Kutterer.

Does Spotify pay? Another look at the numbers

Despite this blog’s basic remit to cover contemporary classical music, one of its most popular posts has been ‘How much do musicians make on online?‘, a quick analysis of a graph published by Information is Beautiful about the relative remunerations of different ways of selling music.

That graph is widely-known, but it’s also four years old now. And since it was produced, Spotify have opened up a lot about how much they pay artists. It turns out that the Information is Beautiful graph was wrong on how much Spotify streams pay by around a factor of 30.

As Spotify themselves now point out, thinking of their royalty rates on a per-stream basis is a bit misleading anyway, since they make their calculations based on a percentage of the total revenue pie. So the more subscribers there are, the larger the effective royalty rate. But back in July 2013, when they started to release this information, they suggested that a figure of between $0.006 and $0.0084 per stream was not a bad basis for calculations. As their subscriber base grows, so that figure will go up.

Anyway, apropos of not much, I thought I would use these numbers to do a quick tot-up of how much money two famous Spotify objectors – Radiohead and Metallica – might have made from the service. I took the figures for number of plays given for the top ten songs on the artist’s Spotify page, and multiplied them by both the low and high estimations of what Spotify says it pays out on average per stream.

Bear in mind that these numbers are not externally verified – they’re what Spotify tell us is going on – but they are worth considering in the context of some recent debates over the long-term viability of paid-for streaming.

Radiohead

Thom Yorke has called Spotify ‘the last desperate fart of a dying corpse‘, and in October last year pulled his Atoms for Peace album, made with Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, from the site. Yet here’s an idea of how Radiohead are actually doing out of Spotify:

radiohead-top10

That makes 107,302,714 plays (as of Friday 28 March). Based on Spotify’s estimated per-stream pay out, that’s somewhere between $643,816 and $901,342. OK, computer.

Metallica

Despite dragging himself through the mud for a decade over Napster, Metallica’s Lars Ulrich made peace with online music in December 2012 and Metallica’s back catalogue came on stream. In fact, in the same month that Yorke and Godrich made their comments about Spotify, Ulrich claimed that ‘Spotify is working right now‘. The delay in joining probably accounts for Metallica’s fewer plays, but the numbers seem to bear him out:

metallica-top10

That makes 67,151,066 plays (as of Friday 28 March). Based on Spotify’s estimated per-stream pay out, that’s somewhere between $402,906 and $564,068. Sad but true.

None of this is a definitive answer to the ongoing future of music debate, but I think it’s useful to see figures like this while that debate is being had.

The Return of the London Ear

Following its successful first incarnation, it’s great news that the London Ear Festival of Contemporary Music will be returning at the end of this month. When the Ear launched last year in close proximity to the more widely publicised London Contemporary Music Festival, I feared that they might end up crowding each other out. But in the end, they’re quite different styles of festival, with quite different musical remits. Not bad going, if you’ve got the impression that contemporary music is blinkered and narrow-minded.

Of the two, the London Ear is the more apparently traditional, in that it all takes place in a concert venue, rather than a car park, and there are seats and central heating and that sort of thing. (Plus on-site food and interval wine.) But at the same time, it’s more adventurous in terms of repertoire. Certainly its directors, Gwyn Pritchard and Andrea Cavallari, are following through on last year’s promise to focus on (mostly European) composers who are rarely or never heard in the UK – this year’s programme includes music by Georg Katzer, Anne LaBerge, Helmut Zapf and Helmut Oehring. More than half the programmed works are world or UK premieres.

The programme features nine concerts in all, with performances from, among others, the London Sinfonietta, Trio 7090, We Spoke and Uroboros. If had to pick favourites on paper, I’d say the two evening concerts on Saturday look most tempting: plenty of potential for weirdness in the 6pm concert by 3 from Berlin, 7090 and Serge Vuille, featuring music by Kagel and Oehring, and a new piece by Zapf; followed music for instruments, video and electronics by Simon Steen-Andersen, Jürg Frey and others at 9.30. Like last year, there are also various fringe events, including instrumental masterclasses and educational workshops for children and teenagers. I will be probably be chairing some pre-concert conversations with composers.

The London Ear Festival of Contemporary Music runs from Thursday 27 to Sunday 30 March. Events take place at the Warehouse and Cello Factory, Waterloo, London. Full details available from the festival website. Tickets start from a fiver.

Update:  Just confirmed: I’m going to be hosting a 1-hour radio show on Resonance FM tomorrow evening (Friday 21 March), 8–9pm, on the subject of the London Ear. I’ll be chatting with festival directors Gwyn Pritchard and Andrea Cavallari, playing some music, and we’ll have flautist Jenni Hogan playing live too. Resonance is on 104.4FM if you’re in London, or streaming online if you’re anywhere else in the world.

Dear UK, here’s that Czernowin you’ve been missing out on

At the end of an article about the Norwegian playwright Jon Fosse, the Guardian recently published a short list of ‘Four more artists the world has heard of – but the UK hasn’t’. Among them I was surprised to see the great Israeli composer Chaya Czernowin. So, in the interests of helping my homeland out a bit, here are a few pointers. I’ve complained before that the Barbican’s Total Immersion series  has lost its sense of adventure and purpose; a TI day devoted to Czernowin would be high on my fantasy list, and would really set things back on course.  (Declaration: Czernowin’s website includes a line by me on its front page, taken from this review.)

Here is Sahaf (2008), from that Shifting Gravity CD, performed by Ensemble Nikel and synched with the score:

Here is Ensemble Nikel and the Berner Symphonieorchester performing Zohar Iver (2011):

If you really want to get your teeth into something big though, this is what you need – this is MAIM, Czernowin’s major orchestral work (plus five soloists and electronics) of 2001–6. Pair it with last year’s sort-of guitar concerto White wind waiting and you’ve got a perfect ending to a Total Immersion day, I reckon. Recording available on Mode records (along with several other Czernowin discs).

Failing that, there are two operas – Adama and Pnima … ins Innere – that both deserve staging here. (The latter is also available through Mode.)

Daniel Vezza recently posted a long interview (in two parts) with Czernowin to his Composer Conversations podcast.

Here is another interview, for NewMusicBox:

Finally, you should also read this short article by the composer, The Other Tiger, a brilliant, concise encapsulation of biography and artistic credo, originally published in Search, now hosted on the website of Ensemble Nikel.

Secret Music: March

(Click for the background to the Secret Music listings.)

Better late than never, and with apologies to performers whose concerts this month I’ve already missed. A couple of horrible clashes in this month’s line-up :-(

Saturday 15 March: Jerwood Hall, LSO St Luke’s | Music in the Space Time Continuum II | 6.30pm | £12, students £5

Salzburg’s Ensemble OENM play the following programme:

Josquin (trans R. D. Rusconi): Le miroir de musique (An educational outreach performance)
Haas: Tria ex uno
R. D. Rusconi: Anankè
Grisey: Vortex temporum

Thursday 20 – Sunday 23 March: Britannia House, London E1 | LCMF presents The Music of Bernard Parmegiani | times/prices vary

Four events: a screening of short films and documentaries around Parmegiani’s work (Thursday); performances of two of his greatest works, Violostries (1964) and La Création du monde (1984) (Friday); works from the early 1970s (Saturday); and Dedans dehors (1977) and Espèces d’éspace (2002) (Sunday). There are other live sets and screenings woven in there too. Full details here.

Saturday 22 March – Saturday 5 April, and Monday 2 – Sunday 8 June: Frontiers Festival, Birmingham | venues, prices, times vary

Birmingham Conservatoire’s annual contemporary music festival this year celebrates the music of Downtown New York. This was originally planned to coincide with the presence of Robert Ashley to receive an honorary doctorate, an event that will sadly not now take place. Ashley’s music is well represented, however, including the complete world premiere of String Quartet Describing the Motion of Real Bodies on 2 April. Other highlights (of many – see the full calendar) include Apartment House playing Songs for Drella (30 March); Pauline Oliveros in conversation (31 March) and a Deep Listening meditation (2 April); early Philip Glass (1 April); Carl Stone (2 April); as well as music by David Lang, Michael Gordon, William Basinski, Elliot Sharp …

Thursday 27 – Sunday 30 March: The Warehouse, Waterloo, London | 2nd London Ear Festival of Contemporary Music | times/prices vary

More details on this to follow in a separate post, but in essence: nine concerts over four days, plus masterclasses, pre-concert talks and other fun. Composers featured include Rebecca Saunders, Helmuth Oehring, Simon Steen-Andersen and Georg Katzer. Performers include London Sinfonietta, We Spoke, Uroboros and Eva Zöllner. Full programme (pdf) here.

Friday 28 March: Schott Recital Room, 48 Great Marlborough St, W1f 7BB | 7pm | £10

Tim Parkinson plays premieres of new works by Laurence Crane, Matteo Fargion, Joseph Kudirka and himself, plus recent pieces by Jürg Frey and Chiyoko Szlavnics. Now taking place on 11 April

Saturday 29 March: St Giles’ Cripplegate, London | 7.30pm | £15, £7 (students), £1 (under 16)

EXAUDI  performs works by Chase, Cardew, Cage, Feldman, Skempton, Fox, and joins forces with Finchley Choral Society as the soloists in A. Scarlatti’s Dixit Dominus.

Sunday 30 March: Cafe OTO | 8pm | £8 adv. £10 on the door

In what will now presumably be something of a tribute concert, Object Collection (Kara Feely, Travis Just, Aaron Meicht, Daniel Nelson, Tim Parkinson, Fulya Peker) play Robert Ashley’s masterful Automatic Writing, plus New York Girls by Kara Feely and Travis Just.

Literate music revisited

I’ve just been reading Robert Fink’s January blogpost for Musicology Now, the latest in a chain of erudite posts spinning out from this Mark Oppenheimer article from last September’s New Republic. The stepping stone between the two is John Halle’s article for Jacobin.

To be honest, I’m struggling a little with Fink here. He takes issue with Halle’s defence of Western art music, which he summarizes roughly as that it is not only “a different style of music, but [also] a completely different medium than popular music, characterized by its literate infrastructure and a unique extensional concept of form”. This kind of thinking, Fink argues, leads us towards a teleological essentialism that “reproduces the logic of the ‘one-drop’ rule” and is thus useless as a defence.

Fink writes: “if classical music is equated, as in Halle’s argument, with the entire literate musical tradition of the West, then, after some decades of looking, I can find no special musicological correlation between classical music and some essential quality of having goal-direction.” But I’m not sure why literate composition should be equated with goal-directedness, and goal-directedness alone. Certainly that’s one thing you can do as a composer once you start writing things down, but it’s not the only one. Fink’s complaint seems to stem from Halle’s comment that

These are works of “pure” music which cohere, not by a text with its own self-contained expressive content and narrative logic, but by a logic entirely based on the abstract relationships inherent in the pitches and rhythms. They are composed within abstract forms, large-scale plans dictating their unfolding in time of which at least an intuitive awareness is required for them to be fully appreciated by audiences.

… but I don’t read that as necessarily a description of musical teleology. Ferneyhough’s Les froissements d’ailes de Gabriel unfolds in time, and an awareness of that happening is necessary to its full appreciation, but it certainly isn’t a goal-directed sort of time. Neither is that of Messiaen, or Cage, or Feldman. Yet all of these composers, I would argue, needed to write things down in order to achieve what they wanted to do. (Which in each case was actually to undermine our natural propensity to think in terms of goals etc.)

It seems to me that there is an array of things that you can do within a literate musical tradition that are hard to accomplish outside of it (and vice versa of course). And these contribute to its continuing cultural value. While we should be wary of teleological essentialism, isn’t there a risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater here? Or are we obliged to talk about music in its global totality, even when we actually want to talk about a relatively well-defined (if fuzzy) subset of it?

Paul Morley goes all Kyle Reese on the future of the orchestra

Come_with_me_if_you_want_to_live

“Come with me if you want to live”: Paul Morley delivers his keynote to the ABO Conference

I owe Paul Morley an apology. Ten years ago (pretty much to the day; weird) I read Words and Music, threw it across the room in annoyance and wrote a few scathing words about it on this blog. Nine years ago (even closer to the day; weirder), I took another swing, muttering something about 6th-form literary gimmicks as I did so.

Well, I was younger then, and in my 20s, so what did I know. But I have, recently, been won over by Morley’s switch of allegiance from pop to classical music.

First there was a review of this year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival that was head and shoulders the most engaged and involving review of the festival that I can recall seeing.

Then there was his turn as part of a panel on the future of the orchestra at the closing weekend of The Rest Is Noise, which, in an awkward double act with Igor Toronyi-Lalic, drew audience gasps and easily made for the liveliest part of the weekend.

And now he has today delivered the keynote speech at the Association of British Orchestras’ annual conference. Here are some choice quotes:

that endless supply of glorious music from the history of music … an extraordinary interlinked sequence of themes, forms and dramas …

It is pop music that is now about its past, about anniversaries and retrospection, and more and more about its revered dead or nearly dead icons, and from where I listen and think, it is classical music, whether from the 18th century or last week, that seems to be more about challenge, mystery, metamorphosis and the essence of what it is to be human.  At a time when what it is to be human is threatened by the emergence and speedy mutation of machines and the provisional emergence of an unfathomable machine consciousness, it seems increasingly important, if just for old time’s sake, that the human isn’t completely lost.

… But the music we look towards for this human presence should not sound as though it has been made to serve machines, and complete their mission to turn reality into a tightly coordinated  sequence of pulses, rhythms, patterns, clichés, climaxes and abbreviations – or, to give them the benefit of the doubt, into an explosive utopian paradise where all our unruly needs our instantly catered for … 

… In the end, the greater point is not reaching a wider audience, because to do so means sacrificing every single thing that you do that means anything, but ensuring that music as something more than entertainment survives by ensuring that it still evolves, by marketing the music played by orchestras not as some sort of spa therapy, or teaching aid, or social welfare, but as something that contributes to our knowledge of music and therefore of what it is to be human, here in space, at this weird moment in time.

… For me, the future of the orchestra, even beyond the problems of funding, or structural replenishment, involves committing itself to the idea that what it is about maybe problematical, difficult, severe, even obscure, but that’s what it is, and it’s ridiculous to pretend otherwise.

I’m still not a fan of those overlong sentences, but I may need to reread Words and Music. Although I will have to buy a new copy, since I Oxfamed the last one. Who’s the winner there, eh?

Read the full text of Paul Morley’s speech here.

Secret Music: February

(Click for the background to the Secret Music listings.)

Saturday 1 February: Cafe OTO, Lauren Redhead, Gail Brande, ORE, 8pm | £8 adv, £10 door

Cumbria-based new music and sound art festival Full of Noises presents two nights of performances by artists from their 2013 programme. Day 2 sees performances from composer Lauren Redhead, who will be presenting a version of her piece Entoptic Landscapes, composed for FON alongside other short pieces; a solo trombone set from Gail Brand, who has been described as “the most exciting trombone player for years” by The Wire; and amplified tuba duo ORE, making music informed (but not limited) by their enthusiasm for drones, doom metal, improvisation and minimalism.

Sunday 2 February: Kings Place, Wespoke, 4pm | £9.50 online/£12.50 on the door

This concert brings together Laurent Estoppey (saxophone), Kerry Yong (keyboards), Serge Vuille (percussion) and Juliet Fraser (soprano) in an exploration of the cultural heritage of song.

The programme features premieres of Antoine Joly’s loving and critical medley, History of Swiss Song, and the fifth volume of Matthew Shlomowitz’s Popular Contexts, as well as Bernhard Lang’s DW16, Songbook, a work that explores difference and repetition in the form of five songs with lyrics by artists such as Bob Dylan and prog-rocker Peter Hammill.

Sunday 2 February: Islington Mill, Manchester, Psappha, 9pm | £8 (student £5)

Performance of Gavin Bryars’ The Sinking of the Titaniccombining live music, live drawing, photography and 3D film.

Wednesday 5 February: The Forge, Chroma + Riot Ensemble, The Flatulence of the Gods“, 7.30pm | £12 (£10 conc)

Kicking off a new series of contemporary music at the Forge (a regular venue in last year’s Secret Music listings), Chroma and the Riot Ensemble present works by Scott Lygate, Amy Beth Kirsten, Chris Mayo, Martijn Padding and Riot Ensemble’s director Aaron Holloway-Nahum.

Monday 10 February: Cafe OTO, 8pm | £5 adv, £6 door

Screening of Viola Rusche and Hauke Harder’s documentary on Alvin Lucier, No Ideas But In Things.

Tuesday 11 to Saturday 15 February: The Vaults, Leake St, London SE1 8SW, WOLF PACK at Vault Festival, 9pm | £10, or £16 for two nights

Two separate shows, TEXT (11 and 14 Feb) and BODY (12, 13 and 15).

TEXT will include The Waves, a rarely performed Frederic Rzewski piece alongside new works by composers Jess Harvey and Tom Green, and new interpretations of songs by Kate Bush and Goldfrapp. The concert will also present works by John White, Malcolm Atkins, Karlheinz Stockhausen and two pieces based on the work of John Cage, one of which is a brand new work devised by the ensemble.

BODY will feature a dance collaboration in the premier of Did You See Me Dance? by Dave Collins and Sam Goodway alongside music by Toru Takemitsu, Edmund Joliffe, Steve Reich and Manuela Kerer, and interpretations of songs by Frank Zappa and Stevie Wonder.

Programmed as part of the Vault Festival.

Thursday 13 February: Club inégales, 108 Gower Street, London, doors 7pm, music 8pm | £10 (£6 conc)

Peter Wiegold’s Club inégales begins its spring season with a concert of music by Howard Skempton.

Tuesday 18 February: City University, London, Richard Craig and Loré Lixenberg, 7pm | Free, but adv booking required

Flautist Richard Craig presents three premieres: two new solo works from his collaborations with Richard Barrett and Kristian Ireland and duo work (with with Loré Lixenberg) by John Croft for voice and bass flute.

Full programme:

Richard Barrett – Vale (world premiere)
John Croft – Deux Meditations d’une Furie (world premiere)
Brian Ferneyhough – Mnemosyne
Loré Lixenberg – Work tba
Kristian Ireland – Luminous (world premiere)

Friday 21 to Sunday 23 February: Bristol New Music, various venues, times, etc.

First event of a new consortium devoted to bringing the best new music to Bristol. The weekend-long festival combines modern classical, jazz and visual arts. Rambler-oriented highlights include Quatuor Bozzini on SaturdayEllen Fullman, also on Saturday (seriously, if you’re anywhere close, don’t miss this); Bristol Ensemble on Sunday; and musikFabrik, also on Sunday.

Friday 28 February: International Anthony Burgess Foundation, Manchester, Psappha, 6pm | £10 (student £8)

A new multimedia production of Anthony Burgess’s musical setting of The Waste Land, performed by Psappha and incorporating rarely seen treasures from the Burgess Estate. Narrated by Jonathan Best, with soprano Rebecca Lea, directed by Elaine Tyler-Hall.

Friday 28 February: Cafe OTO, Apartment House, Jérôme Noetinger, 8pm | £7 adv, £8 door

Swiss composer and sound artist Antoine Chessex returns to Cafe OTO with a new composition for Apartment House, augmented by French electroacoustic musician Jérôme Noetinger. The concert begins with a performance from the duo of Steve Noble (percussion) and Yoni Silver (bass clarinet).

Dead again

Is classical music dead or dying? Just 24 hours after the broadcast of Gabriel Prokofiev’s documentary Who Killed Classical Music, Slate‘s Mark Vanhoenacker, apparently coincidentally, returned to this hoary old question. Personally, I don’t know. I don’t have data. However, I am sceptical about how you’d go about measuring the death of something as chameleon as an art form. But let’s for the sake of argument say its health could be better.*

And now let’s be honest about why. If classical music is dying, it is not because the music has got weirder, more dissonant, less accessible. It is a choice we have made as a society. It’s a political decision.

“You assured me it was tired and shagged out after a long squawk.”

Look: the relative vitality of classical music is always measured (such as it can be) in terms of bums on seats. Or, put another way, money. In these neo-liberal times, whether we’re talking about healthcare or sending cancer sufferers back to work, no other metric counts. Vanhoenacker states it explicitly:

Live classical music is less commercially viable than ever. Attendance per concert has fallen, according to Robert Flanagan, an emeritus professor at Stanford. But “even if every seat were filled, the vast majority of U.S. symphony orchestras still would face significant performance deficits.” Live orchestral music is essentially a charity case.

There are significant and unavoidable structural reasons why classical music is expensive. Putting on an orchestral concert requires 70–100 highly skilled professionals on stage, plus all their supporting staff (many of whom also have specialist skills). That’s not cheap.

Worse, an orchestral concert is an ephemeral experience. It’s not like a novel, which you can keep printing, or a painting, which has scarcity value that plays well at auction. Two hours and it’s gone, never to return. So there’s a very small window in which income can be made. Even in the best case scenario you are limited by how many people you can squeeze into a concert hall. You can’t even do what theatres do and make a little back selling the script on the way out, because most people can’t read a score like they can read a play.

And that comes to the third problem. Classical music appreciation takes effort. Listeners require leisure time and expendable resources. (And therefore a work-life balance that gives them these things.) They also benefit from education. Instrumental tuition at school is the major gateway to art music appreciation later in life. And that makes sense, because unless you have some idea of what it’s like to hold an instrument in your hand and interpret music that somebody else has written, the activity of an orchestra can look pretty bizarre and inscrutable. But again, primary and secondary music education costs money. An economy that provides workers with the expendable time and income to pursue an interest in the arts costs money.

And the fact is, we have, as a society, decided to stop spending that money. We could have all these things; and for a time, under certain terms, maybe we did. But we’ve decided they’re not worth it, and we’d rather spend that money on wars, tax cuts, financial services and other things. Or at least, we’ve acquiesced when the governments we elect decide to spend our money in this way. (If anyone harks back to a supposed golden age for classical music in, maybe the 18th or 19th centuries, it’s worth pointing out that we chose different ways to spend our money then, such as massive social inequalities, poor sanitation, slavery, etc. It’s always a choice, at least for those in power.)

And why do we acquiesce? Because we’ve been inculcated with the idea that art music is not worthy of our support. Because it is too esoteric, too unpopular, too ‘irrelevant’. The narrative of Prokofiev’s documentary was crudely put, but it wasn’t original. It will be familiar to anyone who has studied a little bit of music history in the last thirty or forty years: modernism was bad, it ruined everything, let’s listen to something that everybody will like.

I’m not ignoring the legitimate charges that have been made against art music in recent years, chief among which are its history of racism and misogyny (which remain ongoing habits for some). There aren’t easy answers here, and the questions should not be brushed under the carpet. But one thing is sure: if the power within classical music remains concentrated among a small elite – as it surely will if we keep talking about death and irrelevance – change of that kind is unlikely to happen.

The only way to effect change is to broaden participation. And to do that requires the sorts of investments I mention above. And to do that requires political desire. But if we talk ourselves down like this at every opportunity that desire will never emerge. The narrative of irrelevance will perpetuate itself. As Ben Harper observed eight years ago, and as Greg Sandow has been saying tirelessly since long before that, classical music’s worst enemies are often those who are supposedly promoting it.

*UPDATE: If you’re looking for a more complete smackdown of the Slate piece, Andy Doe has done the decent thing.