Philip Clark on what ails classical music today

It’s becoming a hoary old question, but Philip Clark’s recent piece for Gramophone, reprinting a talk he gave at the Swansea International Festival, adds some new grist to the mill. I particularly like the following paragraphs:

Yes, music is at its best and most creative when it refuses point blank to exist in the stylistic world it already knows. But, no, that is absolutely not the same thing as this nebulous world of major label crossover music currently being dished up as ‘classical’ music. When recently I read the blogger Norman Lebrecht say in connection with the Bristol Proms that labeling music as ‘classical music’ is missing the point – ‘It’s not classical. Music is music. The moment you start putting categories to things, you diminish them’ – a little part of me died. Because exactly the opposite is true.

An example: if a composer wants to work with jazz, what can that mean? You could, of course, concoct a score that deals superficially with the surface cliché of jazz – those melodic hooks, stock chord sequences and wah-wah trumpet sounds that evoke classic Herman Leonard photographs of smoky jazz clubs populated by drug ridden, down on their luck musicians.

But categorising jazz begins to make sense of it creatively. Is this piece you want to write riffing off ideas from early ‘Classic jazz’, from the jazz of Jelly Roll Morton or Louis Armstrong? Or is interested in bebop? The journey between Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker is long and complex; but even if your piece is commenting on bebop, do you mean the purist bop of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, or the bop of Thelonious Monk, with its references to stride piano that crash at the very brink of Modernity – or with the so-called ‘Hard bop’ of Lee Morgan and Art Blakey? To compose with this material you must know the difference. And perhaps your composed response might want to subliminally imply that the harmonic and rhythm techniques of bebop were mirrored in the music surrounding it – the rhythmic smack in face typical of Stravinsky’s music or the harmonic smoke-and-mirrors of Messiaen. Only when engaging with music rigorously can you start to look beyond categories; only then do you realise that Monk was rooted in bop but actually had little to do with it; only then can you understand how far Tippett’s vision of the symphony moved outside any idea of what an ‘English symphony’ could be.

Read the whole thing here.

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


“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.

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.

So, Who Did Kill Classical Music?

The detective may change, but the suspects (all those dreadful serialists) haven’t. This time, Gabriel Prokofiev is pointing the finger in a short documentary for Radio 4.

When details of this programme did the rounds of Twitter and Facebook last week there was quite a bit of facepalming and disbelief. Who approved clumsy and ahistorical statements such as ‘Until the early 20th century, each composer of classical music developed his own style built on the traditions of previous composers. Then Arnold Schoenberg changed all this, by devising “Serialism” where melodies were no longer allowed’; and ‘Ironically, in these countries [Russia and the Soviet bloc], the State continued to support classical music, whereas in more liberal regimes in Europe it retreated to the intellectual margins’? In the end, it was assumed the copy must have been written by an in-house scribe, not the programme makers themselves. Now, that doesn’t seem the case; both statements appeared in the show’s script.

Why, once again, this obsession with the transition from Schoenberg to total serialism? As though total serialism was something of immense cultural power, and not a niche event that lasted maybe a couple of years and sustained a handful of works. Le marteau was trotted out as the quintessential total serial work; except that the compositional procedures going on there are both more complex and more diffuse than true serialism. And that’s precisely it: the series was never really the point, it was what came after, the doors it unlocked.

Almost no statement was examined. Instead, we got a string of not terribly original arguments for why classical music was failing. (Itself an unexamined assertion.) A couple of examples stood out for me. In one passage the Daily Telegraph‘s Ivan Hewett states that sitting in silence to listen to music is quite a recent ‘cultural invention’, dating back only ‘two and a bit centuries’.

OK, three things. Firstly, if you’re measuring cultural change at a level at which ‘two and a bit centuries ago’ represents the ‘quite recent’, you’re being a little too geological about this.

Secondly, we’re talking about music. A realm entirely made up of ‘cultural inventions’. Why are these bad things?

Thirdly: ‘two and a bit centuries ago’ would also do for the piano; are we about to toss that out too?

At another point, Hewett bemoans certain ‘enormously rarefied’ areas of contemporary music, which:

bolstered by this cult of the silent, reverent concert hall, has encouraged the growth of a certain kind of very elaborate, hyper-refined, hyper-intellectualised form of contemporary music which is inevitably of interest to a really tiny cult, a sort of priesthood in a way.

Asked for his solution to this problem, he replies:

Maybe the path forward that will lead to a renewal of art music is to do with taking music into newly created spaces. And perhaps initiatives like [Nonclassical] and others will only come of age when they start to create their own repertoire that is made for that space.

And here is where a bit of reflection, and perhaps the intervention of a BBC editor, might have been useful. Because what is a concert hall if not a purpose-built space that, by Hewett’s own argument, has encouraged the creation of a certain kind of repertoire? I’m not arguing that new music should be confined to a concert hall ghetto. Far from it. I’ve had extraordinary musical experiences both within and without such spaces. I’m absolutely in favour of intelligent plurality. But to imagine that substituting one set of curated, purpose-built, repertory-bolstered spaces for another is going to lead to any sort of meaningful renewal is just wooly thinking.

The problem is that I don’t think Hewett, or maybe even Prokofiev, see it like that: change, qua change, is good. Because the status quo is bad. Both sides of that equation deserve much more serious analysis in a programme like this. Would the BBC let something on another subject slip through this casually argued?

Towards the end of the programme we arrive at Duke’s Hall at the Royal Academy of Music. The composer Tansy Davies admits that she doesn’t know who most of the portraits on the wall are. Prokofiev describes the room as ‘an impressive, historic, monument to classical music’, in which they are ‘surrounded by these great, historical figures of classical music’. ‘That tradition is a heavy thing, and a wonderful thing’, replies Davies.

Except that, well… It’s quite easy to look up who these portraits are (Google Duke’s Hall Portraits). And they’re not, by generally accepted yardsticks, the ‘great historical figures of classical music’. They are – as is common in the halls of many long-established educational institutions in this country – portraits of former students, teachers and directors. So here’s the pianist and academy director Frederick Bowen Jewson, aged nine; here’s Sir Alexander Campbell Mackenzie, a long-serving principal from 1888–1924; here’s a child portrait of Reverend Canon Professor Sir Frederick Arthur Gore Ouseley, first elected President of the Royal Musical Association. Important figures in their time, but not exactly Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven. Duke’s Hall – and fair enough – isn’t so much a monument to classical music as it as a monument to the RAM.

This is a small slip, but 20 minutes in it sounds symptomatic of a programme that is keen to seek support for its own agenda wherever it can find it. Prokofiev’s interviewing technique is to feed leading questions, and then agree with the answers that come back. What material he did use from his contributors did little to divert that course.

In the wake of Howard Goodall’s Story of Music last year, I’m no longer surprised to see the BBC commissioning music documentaries like this, but I do wonder whether anyone at Radio 3 was listening in.

Who Killed Classical Music is currently on iPlayer, and will be re-broadcast in the UK on Radio 4 on Saturday at 3.30pm.


L-R: Webern, Stockhausen, Berg, Schoenberg, Boulez

New music isn’t killing institutions

Following the closure of New York City Opera, the ongoing mess that is the Minnesota Orchestra stalemate, and more, I’m noticing a certain amount of soul-searching in the US for underlying faults. It’s the common ‘classical music is dead/dying – who do we blame?’ trope. And as usual, contemporary repertory stands in the dock. What feels slightly new is the voice of the players involved themselves. Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians appears to be leading the attack. Rob Deemer has already broken down a questionnaire sent to union members about what they ‘really feel about 21st century repertoire’, and Local 802’s president, Tino Gagliardi, has told the New York Times that NYCO’s demise is in part due to its abandonment of ‘accessible repertoire’.

But this time some are rallying to new music’s defence. Noting a recent WQXR blogpost in which some players suggest the financial troubles of the Brooklyn Philharmonic may be due to its innovative programming, Marc D. Ostrow asks the following:

[W]hy is it that musicians (particularly union musicians) are so quick to gripe about playing new music and blame contemporary works for an institution’s sour financial situation?

And here’s Frank J. Oteri at New Music Box:

Most of the premiere performances of new works I attended of NYCO productions over the years, including the ones of the most recent seasons (such as Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole, which I attended on September 25), were packed to capacity. If anything, NYCO would have better served American audiences by being even more committed to contemporary American operas. The same is true for every other opera company based in the United States, the Metropolitan Opera included.

There’s an easy media narrative here of course: that new music is ugly and unloveable, and that players like playing it as little as audiences like hearing it. And that’s true in some cases: I’ve certainly overheard players complaining about the physical exhaustion of playing in the pit for a Birtwistle opera, to what they felt was little apparent aesthetic purpose. It wouldn’t be hard to get quotes that supported that narrative. But as Ostrow, Oteri and WQXR all note, there are many other factors at play, and plenty of counterfactuals to consider too.

Crossing the threshold

Anyone who has spent any time at all around this internet ‘hood knows that The Death of Classical Music is to the concert music blogosphere what cats, George Bush and Google paranoia are to the rest of the world: it’s what 95% of us spend 95% of our time writing about. So, therefore, it’s no surprise to see that 95% of classical bloggers have spent time this week writing about Richard Taruskin’s ‘The Musical Mystique‘ (the rest of their time has been spent reading the damn thing).

What with Alex Ross and Norman Lebrecht all over the headlines at the moment, it seems like an article of and for this blogging moment. Taruskin himself can’t help being sucked into things, opening up with his take on that Joshua Bell stunt we were all twittering over back in April; he even approvingly quotes Boring Like a Drill‘s Ben.H., even if Ben has since confessed that he wrote that commentafter a night on the turps” (I can’t help but wonder where we’d be should we ever discover the same about Solomon Volkov…?). Hell, Taruskin’s article has a permalink and comments, so it’s practically a blog post itself.

I’ve made my criticisms of Taruskin on these pages before – and I stick by those – but this is a fabulous article (even if it could lose a few thousand words). The fact that even his detractors agree on is that Taruskin can write. He wins arguments by rhetoric alone. This makes him a very fine essayist (and this is a very fine essay), but it is a dubious credential as a scholar; as such, arguments should be won by the quality of research and style is a mere bonus. Which is not to say that academic writing has not benefited from the invigoration of prose like Taruskin’s. The problem comes when the lines between scholarly work and more populist writing aren’t so easy to distinguish: the common concern about The Oxford History of Western Music – that it looks like a textbook but reads like a rant – rests entirely on this (replace ‘The Oxford‘ with ‘Richard Taruskin’s‘ and those concerns are gone, spit-spot).

I have written in the past to the effect that the great joy of professional musicology is that you’re getting paid (in theory) to tell people about your enthusiasms.

Unlike novels, most musical works can be received in their entirety in a short space of time, and since recording – and more recently digital technology – made music a completely portable art form (unlike paintings or architecture), the exhortation “listen to this, I think you’ll like it” has become fundamental in human relationships.

Musicology is, at heart, an extension of this fact. A vast, all-inclusive extension that grew into an academic discipline all of its own, but an extension of that basic enthusiasm for musical discovery nevertheless. Most of us do continue to do it because we’d die otherwise. We can’t help ourselves.

Insofar as he is repeating this same call I warmly welcome Taruskin’s argument, even if I would wish to refine the boundaries between fanboy enthusiasm and scholarly enterprise. But, as Matthew Guerrieri forcefully puts it, there are more than just a few ways to receive pleasure: casting them as moral choices (as Taruskin does) is wrong.

The division between popular and academic, entertainment and prestige, heart and mind, apparently sits at the centre of Taruskin’s argument. Kyle Gann, applauding Taruskin, takes this division at stark face value:

I can boast a virtuoso range of ways to be entertained, but any music I’m not entertained by I quit listening to, no matter how highly ranked it is in the history books.

And this is the common-sense tack Taruskin takes, with plenty of erudite historical context. Why does any of us get into music except for pleasure? And why would a composer try to do anything in his music except elicit pleasure?

Taruskin’s targets, one would imagine, should be equally upset over that same division: art is Art, first and foremost; pleasure comes second, and Taruskin would appreciate the precise parallel this makes between academic and populist modes of writing that I outlined above. The thing is, I’m not sure how real Taruskin’s targets actually are these days (or, one must extrapolate, Gann’s). The sort of knots Taruskin gets himself into by dividing the world into this and that, and then castigating people for living their lives according to those divisions, are apparent early on. In discussing the spurious prestige that became attached to classical music, Taruskin refers to an LP released as part of Eisenhower’s 1956 re-election campaign (a true blogger would have uploaded a copy to Rapidshare).

The musical selections include some that had plausible connections with Eisenhower, like Dmitri Tiomkin’s title theme for High Noon, as well as inspirational numbers such as Marian Anderson singing “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” and Leopold Stokowski’s arrangement of Bach’s “Sheep May Safely Graze” (a paean not to the deity but to wise political leadership). But the bulk of the president’s musical offering consists of three orchestral overtures: Beethoven’s Coriolan (originally written to accompany a German tragedy, as the producers of the album had surely forgotten, about unwise political leadership), Mendelssohn’s Fingal’s Cave, and Strauss’s Fledermaus. I have no idea how much actual input Eisenhower had in the planning of this record, but it does not matter. What matters is that identification with classical music was considered, by him or his handlers as much as by the record folks, to be a significant enhancer of his image.

But, by the same token, why should we think of Bach as a ‘prestige’ choice, and not simply ‘inspirational’ in the way that ‘He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands’? Surely because to make such a claim would be Bach blasphemy: and thus Taruskin is organising the world according to the same value system he so despises.

Matthew Guerrieri and Jodru make more forceful criticisms of the article, and they are there to be made. We must applaud Taruskin for taking George Benjamin down a peg or two after his silly remark that no politicians show an interest in “the music of our time”, but I wonder how much the ivory-towered outlook that Taruskin sees personified in Benjamin has to do with contemporary composition anyway. And I’m not talking here about Stanley Kubrick film soundtracks or populist crossover orchestral commissions or even amplified downtown groups in jeans. Contemporary music is a much wider, richer and more colourful spectrum than Taruskin ever gives it credit for – this is my biggest beef with him – and I often doubt how much of it he has actually heard, and how much he’s just inferred from regular doses of Adorno and Babbitt (who cares about that bloody essay?). So, in generous spirit, I offer the following examples of (more or less) recent music that have given me great pleasure in the last few weeks. I’m in this job because this stuff thrills me to bits, and I would absolutely, sincerely, love to read Taruskin’s thoughts on some of these:

Gérard Grisey: Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil (natch)
Horatiu Radulescu: Cinerum
Tristan Murail: Désintégrations
Antoine Beuger: Fourth Music for Marcia Hafif
Brian Ferneyhough: Time and Motion Study II
Isabel Mundry: Penelopes Atem
Beat Furrer: FAMA
Wolfgang Mitterer: Konzert für Klavier


A funny old week at Penguin – no sooner have they pulled out of their audiobook deal with eMusic (senior management got nervous about the whole DRM-free thing, although Random House claim that none of their audiobooks have appeared on any filesharing sites), than they have to pull and pulp Norman Lebrecht’s Maestros, Masterpieces & Madness: The Secret Life and Shameful Death of the Classical Record Industry. Apparently, Mr Accuracy worked so hard getting his facts straight for his tiresome rant that Naxos’s Klaus Heymann was able to count more than 15 factual errors on the five pages devoted to his company. Heymann sued, won, and now “Penguin Books has also undertaken not to repeat these allegations and to seek the return of all unsold copies of the book”.