From the archive: What the flock: audiences for contemporary music

April 10, 2013

(Originally posted on 13 March, 2012).

I was heartened by an article in The Guardian a few weeks ago, which proclaimed that ‘difficult’ concert programmes are attracting audiences in their droves, and that contemporary music audiences are actually in robust health (Audiences flock to ‘difficult’ contemporary classical music, 30 January; click here to read). Alex Needham`s article paints a portrait of people turning out in their droves to a plethora of modern works being programmed over the coming months, from a festival of Minimalism in Scotland to political opera in Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer at ENO and to the Glass/Wilson libretto-less marathon, Einstein on the Beach.

20130401-172847.jpgPeople have been proclaiming the decline of contemporary classical music ever since the avant-garde were thought to have lost touch with their audiences in the twentieth century. The image of the high-minded composer writing difficult works, deliberately antagonistic to audiences, and uncaring as to whether people came to listen to them or not, is an enduring one, trotted out whenever pundits want to paint a depressing picture of an art-form increasingly in decline. Or so they would have us believe.

But contemporary composers aren`t like that anymore. It may have been desirable, in the middle of the last century, to write music in Darmstadt that sought to alienate listeners, and, as Needham mentions, if your concert attracted more than thirty people in the audience, it had to be immediately rejected as populist and therefore deplorable; but these days, composers are striking a balance between pursuing their own inner vision which may indeed involve a challenging musical language, with finding ways actually to draw audiences in, instead of turning them away.

Turnage in particular has managed to combine a musical vocabulary rich in wild textures and shrieking harmonies with a self-confessed love of James Brown, Tower of Power, jazz-funk and pop tunes to create pieces which audiences notice; Blood on the Floor, with its improvising jazz trio at the heart of a modern ensemble; the piece Hammered Out at last year`s Proms wrong-footed a few critics, who failed to notice its roots in Beyoncé when younger audiences got it immediately. Fair enough, his choice of salacious, head-line generating subject matter in the opera Anna Nicole may have been a shrewd move, but within the brash music he wrote for the piece, there lurk some affecting melodies, deft jazz writing, and even a moving aria or two.

Festival programmers are responding to this desire for new music. The ravishing orchestra-meets-electronics vision of Jonathan Harvey was celebrated in a `Total Immersion` weekend at the Barbican; one is also devoted to Australian composer Brett Dean, and a similar festival will focus on the music of the Estonian composer, Arvo Pärt.

As the composer John Adams observed in his autobiography, there was a time when nineteenth-century concert-going audiences expected to hear new works at concerts, and were actually disappointed when they didn’t (Faber, 2008:48). Some shrewd programming by Simon Rattle, when at the helm of the CBSO, would see him sandwiching challenging modern works between classical staples of the repertoire, such that he was able to champion composers such as Turnage, keeping this tradition alive and cannily using programmes of better-known works to introduce audiences to contemporary pieces at the same time.

People will always proclaim the ‘death of classical music’ or harp on about its dwindling appeal and declining audience numbers. But a closer look at what’s happening across the UK – with festivals of contemporary music ranging from here in Canterbury in the south across to the Huddersfield or Edinburgh Festivals in the north – suggests that the truth may be a lot healthier than you think.

Posted by Daniel Harding

Bach and Boulez in a gondola: in defence of modern performance

March 31, 2013

There was a synergy between two articles I read recently, each from a different side of the Atlantic, that struck me as as two sides of a single, crucial attitude to contemporary music, and to modern music-making.

In a recent feature over on icareifulisten on viola-player and exponent of contemporary music, Nadia Sirota, who has commissioned works from several composers including Nico Muhly, Sirota talks about not using music of the Baroque period as a way in to classical music for those new to it; a feature perhaps of teaching music in primary schools in the belief that Baroque’s simple textures and comparatively straightforward harmonic language (ever heard any of the Passion settings by Bach ?!) will offer an access to musical for those unfamiliar with it.

At the same time, music critic Tom Service advises us in a recent Guardian article to be wary of the assumptions fostered by the period-instrument movement that the way we perform Baroque music now is how it should be executed, is what its composers would have expected from contemporaneous performance. As he says, with reference to listening to Mengelberg recording in the 1930s, if we already mistrust performances from over seventy years ago, and greet various performance practices of that time with scorn, how can we safely say what Bach himself would have liked, what Vivaldi would have expected ? Bach would have written for instruments that were, to him, modern, writing for what players around him were capable of playing (and later, in the explorations of Beethoven, sometimes even beyond). Baroque music was realised by its own modern instruments, and so to plunge back into a supposed ‘historically-informed’ or ‘authentic’ school is to deny the possibility of performing Baroque music on instruments of our own time, with our own technical possibilities and approach to performing.

Would Bach have written pieces for the modern piano, or the concert-grand Steinway, if he had been able to do so ? Absolutely. And evolutions in the design of stringed instruments – steel rather than gut strings, differently-shaped bows capable of producing a more sustained sound – that were driven by the desire to enlarge the sound capacity of the burgeoning orchestra playing in larger venues, would be a facility composers may well have seized upon too.

This is not to say that there is no place for period-instrument practice – the scholarly pursuit of practices and traditions from the past is a vibrant way of informing how we might approach one way of realising them in the twenty-first century. But it ought not to deny the progress in instrumentation and ensembles that would make performing Baroque music unacceptable with modern orchestras. It is one way – not the only way. Historically-informed realisations should sit comfortably alongside modern ends, each working to inform the other. Listen to the translucent touch of Andras Schiff playing Bach to hear a Baroque sensibility combined with a modern instrument. And Baroque music isn’t as simplistic as school curricula would have you believe makes it suitable as an introduction to classical music either.

For some listeners, what music is doing now, how it engages with or comments upon modern life, with modern sounds and sound-samples, might be equally as important a way in to classical music as Bach or Vivaldi. The sounds of urban life sampled by Reich in City Life, the almost mystical instruments-meets-electronics of Jonathan Harvey or Pierre Boulez; the bristling rhythmic writing and modern textures of Muhly or Turnage; some of these might fascinate and engage today’s musical neophyte.

20130330-220536.jpgWritten in one age, the music of the Baroque, and of Bach in particular, speaks across all of them, to each age in its own voice, allowing us to hear it through the media of our own time, whilst still celebrating its humanist message. So let’s introduce people to classical music across its entire, dizzying breadth – you can never tell what will (if you will pardon the pun) strike a chord with someone – which includes Reich, Adams, Harvey, or Unsuk Chin. And while we’re doing so, let’s allow room for modern orchestral and instrumental performances of Baroque music. You never know what will float someone’s gondola…

Posted by Daniel Harding

Reach for the stars: recent events at the festival

May 13, 2012

It’s been an epic few days across the Festival recently, ranging from intimate recitals to transcendental meditative states in Canterbury Cathedral.

Rhona McKail

Rhona McKail

Day seven on Thursday saw a lunchtime recital In Praise of Dreams with soprano Rhona McKail and pianist Yshani Perinpanayagam in their lunchtime recital, before the focus shifted out to the Turner Contemporary gallery at Margate for the world premiere of Les Malèdictions d’une Furie, a monodrama by John Croft performed by Loré Lixenberg. Prior to the performance, both Croft and Lixenberg appeared in conversation with Festival Director, Paul Edlin.

New Perspectives ensemble

New Perspectives ensemble

Friday’s lunchtime concert was a sonic exploration in the youthful company of the New Perspectives ensemble, in the chamber-ensemble-meets-electronics world of Jonathan Harvey’s Bhakti; young performers from the Royal College of Music, conducted by Timothy Lines, bathed the audience in the rich colours of Harvey’s unique and visionary soundworld. St Gregory’s was full to bursting for the concert, to the extent that festival assistants were having to put out extra chairs as audience members continued to arrive right up until the concert began.

The visionary nature of the day continued into the evening, as Canterbury Cathedral echoed to the sounds of John Tavener’s The Veil of the Temple, an large-scale meditative work for which the composer himself, in frail health, made the pilgrimage to Canterbury. Nigel Short led Tenebrae and members of the English Chamber Orchestra in Tavener’s epic, all-embracing pan-religious odyssey, which after its two-and-three-quarter-hour performance was greeted with rapturous applause. (The composer himself can be seen seated in the front row on the left in the photo below).

Veil of the Temple

Veil of the Temple

Yesterday’s events continued the journey into the stars, with Darrah Morgan Exploding Stars in works for violin and electronics, including the premiere of Jonty Harrisons’ Some of its Parts. Earlier in the morning, composer Frank Lyons ranged freely over an eclectic range of musical styles in a composition workshop. Top-brass came to the Festival in the evening, as the Grimethorpe Colliery Band (wryly observing on Twittter earlier in the day that they were en route to a ‘local gig’) came to the Cathedral with a programme including John McCabe’s Cloudcatcher Fells and an arrangements for brass of Holst’s The Planets, which, in its original incarnation as Paul Edlin observed, remains one of the previous century’s most influential works.

Against the backdrop of all this, the New Music in Britain conference unfolded in a series of papers and talks exploring aspects of the British contemporary musical landscape and papers focusing on key composers including Birtwistle and Maxwell Davies.

And it doesn’t stop there. There are still three days yet to come, with today’s celebration of Worldwide Mother’s Day in a feast of family events at the Gulbenkian, and a visit from legendary British jazz pianist Julian Joseph tonight.


Images: Peter Cook