On Schiff and the guilt of knowledge

News: Sir Andras Schiff has a book out. They’re memoirs. They’re published by Orion Books. He’s not written the book himself. He like a great many other non-writers has dictated his thoughts and feelings to a writer who has shaped them into a manuscript, and persuaded someone to publish them. After that, a PR has sought to get coverage for the forthcoming release by highlighting some of his key messages, those in particular most likely to curry favour, divide opinion, and entrench camps.

Schiff’s views aren’t new, nor are they especially radical: audiences don’t really understand what they’re listening to and a lot of that is down to music education being a pile of shit.

How you respond to his points denotes what side you’re on in the present cultural war. PRs and publishing houses know that – that’s the whole point of the ‘story’ in the Telegraph, that’s the reason its been published in the Telegraph, and that’s why I’m writing about it at 6.30am on the DLR into London.

I don’t especially care what Schiff thinks about whether or not me and others like me understand what a good performance or a poor performance is. The experience of listening to a live performance isn’t solely about ‘observing’ the instrumentalist as though they’re in a gilt frame hanging on a wall. Listening is about reflecting on how I respond in the moment to the music I’m listening to.

Music is art. The musician is an interlocutor. Musical experiences then depend not only on the music and musician, but the receptiveness of me the audience member. My knowledge or lack thereof is of little consequence. It’s my self-awareness in the moment that is important.

What saddens me is not what Schiff says nor the fact he said it. Rather, its the way a statement like this reminds me of the way classical music is weaponised. In Schiff’s case, its the judgment made about apparent the lack of classical music knowledge and the way it fuels the snobbery and superiority over those where knowledge is found to be lacking.

In other areas of my life, I see the reverse happening. Those with knowledge and experience of repertoire like me are regarded with suspicion. Expertise is sometimes seen by those who themslves recognise their own lack of knowledge, as a threat to the accessibility and universal appeal of the genre. Expertise is projected as barrier to universality. And anyone who points that out is regarded as a self-appointed gatekeeper who is part of the problem.

It’s tiresome. I end up feeling guilty for my ongoing fascination with a musical genre which helped reclaim me from depression and suicidal thoughts – a genre and sector which continues to surprise, delight and excite.

The very studies which might make Schiff nod with approval, are the very studies that make others regard me as ‘too Radio 3’ or, if you speak to some at Radio 3, ‘not Radio 3 enough’. I often feel as though I am caught in the middle where it feels surprisingly lonely, chewing at my nails hoping the sense of guilt will disappear a little more quickly this time around.

I don’t believe there will ever be a time when this argument – triggered by the digital utterances Schiff’s forthcoming memoir have provoked – will be a thing of the past. As long as that argument survives we will always need marketers and PRs to sell the thing we all care about so deeply.

I just hope I do eventually stop feeling guilty for knowing about classical music, and for not knowing enough about it.

Be sure to read Fran Wilson’s take on this for a different perspective.

Jigsaw pieces

On marketing concerts: a consistent authentic approach can build communities not alienate

Richard Bratby’s Gramophone opinion piece responding to the recent discussion online about orchestral marketing departments not doing enough to ‘sell’ new composers is a thought-provoking thing. Read it first before continuing (that will save me explaining in detail).

In it he identifies the need for us to remember that human beings populate marketing departments, and that if as a classical music fan you find yourself irritated by a piece of marketing content, the chances are it’s not intended for you.

Sound advice. So too the overriding message which will no doubt dominate this year online and hopefully beyond: be kind.

Perhaps unsurprisingly I find I have a view in response. One that differs from Richard’s (and that’s OK too), one that I’ve always held but have been reluctant to articulate because I didn’t think it was valid.

Where my view on content comes from

Things have changed a bit since I’ve gone self-employed. Understanding my own brand a bit better in terms of the aspirations I have for it, the impact investing just a dribble of paid advertising has on your own thinking, and stepping into multiple environments (government, commercial, arts and education) has seen me consistently draw on my most valuable learning experience: six years spent in an external comms and PR department working with one of the best there is.

Content is the product; different specialisms feed into content

Those who know me from the BBC will know who she is. Those who don’t, don’t need to. What I learned from her is what is important: marketing and communications aren’t an adjunct to the product, they are part of the product. That meant that conversations about what the product was going to be (long before work started on it) necessarily demanded her input. Comms had a seat at the production table. That wasn’t necessarily to steer what the product was, rather ensuring that the way in which that end product was communicated to the wider world was congruent with the organisation’s values.

And that learning has stuck with me as I’ve worked with different organisations. But it’s only been when I’ve interacted with them I’ve come to appreciate the extent to which that drives my work. I owe that individual a lot.

Think of content in its widest sense as the complete product

This is what that learning experience has led me to believe about how content is ‘the complete product’, and what steps need to be taken to create that content:

identify exactly who you are, what you do and most importantly, why;
market yourself with integrity;
articulate the brand in everything you say.

My guiding principle is this: content spans multiple disciplines and the message (implicit of explicit) has to be consistent across all of them.

Tell an authentic, sincere, and distinctive story

Take the difference between paid content (essentially marketing outputs) and owned (non-paid) or ‘organic’ content.

My career has always favoured the ‘owned content’ path. That’s largely because of my lack of formal training, my early adoption of self-publishing in the digital space, and some experience in journalism. I’m a digital storyteller and a self-publisher. My own creative endeavours have always stemmed from creating content that satisfies me first, not seeking to satisfy a target audience.

What that’s taught me over time is that if your story (whether that be a brands or your own) is told authentically, sincerely and distinctively, that this will play a valuable role in capitalising on any paid content opportunities.

Be consistent

But alignment between the two – paid and owned content – is critical.

If the pizza restaurant experience bears little relation to that promised on the flyer shoved through your letterbox, that mismatch of perception isn’t going to help spread the word.

The content experience from poster, to digital post, to TV or radio advert, to programme note, to presenter on stage surely then needs to have a level of consistency.

Content production no longer exists in separate disciplines: content production is a discipline in itself driven by a strategy than acts on a number of different organisational needs. Those needs in turn drive actions that seek to deliver ticket sales, increase listeners, meet the expectations of partners or sponsors. Depending on where the impetus for the content comes from denotes the emphasis given to the style of that content.

How content strategy ensures consistency

This is where an overarching content strategy comes in – a document detailing aims, outputs, resources, and most pertinent for what I’m writing about here: tone of voice. How the subject or brand or event is talked about across multiple disciplines (marketing, comms, pr and native content channels) is key to ensuring that a consistent feel is ensured for all audiences – familiar and unfamiliar; newcomers and existing subscribers or concert goers. By ensuring consistency across multiple disciplines and outputs, a content strategy won’t risk alienating an existing audience whilst pursuing a new one.

That perspective comes I think from experience – not only in terms of years, but also familiarity of a particular sector. There is a need to recognise the value of securing ones existing audience to help endorse the product for a wider less familiar audience. That existing audience (those already ‘bought in’) may not seem of value, but they a network of passionate advocates who, of if they’re on your side, will do a lot of the heavy-lifting.

Don’t alienate advocates by employing disruptive or destructive techniques

A deliberately disruptive approach will seek to ignore that group of advocates, making the same assumptions about its membership that the initiated make about the product marketers are trying to raise awareness about in the first place.

But here again is where an overarching content strategy articulated with authenticity and consistency can help mesh networks together, increasing the likelihood of multi-experience communities coalescing around the very thing we’re all trying to introduce others too.

Build a larger community, not lots of distinctive ones

I know of artistic endeavours whose programmes are built around audience surveys about what potential audience might consider paying money to experience. This seems like a perfectly reasonable pragmatic strategy. How the storytelling for these endeavours is articulated across all of its supporting content is what a content strategy should drive: not to redefine an audience demographic, but to build a community around a brand, genre or activity, thereby creating a larger community.

And that kind of thinking comes with experience. So whilst I recognise the need to be kind, I always want to make a bid for the value of experience, and of community building, and of acknowledging that seemingly small or unimportant things like knowledge or language can have a significant impact on the robustness of those communities. Strategic thinking helps ensure content builds communities rather than alienating them.

How it relates to orchestras, artists, and performers in the classical music world

It seems a little odd to conclude this post with a caveat. But I think that’s important. This is my perception of how a content strategy can work well. The post is an articulation of how I’d like to see the genre love being talked about more. I think I see some brands doing it well (though i don’t actually have the core evidence to prove they’re following the same thinking!).

Some of those classical music brands include the likes of Southbank Sinfonia, the OAE, Philharmonia, Manchester Collective, the LSO, and the Bournemouth Symphony. I perceive these as solid brands because they present themselves as authentic, sincere, self-assured, but most importantly of all, real. They are brands which by and large few criticise too. They rarely come under the spotlight (unless they’re being celebrated), and to the best of my knowledge haven’t been the victims of digital pile-ons. I think that’s partly to do with the vision those involved in content production for those brands have.

And if my hunch is correct, that’s really why I think criticising (and then defending) a pure marketing discipline as having failed to sell the product in a way that supports a new composer, or pays due deference to a particular composer is slightly missing the point. What’s important is looking as content as a whole product and making sure that every articulation is closely aligned to the values of the brand that content represents. And that’s everyone’s responsibility.

What’s the plan?

Barking mad No.10 has, as anticipated, shifted its sights and focussed eyes on the BBC this past weekend, in a story headlined by The Times (which is also conincidentally angling to put out a Radio 4 rival) today.

No surprises really. The present Tory Government run by chief adviser Dominic Cummings was always going to go for the public service broadcaster.

There’s talk of binning the Licence Fee. Pitching the BBC as a subscription service against the likes of Netflix and Amazon. Gammons are as I write no doubt lining up to sell tickets for a once in a lifetime opportunity to witness the downfall of their second most-hated institution.

For those who don’t recall or don’t already know, I used to work there.

And I always wanted to work there too. I deployed untold amounts of energy securing just an interview. Even applied for two jobs at the same time. The recruitment process was frustrating. Weighted against me at times it seemed.

So I ended up making videos about it. Because, just like anyone like me will testify: say no to me and I’ll come back fighting louder than ever. I am that kind of pain in the arse.

Leaving the BBC back in 2017 prompted me to confront the impact working for a large-scale organisation had on me personally.

In short: I spent years believing I was hopeless at what I did. Only when I left did I finally come to understand that I was doing the very best I could and that on balance I’d pretty much done OK.

I’m critical of some of its output and fiercly defend my ‘right’ to do so.

Last year’s Proms content wasn’t especially awe-inspiring (in contrast to some over the past fifteen years). And whilst sundry other classical music commentators will point to the BBC Proms and the BBC orchestras and Radio 3 as evidence of the vital contribution the Corporation makes to the cultural landscape of the UK (and it does) and think that’s where the discussion ends, we have to be careful in remembering the difference between something not being good, and something being open to criticism purely because of the way it is funded. That’s the pay off for a publically funded broadcaster and all of its creative endeavours. And I’d rather have it, than not.

That’s why, even though I left there (and remain still) bitter that I never secured that job at Radio 3 I’d always longed for (not even the digital job back in early 2012, secured by the bloke who told me that Benjamin Britten wrote a ‘Summer Symphony’), I recognise the difference between me being a bitter old queen (and that being irrelevant) and being able to critique its output and that being important in itself.

The BBC is the broadcasting equivalent of an errant partner – the one who messes up from time to time, but who you go back to not because of coercive control but because of love.

And to ditch it’s present funding model (now) in favour of subscription would undoubtedly mean a great many friends, associates, and mildly agreeable individuals losing their jobs. I can’t sanction that. So I’ll fight for it instead.

That’s not to say that subscription will never be introduced. It’s possible to see the lining up of BBC Sounds (for radio) and iPlayer (for TV) as ways of separating out the BBC’s on-demand offer and preparing consumers for the possibility that they pay for the privilege to listen or watch whenever they like, but listen ‘live’ for free. It’s my view that’s the long range strategy of Director of Radio (and once touted for ‘DG Greatness’) James Purnell. That was certainly the talk of one of his ‘Get To Know Me’ sessions back in 2013 I attended.

It’s not a bad idea. Pragmatic in a way. Though quite how that would leave the great many performing groups and the musicians that form them I’m not entirely sure. And from the classical music world’s perspective, that is perhaps the plan that needs to be articulated most urgently. If the BBC’s plan is to go to a subscription model, what’s their plan for the orchestras?

Not everyone will care, of course. We’re such a small concern us classical music lovers.

But what’s the plan?

Er

Internet bubbles have a tendency to highlight blind spots. I’m reminded of this today with a strange anomaly I can’t get my head around.

On the one hand Twitter is going a bit wild about this video featuring Peter Jan Leusink from The Bach Choir in the Netherlands and his distinctive (for distinctive read crazy) conducting style.

On the other hand, I’m pointed in the direction of this article, and this post (helpfully in English albeit on Norman’s blog) regarding a documentary highlighting claims of sexual misconduct directed at the conductor in question.

He’s still working given that a tweet from December 2019 sees him taking a bow on stage, which suggests that if there were charges they’ve been dropped.

In some senses that’s all there should be to it, surely? If someone has been charged and they’re not either on trial or in custody, then there’s nothing more to be said on the matter and its all perfectly acceptable to go a bit wild about his crazy antics on stage.

Maybe its part of a rehabitaliation campaign (though I seriously doubt that any classical music PR would go anywhere near doing something quite so edgy and potentially career limiting).

So in some respects the conclusion to be drawn is this: in a small world like the classical music world there’s still a lot that can go under the radar.

It’s quite possible for information about (let’s be honest) a niche performer to go completely overlooked and for that same performer to easily bask in the glow inadvertently created by social media.

I find that – the lifecycle and reach of a story – utterly fascinating. At the same time, and perhaps unfairly, I also find it quite unsettling.

Be authentic, be accurate, and be forgiving

What the big challenge is for a social media producer operating in a field of expertise and what leaders have to do to support them

A well-known brand issued a tweet yesterday celebrating the 88th birthday of John Williams, conflating the lives of both a film composer and a guitarist into one glittering career.

Oops. The classical music world identified the error, some leading on ridicule, others following up close behind with empathy and forgiveness.

The tweet was deleted soon after, but the screengrab lives on.

I work in this field – (digital) content – and have done for 13 years. In that time I’ve been at the wheel during a couple of accidents: I’ve been responsible for prematurely announcing the death of a celebrity on a BBC account (it later turned out that my source – the celebrity’s wife – wasn’t a reliable one given that she was a dementia sufferer). This only came to light because it emerged the exclusive for the announcement had been given to a tabloid newspaper and the editor there was a little disappointed to discover a verbal agreement had apparently been reneged on.

And I’ve also tweeted a link on a different BBC account to my own blog believing it was directing users to a press announcement about job losses. It took the then the Head of the BBC Academy to point out the error to me.

Both of these experiences saw me experience inordinate amounts of shame to the extent that I was convinced everybody around me knew of my error and it wouldn’t take long before I was frogmarched out of the door. (That never happened, obviously.)

The John Williams tweet reminds me of those experiences and the effect they had on me as a creative. Powerful creativity comes from a place of trust. In return for trust those who delegate content creation to others rightly expect accuracy in addition to spirit, energy, and hopefully engagement. When that trust (external or internal) is damaged then confidence is given a knocking. Self-doubt creeps in. Content suffers.

Accuracy is vitally important in the classical music world. Different endeavours seem to reach out to different audience groups with differing levels of knowledge or expertise. Accuracy may not be a requirement for the target audience but it is vital for those who could endorse your product, especially if those same people (even if they’re not in that target group) could berate you in the event you get it wrong. The reality is that we’re all self-publishers. That means we’re accountable to considerably more people who have an opinion.

The JW tweet highlights a greater challenge for any content producer in the classical music world however. Knowledge, expertise and experience is of course important. Being able to articulate that in a way that connects with your target audience using a language that honours the experts at the same time as promoting curiosity and ongoing discovery is phenomenally challenging for the individual with knowledge. Being aware of what you know at the same time as knowing what your audience doesn’t know is the biggest demand placed on a social media producer. And rightly so.

There is another aspect to this which triggers the leadership coaching part of my brain: that of empathy and forgiveness. Somewhere someone who thought they’d done a good thing on Friday now thinks they’ve messed up. They think that probably because of the replies they’ve seen. Their weekend has been ruined because of a mistake. Nobody seeks to make that kind of error, but sometimes they happen.

What I always wanted in those situations was for someone in authority to seek me out face to face and check in with me. I wanted people to feel able to say, “This wasn’t great, and we know you know that, but we want you to know that it’s OK and you’re still very much valued. We’ll do better to support you in future.”

It takes a strong leader confident in their own skin to be able to say that, I know. Only two have been able. Those that don’t, can’t or won’t unwittingly reveal far more about themselves than perhaps they would like. I’ve always strived to say it to others. Done well and it can be transformative. It ensures trust is maintained and most importantly of all ensures creative aspirations aren’t extinguished.

Beethoven 2 & 3 from Norrington and the OAE at the QEH, and the Beach Boys

On the one hand theres an element of guilt writing about a concert four days after it happened. Details can be lost; a reputation, such as it is, withers. People will roll eyes, probably even tut.

Not the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment however. They’re a groovy bunch. Always have been. They’ll know, just as I am reminding myself now, that there are no rules and, just as not all orchestras are the same, not all writers are the same.

A few days distance on the OAE’s electrifying concert with Sir Roger Norrington, thoughts have crystallized. These thoughts develop my thinking about Beethoven, about the second and third symphonies we heard on Tuesday night, and perhaps most interestingly for me, about communication.

Taking a break with recent posts, I’m going to section each observation off into a handy list. It’s easier like that, for me and, I suspect, for everyone else too.

Roger Norrington is a beguiling conductor

Norrington is 85. He shuffles gingerly onto stage with a protrusion from a light-fitting blouse, reaching for musicians to guide him to the podium where a swivel chair awaits. There is a glint in his eye, a flirtatious smile, and an unapologetic willingness to collude with the audience. ‘Clap when you want, perhaps after the funeral march will be a little tricky, but clap whenever you would like,’ was his instruction, or something along those lines.

In between each movement of the joyous and uplifting second symphony he swung around triumphantly to greet and thank, before moving on. And when the moment allowed during the third, he did the same perhaps revealing a little more of how taxing a work this monument to composition really is to both conduct and play.

Sometimes the signalling to the audience at the end of every movement became a little tired. But there can be no doubt that Norrington still illicits a great deal of enthusiasm on stage, his poise, delicacy and detail are a joyous thing to observe. He maintains a youthfulness of spirit which is utterly adorable.

He is too, speaking personally, the last of the rock stars – him referencing the London Classical Players took me back to Denis McCaldin at university introducing the notion of ‘authentic performance’ with the first recording I’d ever heard of Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique on period instruments. It seemed like an another world when I heard that. Any opportunity to see in the flesh the man who I regarded then as a bit of an iconoclast is going to be a must-see.

Beethoven symphonies reveal stark contrasts and commonly held assumptions

We think we know Beethoven’s music because – certainly in the case of the most well-known works – the melodies are familiar and engaging. But take a historically-informed band conducted by an octogenarian who resists any attempt to wallow, and suddenly the detail is exposed – multiple layers with eye-popping detail brimming with dissonance, tricky counter-intuitive rhythms, and unexpected textures. When you lean into Beethoven 3 and listen attentively the detail is remarkable.

Shameless Beach Boys comparison

It’s the same with the music of the Beach Boys. Wouldn’t It Be Nice, God Only Knows, or Sloop John B from Pet Sounds are a case in point – seemingly simple infectious melancholic mid-tempo ballads, the pleasure of which eclipses the multiple layers of seemingly incompatible and utterly bizarre individual tracks that make up the whole.

Not written, forged

The detail in Beethoven 3 challenges our unwitting assumptions about what Beethoven’s music is. And when we’re confronted with what it really is then it comes alive there in front of us. And what the OAE achieved under Norrington’s direction was to present Beethoven as a progressive perhaps even fearsome creative and his third symphony as a creation forged in the white heat of the furnace.

To observe that or experience it or perhaps even momentarily see Beethoven 3 from that perspective, makes it impossible to listen to any performance subsequently in the same way again. Maybe.

Celebrating the man’s music is like one year-long Beethoven degree module

I went into this Beethoven 250 thing feeling a little daunted. Others sought to use the anniversary to embolden gender politics. Some others understandably and rightly used to continue to shine a light on the ongoing diversity of representation challenge. I realised quite early on that for a man that so many claim did so much to transform classical music, I appeared to be able to recall very little about him. And I had a music degree. And that seemed a bit strange.

Quite early on I now see Beethoven 250 as one long season of music that will challenge my assumptions, force me to research and remember key dates (they are important milestones which helped embed learning despite what any classical music marketer would have you believe), and help guide me in the discovery of a composer I possess very little knowledge about.

And I when I reflect on my knowledge starts and where I feel is moved on to just in the space of a month, I’m beginning to wonder whether most of our perceptions about Beethoven are to do with that damn opening of Beethoven 5 – a kind of musical trope that celebrates, ridicules, and pokes fun at the art form all at the same time.

Not too much and not too little

Which then brings me on to the writing insight. The past few months have seen me working on a project which seeks to evoke a positive reaction to the discovery of classical music in an audience wouldn’t normally consider listening to the art form. It’s what me and another journalist friend have discussed at length over wine as the classic challenge: needing knowledge, expertise, and familiarity with a particular subject, but having to find a way of communicating just a fraction of it in such a way that one entices but not alienates.

And the challenge isn’t just about fine tuning your own communication filter so that you’re not always reaching to look under the bonnet at the earliest opportunity. It’s also about recognising how commonly held assumptions, well-trotted out ‘factoids’, or the over-reliance on lazy historical tropes are in themselves damaging to classical music’s perception.

It isn’t for example, to merely say that one of the interesting things about Beethoven is that he’s suffered from a profound loss of hearing but composed anyway. That’s the starting point for understanding Beethoven and appreciating the impact of his music. And what’s challenging for me is professionally is understanding what’s sufficient information and what’s ‘too much’ for one blog post or article.  

Identifying the essence of what makes the discovery of Beethoven’s music a thrill and something to keep coming back to is the challenge in this 250th anniversary year. And every challenge brings with it a useful source of motivation too. Which is nice.

Vaughan Williams 5, culture wars, and the language we use to talk about music

My latest musical squeeze is inspired by the NDR Philharmonie/Manze Beethoven extravaganza I wrote about in the previous post.

Vaughan Williams 5 (and 6) from the RLPO conducted by Manze released 18 months ago demonstrates the conductor’s love of detail which, coupled with similarly forensic production techniques, brings out silky smooth string textures, ensemble staccatos that gently but efficiently puncture the score like a staple in a 50 page document, and precision pianissimo articulation that brings me out in goosebumps all over.

The third movement lento is a particular favourite – what sounds like a love letter to someone that triggers a sense of pride, warmth, and solidity. The woodwind tuttis are the kind of creations that make me want to reach for my clarinets and find the nearest band with VW 5 in its music pad. The cor anglais is to die for. A ravishing thing.

I hear the third movement as roast beef, stinging nettles, ploughed fields, and hedgerows. It’s not sentimental or nostalgic. The character isn’t easy to read at first, but its the complexity that makes that character beguiling. Introverted for sure. There’s a whiff of self-doubt in there somewhere. But, on the whole, the character holds his or her head high throughout, self-belief growing with every dynamic swell in the score. There’s a sense of hope stitched into the score that elevates the mood, building on that innate personal resilience. And come the final almost imperceptible chords there’s a hint of resolution, as though something has been aired or laid to rest.

Questions questions questions

And there in lies the answer to the year-long question I’m posing myself: where, when and why do I interface with the art form? What effect does it have on me? And what does that say about my mood or my needs?

In the case of VW 5 even as a whole, it appeals right now because of it’s relative newness to me. I’m sure I’ve heard the work before, but I wouldn’t have been able to recall it. Hearing it this week in a recording that leads on detail and texture, it is the immediacy of the writing that appeals the most. It as though VW’s score is written in a ‘clean’ musical language that surfaces nuanced and sometimes conflicting emotional responses.

The optimism that exudes the work, coupled with that experienced discovering and responding to it over the past 48 hours is tinged with an observation about the way we talk about classical music, and the way those who talk about it talk to one another.

Over the past few months I’ve connected with a variety of organisations that seek to reach out to newcomers – online, on-air, and via the live concert experience. Common to all of these connections is the pervasive view that classical music is like a prickly bramble to the uninitiated. And beyond classical music, the idea that a deeper appreciation of music as a whole – how it works and it’s effect on us – is anathema to achieving the widest reach.

I see it in pop and rock music too. I’ve spent twenty two years living with a serious music lover whose gateway is lyrics and who revels in country, rock, and musical theatre. It’s not unusual for the pair of us to spend a long Friday night listening to comparative recordings of Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park, for example. Different recordings bring different insights, forging different personal connections both with the music and with another.

Avoid detail at all costs

I am beginning to wonder whether this is the exception to the rule; that the vast majority don’t consume music in this way; that to acknowledge the impact music has on us is to set us apart and even unwittingly elevate people like me from the masses.

Is that how a love of music in all its constituent parts is seen by others? I fear it is. And if it is, one wonders whether there’s much point in trying to advocate the artform as a map accompanying a journey exploring the self.

Put another way, how do point people from music as entertainment towards the place where music has a deeper impact on the soul? Or at least point them in the direction of where music can have a deeper impact on the soul?

This isn’t a question of good and bad music (whatever that means) or making a value judgment of one genre of music or other. All genres have the potential to touch the heart in the way that VW5 has done on me this week (just in other ways for other music heard by other people). But there is undoubtedly a resistance to go deeper.

To go deeper is to hint at superiority it seems. That saddens me a great deal. Because that means the bigger challenge isn’t about writing about a particular genre in a ‘more accessible way’ in order to avoid ‘alienating the audience’. It means that the challenge is to support consumers of music as they understand the impact their chosen music has on them at a particular time. No one seems able or willing to do that.

The view from the steering wheel

Those that do feel comfortable discussing music in these terms find themselves in the middle of a culture war. No surprises really. That culture war is going on everywhere. That’s why its a culture war. Viewed from my metaphorical steering wheel, I see some questioning whether those with privilege dead or alive have the authority or right to advocate the value of music education for all. Some even question whether advocating music education for all is to deny the greater need of a ‘fair’ education for all. I’m a rabbit caught in the headlights when I consider the permutations for this particular question.

On the other side of the steering wheel I see commentators still arguing the toss amongst themselves about who is the authoritative source regarding the commentary on music. Some journalists under threat from a dwindling editor’s budget (because no one will pay for content) continue to posit that the unpaid self-publishing writer cannot be compared to the proper paid journalist in terms of knowledge, experience or connections. The ‘amateurs’ respond (understandably) indignantly. Just at the time when you’d think we’d all be united, the cheerleaders paid or otherwise are eating one another alive.

Warning: two metaphors in one blog post

I’m mindful of expressing any stronger view than that. Those who know me well will know what part of the fence I sit on and, given that the undergrowth below looks a little rough underfoot with a great many nasty looking barbs, I’m inclined to remaining sitting where I am. But what I see seems on the one hand utterly ridiculous, and the other infuriating. Everyone who talks about the way we talk about music adopts a defensive stance whenever anyone celebrates detail or dares to look under the bonnet. Expertise and passion has been demonised.

One can either argue each point (where did that get us over the past four years?) or we can go back to the core offer: the music. As I write VW5 is drawing to a close. A final call from the woodwind is passed on the strings.

The last few bars of harmonics in the first violins underpinned by a pillow of violas, cellos and basses leads to a conclusion: being resolute, and living true to our personal values is the best we can possibly hope for. Maybe, just maybe, like-minded souls will join us.

Beethoven 5 and 7 from Andrew Manze and the NDR Philharmonie

Beethoven isn’t my go-to composer. Never has been.

There’s nothing wrong per se about the man’s music. There is melody. There’s drama. In his symphonic works especially the textures in his orchestral writing are highly satisfying.

The problem is (or maybe it’s not a problem) I admire the creative achievement in the same way I admire a beautiful woman: I see it (her/them/they), I just don’t respond to it.

This odd position on Beethoven’s music (some would say contrary) is not fuelled by my usual resistance to hype of the kind we’re no doubt going to experience when Beethoven 250 gets into full swing this year. Sure, I’m curmudgeonly and despise following a herd of sheep. No. this is because there’s a hint of Beethoven leaving me cold.

But. This.

Tasty cover design; tasty typeface; brilliant music making.

Andrew Manze conducts Beethoven’s 7th symphony with the NDR Philharmonie in a release out last Friday. And it may possibly be a recording which helps me determine my ‘way in’ for appreciating Beethoven, if not actually responding to him emotionally.

Manze’s career is quite something. Back in the early days of my short-lived arts admin career, Manze was powerful force in the world of historically informed performance, in 1996 asssuming the associate directorship of the Academy of Ancient Music.

At that time there was an implicit assumption that this was the world Manze would continue to inhabit because of his in-depth knowledge, expertise and resulting reputation.

His appointment as Principal Guest Conductor of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra for the 2018/19 season threw light on a career I had overlooked. One which on closer inspection reveals a seamless and early transition from baroque to full-scale symphony orchestras in a relatively short space of time: 2006 working with the Helsingborg Symphony; 2008 with the Norwegian Radio Symphony; four seasons with the BBC Scottish; plus a whole host of guest spots with international bands to boot.

I think I can detect his historically informed roots in many of his subsequent symphony orchestra recordings. I hear a drier, tauter, earthier string sound thoroughout the first movement of his Beethoven 3 with Helsingborg. In fact, the strings in the second movement especially in the oh-so-quiet sections are a thing to behold – a kind of delicate precision that makes me think the idea of which can only have originated from those ‘authentic performance’ days.

And bringing out instrumental voices normally lost in the mush of a romantic sound can only be something that draws on his historically informed performance days (the opening movement of Brahms 1 on CPO from 2012 with Helsingborg features a bassoon line like I’ve never heard in Brahms’ epic symphony).

Whilst I’m not quite so enthused about his Mendelssohn ‘Italian’ with NDR from 2018, I do have this inkling that maybe the latest NDR release of Beethoven 7 is something great because of the way it echoes those same characteristics I hear in the Helsinborg Beethoven 3. If that really is the case, then its Manze who’s making that happen, because that’s the point of consistency.

There’s a starker string sound in the Beethoven 7 release, most evident in the opening of the second movement. Drier. Deader. Smoother. Everything has a chilling feel: not frightening; just something imperceptible; a question in search of answer.

And sticking with the second movement, there’s a committment to drawing out detailed articulation in the bass line. A mushier more romantically driven interpretation would gloss over those details, but here everything is given the necessary space for display.

At the same time, Manze’s speeds give the work fleet of foot. No one is languishing in tawdriness. The pulse keeps thing moving on. There is life, drive, tenacity and determination throughout.

And come the prompt final movement the all important detail that has driven things throughout is given its moment. Never has a grinding pseduo pedal-note bassline been quite so needed nor so gratifyingly experienced as 7’08” onwards. Props to the horn section whose taut articulation in the high register is something to behold. And at the time of writing I can’t quite put into words what I’m hearing at 6’32”, but I want to call on it whenever I’m in need of a bitter dispute, because with that kind of explosives in your armoury you’re bound to win the battle.

Does this recording make me love Beethoven? Does it make me think I might learn to love Beethoven? I’m not sure yet. But it does help me understand one way to appreciate his achievement: detail. There is so much detail to be heard in Beethoven’s music.

There are two bittersweet thoughts which emerge from that observation.

First, the inherent pathos in the story of a man who couldn’t hear but scored so much detail in his manuscripts.

Second, the present day assumption pedalled by those who claim to champion classical music that newcomers will be frightened off by detail.

Here is a composer whose love of detail was arguably fuelled because of his impairment.

And yet we deny the thrill of his music to those who don’t know it because we condescend that newcomers won’t understand or appreciate that detail? Tsk.

Listen to Beethoven 5 and 7 from NDR Philharmonie and Andrew Manze on Spotify

Classical music in modern life?

Two things dominated yesterday: the resurrection of the bloggers vs. ‘proper journalists’ debate, and the values that drive the Benedetti Foundation’s music sessions running in London this weekend.

I’m not going to link to the tweet that reignited the discussion about bloggers versus journos, nor mention the author. That’s not cricket or helpful. But quoting it is necessary.

Specialist classical music critics are proper journalists whose criticism we may not like but we grudgingly accept because they write well with education and experience. Self-appointed bloggers who publish criticism with no such background are a plague on our houses. Discuss.

The divisive message was oddly hurtful. Masking behind the guise of a discussion the underlying comment was clear: proper journos are the useful ones people should take notice of; the unpaid writers, influencers and commentators aren’t at all.

It read like a bit of an insult (though I did wonder I was making an assumption that it was referring to me and my considerably more active peers) – a sweeping dismissive statement which even when challenged appeared to achieve no more than the other party doubling-down on her original meanness.

It is that this was a discussion generated by a member of the classical music fraternity aimed squarely at those that seek to celebrate the art form that cut so deep. And more personally (and this is a common trait with me) the idea that even when evidence is shown of an injured party, that the response is to ignore as though to convey to people like me are those who are to blame for this exchange in the first place. Meanness with an extra dollop of gleeful meanness. Classic passive aggression. There’s a lot of it about.

What’s important isn’t so much my feelings during the exchange with the singer, rather the stark contrast with the other experience of the day: visiting one of the London sessions of the Benedetti Foundation’s current music education project.

Thursday night’s press conference featuring Nicky Benedetti discussing the Foundation’s vision and activities had already succeeded in bringing a lump to my throat. I’m an emotional sort at the moment anyway, but the sound of Benedetti’s spirited and impassioned detailing of what the Foundation is committed to (embedding music education back into the curriculum by making the experience of making music as universal as possible and as diverse as possible in terms of age, ability, and class) was powerful. So too the demonstration given by one small group of primary school kids illustrating how a series of simple participatory exercises can introduce the principles of movement, ryhthm, and pitch in a relatively short space of time.

None of what we saw in this demonstration was new to me. I recall experiencing the same thing as a kid thirty odd years ago.

It also triggered memories too of wanting to train as a teacher after I completed my music degree so I could give some of that joy back. It wasn’t to be thanks to one faceless wonder at the Department for Education back in 1991 who deemed the sexual assault I suffered as evidence that I would be a threat to children. Little wonder I still to this day have an issue with injustice.

On a broader level what has changed between then and now is the systemic destruction of music’s reputation in the curriculum, deeming the likes of the Benedetti Foundation not a nice-to-have but a necessity.

“That’s enough to get me angry,” I blurt out to Benedetti during the Q&A after the press conference, “Do you experience that anger? And if so how do you channel that into the obvious good of the Foundation?”

I can’t remember the exact words Nicky Benedetti responded with. Shoot me. I’m obviously not a proper journalist. But it was something along the lines of an admission that the emotional experience was the same, but that the challenge was to channel that into a sense of motivation that served the purpose of the endeavour. Showing best practise rather acting from a place of anger, bitterness or resentment.

I have over the past few weeks been unexpectedly challenged with a lot of things. Some of those things have pushed me to revisit difficult memories of the past in order to understand something of the present. Other challenges have brought on the anticipation of grief and all the associated feelings associated with it. And then there are the phenomenally challenging conversations where emotion needs to be left behind in order to mine for information. Such fierce conversations (meant in the context of the book of the same name by the way) are in themselves incredibly demanding both in the moment and afterwards.

But what links all of those experiences with what Benedetti said during her press conference is this idea of having to keep an eye on the goal, and aligning our thinking, feelings and actions with both our core values and the end goal. I don’t always do that. But I’m inspired to try harder at that because of Bendetti’s vision.

And the point of explaining all of this is because of the stark contrast between the two exchanges had on the same day.

The first triggered negativity, fear, and defensiveness. It was aggressive, accusatory, and disrespectful.

The second revealed a greater sense of purpose underlining the responsibility we all have to meet the challenge we all experience to channel our darker thoughts into a positive force: to draw on passion, to look with kindness, and to share.

What I’m struck by is how an unequivocal sense of purpose as articulated in the Benedetti Foundation which is in itself something intended to go beyond classical music, has at its heart a value that goes beyond classical music too. But that the only reason I’ve learned of it this week is because of classical music.

That is the power of classical music in modern life: music whose exponents are able to convey a message of hope that transcends the art form itself.

Whilst penning this I listened to clarinettist Mark van de Wiel playing Joseph Phibbs and Mozart’s clarinet concertos with the Philharmonia and London Chamber Orchestra.

Be sure to listen to the Thoroughly Good Classical Music Podcast featuring Nicola Benedetti and Foundation tutors Jo and Elsa Bradley.

What role will music play in 2020?

Poking through the gaps in the steamed up bathroom windows, the new year presents itself. I’m struggling to make out what 2020 is offering.

Revellers wide smiles, and the midnight fireworks shrouded in smoke I saw on TV at midnight – contrived, meaningless, and wasteful – are a world away from what I see now.

This New Year morning is like no other. I am unable to locate the familiar sense of fresh start. Things are the same as they were 24 hours before as far as I can make out. No excitement, just a mild sense of dread.

Where does music fit in all of this? Can it lead me in a new direction? Should it compensate? Do I need it to articulate how I’m feeling, or challenge me to think or feel differently?

Or does the Vienna Phil from the Musikverein this morning point to how I might better seek music out in the short term?

My views on the New Years Day Concert have changed in recent year. The concert from the Musikverein is music as entertainment, it’s presentation distracting us with a musical reenactment of a nostalgic age none of us have experienced. All gilt edge and lavish blooms, surrounding an orchestra steadfastly refusing to install a diverse and inclusive workforce; a usually vocal passionate audience equally uninterested in clamouring for change.

Diversity, inclusion and equal opportunities are all well and good it seems, just as long as some of the traditions are kept firmly in place.

Was it ever thus?

Why should such an inconsistency be allowed to continue? Why is such an event made available to so very many without even the discussion being had? Or is it that social politics and classical music doesn’t mix?

I digress.

Unlike some other commentators who seek to position themselves alongside the ‘best’ concerts of 2019 (whatever that means), or right at the heart of the stories they think everyone should be thinking about in the coming year I, predictably, prefer to think of the year ahead from a personal perspective?

What role will music play in healing divisions? What recordings and live performances will engender a sense of hope? How will music guide us from the darkness we’ve experienced over the past few years? Where will it take us? What will that music be? Where will it be heard? How will the experience be transmitted?

Some of it will almost certainly be written by Beethoven (which I might add is a good thing because for some this year will be the year they ‘discover’ Beethoven. But what of the rest of the music of this year? What will help contribute to a collective experience?

Something to keep an eye on. Me, not you. You can decide on your own editorial strategy for the year ahead. This one’s mine.