Classical music gets a bashing once again

A big broadcast classical music festival is about to get underway. Someone call in the clickbait writers to have a poke at the artform. Predictable.

Thursday’s Guardian editorial is a mismatched poke at the classical music world in the UK just as the classical music world gears up for the annual music festival which seeks to celebrate it in all its forms. What predictable timing.

It’s frothy self-loathing masks the writer and sub-editor’s ignorance about the artform, the audiences who love it (for whatever reason), and its psychological effects. It has, inevitably, had classical music afficiandos, artists and advocates up in arms.

A summary of the piece to save time: classical music has been reduced to tackling anti-social behaviour in retail outlets, it’s being overrun by rich people who use it to virtue signal, and the landmark music festival most audiences know classical music by is in danger of being so watered down as to be meaningless.

For some businesses, [classical music] is the aural equivalent of homeless spikes, deployed to shift or subdue targeted undesirables; for the rich, events like the Proms provide status experiences that will convey bragging rights with fellow have-yachts. 

The Guardian, 4 July 2019

There’s not a great deal to disagree here with necessarily. The evidence provided isn’t far from the truth. Classical music is often piped into tube station ticket halls and coffee shops and it does have a surprisingly calming effect.

So what?

To describe that act as ‘a grim social function’ means the author of the piece (newspaper editorials are never published with a by-line) is making a class judgment on the art form, elevating it to a rarefied status – an act which is part of the problem classical music (and no other musical art form) continues to struggle with today.

Are there any alternatives solutions for the social problems he or she describes as grim? None appear to be forthcoming.

People who own Royal Albert Hall seats are reportedly reselling tickets, with a pair of stalls seats for the Last Night of the Proms going for about £2,500. Harrods Estates is marketing a 12-seater box in the same hall, available to buy on a leasehold of more than 840 years, for £3m – a snip if you want to avoid rubbing shoulders with cheap-seat plebs.

The Guardian, 4 July 2019

The point about the sale of boxes at the Royal Albert Hall highlights the ignorance of the piece too. Leases on boxes are sold by the Royal Albert Hall (not the BBC Proms) which stages a variety of events throughout the year, of which ‘the world’s greatest classical music festival’ is one. Boxes are therefore ‘owned’ by corporate entities or individuals with considerable disposable income, giving those in the lease agreement access to sporting events, musicals, rock concerts, Carols by Candlelight, the BBC Proms and a great many other things.

That system is part of the Royal Albert Hall’s business strategy (and has been since its inception). That tickets are sold at that price isn’t because of the high value on classical music per se, but on the opportunity that classical music presents for leaseholders to make money out of their Royal Albert Hall asset. I imagine tennis matches go for a similar price. And, if ABBA were to reunite and perform at the Royal Albert Hall, the prices would be even higher.

The unwillingness of many audiences to expose themselves to the shock of the musically new is more acute today because most of the output of Britain’s three classical music radio stations is devised to be unchallenging.

The Guardian, 4 July 2019

Blaming the audience for being ‘unwilling’ to ‘expose themselves’ to the ‘shock of the musically new’ effectively tramples on the work of many of today’s composers who seek to create compelling works of art that delight. If the author knew as much as he or she professed to care about the way the art form was widely regarded, then seeking to support contemporary composers by avoiding the word ‘shock’ would have been a good place to start (though would have demanded more than a few paragraphs in an editorial).

Britain’s three classical music stations are catering for different audiences, go after them aggressively, and present entirely different repertoire. Anybody who has bothered to listen to them would know that already.

Where the BBC Proms is concerned there is an element of truth in the editorial. The season’s broad strategy is to be more ‘inclusive’ and ‘accessible’. That’s something which supports the BBC’s current relentless drive to reach out to more young people in a desperate bid to replenish its audience who it thinks will eventually wither and die.

It has significantly less money because the season is heavily subsidised by the Licence Fee, the financial limits of which have been highlighted once again by the BBC’s announcement it would not be automatically be granting free licences for the over-75s.

The Proms doesn’t delight and excite this year as much as it has done in recent years, and that is a disappointment. But anyone who ‘laments’ the state of the season by dismissing it as ‘easy listening’ clearly has spent as much time flicking through the season brochure as they have done event skim-reading the press release sent out by the BBC on launch day.

I’m not in the business now of defending my former employer. Not any more. There’s a lot wrong with it. A lot of its faults are down to a range of spectacularly inept individuals who work there. The Corporation and its activities deserve to be held to account and its endeavours scrutinised and contextualised. And if there’s something that absolutely needs to have closer attention paid to it this year its the way in which the artform is contextualised in its presentation.

But the Proms is, arguably, one of the constants which has maintained classical music. That people want to and are able to spend lots of money in order to be present in a box at a concert demonstrates the art form’s appeal for a particular audience demographic and therefore the Proms success at raising awareness.

Listen to BBC Music Commissioning Editor Jan Younghusband introduce this year’s BBC Proms TV coverage in the Thoroughly Good Classical Music Podcast.

Squeezing classical out of classical music

In the mad dash to make classical music more ‘appealing’ to more people, the representation of youth is a priority for record labels. But is that a good thing?

I attended the Decca Summer Drinks ‘thing’ last night in Central London. I appreciated the invite. I appreciated the wine. I appreciated the balloons. I was less keen on the lack of AC in the main performance ‘space’. But you know, free wine.

We heard from Isata Kanneh-Mason on piano (playing Clara Schumann) and from Milos on Gee-Tar with accompanying septet previewing his new release featuring arrangements of Sound of Silence and a Portishead track.

Yes. That’s right. Simon and Garfunkel and Portishead.

This in amongst a couple of promos featuring Decca Classics’ illustrious past.

It was a confused affair. At least I was confused. On the one hand Decca are keen to celebrate their archive. On the other hand they’re even more keen to underline their commitment to diversity, youth, and accessibility.

In doing so, I wonder whether someone at Universal Music/Decca HQ is deliberately or inadvertently overlooking a truism.

Decca’s present-day lead signings are undoubtedly talented but painfully young. As an audience member (and according to some an ‘influential commentator on the subject’) I don’t buy in to what that new talent offers. That’s not to say I don’t believe that Isata, Sheku, and Jess Gilliam will be powerful forces in the classical music world. Rather, it’s that I recognise that they are at the beginning of their careers. And yet it sometimes feels (as it did last night) as though those artists are at the pinnacle of them.

And as lovely as Milos absolutely is, and as striking as his snazzy shirt was last night, I do think releasing an album of pop songs arranged for septet and acoustic guitar basically puts him on the same level as Mantovani.

There’s nothing wrong with anyone who wants to listen to that, of course. Any rabble rousers out there who get a whiff of snobbery or elitism on my part can put down their arms.

The irony is that hearing Milos playing Portishead last night, prompted me to head back to the considerably more satisfying original.

It just got me thinking. Is this what Milos had hoped for when he studied his art? And is this what record industry executives really think people like me actually want?

Or is it worse than that?

Is it the case that record industry execs don’t actually care what I and people like me think?

More buzz please

LSO’s performance of Gruppen at the Turbine Hall demonstrates a rare thing in the classical music world we need more of: buzz

I couldn’t get to Gruppen at the Turbine Hall in Tate Modern. I should have jumped quicker to buy a ticket. I should have said yes to the person who invited me to join them (but didn’t because of a school reunion).

At the very least I should have asked the right person at the right time if I could get a ticket somehow. In the end, I left it all too late. Massive fail on my part.

None of this is me moaning, by the way. 

There’s been a buzz about the Southbank over the past week thanks to the Philharmonia and the London Symphony Orchestra. First, the Philharmonia’s Gurrelieder in Paris documented on social media as a tantalising preview for the orchestra’s season closer on Thursday. Then yesterday, a much-anticipated performance of Gruppen by the LSO.

It’s not just that these season highlights were epic performances. They were both of them much-talked about beforehand. These were true events

People I spoke to in the run-up to both, were all excitedly asking the same question. “Are you going?”

That simple question has a devastating effect – it motivates you to get yourself a ticket so that you can share in an experience others are getting excited about. And when you can’t get a ticket, it prompts a bout of irritation about not having moved fast enough early enough.

And it’s not that I didn’t get to go to Gruppen that is important here. What’s utterly delightful is that two orchestral teams (players and support staff) are able to generate such passionate enthusiasm amongst their audiences. A wonderfully reassuring and invigorating thing.

Listen to Stockhausen’s Gruppen – in a concert that also features a performance Messiaen’s Et exspecto in a radio broadcast from last night. The music starts around 8 minutes in. 

An ostrich looking really fucked off

Gripes

Following a rant today on Facebook about workplace everyday-isms which really get my goat, I figured it might be useful to document those things which rub me up the wrong way.

Ta Da.

This blog post will be updated from time to time as more gripes come to mind, and linked to when the need arises.

So, if you want to ensure your communication assistance illicits a ‘yes’, best avoid the following.

Of course, publishing this list may well invite people to use them anyway. If you do, then I’ll know what kind of person you are.

In some cases, I’ve felt the need to offer an explanation.

1. Deffo

Just say definitely. It’s better that way.

2. Happy Days

3. Oh My Days

Just swear. It has far more weight if you actually swear.

4. Exciting or Excited

If you’re using either word you’re almost certainly not feeling either.

5. Exclamation marks

Only use exclamation marks for serious warnings. Using them is trying to force a sense of excitement on the reader and invariably draws attention to the fact that you can’t think of another word to better express yourself. Combining exclamation marks with the word ‘exciting’ or ‘excited’ and the intended effect is diminished.

6. Hope you’re well

No you don’t. You don’t really care whether I’m well or not. If you did care, you’d actually ask whether I was well or not, and you’d use a question mark at the end of the sentence.

Best not ask, because I will tell you in my response and it will invariably leave you wishing you hadn’t asked at all. Real life isn’t peachy and the depressing inevitability of it all cannot be overcome by the phrase “Hope you’re well”.

Just get on and ask me what it is you want me to do. Far more efficient. “Hope you’re well” is widely regarded as an ice-breaker, a tone-setter or a softly-softly way to start an email, based on the falsely held assumption that not using it is somehow abrupt or rude. It is a redundant phrase, however. Getting to what you want to ask is not rude. It’s efficient.

If you must ask how I am, be specific. Don’t be open-ended.

7. Literally

8. Metaphorically

9. Figuratively

10. Telly

It’s television. Or it’s TV. Not telly.

11. Align or Re-align

Eww.

12. Optimise or Maximise

13. Going forward

14. Cut-through or pick-up

15. To be perfectly/completely honest

I expect that anyone I’m interacting with is honest with me. If you’re not, then we shouldn’t be interacting with one another.

16. My Bad

Oh, fuck off. Really.

17. Mad Early

A derivation of ‘stupidly early’ and so technically acceptable. Often used to denote coolness.

Don’t be a dick. Don’t use it.

18. Emoticons or Emojis

Don’t use emoticons in your messages to me. They’re childish, lazy, weak-willed non-communication. If you can’t send me a message without an emoticon then you need to spend a little more time planning what it is you to want to say to me first.

19. “I’ve got to jump on a call at 1230”

The time is irrelevant where this particular gripe is concerned. It’s the verb that infuriates me. You’re not ‘jumping on a call at 1230’. You’re either taking a call, participating in one or joining one.

20. “I’ll ping/shoot you an email.”

Stop using unneccessary langauge to increase the importance of your message and/or yourself. You don’t ‘ping’ emails to people, you send them.

21. “All things … [INSERT WORD]”

A phrase used to denote importance when elevating the status of an event, message, or function. For example, “I’m responsible for all things digital at [INSERT ORGANISATION]”.

Just give us your job title.

22. The ‘super’ pre-pend

Don’t use ‘super’ as a comparator. Far from actually underlining how wonderful something is, you’re actually distancing yourself from the very thing you’re trying to emote about.

Also, you sound like a twat when everything is prepended with ‘super’.

If you’re about to use the word ‘super’ to describe something, then having a long detailed executive board meeting with yourself and come up with some new ideas.