I have line of sight of the BBC Proms season for 2020. And you know what, as far as I’m concerned, I’m going to be quite happy: archive broadcasts on radio, and BBC iPlayer, plus a cut-down selection of live performances towards the end of the season.
The BBC Proms press release doesn’t reveal too much in writing. No great surprises because .. jeeze .. look what everyone’s grappling with right now. But some stops have been pulled out and in a strange kind of way that makes the summer seem less of a barren landscape than sometimes it does when I try and think beyond today, and tentatively into next week.
For the avoidance of doubt on the part of anyone at the BBC Proms: I’m saying thank you here. I appreciate your efforts.
Live concerts, pending Government direction (don’t hold your breath – that direction hasn’t been great to date), will start up for the end part of the season, including what is billed as a ‘poignant’ Last Night of the Proms to conclude proceedings. Marvellous.
Up until then, the Proms truly is a broadcast festival starting on Friday 17 July, and running until Saturday 12 September. The ‘First Night’ will include a commission by Iain Farrington for a BBC Grand Virtual Orchestra to mark the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth.
And given the news from the Southbank earlier this week, the Proms may well serve another more pressing need: to reiterate to the naysayers or those who don’t especially care about live music that it remains a critical force in our cultural life and the country’s economy.
It won’t be quite what we’re used to, but it will remind those who need it spelled out, that this cultural experience is not something we can afford to throw away.
Which, now I come to read the press release, is actually what David Pickard, Proms Director thinks too. Great minds think alike.
“These are challenging times for our nation and the rest of the world, but they show that we need music and the creative industries more than ever. This year it is not going to be the Proms as we know them, but the Proms as we need them. We will provide a stimulating and enriching musical summer for both loyal Proms audiences and people discovering the riches we have to offer for the first time.”
BBC Proms 2020 runs from Friday 17 July until Saturday 12 September.
I cannot remember the last time I’ve scrolled through my
emails all bleary-eyed in bed only to discover in a split second, reading the
header for one incoming press release, that I need to get up immediately, reach
for the laptop and start typing furiously.
The top-line messages make for stark and depressing reading. The Southbank Centre has announced it is at risk of closure until at least April 2021, noting that since its closure on 17 March (my that seems like a life away) and despite furloughing the majority of its staff, its reserves have run dry as a result of the economic impact of COVID-19. They expect to face a deficit of £5.1 million at the end of the financial year in 2021.
The Southbank Centre estimates hosting 3,500 events a year, a significant number of which are staged in the Royal Festival Hall – the last remaining iconic symbol of hope from 1951 Festival of Britain, the post-second world war celebration for the nation.
It’s home to eight orchestras, an extensive creative learning programme that reaches young people and families, and supports a variety of communities in need in the surrounding area.
It gets 37% of its income from the Arts Council. The mandatory closure of its revenue stream – the venues, bars and restaurants – has resulted in a loss of 60% of its income.
The timing of the press release is quite something coming hard on the heels of the most spectacular car crash of a press briefing given by the Prime Minister last night.
Despite calls (even from Brexit Fanboy Steve Baker) for Johnson’s special adviser Lord Voldemort Dominic Cummings to be fired, the Prime Minister doubled-down saying that in driving up to Durham with his family whilst his wife was infected with Coronavirus Cummings was doing his bit to stop the virus spreading.
The event confirmed for nearly everyone
in the country with half a brain cell that the instruction to stay home, save
lives and save the NHS, didn’t apply to all of us after all, and that despite
flagrantly breaking the rules, Boris’ crutch could still stick around and the
guidance doesn’t need to change.
We have a leader who is a leader only
in name, unable to take decisive action, who is himself being led by a complete
What hope for the arts? The Southbank
Centre’s call for urgent government support depressing because of the stark
reality that is now before our eyes.
Because if the Prime Minister can’t fire a man whose arrogance and entitlement looks set to undermine a public health campaign at a moment in time when the economy is screwed and shows little sign of recovering anytime soon, then what hope does an arts organisation (and the rest of the UK’s arts economy) have?
The writing is on the wall. Our cultural economy is over, its rapid decline presided over by people who have no clue what they’re doing.
It’s the first time in a long time I’ve wanted to write. So,
please treat this post as a way of breaking myself back into the process. An
attempt to order a jumble of thoughts. The first in a pre-paid programme of
self-facilitated therapy sessions.
On returning to writing
Writing now triggers all sorts of different thoughts and
feelings, some of which make the practise almost impossible. A list of those
thoughts presents itself.
There’s nothing to say about classical music
Your copy will ramble
Your copy always rambles
You bring way too much of yourself to your copy
You make everything about you
You take ages to get to the point
There is no event everyone is coalescing around
People don’t want to be reminded of what they
You have an over-inflated idea of your own
Shut the fuck up
There are some truisms in here. Even in the first two
paragraphs points four, five and six are borne out. Watch the detractors rub
their hands together with glee at that one.
Importantly, is the question of where these thoughts
originate and what their effect is.
In coaching terms I know where those phrases originate. The
effect is creative gas-lighting.
To bring oneself to ones writing – whether it’s literally using
the first person in one’s copy, or drawing on first-hand experience or turns of
phrase is for some a sign of weakness or exclusivity. I have over the past
three or four weeks felt guilty for
my go-to creative framework that is second-nature because of the very creative
outlet – a blog – that helped develop my creativity.
One has to be robust. Rigorous. Recognise when the gas-lighting
occurs and take steps to avoid it, so that what’s important is allowed the
space it needs: advocacy whether it be in writing, audio, visual storytelling
depends on knowledge, experience and emotional awareness. Bringing that to one’s
creativity isn’t just a good thing, it’s a requirement. Otherwise, how do you
connect with your audience?
Content fatigue? No, distractions
I read somewhere on social media that some considered classical music consumers were suffering content fatigue in response to the slew of digital endeavours embarked upon by various arts organisations amid COVID-19.
It’s true that there are a multitude of split screen lockdown performances which are very quickly blending into one another. One or two resonate more than others – the Rotterdam Philharmonic, Fairey Band’s Slane, and The Sixteen’s recent release.
These are successful not because they have cut-through, but because they have a narrative underpinning them or they anticipate and exploit an emotion experienced by a majority audience.
I remain convinced that offering free content like this is not detrimental to the music industry. It is a pragamatic and understandable reaction by a number of arts organisations and individual performers to unforeseen circumstances. This moment in time provides an excellent marketing opportunity and digital is king at raising awareness (even if it struggles to result in changed behaviours).
Raising awareness then is a baseline for arts organisations during this hiatus. But in doing this digital producers and artistic directors now (finally) appreciating what digital is for (even if they don’t understand its often contradictory complexities) need to remember that audiences (those that are lucky enough to work, as well as those interacting with family on handheld devices or over Zoom) are spending considerably more time at their laptops during this pandemic. Little wonder then that a bright blue sky, the warmth of the sun on your skin, or simple pleasures like plants, baking, or reading a book are compelling distractions over watching another video online.
It’s not that its content fatigue, it’s that there are bigger, more powerful and considerably more gratifying distractions right now. If you’re making content right now that content is competing with those distractions. That’s what you need to bear in mind.
Managing oneself in isolation
As the lockdown continues and will, let’s face it, for the
rest of the year, some aspects of day to day life are coming more and more into
Switching between tasks without the usual moving from location to location which marks out those different activities is, I think this week, as much a drain on energy reserves as being in receipt of a poorly phrased email, mean-spirited exchange on What’s App, or an extended video conference call.
I was lucky enough to have lined up a month’s worth of project work for April which has now spilled into May. The to-do list is now getting reduced to a more manageable size which is a relief. At the same time I recognise I’ve been battling not only with the workload, but the intensity of it and the associated thought-processes (most of them negative) made more destructive by isolation-powered focus I’m working with.
Every-day now feels like a working day. There aren’t enough hours in the day. I never finish my day at the time I want to. I don’t really relax. I see how one could easily stumble into burn-out by continuing this way.
One of the solutions is to limit calls that interrupt the flow. My current bugbear is calls where things are just reported. It’s the meeting equivalent of listening to some playing a C Major scale – something I have to be present for but which doesn’t engage me as much as perhaps it does the person playing it. Isolation brings experiences like these into focus: our presence and participation in group experiences needs to be defined beforehand and ideally active too.
And the other thing that has become clearer for me in
isolation is the need for empathy, praise and encouragement for others. Denied the serendipitous
interactions with friends and associates, all of our exchanges are now
pre-arranged, deliberate acts. If those are the only interactions you’re
experiencing then the content of them needs to be well-intentioned, genuine,
sincere, and long-lasting.
For the sake of everyone else’s mental wellbeing, we need to approach every interaction with positive intent. The great wave of compassion and empathy at the beginning of lockdown now feels like a distant memory. It feels as though we’re in danger of falling into the same habits we did before we were all locked away in our homes. Only the effect of some of those same habits is going to be more intensely felt by most of us because we have nowhere to escape to in response to them.
One undoubted and unexpected boon was participating in a coaching learning session with some peers Friday. Within minutes of the call starting it was as though all five of us were participating in a big collective breath. Space expanded all around. Implicit permission given to explore the imagination, to identify present needs. This kind of work is powerful. And needed. Especially in lockdown.
Where my musical tastes have rested recently
I began writing this section of the post listening to
Vaughan Williams fifth symphony again – a work I’ve been returning to a lot
this past week. The third movement largo with its opening call to prayer from
the cor anglais: a reflection on those in need; a statement of hope that we
will be there for them as we’d hope others will be for us. It, like the
coaching learning session yesterday, has the power to release great waves of
emotion whenever I hear it. Listening to it is like plunging into a very deep
pool, not realising you needed to until your skin hits the water.
And Elgar’s Violin Concerto – Nicky Benedetti’s release on Decca this week.
An intimate recording of an epic statement. It’s an album I’ve had on preview
for a few weeks now but haven’t (for the reasons I outlined at the top of the
post) not got around to writing about. And yet returning to it again this week
has reminded of one of the work’s most compelling characteristics: it’s complex
and rewarding narrative. Reflecting on that now makes me almost regret the
comparative cursory attention when discovering new music in the past. Giving
attention seems like a nice thing to
do right now. Space and attention to delve into detail.
In years to come, the pictures capturing the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra’s first concert in front of a live audience will be something of an oddity.
The mask-clad safely-distant attendees will point to a time when things were odd. The pictures will either act as a signpost for when things in the classical music world took a dramatic change of direction, or they’ll act as a trigger for memories of a dark time when the thing we love reminded us how much we had taken it for granted.
Right now, images from that concert (live-streamed and seen by an audience of 2 million) offer a sense of hope: this will come to an end and classical music and opera will start on its road to live performance. It’s also a reminder of the amount of time its likely to take. The gig staged at the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra’s Symphony Hall was the first concert given to audience since lockdown began – that’s 110 days.
Just last week it was announced that cinemas, libraries, theatres and museums in China were permitted to reopen. That’s nearly four months wait, and even then its to a limited audience. That is how long this is all going to take.
On 23 May the Shanghai Symphony will hold its first concert with a larger ensemble and a conductor – 30-40 musicians playing works by Bartok, Barber and Piazzolla.
As with the marketing dividend of sharing free content during lockdown, so there will be opportunities to exploit being the first ensemble or arts organisation to stage a concert. Those who catch the moment right and anticipate the audience will secure the prize (such as it is). And at some point when social distancing is no longer a requirement, so too the return to live performance as we remember it.
For now, a moment in history. The first people emerging into the sunlight. Nice work, Shanghai Symphony.