To celebrate the release by Sound and Music and NMC Recordings of “Digital Discoveries” — eight volumes of previously unreleased new music from the British Music Collection — I asked some of the most exciting emerging composers what the works featured in this release meant to them. Having asked composers Martin Scheuregger, Shiori Usui and Chris Mayo to select their favorite Digital Discovery, I was also asked to make my own selection: the complete version of this article appeared in December’s Classical Music Magazine but here’s what I had to say about Geoff Hannan’s Joyrider:
Sound and Music: Of all the pieces you could have chosen, why this one? What did you find compelling about this music and why should I listen to it?
Thomas Butler: Geoff Hannan’s Joyrider is a compelling and exuberant work for solo piano. A pile-up of pianistic tropes borrowed from the virtuoso repertoire, it is at once exciting and deliberately confrontational. The piece exists in a constant state of joyous free-fall, which by the end I found as unnerving as a clown’s perma-smile.
SaM: As a listener, how does the piece unfold? What is the piece about (musically or conceptually) and were there any surprises along the way?
TB: The composer suggests that the piece “does not do what good music is traditionally supposed to do” and certainly the narrative thrust of Joyrider could have been created from the crazed output of a malfunctioning sampler, with its insistent repetitions and disregard for continuity (the only predictable thing about this music is its unpredictability). The composer is keen to draw parallels between his piece and the “spectrum of masculinity”; the slick, virtuosic display of bravado is actually a barrage of near-quotations – pure music-geekery disguised as swagger.
By its very nature, the piece is full of surprises (so many that these surprises cease to be surprising!). However, for me the ending of the piece was quite unexpected. It avoids the big-final-chord cliché that I was anticipating.
SaM: As a composer, how does the piece, or any element within the piece, relate to your own output? Are there any ideas here that you’d like to steal for your own work?
TB: One could consider Joyrider to be entirely made-up of “stolen” material, although it is in itself an original and unique work. What I love about this piece is its inherent theatricality, which is a theme that runs through my own work. You can feel (and see) the frenzied exertions of the soloist with each flurry of notes. Joyrider also reminds me that I haven’t written a piano piece in quite a while…
I’LL CADENCE WHEN I DIE! is my new podcast about new music and sonic art in Scotland. I started producing the show earlier this year in an attempt to showcase some of the brilliant and diverse work that’s going on here, work that often gets overlooked by more mainstream media.
Each month I interview a composer who lives in, or is visiting, Scotland about their work. There’s no script and very few prepared questions. The interviews (so far, at least) can meander into some interesting and unexpected areas. Not all this material makes the final cut, of course, but hopefully listeners find out a little more about what, why and how the featured composer composes. We get to hear some of that composer’s music along the way, too.
As a composer myself, I often talk about music and compositional “issues” with other composers. I’d always felt that edited versions of this shop talk may be of some interest to listeners; these sprawling discussions, and frequent disagreements, often see my fellow composers speak about music in simple and accessible terms far removed from the Academicese that often blights programme notes and other formal, written, discussions of music.
After considering creating a website or e-zine to allow these discussions to reach a wider audience, I decided on the podcast format after hearing WNYC’s Radiolab and Roman Mars’ 99% Invisible. While I wouldn’t want ICWID! to be compared with these brilliant and slick shows, the way both make obscure subject matter accessible and enjoyable has been a great inspiration.
There have been five episodes of ICWID! released so far. In the most recent episode, composer François Sarhan discusses his upcoming show Enough Already! (or, Lâchez Tout!) – a surreal and political work which combines film, speaking musicians, an actor and two Foley artists – which is to be performed by Red Note Ensemble this winter in Glasgow, Edinburgh and at HCMF//.
In September’s edition, composer Bill Sweeney talked about the influences behind his recent music for cello, including the work of poets Hugh MacDiarmid and Jorge Luis Borges. Always blending the traditional with the cutting-edge, Bill discusses how imitating Gaelic psalm singing and using Pure Data both contribute to his soundworld. The episode also features wonderful performances of Bill’s work by cellist Robert Irvine.
Earlier shows have featured diverse styles of music: Episode One saw composer John De Simone explain why (and how) he escaped the influence of Dutch-style minimalism to write a Neo-Romantic (-ish) violin concerto. Episode Two featured Sound and Music Embedded Composer Shiori Usui discussing her music derived from the sounds of the human body and includes a brilliant performance of Shiori’s work In Digestion given by A Far Cry. Episode Three saw Scottish Opera’s Composer-in-Residence Gareth Williams talk about two of his site-specific operas, one which took place at the top of an Aberdeenshire lighthouse and another that played-out in a Glasgow pub (whilst the pub was still open).
It’s the third and final day of Go Compose! where I am assisting composer Brian Irvine and Red Note Ensemble as they guide a group of school-age composers through writing and rehearsing brand new pieces. We’ve just enjoyed the final concert of the opening night of the Sound Festival, the grand finale of the course where each new work received its première.
It was a wonderful event. Banchory’s Woodend Barn hosted a large and enthusiastic audience for the occasion. Buoyed by a warm reception, each of the Go Compose! participants introduced their own pieces and explained how stories found in Monday’s newspapers provided the initial inspiration for their work. Some composers were keen to stress that, although these news articles provided the genesis of each work, the music had transformed into something entirely different, unrelated to current affairs. In all cases it was apparent that the composers had not become stifled by doggedly re-telling the news story in music – each had allowed their work to be structured by the requirements of the musical material they had created.
The concert not only marked the end of the course, but also the end of a long day. The composers had an early start and spent the first part of the morning adding finishing touches to their new scores. Learning from the previous day’s session, some took time to re-write tricky bars whilst others perfected phrasing, dynamics, colour and – the thing the young composers seemed to find hardest of all – the transitions between sections. They also had to make instrumental parts for the three performers in time for final rehearsals.
In all, each young composer created three new works during Go Compose! – two short pieces created under strict time limits imposed by Brian Irvine, and the final five-minute-long composition. This is an extraordinary amount of music for an inexperienced composer to write in such a short time and credit must be given to Brian for providing much of the energy and ‘can do’ attitude that energised the composers to achieve this. Likewise, the musicians from Red Note were approachable and positive at all times and offered the young composers some of the highest-quality feedback I’ve ever seen in a workshop situation.
The youngsters have quite obviously been empowered by this process: only on Monday queries and suggestions from the ensemble were met by the meekest of responses (“OK, whatever you think is best”). Now, only two days later, the young composers are far more bold and quick to point-out where balances need to be checked, tempos need adjusting and phrasing altered. This also indicates an assuredness about their compositional output – they knew what their piece should sound like and they now have the confidence to demand their work be realized as envisioned!
By Midday their work was complete. The evening’s performance concluded what was a creative and inspiring three days at Go Compose!.
It’s day two of Go Compose! here in Banchory. I am assisting composer Brian Irvine as he guides a group of school-age composers through the process of writing a new piece to be performed tomorrow by Red Note Ensemble on the opening night of Aberdeenshire’s Sound Festival. Our young composers have worked overnight on their scores in preparation for this performance. There’s still quite a long way to go but each composer has made considerable headway.
In all cases, pencil and paper has been abandoned for laptop and notation software. Gone, therefore, are the scribbles and crossings-out of yesterday, but gone too is much of the detail evident in their hand-written pieces. Phrasing has become something added to a musical line rather than being integral to it and there is a general lack of detail in the computer scores at present. Of course, some of this is due to not knowing the intricacies of the notation software, but the computer also promotes a certain fluidity in the compositional process; the composers ‘stand back’ from their pieces a little more and things are often left to be ‘fixed later’.
Of course, there are many pros to using the computer as a compositional tool. Aside from the almost effortless creation of instrumental parts, the ability to quickly rearrange their musical material has allowed the young composers to experiment with structure with comparable ease. The copy/paste function is great in this respect but can also be a hindrance, as one composer found out when copying sections of his riff-driven work: the resulting pile-up of material may have been musically satisfying but was also confusing to read and play due to the way the copied material fell across barlines of mixed-metre.
Jackie Shave (violin), Ruth Morley (flute) and Robert Irvine (cello), the three Red Note musicians in residence here at Go Compose!, read each iteration of each score with the same precision and commitment they show towards work by established composers. They all have considerable experience of performing new music and are an invaluable resource to the young composers. They are always on hand to answer questions: today’s most popular queries all concerned the confusing world of double-stops on string instruments.
The most common questions to Brian and myself all relate to structure: ‘I’m not sure how to extend this passage’ and ‘I’m not sure how to link these ideas’. The young composers have no problem inventing new material but integrating it into a larger, coherent, musical structure can prove to be a bit of a headache. They have each been asked to write a piece of five minutes duration, no easy feat for an inexperienced composer. However, they have been encouraged to experiment and, as a result, each young composer has taken a different approach to musical form; some have attempted to blend and contrast different sections of music whilst others have deliberately developed limited material.
The composers will need to have their scores completed by 11 o’clock tomorrow morning in order to allow time for final rehearsals. Despite a promise of an earlier-than-normal start tomorrow, one or two seem a little daunted by what they have to achieve by tomorrow morning. Their audience awaits…
I’m in Banchory, about eighteen miles west of Aberdeen, with three members of Red Note Ensemble and composer Brian Irvine. I’m assisting Brian as he works with four young composers at Go Compose!, an initiative based at Woodend Barn and developed by Sound Festival, Sound and Music and Red Note. This is the third annual Go Compose!, a course which aims to create an environment for school-aged composers to develop their craft.
The challenge set by Go Compose! to its participants is simple: to compose (and typeset) a completely new piece of music.. However, the pieces will have to written in only two days and will be publicly performed by the Red Note Ensemble on the opening night of Aberdeenshire’s Sound Festival.
Far from being a daunted by this situation, our group of young composers have approached the task with calm enthusiasm. They’re a talented bunch and, as evidenced by the music written on this first day, are able to produce interesting and original pieces at a surprisingly fast speed.
To begin the day, members of Red Note demonstrated not only the basics of their instruments but also some of the more crazy sounds the composers could use in their pieces. The highs, lows, squeaks, pops and clicks of the instruments having been fully explored (with Ruth Morley’s ‘draining bath plug’ flute sound causing the most hilarity), Brian set the first challenge: to compose a short piece for the ensemble in only fifteen minutes. Although each composer had access to a piano, computer and other composing tools, most were content to scribble away with pencil on paper with only their imagination for guidance.
The resulting pieces were diverse in style and demonstrated the emerging compositional voices of the young composers – some pieces were lyrical and harmonically driven, others full of mixed-metre exuberance. These short pieces were then extensively workshopped by the ensemble, not only to fix the few (inevitable) notational issues, but also to introduce the composers to the intricacies of instrumentation and the myriad ways a phrase can be performed: should this be legato? Would you like to try this up an octave? We could try a colder sound. With vibrato – how much vibrato? What type of vibrato and so on.
The composer’s second challenge was to write a piece of music somehow inspired by an article in today’s papers. With pages of newsprint strewn around the venue, the composers got to work and produced pieces inspired by the genuinely tragic and more off-beat stories they could find. After a second round of workshops, and considerable insight from the Red Note musicians, it was time to take the plunge as the young composers began writing their final works for performance in only two days time. Some are incorporating the shorter pieces composed earlier in the day, others are beginning all over again. However, they have Brian, myself and the three members of Red Note to consult at all times. They wrote solidly until we forced them to stop at five o’clock but all took their work home with them. I look forward to hearing their “homework” tomorrow morning.
I spent today with violinist Kay Stephen, recording a piece I wrote last year. That’s her on the monitor. Behind her is Tim Cooper, who was recording. He’s the guy who knows what all those buttons do…
The first piece of the year has been written! So it’s probably the right time for the first performance of the year. In 2013 that dubious honour goes to Glasgow’s Ensemble Thing who are playing my new piece next Wednesday (23rd January) at The Old Hairdresser’s in what’s shaping-up to be an awesome gig. I say “my new piece” because it hasn’t got a title yet (hot-off-the-press); suggestions on a postcard, please, or perhaps in the comments below.
Also in the concert is another chance to hear my clarinet work My Life in Ventriloquism and two pieces taken from John De Simone’s Panic Diary. Oh… and Fredric Rzewski’s epic Coming Together. All for only three of your British pounds.
We are ventriloquists. We are not ventriloquists.
PS: Is it too late to wish you all a Happy New Year? Probably not… Happy New year!
…and then two come along at once.
Friday 27th April sees the performance of my two most recent pieces as part of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland‘s annual week of new music; PLUG. The lunchtime concert at 1pm features, amongst other things, my Postlude to Nightfishing for solo violin and the evening concert at 7:30pm includes the brand-new My Life in Ventriloquism for solo clarinet.
The theme for this year’s PLUG is “Postludes”. Composers at the Conservatoire were asked to write short pieces that somehow reflected upon works performed in previous PLUG festivals, the only catch being these originals are not being performed again this year. In the case of my postlude, which is based on Oliver Searle‘s Nightfishing, original work and postlude are divorced by a couple of years (but you can hear to Ol’s piece here – recommended listening!). I was attracted to the uneasy stillness at the beginning of this piece; instead of borrowing its dots I borrowed its atmosphere and took it from there. Postlude to Nightfishing will be performed by Darragh Morgan.
I am a ventriloquist of sorts (gottle o’ geer), aren’t all composers? We are forever throwing our voices and speaking through others. My Life in Ventriloquism is a quick foray into an art form where the relationship between act and audience is fundamentally different to that of the concert hall. Ventriloquism as entertainment relies upon an acknowledged deceit and the suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience (it’s a puppet!) whilst the concert hall and related industry is mostly concerned with notions of authenticity and truth. These differences between art forms interest me greatly. More on ventriloquism in a future post but for now these ideas have spawned an 11-minute virtuosic clarinet piece which will be played on the 27th by Jenny Stephenson.
I’m not sure what other pieces are on the bill, although the lunchtime concert will feature a work by Richard Ayres and the evening performance includes new music for new films made at the RCS. More details on the performances page when I know them.
A little confession: I’m not entirely sure this piece works as an audio recording. If you do listen, bear in mind that the voice of the composer is disembodied – the “composer” isn’t in the room and his voice is delivered through loudspeakers. Without pictures, however, you won’t see the physical exertions of the ensemble as they react to this voice. It’s deliberately physical music.
As normal, Struction was conceived as a concert piece (and these days I’m always thinking about the relationship between music its context) and hearing this recording reinforces my belief that live musical performance and audio recordings are two completely different mediums, each with their idiosyncrasies. Why do we so often consider them the same when composing?
This week I’m fortunate enough to be a member of Benjamin Zander’s conducting class at the London Master Classes, held annually at the Royal Academy of Music in London. I’d like to share one of the things he said…
“We’ve tamed Beethoven, this wild animal shaking his fist at the world. We want to play his dangerous music in our cars when driving down the road. Our job is to bring Beethoven back to life”
Like new music? Like Edinburgh? Like intimate, red-painted concert halls? Then you’ll like this…
As I’m beginning several new pieces at the moment I thought I would share the few ground rules / points of departure I set myself as I begin each new work. Most of what I write these days is concerned with PhD-related research and the pieces are generally conceived outwith any commissioning system. This list is ever-changing and not particularly original, but here it is in its current form…
1) New music is necessary because we, as a society, change and develop our ideas from time to time. New ideas necessitate new art and the reappraisal of old art.
2) Music is not an architectonic, autonomous object which is appreciated in isolation from performance. It barters a moment-by-moment relationship between its creators and receivers.
3) There are no defaults. Some things that were once held sacred are only parameters awaiting adjustment.
4) If a piece of music has meaning (of any type), that meaning is located entirely within the listener.
5) We assimilate meaning not only from content but also from context, and there is no such thing as a neutral context.
6) I am not the caretaker of a tradition, I do not diligently continue the work of previous generations.
7) Intuition isn’t a dirty word.
One of the highlights of the RSAMD year is the annual Plug festival of new music of which the 2011 variety took place a couple of weeks ago. It’s usually a good week for the composition department, both musically and socially, as the Academy puts on around ten concerts of new work (almost) exclusively created by its students and staff. This year there were, apparently, 35 new works for various ensembles and a further 30 new German songs which formed part of the department’s “Glasgow Liederbuch” project. I say “apparently” because unfortunately I was unable to make most of the concerts due to a string of other commitments and rehearsals for my own piece, Struction (how attempted to get the thoughts in my head into your head using only five instruments, five instrumentalists, metronome sound and MIDI), which was performed by the Red Note Ensemble on the Friday evening of the festival.
I’ve blogged about the creation of Struction before. In its final version it became a 25-minute blast; five instrumental lines, often demanding and virtuosic, are set to an unrelenting, totally audible clicktrack with the composer’s voice booming over the top issuing ad hoc instructions to the performers and apparently composing / recomposing the piece as it goes along. There are occasions when a computer-realized performance of the piece plays in tandem with the real-life instrumentalists, all of whom are amplified. My thanks go to Tim Cooper for all his hard work in engineering the live sound for this performance and for graciously putting-up with me changing my mind every few minutes. I hope to get an audio recording on this site as soon as possible.
One of the necessities of the PhD process (of which this piece forms a part) is the complete documentation of research; consequently I have 31 work-in-progress versions of the score, a “complete” intermediate demo of the piece, three versions of the recorded voice part (including two hours of out-takes), several versions of the tape track, four written documents discussing the piece and a lot more besides. Although I always know that the piece I’ve just finished is a little different from the one I set-out to write this excess of documentation allows me to reflect on how, when and why the piece shifted, conceptually and musically, before settling down into its final form. For me the end product touched on several topics, including, to greater and lesser extent, the relationship between composer, performers and audience, the compositional process, the relationship between people and technology, and role-playing/performativity. However, it was this final element, that I performed the role of “The Composer” whilst also being the piece’s composer, which changed the most since the genesis of the work. (A quick aside; did the performers play the role of Performers during the performance?) Originally I had planned to characterize The Composer differently; he was to be my tyrannical alter ego, overbearing, over-demanding and cruel (hence the working title Struction (shut up and listen)). It all got a bit hammy so the Composer’s persona was scaled-down and became perhaps a little more autobiographical. Not only did this allow for more humour in the piece, which in turn added another dimension to The Composer’s characterization, but it made The Composer a more universal figure; the (often ludicrous) demands made by the composer’s pre-recorded voice were not the rantings of a madman but became characteristic of a system that sees the composer as auteur. These themes will be revisited in future work; Struction is definitely the first chapter, not a conclusion.
I was very pleased with the concert. Red Note pitched the performance just right, having found the flow and humour of the piece early on they threw themselves into the wilder passages and played the quieter moments with great poise. The performance was probably best summed-up by a composer colleague of mine who, when asked how he thought the ensemble did with the piece, responded “they played the arse off it”. I’m inclined to agree, and, for a performance of this piece, there’s probably no greater compliment.
Please forgive the vague salutation; I’d prefer to make this a more personal missive. Would you permit me to address you by your forename, perhaps? If you’d rather we stuck to a more formal code then that’s fine with me too, although I may need to enquire as to whether you are really a sir before calling you such. You see, the problem is I don’t know who you are. I don’t even know why you’d indulge me by reading this letter in the first place. However, seeing as you’ve nearly read to the end of the first paragraph, it’d be impolite of me to give-up now so I’ll continue on the proviso that the purpose of this correspondence will be made clear to you in due course. I promise you that.
I’m only writing now to share a concern of mine that (surprisingly to some) actually involves you. Recently, during a pre-concert interview on the opening night of Glasgow’s Minimal festival, the American composer Ingram Marshall mentioned how he was greatly concerned about the quality of sound that reaches his audience’s ears. His interviewer was rather surprised at this remark and declared it was unusual to find a composer occupied with such matters; “Most composers feel that thinking about the audience would compromise their work”, the interviewer said.
Reader, I found that comment by the interviewer very odd. The relationship between a composer and an audience is a complicated one, particularly on the rare occasion that the composer in question is still alive. However, who are these “most composers” that don’t consider the audience when they write? Is there still a clique of composers up an ivory tower somewhere, all Beatles-hair and narrow lapels?
A composer who considers the reception of a work, how it could be heard, isn’t necessarily populist. Nor is it a case of “giving the audience what it wants” (a difficult task, members of an audience are seldom unified by exactly the same desires) or even “writing down” to the listener (a patronising position). It’s simply about communication. I have chosen the topic of this letter, for example, and I’m going to make sure you, a complete stranger, understand it. I don’t want to waste your time. Hearing/reading your work through the ears/eyes of an audience is essential if you are to remain cogent. It’s the same for all communicators: orators, writers, composers etc. No matter the subject of a piece of music, be it completely abstract or “about something” (on the subject of memory, say), it must be explicit, interesting and understandable. Otherwise you leave people you don’t know personally, your audience, in the dark and you have wasted both their time and your own.
If a composer has something to say (and why should anyone pay attention if they don’t?), I believe it needs to be said as clearly as possible. I think I’ve achieved that in this note to you. I can only hope to also achieve it in my compositional work.
This is a cross-post with the Composing Oneself blog.
There has been much furore in the blogosphere recently concerning the views of Jonathan Harvey, one of the most well-respected of British composers. Specifically, during a broadcast interview with Bob Shingleton for Future Radio, Harvey suggested that classical concerts of the future could use electronic amplification in order to attract younger audiences. His comments were covered by the national media including The Guardian and The Telegraph.
Firstly, what he actually said: “….the mass of young people don’t like concert halls… They wouldn’t normally go to one except for amplified music. They have no concept of what it is to hear music as soft as a pin dropping and that kind of delicacy and refinement. So there’s a big divide between amplified music and non-amplified music and the two cultures. I think what the future must bring is things which are considered blasphemous like amplifying classical music in an atmosphere were people can come and go, where they can even talk, perhaps, and it wouldn’t be sacrilege and they can certainly leave in the middle of a movement if they feel like it. These are the sort of situations where young people’s music takes place”.
He goes on to note that many people are being deprived of classical music due to the off-putting nature of concert hall etiquette. Notice at no point did he advocate the electronic amplification of all classical concerts, although try telling that to a few hysterical bloggers (including Fiona Maddocks in The Observer).
There are a few issues here that have been bundled together: namely, the use of amplification in the concert hall and the supposed relationship between concert hall protocol and the absence of young people in the audience.
Those who have been horrified by the suggestion of amplification in classical gigs (and there have been many) are presumably concerned with the amplification of music that wasn’t originally intended to be made louder. There is plenty of (new-ish) music that intentionally mixes live, unamplified sound with amplified recordings (including many works by Jonathan Harvey himself). But is there nothing to be said for the artistic use of amplification in old-music concerts?
Much of the frothy indignation appearing on the web this week over the issue has been a result of considering “amplification” as synonymous with rock-’n'-roll volume levels. Whilst cranked-up decibel levels would indeed affront our well-developed listening culture, can the same be said for the subtle use of amplification for musical reasons? For me, arguments that assert that any use of amplification would automatically distort the intentions of performers (and indeed composers) is a false one; works originally intended for small, intimate venues are now routinely played in cavernous auditoriums. For example, I have attended numerous concerts in churches with unbearably-long reverberation times. Were the resulting muddy textures and lack of clarity any more of a distortion of the composer’s/performer’s goals than a bit of electronic enhancement? Why do we allow (albeit grudgingly) the distortions that unsympathetic architecture inflicts upon music but not the enhancements that a sensitive electronic amplification could bring? Just think of all the wonderful, subtle shades of piano that could be expressed by means of amplification, for example, which are usually lost when a soloist is required to project into a large concert space above the sound of a symphony orchestra. Electronic amplification can theoretically be used as an expressive tool to add nuance to a musical performance, not just to make it louder (and let’s not forget that the Royal Festival Hall used electro-acoustic “assisted resonance” from 1964 to 1999).
Many performers may feel aggrieved by the suggestion of amplification, its “interference” with their performance, the lack of total control of sound that performers desire, not to mention the difficulties in monitoring one’s performance in a miked-up situation. Performers are trained to project their sound by working with (and sometimes against) the acoustics of the performance space, this ability being a necessary and prized asset. Sound production is a personal thing for musicians and working with a sound engineer would naturally enforce a degree of collaboration.
However, if used, amplification creates another layer of artistic opportunities; the decisions that have to be made are similar to those of the recording process (for example the type of microphones used, their placement, how the sound is mixed, which frequencies are attenuated etc). The common suggestion that there aren’t many people who could be trusted to amplify classical music (ostensibly because live sound engineers usually “only” work in the pop domain) is nonsense. Not only would the regular amplification of concerts create better training opportunities for classical sound engineers but many commentators seem to underestimate the complexity of recording, producing and mastering a pop track to professional standards (you can’t just plug in and turn up to eleven if you want the finished product to sound good). If amplification is used, a fine rapport with a good sound engineer would be essential; it’s no wonder that the Kronos Quartet (who only ever performed amplified) consider their sound engineer, Scott Fraser, to be an intrinsic member of the ensemble (read about his work here ).
So the (incorrect) assertion that amplification is a blunt, unsympathetic tool cannot be reason enough to dismiss it out of hand. Nor can the difficulties of achieving a good sound-balance (amplifying a whole orchestra is a difficult and expensive exercise, although certainly not impossible). The main reason not to amplify is that amplification for the sake of amplification is not necessary; Jonathan Harvey’s comments, although well-meaning, teeter on the edge of the cliché that the yoof are unable to appreciate subtlety, can’t sit still and can only exhibit one mode of behaviour when attending musical performances. The desire of the audience to talk and move around (thus the need for blanket amplification) is overstated; people don’t talk at the cinema and nor do they feel the need to go for a wander. However, Harvey’s underlying suggestion, that music should be presented in a manner familiar and comfortable to its targeted audience, seems rather like stating the obvious to me. Classical music doesn’t belong to one age group, social class or income-bracket, it belongs to anyone who cares to listen. However, that mode of listening (in a live scenario) is dictated by a social convention which is upheld by one particular social class and age group. It doesn’t suit everyone, so why not supplement it with other modes of listening?
Of course, some have; the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment present late-evening classics at the Roundhouse as part of their “Nightshift” series; Icebreaker, like Kronos, only ever perform amplified; in Scotland the Red Note ensemble have taken over where Paragon left off by regularly performing new music in bars. There are probably many more examples although these remain the exceptions rather than the norm. Maybe Harvey hints at a future where, having lost the aged audience and associated ticket sales, what is now considered outreach work will become an everyday occurrence for established musical ensembles.
Meanwhile there are several schemes that encourage young people to go to standard classical events including Manchester’s Sonic Card and Glasgow’s Fonic Card (disclaimer: I was slightly involved with the Glasgow version). These two schemes are independent of each other (the similarity of name is entirely coincidental….) and both work by offering cheap tickets coupled with a core of young volunteers who publicise the gigs and engage with the young audience. This lends both schemes an air of “for us, by us” authenticity despite being backed by major arts organisations; to get more young people into the concert hall you need to engage and invite them.
Tellingly, the flurry of indignation aimed towards Harvey refers only to a short extract of an excellent interview. In the unedited version (listen to it here) the composer speaks gently but passionately about a variety of subjects (including Benjamin Britten, Hans Keller, Milton Babbitt, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Rudolf Steiner, Buddhism, serialism and spectralism) for over forty minutes. His comments regarding the future of the concert hall occupy less than ninety seconds. Whilst there is plenty of room for debate over the way classical music is presented it seems a pity on this occasion that it replaces discussion of the other things Jonathan Harvey speaks of, not to mention his music. If we’re all getting hot under the collar over concert protocol rather than the music itself, what message does that send to those who haven’t yet experienced live classical music?