27 July 2017, Berlin- Unravelling the Complexity

In this article and all others to follow, I will refer to our art-form as ‘classical music’. It’s not a great moniker, but just like ‘Raga Dolls’, it’s the one we’re stuck with.

At what stage and why, did we start evaluating music based not only on what it is, but on when and by whom it was written? Surely a creative work is no more or less than the substance of itself, regardless of the ‘circumstances of its birth’. Furthermore, its absolute value as a work of art must surely sit apart from anybody’s preconceptions, except perhaps those of its creator. To put all this another way, what for example might be the reception for a great work like ‘The Enigma Variations’, had it been composed by an ‘unknown’ in 2017 rather than by a relative unknown in 1899?
The world of classical music is heavily populated by ‘true believers’, approach them with caution. Music, including much that on a superficial level might appear simple, is complex. The cultural and political issues surrounding music, even more so. Nobody has yet discovered the ‘key’ to music, no one has come up with even the most rudimentarily verifiable explanation as to how music affects us, and perhaps nobody ever will. That is a good thing.
With that in mind, the best any of us can do is concede that our personal certainties as to how we evaluate various musical works and forms, are unlikely to ever be externally verified. Making this concession allows us to question, and through questioning we can solve problems. For example, exploring scenarios like the one above may help us to understand both where we are now and how best to plot a course for the future. If, that is, we think we have any say in the matter.
If however, we allow ourselves to be dictated to by those personal certainties, or by the certainties shared via the cultural allegiances we form, then not only are we going to be unable to respond to the challenges of a complex and fast changing world, we will very likely be unable to recognise the existence of those challenges in the first place.
Beyond any shadow of doubt, the greatest crisis facing classical music today is the lack of mainstream audience engagement with music created in our times. The tragedy of this crisis on the creative side is that it has robbed the art-form of much of it’s relevance to contemporary life. I believe an art-form’s greatness must be measured in terms of it’s ability to do good in the world. By that measure, new classical music is no longer very great at all. In times of turmoil, of great political upheaval such as we are living through now, this becomes a much bigger problem, and not only for music.
Nowadays, classical music does not play a significant role in the lives of the vast majority of people on this planet, but I’m fairly sure that the fact of it’s absence, does. This problem however is not in itself a complex one and very likely has (what at least on the face of it might appear), a simple solution. If only it were so easy.
It just seems so obvious: People crave great melody. Regardless of what you may have been told, it was a shared natural gift for melodic invention that made the great composers great. And the ability to write great melody, cannot be taught. It is elusive and intangible, a certain uncertainty and for those who have tried to control the course of music’s progress through education, this is a massive inconvenience. I need to point out that there is a clear, undeniable correlation between classical music’s decline on the one hand, and the rise of academicism and academic dominance on the other. This phenomenon is quite unique to classical music, no other art-form has suffered from this to anywhere near the same extent. .
What we are facing today, is exactly what Richard Wagner was warning us of in ‘Die Meistersinger’ and he was very much speaking from experience. Experts have their place but it is ultimately the people who should decide. Music is not a science. Academics certainly play a role in other creative pursuits, but they do not control them. I have used this quote before, but as Constant Lambert put it so well in his book ‘Music Ho! A Study of Music in Decline’, (Music is) “an art which, though the most instinctive and physical of all the arts, tends more and more to be treated as the intellectual preserve of the specialist.” I wonder what he would have made of the fact that the decline he was referring to, has continued for the best part of a century.
What merit can there be in comparisons between the different art-forms? In my view such comparisons are worthwhile in one area alone: The question of how ideas are promulgated within the art-form itself. Most commonly we find music being compared to the visual arts. This is probably because over the past century we have followed a similar, modernist path.
The big difference however between these two art-forms becomes apparent when we examine developments post WWII. Since then, change in the visual arts has been mainly driven upwards from the grass-roots level, whereas in music change has come almost entirely from edicts handed down from the top. To my way of thinking this is a recipe for disaster, and exists in clear defiance of everything we know about the great movements in art history, most particularly classical music’s own golden era in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Progress in music comes only from truly gifted artists being allowed the freedom to follow their own unique creative voice whatever that may be, and those same artists having a clear run at establishing a dialogue directly with audiences. When the nature of progress is artificially pre-determined, those voices too often are silenced. And we end up somewhere not unlike where we are today. Let’s move on now from comparisons with the visual arts and consider for a moment how contemporary classical music stacks up against another great cultural tradition.
In the early part of the 20th century, two art-forms: western classical music and literature (meaning in this instance new, original works of fiction), were facing major challenges. For classical music: the rise and popularisation of a new, grass-roots generated musical form, namely jazz. For literature: the emergence of a potentially far more accessible method of story telling, namely film.
As the century progressed, both art-forms were continually presented with new fences to hurdle- some unique, some shared. Both for example faced potential devastation from the emergence of new technology. But only one of the two finds itself today in a position whereby emergent new work can enrich the culture of our society in any kind of significant and meaningful way. Indeed not only has literature seen off the challenge of the moving picture, but to this day it continues to provide inspiration for what might have been a rival, in terms of the screen adaptations of books. What is it that they are doing right?
In literature, there has never been a ‘necessity of the new’. Never a clear dividing line as to what constitutes high and low art. The language of literature in all it’s diversity has stayed for the most part, the language of the people. Crucially, new works can be anything their authors want them to be. They can move unselfconsciously back and forward through time, from for example historical romances to science fiction. Of course in literature there is also an avant-garde, as anyone who has flipped the pages of James Joyce’s novel (published 1939) ‘Finnegans Wake’ can attest to, but only a very few have ever felt the compulsion to attempt to emulate it. Or for that matter actually read the thing.
Can you imagine literature’s learned authorities coming together to declare that from this point on, that particular book must be the template for all future writers of fiction? We know something just like that happened to classical music in the early 1950s, and despite the spin that we are regularly fed about a more recent (albeit strictly regulated) diversity, we are still living with the consequences. Once people stop listening, it is very difficult to get them to start again. Especially when they feel as so many do, that they have been culturally estranged from the art-form, that music does not care what they think:
“Well, it’s not always about what the audience wants. It’s about what the audience doesn’t yet know they want.” (Opera director Yuval Sharon, quoted in the New York Times July 20, 2017).
Around 57 years earlier, words very much to that effect were uttered by the staunchly modernist then BBC Controller of Music, William Glock. When asked at the Pilkington committee on the future of radio and television: “What did the Controller, Music want to offer listeners?” his reply was simply “What they will like tomorrow”. It’s condescending nonsense, and it is as untrue now as it was then.
To understand how this situation came about, we need to acknowledge a somewhat mundane but unavoidable feature unique to classical music: the costs involved. For a painter to deliver a completed work to a gallery, all that is required are the media, for example canvas and paint. For an author to present a work ready to be read, they need little more than a common or garden PC. It is therefore very difficult for any one group within these art-forms to assert creative control. With music things are different. Unless they are planning on performing their work by themselves, a composer requires rather a lot more. In particular if that work requires something as eye-wateringly expensive as an orchestra.
Even in our halcyon days these costs could never be covered by the box office alone. It has therefore been seen in most western countries (with the significant exception of the US) as necessary and worthwhile for taxpayers to make up the shortfall through their governments, which these days in practical terms means covering the bulk of the funding. In America the shortfall is usually made up through philanthropic donations, it matters not so much where the money comes from, rather more important is how the decisions are made as to it’s allocation. So it is incontrovertible that whosoever controls the money, controls the art-form.
Governments, having perhaps quite reasonably been reluctant to allocate the funding themselves, have instead handed control of the decision-making process to a combination of common interest groups. For the most part these comprise: Academic institutions and their graduates; and established composers and musicians who are almost certainly also members of the first two groupings. Overseeing all of this is an intensely almost quasi-religious hierarchical structure, at the top of which sit our ‘bishops and cardinals’: the conductors.
The whole system is structured heavily top down and we must recognise that there is only one way to climb such a ladder, and that is certainly not by agitating for change at a fundamental level, or by loudly questioning the accepted truths. The final piece in the puzzle making this all so intractable is the inter-generational nature of the problem.
So, is there a way out of this mess? Absolutely there is. The first light at the end of the tunnel, is that (and I’m speaking from personal experience here) some of these decision makers as individuals are unhappy with how things stand, and are starting to see the need for change. They are no longer willing to accept that we must forever “stick to the chosen way”. Their job, it must be acknowledged is not an easy one. They are not part of a system that easily allows them to question and most importantly, to listen.
Today, In a vast array of forums online, there is shall we say, a quite robust discussion going on regarding classical music’s future direction. Composers, instrumentalists, current audience members (both disgruntled and satisfied), people with a philosophical interest, those arguing for change and those for the status quo. Those distraught at the lack of opportunity to hear performances of the work of Karlheinz Stockhausen, and those signing a petition to have such performances stopped.
Missing from these discussions however, are arguably the two groups that matter most: Firstly, the potential new audiences, the people from all walks of life not currently coming to the opera house or concert hall, those who we need to engage with in order to give this art-form meaning. This sector is not going to join the conversation any time soon, we have to find ways of reaching out to them first.
The other group absenting themselves from the discussion is of course, the actual decision makers. This is where change for the better could happen. You would have to hope that they will come to the table at some stage.They must learn to listen and be accountable to someone other than their immediate peers for the decisions they make. When they do happen to join the conversation, here are some suggestions I hope they will take on board:
1. Listen to your current audience, those who are disgruntled but have stayed the course. These are the people that truly love music, please show them some respect. Ask for their opinions, respond to them, and most importantly factor their aspirations into your decision making.
2. The avant-garde are important and should of course continue to be supported, but it has to be recognised that their work has and always will by it’s very nature, have an extremely marginal appeal. So the policy that their music is the only new work anyone ever gets to hear, a policy in which other ideas are being censored at the avant-garde’s behest, this policy must end now.
3. Prioritise efforts to reach new audiences, in particular people from remote areas and the socially disadvantaged. The best way to do this with immediate effect is to direct resources towards the creation of new work for children. Music composed in a way that does not talk down to them, that has a musical language that they can understand and relate to. So often I hear from opera companies: “we do present work for children, but only on a very limited scale with limited resources”. In today’s day and age, that is simply the wrong answer!
4. Please don’t, as is common practice these days, program 5 to 6 years in advance. A lot can change culturally in that time, and music needs to change and adapt with it.
5. Try new things, take risks, re-evaluate the past and learn from this: Much of the conventional wisdom, many of the accepted historical truths concerning music are in reality highly questionable. Last but not least, honour diversity and embrace change.
The intention of this article has been to create a positive, hopeful view of the need for change. If what I have spoken of here somehow comes to fruition, I genuinely have great hopes for the future. But on the other hand we should be treating all of this as a matter of extreme urgency. There are some awfully dark clouds on the horizon, and I will be dealing with these in my next blog.

43 Comments on “27 July 2017, Berlin- Unravelling the Complexity

  1. You have written a very interesting article, and some of it resonates with me, certainly. But we should be wary of calculations where we have difficult music on the one hand and audience decline on the other. This is not to say that I don’t agree with some of your key points. I think your action points at the bottom are very agreeable. But audience decline has to do with many contributing factors. In the case of recorded music (for example), the decline is much wider than just classical music. With recorded music as a metric, some writers to suggest there has recently been a decline in music listening – overall, as a singular activity – broadly displaced by other varieties of digital entertainment. Some varieties of music which peaked pre 2000 have never moved uphill since (in recording or performance); rock being the main one which comes to mind, which has seen a relatively sharp slump over the last fifteen years or so. This isn’t to say what I call snobbery (or what you might call “top down” trajectory setting) has not been a factor in the gradual constriction of an audience for classical music. Of course I’m saddened by that because it’s an audience which is potentially broad. . . people don’t know what they’re missing (as you point out). As you say, complexity is a baffling criterion for assessing music’s worth, when complexity in music is a multifaceted thing, may be hidden in plain sight, not synonymous with “difficult” music, and not noticeably present in some excellent music. There’s plenty of great classical music which is overtly very simple, and plenty of great non-classical (indeed plenty of rock, pop and electronic) music which is as complex as any classical music, albeit in ways not as easily discernible by examiners from Western tradition. “Difficult” might be a better word for music which is abrasive or dirty or hard to parse (and so on), and difficult music probably serves a very important place in our tradition (even when we haven’t just emerged from a war). But yeah, it has been conflated with “complex” too often. We need not equivocate over that point because composers like Milton Babbitt wrote essays like Who Cares if You Listen, in which he suggested that complexity and audience lack of comprehension and consequent drop off are all one in the same thing. What I wrote above implicates the mistake in this thinking, but I can expand on that with some evidence: I can think of hip hop which is terribly difficult (abrasive, jarring, rude, hard), somewhat complex, but evidently engaging (think Die Antwoord with their hundreds of millions of views on Youtube). Some minimalist music is difficult, at least superficially very simple, and not broadly engaging (I’m talking La Monte Young, “Composition 1960 #7”). And I know some electronic music which is not too difficult, horrendously complex, and broadly engaging. And so on. Where I agree most is when you hinge the problem on classical music having been culturally out of step. This is simply too tricky to go into in this post. But I am optimistic on this front – I believe we’re just very slightly passed on from the problem you outline. If the academic world used to have a stake in controlling the definition of “serious” music, it appears to me that has mostly petered out. It was never sustainable so its demise is either well and truly happening or has already. Sure, this leaves some of us in a sort of vacuum, and thus clinging to the supposed “right” way of doing things (rather than following our noses). The vestiges of this now old-fashioned music making are very quickly evaporating, or better yet, swirling around and blending with a more promising, more culturally connected trajectory. Note that this is not the same as claiming we are ridding ourselves of all difficult music; I’ve already outlined that distinction and you appear to agree. Teachers are more than ever obliged to respect their students’ ideas about the direction they might take. It’s not that students lack interest in this now; it’s more that they have absolutely no use of it. Contemporary teachers cannot alleviate the confusion students face thanks to digital media providing a sort of general, opaque multi-dimensionalism. Sure, *that* may stifle students, but I’d be surprised if the majority of them feel stifled by their academic guides right now. For many of them, the solution is not even slightly mysterious: being involved and connected, respecting an audience; though all they don’t guarantee any kind of success neither will they immediately shoot us in the feet.
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