Category Archives: Arts and the Consumer

Cultural consumption: fight for our rights and oust laziness

Diversity is key: arts in the modern world

For the arts in the twenty-first century, for both practitioners as well as the venues that house them, the watchword is becoming diversity, as two recent articles demonstrate.

A recent feature in the San Franciso Classical Voice (via the ArtsJournal) highlights this from the point of view of a performer, cellist Zoe Keating, illustrating how diversifying has allowed her to sustain a career as a musician.

As she has found, using the Internet to your advantage is crucial, side-stepping more traditional means of engaging with a wider audience and finding new, media-rich ways of reaching them: social media, Facebook and Twitter, YouTube, and blogging. Classical musicians are also bloggers: Stephen Hough blogs for The Daily Telegraph, for instance, whilst the conductor Mark Wigglesworth blogs for Gramophone magazine. Keeping in touch with your audience and making them feel involved is important, whether you are an individual performer, an ensemble or a venue: it’s all about building a fan-base, and then sustaining it.

Artists are learning to manage the different avenues within their own careers: publicity, marketing, teaching, performing, workshops, educational projects, and making their own recordings. Using the internet is a cost-effective means of promoting yourself and doing your own promotion. Widening the musical genres across which you operate is becoming increasingly important, making you more employable (as well as harder to classify): simply pigeon-holing yourself as a classical or jazz musician is no longer helpful. Internationally-renowned pianist Joanna Macgregor performs across a wide range of genres, everything from Baroque to jazz and more, as well as being artistic director of the Bath International Festival.

Similarly, but from the perspective of an arts venue, an article in the New York Times discusses the importance of diversity to performance venues, in this case to the New Jersey Performing Arts Centre in Newark.

As its President and Chief Exective indicates, “The basic economic model of presentations, tickets sales and fund-raising is beginning to break down.” Venues need to attempt to become the social and artistic heart of their communities, to weave themselves inextricably into those communities in which they are situated to make themselves economically viable as well as indispensable.

“The arts center has to be the town square of New Jersey. Corporate events, weddings, bar mitzvahs, poetry festivals, other nonprofits doing their fund-raisers here, graduations, job fairs. It has to be more than what’s on your stages.”

Being pro-active across a range of disciplines, as well as being able to see creative possibilities in more areas than just simply performing, can sustain a musical career in the twenty-first century, and keep an arts venue operating. Especially in the light of recent cuts to the arts and funding issues…

Understanding the hype: two attitudes to marketing

Proper Discord presents a breakdown of key marketing terms, and what they really mean. (Health warning: this article will have you in stitches.)

Whilst Greg Sandow looks at press releases, and how to write them.

Talking loud and saying...

What have we learned ?

Present ideas in ways that avoid cliché, keep press releases short and link to media examples where appropriate to give reviewers exanples of what you are trying to flog keen to promote, and don’t use buzz-speak – its meaning is usually diametrically opposed to what you are actually saying.

Cuts to the quick: HE funding cuts announced

As reported in The Telegraph last week, a report by Labour into the cuts announced by George Osborne shows that funding cuts are set to hit major universities and Higher Edcuation institutions, in particular those offering only courses in the arts.

In a list that makes grim reading, universities such as Leeds, Manchester and Nottingham Trent are set to suffer massive cuts in public funding, whilst the Royal College of Music, the Royal College of Music and the Royal Northern College of Music,  Leeds College of Music and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama will receive no public funding at all. Even the hallow’d institutions of Oxford and Cambridge will be hit.

Taking into account the proposed scrapping of caps on tuition fees, what this means overall for the nurturing of the country’s artistic future is uncomfortable to consider…

To a degree…studying Lady GaGa ?

As reported on The Guardian’s music blog yesterday, it’s now possible to take a degree in… Lady Gaga.

The University of South Carolina is offering a degree entitled ‘Lady Gaga and the Sociology of Fame,’ upon which presumably students can study aspects of the popstar’s persona, her publicity-driven lifestyle, and her impact on popular culture of the twenty-first century.

After all, Lady Gaga was recently voted the ‘most influential artist of 2010’ in Time magazine.

Are there any other artists who might merit their own degree ? Joni Mitchell ? Bob Dylan ? Miles Davis ? Did I mention Joni Mitchell ?

Comments please!

Attracting younger audiences to concerts

As reported in the Evening Standard today, research at concerts by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, the London Symphony Orchestra and the London Chamber Orchestra shows that younger audiences are put off attending traditional concerts.

A survey of people aged between 24 – 36 showed that they feel alienated by concerts. With cuts to the Arts Council of 30% announced today, it’s getting more and more difficult for orchestras, ensembles and arts organisations in general to survive. Classical music needs to find ways to re-invent itself in order to continue, and the format of presenting music in traditional concert settings also needs adapting, if younger audiences in particular – the Ticket-Buyers of Tomorrow – are to be drawn in through venue doors.

The OAE has created the ‘Night Shift,’ concerts where audiences are encouraged to clap when they feel moved to do so, rather than waiting until the end of a piece, and ticket-prices are student-friendly and include the cost of a beer.

I’ve written before about expected audience behaviour at concerts, both in terms of applause and in terms of amplification and accessibility for younger audiences more used to rock gigs. Whilst there will always be a place for traditional symphonic concerts, there’s space as well for a more flexible and creative approach to concert programming and attracting new audiences to concerts.

And beer as well: now that’s an idea…

Cutting it: definitive recordings ?

A post on music blog Classical Iconoclast entitled ‘Mahler for Morons’ posed the question a while back – is there such a thing as a definitive recording of a Mahler symphony ? This set me thinking: can there ever be a definite recording of any classical piece ?

LP
Vinyl demand

Scholarship and performance practice are ever-changing, and what seemed appropriate sixty or seventy years ago may no longer be seen as such.

Composers who conduct their own works, like Stravinsky or Britten, might be thought to create an authoritative recording by virtue of the fact that they are realising their own compositions. Stravinsky made several recordings, but each is different from the other: even composers, it seems, change their minds about their own pieces.

The portamento-riddled orchestral recordings at the start of the twentieth century now seem dreadful; tastes in the expressive nature of orchestral playing have changed.  Even the instruments of the orchestra evolve; the change from gut- to steel-strung instruments offering broader possibilities. Tempi have become faster; the funereal Furtwangler has been replaced by the white-knuckle ride of Gardiner or Norrington.

Voices change too, singing styles fall in and out of favour – the thick, fruity tones of Joan Sutherland, the ethereal purity of Emma Kirkby or the light-footed coloratura of Cecilia Bartoli all moving in and out of favour.

The drive for authenticity or an historically-informed approach sees the forces used in Renaissance and Baroque music especially being condensed; one-to-a-part choruses in the Bach Passion settings or Tallis masses, single-player performances of Baroque concerti. The drive for historically-informed performance has reached its tendrils even into early twentieth-century works by Elgar – it’s a monster that looms ever closer on the tail of contemporary music.

It seems unlikely, then, that there can ever be a definitve edition or an authoritative recording of a classical work; as scholarship moves forward, as performance practice changes and attitudes towards playing styles evolve, realisations of pieces also change.

Perhaps, though, that’s a good thing.

Turn it up: Jonathan Harvey on concert audiences and amplification

In a recent article, composer Jonathan Harvey proposes abandoning the idea of conventional audience behaviour at concert halls, in a bid to attract younger audiences.

Jonathan HarveyI’ve written previously about expected audience behaviour, as it’s important to make music accessible to everyone without burying it beneath all manner of stultifying conventions that will almost certainly put people off, especially younger audiences who are potentially the Ticket-buyers of Tomorrow. The almost religious state of obeisance required to sit still and attentively through classical repertoire is alien to those who attend jazz gigs and rock concerts. Clap in the wrong place during a symphony, and you’re greeted with icy stares or patronising glances: clap after a particularly fine instrumental improvisation at a jazz gig, the musicians will nod their thanks.                      

Harvey advocates amplifying music in performance, standard practice in rock and jazz gigs but greeted with a sharp intake of breath at classical concerts.

“There is a big divide between amplified and non-amplified music. The future must bring things that are considered blasphemous, like amplifying classical music in an atmosphere where people can come and go … and certainly leave in the middle of a movement if they feel like it.”

Leave in the middle if they feel like it ? Blasphemous indeed, perhaps – to some. But precisely this premise was part of Einstein on the Beach by Philip Glass and Robert Wilson – written in 1976, the opera lasts for around five hours, and consists of nine scenes linked by short interludes known as ‘Knee Plays;’ there is no plot, and the audience members are free to enter and leave when they wish.

Harvey has composed in the electro-acoustic field as well as traditional choral and instrumental works: Le Tombeau de Messiaen is composed for piano and tape;  Mortuos Plango, Vivos Vocos whizzes the tenor bell of Winchester Cathedral and voice of a boy soprano (Harvey’s son) around in space, whilst Speakings portrays the birth, development and establishment of language and is written for orchestra and live electronics.  His choral compositions range from the dancing Virgo Virginum to the beguiling mesmerism of The Angels. 

There is of course a divide between audiences for classical concert repertoire and jazz and rock lovers: but as composers such as Mark-Anthony Turnage and Tansy Davies are proving, it’s not an insurmountable one. (Frank Zappa’s The Yellow Shark, anyone ?) And if you go to a concert given by groups like Icebreaker or to hear music by Steve Reich, amplification is almost de rigeur.

Harvey makes the prediction that “if orchestras and conductors hang on to the orthodox method of performance they will end up playing to empty halls.” Whilst one hopes fervently that this will not be the case, there is surely some room to accommodate new ways of listening to music, in a way that will attract younger audiences: isn’t there ?

Music, artistry and the problem of popularity.

Mahler’s portentous statement about being appreciated not in his own lifetime but after his death has been negated by the Digital Age. Thanks to the affordability of home computing, music software and YouTube, bedroom music studios have become ubiquitous, amateur performances are posted on-line, and you can have your fifteen minutes of fame spread in short bursts across the globe.

But popularity’s problem exists not only in the medium, which makes performers of many but professionals of few, but in the message. Alexander Goehr identifies the beginning of the avant-garde movement as being the moment when music turned its back on the audience and lost its appeal, when it became concerned less with communication with its audience than expressing the ideas of the composer, irrespective of whether the audience related to those ideas or not. Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system: Stockhausen’s electronica; the New Complexity movement of the 1970s; or jazz’s escape from tonal and harmonic structures into the realms of spontaneous improvisation in free jazz in the 60s with Ornette Coleman: such times often coincide with episodes of great creativity but little commercial success – audiences can’t understand what is going on, and feel left behind.

Pop music, however, is all about instant gratification: as its name implies, it is written to appeal to people immediately, and survives (or expires) for as long as that particular musical fad holds sway – and sells records.

Jonathan Harvey considers the relationship between artist and audience in the third chapter of Music and Inspiration, where he comments on composers such as Hindemith and Copland actually altering the path of their musical development, in order to directly engage the listener once more after they felt they had alienated them.

Is it important to consider the appeal of your music as you write it ? Should the listener be taken into account ? If you are using a tonal or harmonic palette which might be difficult for the audience to follow, or are using effects and technical devices that are challenging to the ear, is that a factor that should govern the way a composition is realised ? Or, more succinctly, can a composer take the listener into account when writing without compromising their artistry, what it is they are saying and how they are saying it ?

Of course, it is not all about making the listener’s life easy: otherwise, Schoenberg would not have created the twelve-tone system, and Ferneyhough would never have written a note; and new music is all about a new listener experience. Then again, composing ought not to be about deliberately challenging the listener in such a way as to alienate them: ought it ?

Composing in the Darmstadt School in the 1960’s was aggressively confrontational, seeking willfully to alienate the listener in order, it seems, to validate its own modernity by repudiating consonant sonorities associated with tradition. As Hans Werner Henze writes, ‘Any encounter with the audience that was not catastrophic and scandalous would defile the artist.’

But time is a great agent of acclimatisation. What caused an uproar when first written, or met with audience bewilderment and critical hostility – the Rite of Spring, for instance – often settles down into becoming a part of the great canon of concert repertoire. The message a piece is trying to convey, innovations it is trying to wreak, or a musical language that at first seems incomprehensible, often crystallises over time, usually with greater listener experience.

I speak from personal experience here. When I was about 11, in a spirit of musical enquiry, I lowered onto the record-player an LP from my father’s collection, an album with a slightly far-out artistic cover depicting a sax player called, the liner notes revealed, Charlie Parker.

I’d been playing the piano from a tender age, the usual fodder of examination repertoire distilled from the Classical tradition, but this was utterly alien to me: I had no idea what was going on, and put it to the back of the stack of records. About three years later, I’d been playing some jazz pieces with a clarinettist – Benny Goodman, Count Basie – and I came across the same LP. This time, when I listened to it, I could see where the music was going, harmonically-speaking: I could hear the underlying harmonies and had a sense of the musical landscape the notes Parker’s improvisation occupied. The music hadn’t changed in the intervening years: I had, my listening experience had widened and my understanding had developed. (Although I’m not sure I will ever comprehend Free Jazz).

Perhaps composers should follow their musical Muse wherever it leads them, trusting in posterity to allow audiences to comprehend their work if the contemporary critical response is not positive. Artistic integrity versus commercial appeal: where do you stand ?