‘The Question of Qualitative Compromise’ (New venues, new conventions II)

An extremely positive review of both the Rite of Spring Project and London’s first Yellow Lounge, surfaced on theartsdesk website a couple of weeks ago. It was written by Igor Toronyi-Lalic, whose previous article on Yellow Lounge I recently critiqued, with some ambivalence, in particular relation to his closing comments praising classical music’s ‘alluring…exclusivity’. The first article, not wishing to take a strong opinion on the new format before its success could be assessed, was quite cautious. The second article is full of revolutionary zeal, quite rightly, in which he makes such declarations as:

‘ Forget almost everything you thought you knew about classical music. Forget the regulations and the rigmarole, the politeness and the prissiness. Forget the preening institutions. Forget the vocal doom-sayers. Classical music is in the throes of an extremely welcome revolution. The entrepreneurial spirit that seized and transformed British art in the 1980s is finally animating and unshackling this most stubborn of art forms.’

and

‘ Philharmonic life now needs to be reimagined top to bottom. Let’s hope Peckham’s Rite was not just a sign of rejuvenation but also a proper death knell for the old ways.’

The article is interesting because you can watch the reviewer’s scepticism fall away with every passing observation. He pre-empts all the problems, returning to the ‘screaming blue murder’ which he predicted from ‘large parts of the devoted classical audience’ as every convention is systematically redrawn. In effect, he still voices what he believes to be the reasonable doubts of the classical community – often expecting the very worst from people who would apparently still believe their opinion deserves to be heard – but then he puts these doubts to rest with his own observations:

‘Some complained about the queue for entry, the searches, the time it took to get a drink. For me these were benign signs of classical music’s normalisation. Finally, a night of classical music would be as full of irritations as a normal gig. Some will have been driven mad by the lack of silence and the overhead rattle of trains. For me, these Cagean interventions from the real world were movingly appropriate, though I can’t fully explain why.’

In my opinion, he needn’t be so timid with his own convictions. The idea that there is some consensus of  ‘proper’ classical fans who have to give their collective approval to the success of such potential ventures is, of course, one of the biggest issues within the culture. There are a lot of people whose love for classical music is linked to a cult of insider knowledge involving the ‘right’ way of doing things, the ‘great’ symphonies, the ‘great’ conductors’, the ‘best’ recordings, etc. These people already have an international culture which validates their ideas, and these events are not for them. Moreover, they really don’t need to be asked, because any suggestion that they are entitled to a say in the matter is wrong anyway.

Old myths, new sceptics

Toronyi-Lalic makes some very fine observations but I want to pick up on two turns of phrase which I believe are more symptomatic of the ways in which these new ‘alternative’ classical ventures are still being misunderstood. Both are contained in this one paragraph:

‘The question of qualitative compromise was ever present. In all this desperate bowing and scraping to the young, wouldn’t something have to give? Not that I could see. Not musically. Not acoustically. The lower instruments rumbled out over London as if only now under the low concrete ceiling were they finding their true voice.’

Firstly:

‘ all this desperate bowing and scraping to the young’

which (despite the (unintended?) musical puns) echoes his statement in the previous article that ‘opera and classical music will not gain approval among the under-35s through begging for acceptance. In all this bowing and scraping, doesn’t classical music protest too much?’. The assumption here is, of course, that the ‘age’ of classical music is essentially over 35, whatever that means. He suggests that classical music is ‘coming down’ from somewhere in order to find the youth, bend low to them, and invite them in. The fact is that I know the people who organised and performed the Peckham Rite, and the manner which they chose to present it was natural to them, because they are young – largely under 25 in fact. If 22-year-olds are putting on musical concerts for other 22-year-olds, where does ‘bowing and scraping to the young’ come in? By what virtue should anyone aged over 35 feel that they have any authority over what is being done here? The only person who might legitimately be owed a say is Stravinsky himself, but he was obviously unavailable for comment. (The same might not be completely true of Yellow Lounge, but it remains to be seen how much ‘astroturfing’ is actually going on there.)

In essence, although I’m sure Toronyi-Lalic consciously intended nothing of the sort, the assumption is a very patronising and quite insulting one. It suggests that classical music is somehow stored in some central, institutionalised vault, guarded by an oligarchy of ‘great’ conductors perhaps, and it is borrowed by others on the condition that the central committee is always permitted its own very vocal opinion on how it is being ‘used’. The Peckham Rite wasn’t ‘bowing and scraping to the young’. If anything, young people are actually ‘bowing and scraping’ to the old (and the very old, and the long-dead) by still putting the same pieces on in the same way in concert halls, and clapping at the same time and wearing the same funny clothes. Toronyi-Lalic makes a great point by bringing 1980s British art into the debate. I’m sure any suggestion that an independent art installation in Peckham might have involved the art establishment ‘bowing and scraping to the young’ would be taken as not just insulting but completely bewildering.

The other statement that I want to take issue with is:

 ‘the question of qualitative compromise’

which was, apparently, ‘ever present’ (and it is true that the performance left Peckham resounding with the debate as to whether this really was ‘one of the great Rites of Spring’… (:-p…) (sarcasm…)). Toronyi-Lalic takes great pains to justify his own musical judgements, and I would agree that it was a fantastic performance. Moreover, I wouldn’t argue at all that the quality of musical performance won’t always be very important; no-one wants to listen to bad performances of anything. However, there is this overwhelming trend amongst critics approaching these alternative classical events that apparently there is a very real risk of ‘compromise’ in musical quality (the ‘baby/bathwater’ argument). Clarinettist/composer Mark Simpson, who is soon to play Nonclassical, similarly stated in a recent article in Gramophone magazine:

‘We must make sure that in trying to actively engage new audiences we do not lose sight of the importance of compositional technique and craftsmanship. Part of the experience is going to the event and taking part, but surely we are there to appreciate the music and not be seen as part of a ‘scene’. This is my only worry with this new development.’

Not only do I think such commentators really have nothing to worry about, but moreover I consider this belief itself totally misplaced. I’m not totally sure how critics always come to the conclusion that, by changing the venue and changing the conventions, performers will be encouraged to play badly, or rehearse less, or care less about the quality of their playing. I suppose it is partly to do with the idea that there are more non-musical factors being introduced, maybe lighting, or multi-media elements, or trendy clothing, or alcohol. The critics believe that, for the musicians, these elements will somehow feel like ‘replacements’ for musical factors, perhaps. I think it is also partly to do with how classical commentators perceive the kinds of music which might more normally get performed in these venues – pop, hip hop, electronica, etc. – associating these with musical laziness, or imperfection, or a lack of nuance. (Simpson’s assertions would seem to suggest too that any kind of association of a musical performance with its immediate socio-cultural context – the audience, the location, the politics or aesthetics inherent in the performance’s presentation – should be viewed as irrelevant and somehow actively blocked out with that kind of detached, high modernist approach which should have become redundant decades ago.)

It concerns me, because I believe that this way of looking at these events is actually utterly disconnected with the reality, not only of their actual successes, but also of the ideals and goals behind the movement. There is a mistaken belief that the old conventions of classical concerts are somehow connected to performance quality – that big, airy concert halls, silent audiences, formal dress and a reverent atmosphere somehow create good performances. I think this is totally wrong. There is no causal connection between musical quality and the old conventions and venues, only that those were the only places/circumstances in which you heard any performances, and certainly in which the ‘greats’, who have largely bought equally into this myth, would deign to perform.

By constantly invoking ‘the question of qualitative compromise’, people are completely misunderstanding these events. They are not just cynical marketing devices to trick prejudiced young people into stumbling into an orchestral performance. They don’t in anyway subscribe to some idea that by making performances ‘less good’, less intellectually or emotionally engaging, you can maximise an audience of uncommitted yet vaguely interested punters (the ‘dumbing down’ argument). The reason why I get so annoyed by the suggestions of such articles, which play to the natural conservative cynicism of the classical audience, is that I actually think the very opposite is true. I think one of the major points of this new movement is to actually promote more creative, more exciting and more imaginative performances and compositions.

This is a view which is very much expounded by Greg Sandow in his blog and embryonic book. His opinion is that the arbitrary conventions and practices of concert hall performance limit creativity, performers (and I would say composers) are straitjacketed by the very narrow expectations of their specialised audiences, and the tendency is to tiredly repeat everything in a safe and lacklustre manner. In my opinion, the repetition and entrenchment of any status quo is fundamentally an anti-art pursuit, and nothing could be more conducive to creativity than the kind of real freedom that this new movement is affording. Performers are not only given the opportunity to introduce their music to new audiences, they are made to reinterpret it within radically different circumstances and acoustics, to solve a whole host of new problems in creative ways, to think about attracting, engaging and communicating to an audience that aren’t necessarily to be taken for granted, and they are rewarded with exotic new atmospheres accorded by different modes of intimacy, reception and social context. Composers have an even greater gift: the chance to work with an endless range of new architectural spaces, to cater for a whole host of different DIY ensembles, to meet the creative constraints of many new event contexts, to bring their music into the domains of different artistic disciplines, to communicate to a whole different demographic, and to engage explicitly with social and cultural issues rather than vaguely suggesting them within the apathetic, apolitical walls of the concert hall.

It is a great pity that more classical commentators aren’t considering this new movement in this kind of light, taking a more creative and optimistic approach, rather than trying to pre-empt the complaints and concerns of their illustrious old heroes. Not only are they doing these projects a disservice in their ‘ever present questioning’ of quality (eagerly listening out for the imperfections which will prove their scepticism right), but they’re ignoring all the most exciting opportunities which these events create for musicians. In reality, it doesn’t necessarily matter, because the Peckham Rite (if not, perhaps, Yellow Lounge), was created, promoted and attended primarily by young people who quite rightly don’t care whether the classical establishment approves or not. However, I feel that if each new event weren’t presented with such short-sightedness – and critics might be able to surmount the bigoted mythology which connects the concert hall aesthetic to the notion of musical quality – then some of the real artistic potential of this movement might begin to be realised. And I mean artistic potential in the actual sense, with music speaking creatively and powerfully to culture/society as a whole, rather than the very narrow sense which the classical clique covet: that checklist of aestheticised qualities which add up to the revered but essentially meaningless category of ‘greatness’.

Revisit the Rite of Spring Project website HERE and the Yellow Lounge website HERE

+++

be aware of the exciting news, which I picked up from the Nonclassical flyers distributed at the recent (superb) prom performance of G. Prokofiev’s Concerto for Turntables and Orchestra:

‘ALSO COMING SOON: ‘NONCLASSICAL’ A NEW FREE NEWSPAPER CASTING AN UNPARALLELED EYE INTO THE EMERGING ALTERNATIVE CONTEMPORARY CLASSICAL SCENE’ … … … … … … …

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