5:4, BBC Proms & A Short Rant About Recordings

The BBC Proms came and went and we didn’t go to any of them, mainly because we were out of the country (and only partly because we weren’t really interested). The Proms may showcase the very safest, most institutionally-established composers of the moment, but at least it does have some new music, and it’s especially important for facilitating new commissions for very large forces (although less so for pieces of any substantial length). So we were pleased to discover recently the blog of composer Simon Cummings – 5:4 (pronounced ‘5 against 4’).

It’s always encouraging to find really positive, useful, competent, non-ridiculous spaces for new classical music on the internet, and 5:4 certainly is one of these. Most importantly, the blog hosts downloadable recordings of all the reviewed works, mainly ripped from the Radio 3 broadcasts. I have said before, and will emphasise again, how important I think this kind of thing is:::::::

Despite a lot of money and time being put into these new commissions, many of them will hardly ever be performed again. The classical establishment accepts and even celebrates this as an inevitable feature of ‘The Repertoire’, which is always characterised as a kind of autonomous, self-regulating entity – like markets or ecosystems – which will accept or reject pieces according to a kind of semi-conscious consensus of the international classical world and of ‘history’. People like the idea that new pieces only very rarely earn a place in ‘The Repertoire’, that this cannot be forced or engineered but is instead an inevitable consequence of true Greatness (apparently a very rare quality in contemporary composition). The emergence of these special breakthrough works (maybe one every five years) is apparently exciting enough to justify the almost immediate condemnation of any piece that fails to achieve such a status. To be sure, it isn’t realistic for all these new pieces for massive orchestras to receive many more performances. There are only so many massive orchestras in the world, and they cost a lot of money to maintain, and – as we know – not a lot of people want to listen to new classical music these days.

This all means that the dissemination of recordings is the only way that these pieces are ever really going to be heard again. The internet is constantly abuzz with the exchange of free recordings of pop music. You can very easily hear any recorded pop song for free, almost as easily obtain it in digital form. It amazes me how reticent composers (or their publishers? or the performers?) are to disseminate recordings of their works. The situation is a lot more complex than ‘if we pass around recordings for free, no-one will buy physical recordings if they actually do come out, or go to live performances’. Classical fans obsess over the ‘live performance’ even more than pop audiences. At the same time, no-one will go to live shows or buy records if they don’t know that the music exists. What’s more, without such recordings, no-one’s going to want to perform these pieces either. As a director, I would never produce an opera that I hadn’t heard some kind of recording of, however rough. (Although maybe that’s just a testament to my score-reading abilities.)

¿¿¿ Do composers actually really like the idea that their piece’s performance is this one-off ephemeral thing that happens in a certain place and time, for a certain (privileged?) group of people? Do they not care whether their pieces are played again? Or are they all holding out for the possibility that they’ll make it into ‘The Repertoire’ and get featured on Building a Library? Should it really remain their prerogative anyway, when and where their music is heard, in this age of ‘democratising’ mechanical + digital reproduction? ???

Let’s suppose (for a crazy second) that the Proms are the most important event in British classical music, and their commissions do represent an insightful overview of the present state of contemporary composition. Wouldn’t it then be absolutely paramount that as many people heard these pieces as possible? And isn’t it true that hearing any piece just once (a few days of online Listen Again notwithstanding) hardly affords it the listening conditions that it deserves. And also, I just think – is it better that at least a few people can listen to these pieces, if they want, in twenty years time, or that no-one can listen to them? One of the pieces is about the 2011 summer riots, for chrissssake!

Well, anyway, to conclude this little rant, we’ll just re-assert how absolutely imperative it is that blogs like 5:4 (and I’m sure there are others) not only discuss this music but also help to disseminate it. You should all check out the recordings that are still downloadable (i.e. the ones from 2012), and if you like anything, then please please re-post them on blogs/put them on mixtapes/leave them in dropboxes for decades to come.

[We’re particularly liking the Lizée quartet at the moment. Check it.]

Visit the 5:4 blog HERE. He also puts up very eclectic and exciting mixtapes which you can download. Aaaand… here’s Simon Cummings on the Guardian’s Six Songs of Me just this week, extolling the virtues of Scott Walker (who has a new album coming out, exciting).

Also, on a related note, you can download loads of Tristan Perich‘s music from his website which is —-> here.   For this fact, and for his music, he is very awesome.

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