Classical Music: Sexing Up or Dumbing Down?
1. KEYNOTE – RICHARD BERNAS
At present more and more people are asking for out of-the-box thinking. Musicians are often good at this, because part of their job is to create opportunities to play, and a piece of music isn’t finished until it has been played to the public.
If you want to lose $0.5m in a hurry, one of the best ways to go about it is to put on La Boheme. Lots of orchestras, especially in the US have taken the low road, and these are the ones that are now failing.
Working at the Tate Modern we’ve tied to find the best dialogue between art and music. Are museums prototypes for classical music? There is a link between the Berlin Philharmonic and the museum in Berlin.
Music is not a hard commodity like art. Gerhard Richter – a good German painter – has seen his work quadruple in value this century. Tthat just doesn’t happen with music. However, museums have become labs for presentation. It was once said that opera houses are as boring as museums, if only that were still the case.
Museums have become exciting places to visit since the 60s when the Metropolitan in New York started putting on big exhibitions with a sense of occasion. The Guggenheim museum was an exciting new museum that opened around that time as well, followed by the Pompidou Centre which has no strong central collection, but attracts 7million people a year. The Guggenheim has gone on to become a brand with museums in Berlin, Bilbao, and Las Vegas.
Now in London we have the Tate Modern, which has worked very hard to become known – every taxi driver knows about the turner prize. The main thing at the Tate is a permanent exhibition on two floors and rotating exhibition on the top floor. These look philosophically at twentieth century art, and we are trying to do something similar with music.
However putting musicians in a gallery is complicated just from the point of view of insurance. I remember going to a museum in Switzerland and there was a sign saying that at 2pm every day they would play a piece of music to people who were looking at a certain Monet picture, but because the music was canned, I found that it made the picture look flat, and because of this I decided if there was going to be music at the Tate it would have to be live.
I’ll give some examples of the things we have done so far:
Four members of the London Sinfonietta playing inside some of the sculptures; this was free to anyone who was in the gallery that day.
Rather than place the audience we asked them to move. I wanted to get away from virtuoso performance from the stage. First we had a chamber choir singing in the Rothko room. Then through to Stravinsky for some Dali paintings, and thirdly in front of a big Jackson Pollock that’s too big to take in in one go, we had a solo violinist. I really liked the feeling of the audience thinking on their feet that this created.
We developed this further with Rebecca Saunders – our first commission for Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. They still have a couple of the turbines there in case of an emergency, and they are still running at a low speed, which creates a low-pitched hum, so we tuned all the instruments to fit with it. We had 18 musicians spread around, and the audience could walk around and get a different mix of sounds in different places. Radio 3 recorded the last six performances, and Rebecca also recorded a mix that she wanted.
The next thing we will do is a piece by a Japanese composer called Joe Condo. It’s going to be a very long melody, lasting 16 or 17 minutes for 15 players with a lot of smearing, some instruments getting behind, and others ahead. When we do this we are planning shapes for the melody to live in – circles, and Xs and U-bends – this is something that I would like to see more of, but not every piece will thrive in that environment. When the turbines are finally turned off, we will be able to use the space of the turbine hall to take well-known pieces and explode them.
2 . PANEL RESPONSE
Sarah Gee: Personally I hate both the terms ‘sexing up’ and ‘dumbing down’, they seem to come from certain deputy editors at the Evening Standard. We should rather be talking about blurring out, and I’m very interested in site-specific work like we are seeing at the Tate.
I think there’s a lot of difference between London and the regions. When I first moved to Birmingham I noticed a lot of civic pride in the city’s orchestra. Diversity of population has a part to play in this. We are tax funded so we have a duty to the diverse population that pays taxes in Birmingham. There’s also a business case to be made for doing diverse music. Within the next 15 years, Birmingham is expected to have a non-white majority. This provides a lot of opportunities; we don’t want orchestras to become tribute bands for dead white Germans.
There’s also nothing wrong with music simply because it’s popular, what matters is that it’s done well. We have put on Bollywood concerts and drawn a great crowd, getting people to attend for the first time.
I think that what the Tate is doing is treating itself as brand, which is working very well. Orchestras need to learn from this, and take the idea of marketing themselves seriously. Maybe we are jealous of the success that acts like Il Divo and Nicola Bendetti are having because they are so widely marketed.
We also need to bear in mind that if you work in a society where people have very little spare time, people want value for time over value for money, maybe that’s why easier to consume ‘crossover’ artists are doing better. We should think about the times that we put on performances to make them more accessible.
Shirley Thompson: At present I am working with the Royal Philharmonic on a symphony, the brief of which is to engage with the local community. I was born and bought up in east London, so I had to write with that in mind, and I wanted to both appeal to that community and at the same time challenge them.
I have been working to bring local young people into this, and the best way is to get them to perform and compose music through my work in schools. The response I get when I do this is immense – they really want to engage with orchestral music.
What we have then is a gap. There are a lot of people out there who want to engage, but we don’t see them at concerts often because of the price. Also to engage with people in an area like Newham, we have to take into account the level of cultural diversity that exists there.
Going back to what Richard said about US orchestras that have taken the low road, some of them are working with Master Prize, which has broadened their appeal. We too need to find ways to reach a wider audience – I think the only way is to reinvent the presentation, something that you are already doing in Birmingham.
Paul Moseley: I think there is a tendency to concentrate on the recording industry. The media gives the impression that the recorded element is all there is to classical and leaves out live performances.
There’s no question that classical music is in a state of crisis, we are clearly not selling CDs like we did. After 22 years of the perfect product in the form of the CD it’s not surprising that people aren’t buying as much as they used to. I don’t think anyone thought that CDs really would last as long as they do, and people just don’t need to replace them – they even get handed down from one generation to the next.
Retailers and record companies like to put music into boxes, but I find that consumers are far less compartmentalised in their thinking about music – they don’t see things simply in terms of Rock, Pop, Classical and Jazz. The last 20 years has seen a lot of fusions between genres and a much greater degree of choice available to consumers.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the record industry gets a bad press, but the media tends to present it as being run by accountants and marketing men with no love of music. However I don’t think that’s fair. If you look back to 1990 when Pavarotti, Nigel Kennedy and the 3 Tenors all made huge profits, those profits were invested back into core classical artists. The problem was that the people who bought those records had no desire to buy core classical. We then had a recession. Major labels are run by people with a pop music background, and they were surprised that we weren’t making a profit, so we were told to come up with crossover ideas.
Since then, companies have come to realise that the mass market is not classical music, but adult music i.e. ‘light’ classical. The classical departments realised that they had to have good sales figures to please their bosses, and hence we now have Il Divo.
Is this a problem? I think there are both problems and opportunities for serious classical music. I think that only one or two of the main classical labels will survive, run by the majors, and then the indies will clean up the rest of the market. I also think that there is a future for serious classical music on record, as the audiences are steady, and crossover is only really bought by people who were formerly into pop music. In that respect, the rise of crossover music is not a case of dumbing down as it is aimed at a pop audience.
Andrew Haveron: I almost didn’t turn up this evening as I was on a flight recently and the in-flight magazine carried the news that ‘Il Divo Have Healed Rift Between Classical And Pop’, so I thought the event would have been cancelled. Being more serious, the Brodsky Quartet will release our first release on our own label next week, and to be honest I’m still as confused about all the issues being discussed as anyone else.
When I put my favourite records on at home my girlfriend finds them unpleasant, and I now see that they are difficult to listen to at home. Why would you want to listen to Mahler symphonies at home? When I listen to music it’s often only to figure out how to play pieces, so I don’t know why other people do it.
I’m interested in the idea of sexing up, but unfortunately I don’t have the physique for it! I think we can look at how it’s been done with food. I’m a big fan of Jamie Oliver; he’s inspired me to be interested in the kitchen because he puts so much enthusiasm into what he does. I know how enthusiastic I am about Beethoven and Schubert, but it’s my job to get other people interested. Unfortunately the people who turn up at concerts are already interested.
In the Brodsky Quartet, we are infamous for defining crossover music because we worked with Elvis Costello on his album, the Juliet Letters, although that was before I joined the quartet. I have joined him on stage for performances, and I must say I love being a Z-list celebrity, and working with someone like Elvis who I respect and admire. At his concerts people love it when we come on stage with him, but they don’t come and see us perform Beethoven. Similarly when we performed with Bjork at the Union Chapel in Islington in ’99 we received the best reviews we have ever had. We’ve also done some work with Sting, and he loves to sit in his Chapel in his house playing the lute, so we see that we are helping these people crossover into classical music. Hopefully we can use our infamy to get people interested in ‘good music’, which isn’t in our opinion exclusively classical. Not all of Haydn’s 83 quartets are good.
In doing this we have come up against a lot of elitism, and we have had to live with it. We have followed our own route for many years and now have our own record label and can release Tchaikovsky and an album of songs working with Sting, Elvis Costello, Bjork and some outreach work we did with school children. I think that this elitism actually makes it very hard to develop an interest in classical music.
(RB) It’s great to have an orchestra embedded in the life of the community like in Birmingham. There’s an example of an orchestra from the Netherlands who played at Carnegie Hall and received bad reviews, and when they returned home it was front-page news and there was lots of analysis of why things had gone wrong. This would be unheard of fro an orchestra from a city the size of London or New York.
I was very interested in what Shirley was saying about workshops. About ten years ago the music GCSE syllabus changed and we met with a lot of teachers. I found that a lot of them were scared by the changes because they had been taught to respect the classics; I was wondering whether this was something you found, Shirley?
(ST) I find that the children don’t have any problem engaging if you just present it to them as music and not ‘classical music’. It’s only as they get older that they find it harder, when they already know it’s classified as classical music. I think it goes back to the question of where is it going to go on the shelf. I recently found one of my CDs under Jazz.
(RB) The history of composition is one of virtuoso performance, but this has now been broken, and I think this is because of recorded music. I also wonder how much profit a recording artist like Il Divo would make after subtracting marketing costs.
(PM) Projects like Il Divo are probably very similar to pop music, where there is a one in ten success rate. However with them it’s not just about the money, Simon Cowell has a very high media profile so they were more likely to succeed.
(RB) I remember years ago that I played at Glastonbury because Pink Floyd had cancelled and we filled in with an electronic set doing Stockhausen. I find that people like classical music when they get to hear it, for example I was once working on a film and we had a group of soldiers in to help with the sound effects, and on the same day we were recording the orchestra, and the soldiers were very impressed. So you can reach people, but they often can’t afford a ticket for the opera.
(KH) Do you think classical music has suffered from the amount of subsidy it receives, because it means it’s not as accountable to an audience, and there is no commercial imperative?
(RB) I think that the subsidy has not been well administered.
(From the floor) Orchestras generally get about 18% of their income from subsidies, which leaves a lot to do.
(SG) In Birmingham we get local authority money, but we really need it. We are the only orchestra between London and Manchester so we need a lot of money to retain the musicians, our combined subsidy doesn’t even cover their wages, so it’s a delicate situation.
(RB) I don’t think there’s been a period when classical music hasn’t been subsidised. Even in the time of Verdi the music was subsidised by the profits made from gambling in the foyers of the concert halls.
(From the floor) I think the problem is the culture that exists in the subsidised world, and how that relates to the public.
(KH) I’ve been put out when at Arts Council meetings people say ‘serious’ music when they mean classical music. Other types of music can be very serious, and also classical music is often incorporated into ‘pop’ music as well. I’ve been in the studio with Stevie Wonder recording an album, and it’s a process that can take months, but when it comes to adding the strings section the musicians come in and in three hours they record the music for seven songs not having heard the music before. I always find that amazing, and it’s part of what classical musicians do, why isn’t this pushed more?
(AH) I find that children are very receptive to classical music when it’s presented in a different way. When we were working in schools we got children to pick six letters between A and G and then we made two chords from them. After that we asked them to tell us what emotion they wanted us to use as we changed between them like anger or sadness. This bemused them, but when they heard us do it they understood and were blown away by it.
(SG) I’ve often used the analogy that people come to classical music as they mature, in the same way that as a teenager you drink to get drunk, but as you get older you might develop a taste for fine wine. It’s the same with performers if you look at people like Paul McCartney, Elton John and Sting with his lute.
There was a time when people hit 40 and they turned to classical music. In fact when Ian Hislop reached 40, one of his friends bought him a ticket for the opera, which he took as a jibe about turning old, but now he’s a big fan and does a lot to promote classical music.
That doesn’t seem to happen so much now though, probably because we have people like Tina Turner and the Rolling Stones still touring even though they are pensioners.
3. QUESTIONS FROM THE FLOOR
When you mentioned the ?Bollywood’ concert in Birmingham, I’d be interested to know if people came back to other concerts after that.
(SG) It was the highlight of our Classic Asia season. We decided to start with the Indian population in Birmingham because we have found that better educated groups are more likely to come to our events, and they tend to be the most qualified group. Also baby boomers are not put off by Indian culture, as they are used to it because of things like The Beatles going to India. We haven’t had that many people back, but we haven’t done anything targeted at that specific audience since, however Asians already make up a reasonable proportion of our audience.
Do you think there is a problem with trying to borrow ideas from pop music? For example if you made a music video for a piece of classical music, serious classical music fans would hate it. If we are going to consider audience demographics, how should we go about it?
(RB) I have a niece who’s just come back from New York. She’s very interested in the visual arts and while she was there she paid to join a group that went to see exhibitions and concerts and discuss them. It’s a great way to get busy younger people involved, but sadly there’s nothing like it in London.
I think that the scene is so varied that it doesn’t make sense to look at it as one. Records may not be doing well, but orchestras are, and working at Radio 3 I think that more people than ever in the UK are listening to classical music, as there are now a number of successful classical radio stations offering a variety of different types of classical music from serious to crossover, but I think we must always have dead Germans.
I have two daughters and I have seen their tastes change as they’ve grown up. They used to like Tchaikovsky, but now they are starting to think it’s not ‘cool’; hopefully at some point in this country we will be able to break the tyranny of cool.
If we only put in a small amount one afternoon at a school and then don’t go back for another year, even if the children like it, how can we compete with pop music that they are being exposed to every day?
(PM) Some music education has realised that if you don’t call music ‘classical’ teaching it can be a lot more vibrant. When I was a teacher we had Radio Ga Ga by Queen as a set work, and that made lessons a lot more exciting.
I also think that the power of seeing an orchestra live is enormous, and that a lot of people don’t appreciate the involvement of orchestras in film at the moment.
Shirley, how do you attract children to what you are doing?
(ST) I had to find a framework through which to communicate. My symphony is based on a history of London over 1000 years to help people understand what I’m doing.
(KH) Shirley, how has it been received by the establishment?
(ST) There is some suspicion in the establishment, but the children that I’ve worked with didn’t have any barriers about being involved. I think the media might see it as a risky project, and I think the establishment has become scared to take a risk. For example the Royal Opera House hasn’t done a new ballet for 20 or 30 years.
Paul’s perspective seems to be that classical music should be about entertainment, and that’s what a lot of the classics were written for. However we’ve seen music hijacked by an intellectual minority who have controlled funding and dissemination since the 60s. We have to return to accessible music, sadly a lot of accessible music is ignored by the establishment.
We have two polarised groups who won’t allow the public what they want. There is a huge amount of snobbery in the industry, even those who are successful are regarded as ‘not serious’ and won’t be featured on Radio 3.
Andrew, what gave you the impetus to release your own records? Also why aren’t more people following examples from pop music where acts such as Marillion have funded their latest album with fans paying for it in advance?
(AH) Artists often don’t want to get involved with that side of things, they are happy just to record. We weren’t pushed into it; we just thought it was the right thing to do because we wanted control of our music. We thought that we could do it better ourselves, and got a deal with Sanctuary to market and promote us.
One of the reasons is that we recently had someone release an old recording of something that we were hoping to do again but better. Now there’s no point, as people will just see it as two editions of the same thing. If we had control of the master we would have been able to stop that.
(PM) I work on a label called Onyx that is very similar as it aims to be a collaboration between the label and the artist. Artists can have as much control as they want. If they want to fund the project then they have complete control and we just offer them use of an established framework.
I can see how size is a big issue for new business models. How could you apply these models to an orchestra when they need 60 or 70 staff, is it possible to have commercially successful music played by an orchestra?
(RB) I think orchestras will have to be reconfigured. Why can’t an orchestra split up for a few months of the year and work as quartets or teaching music and then come back together for the rest of the year.
There is now so much pressure involved in getting into an orchestra that there simply isn’t time to get involved in these other areas.
(SG) We have a deal with Radio 3, where they record our concerts, and then after the broadcast we own the masters.
There are interesting things happening in the area, but we need to make the public more aware of them. We are putting classical music news into pop music channels such as VH1. Do you think this approach will get new people involved?
(RB) I got very interested in digital radio and there is a great selection of music available, some stations with a variety of good music from across genres. I think this will be a new model for people to find out about classical music.
I think the media also need to be addressed because they focus so much on selling CDs, and I’m not sure how relevant that is going to be in the future.
I’m from the Mercury Prize, and I have to say that there is a lack of music coming in that crosses genres. People tend to get channelled in a particular musical direction in the UK – especially the younger generation.
(RB) I recorded a John Cage song with Robert Wyatt, which was produced by Brian Eno, and I’ve come across a lot of other people who do this kind of eclectic work.
(PM) The challenge is to break down the compartmentalisation of music, and the internet provides a great opportunity to do that.
(ST) I come across people who will listen to a wide variety of music, and some people now see classical music as cool underground music. I’ve mixed the Royal Philharmonic with hip-hop, it might not be traditional but it does get people interested. I find that audiences have a much more diverse taste than we give them credit for.