Some days after posting, my blog “10 things that we should change in classical music” has had nearly 100’000 visits, and the number is still growing. It’s obviously impossible to keep track of the countless reactions, but I thought it’s time to share some of the comments and add some of my own thoughts to my short (and hopefully, provocative) list. The pure fact that it was read so widely is a sign that the subject clearly hit a nerve.
I have worked on all five continents and despite all their differences – in all senses, eg geographically, culturally, economically etc – I think it fair to say that all orchestras, festivals and concert halls across the globe share two common objectives:
- The desire to create a larger public for classical music
- The aim to bring classical music to a new and uninitiated audience
These two points were the reason why I wrote my list in the first place. As classical music and its interpretation evolves, I think it’s obvious to think about its performance conditions as well.
Most of the positive reactions I had were from people who don’t go to concerts regularly but are interested in classical music, and the most critical reactions came, in general, from experienced concert-goers and cultural commentators. The critical voices reacted to what they see as unnecessary disturbances of concentrated listening in a concert hall or a “dumbing down” of the experience of live music, whereas the positive comments welcomed a less formal and formalized concert experience. Equally divided were the opinions of musicians, who sometime questioned the practicalities of my proposals (like tuning off-stage) or, on the contrary, welcomed a more flexible approach to the concert routine.
Of all my points, the arguably most provocative one about mobile phones had the most critical reactions, and I can understand why. It’s an astonishing and somehow quite radical experience when the lights go down in a concert hall in the middle of a big noisy city, and people don’t do anything else other than listen for two hours. The moment when the noise of daily life is shut out and silence allows us to listen to the most minute details of a piece of music is a fundamental human experience, which is made even more intense when shared with many others.
As Philip Kennicott rightly writes in an article for the New Republic, the music of Mahler and Debussy and many other composers of their generation and onwards require silence and concentration to be heard properly. They are written with silence in mind, as opposed to earlier music that had to cut through a noisy crowd. But in a concert hall one doesn’t hear just the music. One hears the presence of the others, the noises of the hall, the turning of pages, breathing and many other things. The composer Michael Finnissy, taking the extreme opposite stance from Mahler, told me once that he doesn’t mind that every hall adds its particular sounds to his music.
Silence, or relative silence in a concert hall, should not be experienced as stifling or oppressive. Concentrated listening also requires an openness of mind and curiosity to delve into the shades of a piece of music. Listening to music involves the audience and one should feel free to be at ease, to be able to show one’s emotions (with respect to others). A bit of democratic tolerance to the individual ways of responding to a piece of music is maybe the point I wanted to make with No 1 on my list.
Contents vs Presentation
I deliberately excluded programming from my list of “10 things”, apart from point 4 and 10 (about predictability and contemporary repertoire) because I think this is a bigger subject and deserves a list by itself. I firmly believe in making interesting, challenging and sometimes complex music accessible to a wider audience. And in this I include most of the classical repertoire, because works by composers such as Beethoven, Schumann, Berlioz, Wagner and many others still throw up many questions that are sometimes left unanswered by thoughtless programming or presentation. The drive to reach wider audiences sometimes leads to programmers or institutions making excuses for presenting music seen as “difficult” . But it is exactly the most “difficult” or challenging works that have proved the most significant and moving in musical history and we should cherish the challenges and sometimes the sheer radicality of the great works of classical music.
Most of my points are about the presentation, not the content, of classical music concerts. The great orchestral repertoire is in fact, our greatest asset. But if we present concerts as inaccessible (both in a financial and spiritual sense) and hermetic events that draw a clear line between the uninitiated and the wise, then I don’t think we serve the music and the audiences well. Some performances I have attended , had a quasi-masonic air of exclusion that can’t be in the spirit of the composers, who were often themselves quite individual, marginal figures.
Danger and New Territories
There is a human desire for a bit of danger and for the unexpected: people throw themselves off bridges tied to a rope, or dive to great depths without any oxygen in order to have a new experience. Or they travel to unknown places in order to discover something new and unknown.
Concert halls shouldn’t become purified spaces where safe music is presented in a safe environment. Danger, risk, surprise and challenge should be at the heart of artistic experience. My “10 things” are a small and private attempt to bring some of that unpredictability back into our concert life or to, at least, stimulate a discussion about the way we listen (or don’t ) to live classical music. They are also an attempt to stimulate a reflective and critical discussion about with the way we, as musicians, present ourselves and the music we make.