Solid music, liquid times

“To be normal is the aim of the unsuccessful” (C.G.Jung)

Liquid world

Recently I read some books by the Leeds-based polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman about what he describes as “liquid” contemporary life – quickly changing social relations, a decline of political power and institutions, a general mistrust in big ideas and an increasing uncertainty in the absence of solid foundations of our existence are some of his critiques of postmodern society. He describes a western society of uncontrollable change and absence of meaning. On one side there is an immense depth of data, information and connectivity, but equally there is a loss of control and irrational fear – a world of somnambulists in a five star hotel.

Bauman has a lot to say about the discourse between classical music and contemporary society. On one hand there is an enormous offer of concerts, classical streaming and information about music available, but on the other hand, there is very little that makes all this mass of music relevant and meaningful for a wider public. Classical music needs a profound dialogue with the listener. But just as philosophy or in-depth political debate, it has left the centre-stage of our Zeitgeist.


Solid music

Classical Music is a “solid” art form. And it depends on artists and above all, institutions – orchestras, opera houses, festivals and concert halls – to connect it to an increasingly fast changing, liquid society. These institutions guarantee contact between public and music, have established a professional standard in performance and have created a democratic access to classical music.

But as organisations they have also tended to be “solid” themselves – great at establishing standards and traditions over years or even decades, but less quick in reacting to social change and to a world where public interests and social groups are shifting constantly. Their structure often doesn’t encourage flexibility, and while providing their artists with a fixed salary and a public, the same artists pay for this security with a restriction of their own artistic freedom. The traditional institutions have all the potential and talent to be creative and innovative, but sometimes a lot of work is going into the performances themselves and much less thought into establishing a true and unique connection with the audience.

Liquid ideas

Tom Service wrote down his “top 10 classical ensembles and conductors” as a reaction to the ones selected by some other music critics for Bachtrack. He says,

in terms of artistic adventure, ambition, imagination and quality, I think you have to look outside the conventional symphony orchestras for the most consistently brilliant music-making.”

What most of the groups and conductors on Tom’s list have in common is:
– They play either new and unknown repertoire or present established repertoire in a new, personal and unique way
– They build a context around their projects and communicate more about the music than just the performances themselves
– They stimulate discussion by taking artistic risks, by inventive programming and with often highly individual interpretations.
– They insist on a strong intellectual framework and don’t shy away from being provocative or deviating from the norm in order to encourage a response from the public.

Other examples would be the Simon Bolivar  and the East-Western Diwan Orchestras, who are not on Tom’s list and haven’t really done anything that another youth orchestras hasn’t done before. But, even within all their contradictions, they have achieved something really beautiful: they have connected the repertoire they play to a social and political context. They communicate democratic and social values, which is an aspect that is often essential to the music itself. They exemplify the fact that the classics need context, debate and stories. Regardless of their artistic merits, these orchestras have regained a freshness and have inspired some thinking about the orchestral repertoire


Solid music in liquid times 

There many other interesting examples, such as the Berlin Radio Choir’s Brahms Requiem, staged by Jochen Sandig and Sasha Waltz, or the Cottbus Philharmonic, who play a world premiere in every single main series concert, this season. But some more “solid” institutions still have to let go of the fear that becoming less predictable will compromise their artistic integrity. This is not about letting go of our qualities, but about sharing our insight into the great works with the contemporary world in an adequate way. To apply our creativity not just to the scores, but also to the context of the works and about re-thinking and interpreting them in a way that connects to the liquid society.

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