Normal disservice will be resumed: Programming the Proms for television.

I’m not going to complain about the Proms. It brings music to many, catering for a range of tastes from popular warhorses from the classical canon to contemporary music, jazz, gospel, chamber music, family concerts, film and television music. And Stockhausen. Amidst all the complaints of elitism, catering for bums on seats, unimaginative programming and more, the Proms quietly gets on with celebrating music both ancient and modern, and creating one of the best festivals anywhere in the world.

20130720-142200.jpgWhat I am going to complain about, however, is how it is programmed for televisual consumption, and specifically the evisceration of last Tuesday’s Prom as it was packaged for television. Tuning in to watch last night’s broadcast on BBC4, in delighted anticipation of hearing David Matthews’ A Vision of the Sea, which was receiving its world premiere, I found that the work had been brutally torn out of the televised version, going straight to the second item in the programme, Rachmaninov’s enduringly-popular Piano Concerto no.2.

I feel the BBC missed a real trick, here. Matthews’ piece, an evocative tone-poem exploring the coast of Deal in Kent, would have been a useful way of introducing audiences to contemporary music; it occupied fairly safe tonal territory, had plenty of drama and melodic lines, and is reminiscent of Debussy and Britten. As modern music goes, it’s not scary at all, and is in fact very accessible, and would have done much to dispel the myth that all modern music is complex, atonal, and Difficult To Listen To.

I fully appreciate that, of the two works, the Rachmaninov is the more likely to keep people watching rather than reaching for the remote to flip channels – a key factor in the elements at the beginning of any programme. But to have excised the Matthews completely does a disservice, both to the BBC itself, which does wonders to promote challenging and modern works and commission new music, as well as to Matthews himself. “Sorry, David, but we don’t think your piece will work as well on television as it did in the concert-hall.’ And in wanting to cater to Rach-lovers, the Beeb failed to cater to those of us who tuned in specifically for the new commission. Some of us love new music, too.


The new helps appreciate the old: Joshua Fineberg on music

I’ve spent the past week reading Joshua Fineberg’s Classical Music: Why Bother ?, a strident defence of contemporary music’s place in society and an assessment of some of the problems faced by today’s composers in surviving in the current age.

The most striking observation comes near the end:

A real danger exists that, as marketing and focus groups learn to locate our current preferences with ever greater precision, the range of stimuli we receive will draw ever tighter. If we only go to a museum to see over and over again the paintings we already love, we are not developing into anything: We are like rats in a cage pulling the lever that will deliver us a reward until we get so sated we fall asleep. Moreover,the jolt we get each time is less fulfilling than the last. The malaise of the modern condition often feels like we’ve already “been there, done that.” But there are so many things we have not seen or heard — an essentially endless supply. Yet we must put up with the discomfiture of travel if we are to discover a new place, if we are to return home with slightly different eyes. If the orchestra only plays what we already know we want to hear, we will never hear anything new and we will never find a new way to hear the pieces we already love.

Fineberg: thought--provoking defenderWhat Fineberg is reminding us is that, through our exposure to new experiences, not only do we widen our emotional spectrum, we are also able to revisit works which we already know in a way which makes us perceive them anew. It’s the experience of something new which reinvigorates our experience of something old, of something we already love. The idea of listening to new works (or seeing new art, or reading new books) is linked with the idea of our developing, our growing. I think this refers to a sense of emotional, intellectual and cultural development, a widening of the aesthetic senses through a constant quest for new phenomena that will not only enrich our experience but also help us re-evaluate those things which we already take for granted. A sense of development, of changing to encompass or adapt to new things, is crucial if we are not to stand still, to ossify, to become lazy in our cultural consumption such that we only listen to, or view, or read, things we already know we like.

The search for new stimuli is perhaps an important part of the human condition, of our developing. Listening to new works only enriches our lives, exposing us to new soundscapes whilst renewing those with which we are already familiar.

Thought-provoking reading: recommended.

Crusade for the New: there’s more than just the classical canon

Glance through most classical music festival programmes or most popular requests for pieces played on a classical radio station, and there’s an excellent chance that you will see familiar works from the mainstream, classical repertoire: Bach, Vivaldi, Beethoven, Mozart.

Whilst the venerable classical tradition of such composers will always have a place in the concert repertoire and the listening library, it is also important that audiences are introduced to, even challenged by, contemporary music, the music of their time.

The endless recycling of Great Masters is a self-rotating roundabout that can ultimately lead nowhere: there’s no development, nor indeed perhaps any desire for it. When festival-organisers and radio programmers know that a particular tranche of long-standing popular favourites will almost guarantee ticket-sales or healthy listening-figures, there’s a great reluctance to programme modern or challenging works that may drive audiences away.

But modern music need not be viewed with suspicion, with fear that audiences will be put off by recent works. Contemporary music has the capacity to embrace contemporary issues: ‘Soldiers of Heaven hold the sky’ from Nixon in China,

or The Death of Klinghoffer, and Dr. Atomic by John Adams show opera grappling with political issues of the twentieth century. And it can do so with a musical language that reflects its age: from the car-horns in Gershwin’s  American in Paris to the sirens in Antheil’s Ballet mecanique or the sampling keyboards playing non-musical ideas in Steve Reich’s City Life, contemporary music has the language and the sound-world to reflect modern life, and make us view it afresh. It can be fun and funky: think of Michael Torke’s bouncing dance-ryhthms in the percussion concerto, Rapture,

or Michael Nyman’s bright textural writing in Chasing Sheep Is Best Left To Shepherds.

It can be spiritual and reflective, as in the great Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel,

or the work of the late Henry Gorecki, or Sir John Tavener.

Of course, music from previous eras can always have some relevance to the current political or social climate: Mozart operas being set in underground car—parks or Shakespeare plays staged in council tenement blocks can always draw contemporary relevancy from a work. But that can also be seen as imposing contemporary resonances on a work from a previous age. Contemporary music, like contemporary art, doesn’t need to have such meaning impressed upon it: it’s engaging with such issues directly. And it often does so in a refreshing, vibrant way that makes you re-evaluate its subject-matter.

As Ezra Pound famously put it, ‘Make it new.’ It’s time to trust that audiences are willing to be open to new music addressing contemporary issues, and to crusade for the new.


(Audio extracts via LastFM).

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