In my review of the Barbican’s Total Immersion day on Brian Ferneyhough I mentioned that “few composers impose themselves on my mind or day-to-day perception to quite such an extent”. Which is to say that I know of few composers whose music I find superficially inexplicable but which nevertheless impresses itself so firmly on my consciousness. That’s an intoxicating and intriguing paradox. Major new Ferneyhough experiences quite often leave me in a distracted and slightly troubled state of mind for several days afterwards, particularly as I try to assimilate what I’ve heard through repeated listenings.
How affordable is high culture? One great myth of our time — surely up there with Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and the Prince of Wales’s supposed eye for fine architecture — is that tickets for opera, theatre, ballet and orchestral concerts are too expensive, especially for the young. It’s a well-known medical fact that your blood boils more often as you get older. But few things set my corpuscles seething more than this oft-repeated chestnut.
In Britain, at least, it’s nonsense — as a music blogger (intermezzo.typepad.com) has just reminded me. She compared prices for top-range British orchestral concerts with similar events abroad. The cheap tickets to hear London’s orchestras range from £7 to £9 — same as a cinema ticket, and lower than at many pop and comedy venues. For comparison, when the Los Angeles Philharmonic perform with top soloists and conductors the cheapest seat is £30; and at the Berlin Philharmonic it’s a wallet-draining £46.
I wrote two blog entries on why musicians attend concerts to encourage musicians, particularly performers, to go to concerts. Finding the time to attend a concert is hard enough for performers who are time-challenged. Finding the time to blog, in order to share and remember the event, is harder still.
During the academic break in February 2010, I went to meet and hear the composer Frederic Rzewski at Amsterdam Conservatory.
I brought along a pianist friend who was grateful for the break from teaching. She said, “I should be going to more concerts like this — not just piano concerts. Thanks for inviting me.”
I read yesterday that researchers at Vienna University’s Faculty of Psychology, after 15 years of examining the data, have determined that there is no provable connection between listening to Mozart and increased intelligence – the so-called ‘Mozart effect’. This does not surprise me. I would have been astonished if such a thing could be scientifically verified, not just because I’ve met many musicians who were not particularly bright, but because the whole issue of intelligence as something measurable is open to question. Indeed, many areas of psychology itself remain stubbornly beyond proof.
But not any more. Ivan Hewett describes how he belatedly woke up to the ‘tender poet’ of the piano.
The flood of Chopin performances and recordings launched by the 200th anniversary of the composer’s birth shows no sign of abating. In the next few weeks Alexander Tharaud, Leon McCawley and Louis Lortie are all giving Chopin concerts, to name just three. As for the recording industry, it’s thrown caution to the wind. In recent weeks there have been new releases from Nikolai Lugansky, Stephen Hough, Nelson Freire, Yundi. The list is endless.
But Chopin hasn’t always swept away those before him. Even now many people feel a deep resistance to him and for years I did, too. When I was just starting to explore classical music I naturally gave Chopin a try and had an instant aversion to him. Those melting runs and arabesques made me feel physically sick, and I instantly translated this “yuck” sensation into a moral judgment.
The German word Klaviertiger — which hardly needs translation — might have been invented to describe the musical and technical prowess of the young Ukrainian-born pianist Vladimir Horowitz, who shot to international stardom when he provoked a sensation as a last-minute replacement in a virtuoso tour de force, Tchaikovsky’s B flat minor Piano Concerto. That was on January 20, 1926, in Hamburg, and news of the young firebrand’s success ensured a sellout of the repeat concert. Two years later, the by then 24-year-old scored an even bigger triumph, with the New York public, at Carnegie Hall, despite disagreements with the conductor, Sir Thomas Beecham, over tempi: the young Horowitz was an impetuous speed merchant in a hurry, but capable of huge sonorities unquenchable by any opening of the orchestral floodgates.
A lot of the buzz this week in classical music circles will be about a lecture Alex Ross gave Monday in London for the nearly 200-year-old Royal Philharmonic Society, an organization dedicated “to create a future for music through the encouragement of creativity, the recognition of excellence and the promotion of understanding.” An edited version also appeared under his byline in the Guardian.
Ross, music critic of the New Yorker and author of the widely praised book “The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century,” is not the first to question whether classical music is its own worst enemy, in terms of making the concert-going experience so stuffy, ritualistic and even prohibitive. But, naturally, he has expressed his views with more flair and insight than most. His primary focus, and the one that got online commenters and Twitterers going, was the oppressive no-applause-between-movements rule.
To quote Ross: “The underlying message of the protocol is, in essence, “Curb your enthusiasm. Don’t get too excited.” Should we be surprised that people aren’t quite as excited about classical music as they used to be? To be sure, the question of concert etiquette is only part, and perhaps a rather small part, of the complicated social dilemma in which classical music finds itself—as a largely acoustic art in an electronic culture, as a mainly long-form art in a short-attention-span age … Nevertheless, I do wonder about it, as I wonder about other tics of concert life: the vaguely Edwardian costumes, the convention-center lighting schemes, the aggressive affectlessness of the average professional musician, especially in America.”
Written by Ronnie Rocket, Classical 2.0 (www.classical20.com)
The recent debate on the influence of classical music on indie rock and vice versa, originally initiated with this post in the excellent Flavorwire (cultural news from the übercool, digital cityguide Flavorpill) and later commented in The Guardian here, seems to have touched an interesting nerve among music buffs. It is always interesting, when artists crossover or show new, surprising sides of their talent. Sometimes, they create a whole new genre, like Rufus Wainwright in recent times with ‘popera’.
For more than 30 years I have followed the developments and firsthanded experienced some defining moments, that are examples of meetings or outright clashes between genres. Karlheinz Stockhausen live with punkrockers in the audience, Balanescu Quartet playing Kraftwerk and releasing records on the esoteric electro-label Mute Records, Elvis Costello performing live in a concert hall with the Brodsky Quartet, Glenn Branca with 100 electric guitars in an auditorium in Rome, and many more.
Inspired by the current discussions, I have put together a list of 20 important events, where the popular music genres of the day, be it jazz, pop or rock meets the established world of classical music. They have since, in their own right, changed the future of music, no less.
1. Miles Davis playing Manuel De Falla on “Sketches of Spain” (1960)
The jazz trumpeter studied at Julliard School of Music (his father let him drop out to pursue a career in jazz). Davis was frustrated about the focus on white, European composers. Later in his career, working with arranger Gil Evans, he went back to the European tradition and quoted references on the landmark ‘Sketches of Spain’ album. Read a review of the album here. He was a big fan of Karlheinz Stockhausen, an important inspiration for his late electric period.
2. The Beatles putting Stockhausen on the cover of “Sgt. Pepper…” (1967)
Everybody knows that the most famous songwriting couple in the world, Paul McCartney and John Lennon, had their differences. They even could not agree on who discovered the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen first. You can see the archived correspondance about the inclusion of Stockhausen’s face on the Beatles’ album cover here and here and a christmas card John Lennon sent to Stockhausen here and here. Stockhausen himself hated pop music.
3. Walter/Wendy Carlos releases “Switched-On Bach” (1968)
Wendy Carlos not only introduced (and collaborated with Robert Moog) the Moog synthesizer, but did it with music written by the Godfather of classical music, Johan Sebastian Bach. Later, she worked closely with movie director Stanley Kubrick, creating futuristic sounds for the innovative cinematic experiences that would later be regarded as some of the most important movies ever made. However, several of the recordings were rejected by Kubrick. Carlos later released some of these out-takes on two CD’s (1, 2). The introduction of the synthesizer, the adaption of classical music and the soundtrack work for Kubrick were very early experiments connecting popular culture with the classical music world.
4. Stanley Kubrick introducing György Ligeti on the “2001: A Space Odyssey” soundtrack (1968)
The film introduced the avantgarde composer György Ligeti to a wide public. Ligeti’s Requiem (the Kyrie section) and Atmosphères act as recurring leitmotifs in the film’s storyline. Other music used is Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna and an electronically altered form of his Aventures, the last of which was so used without Ligeti’s permission.
5. Ornette Coleman writing “Skies of America” for orchestra (1972)
Skies of America is a third-stream composition, meaning that it encompasses parts of traditional classical music and parts of contemporary jazz. This work was meant to be a collaboration of a full orchestra, in this case the London Symphony Orchestra (conducted by David Measham) with Coleman’s quartet, but conflicts with the musicians’ union in Britain forced the quartet players from the recording. Skies of America is Coleman’s epic “harmolodic manifesto.” Read a review of the reissue here.
6. Electric Light Orchestra’s first single (1972)
“10538 Overture”, released in 1972, was the first single by Electric Light Orchestra. 15 overdubbed, cheap Chinese cellos played by the legendary Roy Woods creates a new sound, that became part glam rock, part symphonic rock.
7. Brian Eno & Obscure Records (1975)
Ex-Roxy Music glamrocker was instrumental in introducing classical music to the rock world. The 10-album series issued on the Obscure Records label introduced an unsuspecting audience to Gavin Bryars, John Adams, Michael Nyman and more. Not since the Beatles album have a single act had such an influence on exposing classical composers to a ‘rock’ audience.
8. Manfred Eicher from ECM Records releasing Steve Reich’s “Music For 18 Musicians” (1976/1978)
The Bavarian record producer Manfred Eicher had already established one of the most innovative records companies ECM Records, releasing records with Keith Jarrett and Art Ensemble of Chicago among many others. Early on, he began expanding into and focusing on so-called classical music and released several records with Steve Reich reaching a new, more mainstream audience. These releases eventually became the platform for the ECM New Series, a sub-label and a ‘market leader’ in contemporary music today.
9. The soundtrack for Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” (1980)
György Ligeti (again) and Krzysztof Penderecki‘s music introduced to a massive audience in a soundtrack to a popular horror movie earning almost 100 million dollars was a major breakthrough for contemporary classical music into pop culture and the hard-to-find soundtrack is still a favourite in the indie crowd today.
10. Glenn Branca writing symphonies for electric guitars, like “Symphony No. 1”, and releasing them on underground cassette tape labels! (1981)
Music from the pioneering no-wave artist, Mr. Glenn Branca – here making a modern classical masterpiece with four guitar parts, including axe-man Lee Ranaldo from Sonic Youth:
Here is a clip from the Rome performance of “Hallucination City: A Symphony for 100 electric guitars”:
Part Two of this article will be posted here next week – stay tuned for 10 more groundbreaking moments in the grey area of popular and classical music!
On a personal note, I would like to add that I am promoting a chamber music concert in Copenhagen next week, where the programme goes from baroque, impressionism and modern to contemporary 20th century and completely new music including a version of Kraftwerk’s “Die Roboter” arranged for treated piano and amplified cello thrown in for good measure. The music is performed by Eriko Makimura & Co. More information about this special event here.
Before I’m away for a week, a belated catchup with a good post over at flavorwire.com (thanks to Peter Meanwell, breakfast researcher, Ligeti and ukulele fanatic, and Radio 3 producer, for alerting me to it) on the links between today’s indie scene and yesterday’s – well, and today’s – classical composers. Max Willens has come up with a quixotic concatenation of influences, from echoes of Stockhausen in a recent album from Dirty Projectors, John Adams’s subliminal inspiration on Owen Pallett and Arvo Pärt’s effect on Radiohead.
Pop music and classical music are supposed to be different worlds. Yet, in the last few years, the two have begun bleeding together again. On “Colouring of Pigeons,” from Swedish pop duo the Knife’s just-released album Tomorrow, In a Year, one can hear echoes of both Varèse’s Ionisation and Guillaume Dufay floating among metallic passages reminiscent of Björk. The album itself is the score to an opera about Charles Darwin, made in collaboration with avant-garde Berliner Mt. Sims and the British multimedia artist Planningtorock. It merges the artiness of musique concrète and minimalism with the grit of house music.