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The audience new music needs

In Vienna in the 1860s, supporters of Brahms and Wagner fought in the streets over their musical differences. In Paris in 1913, the première of Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’ famously ended in a riot. While there have always been fights at popular music gigs, from skiffle to ragga, and between fans of different genres, these have never really been about the music itself, so much as adolescent machismo or gang rivalries. The idea of fighting over notes and chords is alien to contemporary culture, and the idea of fighting over classical notes and chords is laughable.

It was brave, then, of the spnm (society for the promotion of new music) to programme two evenings of music on the theme of ‘Riot’ earlier this month. Nonetheless, the intention behind the events, which took place at LSO St Lukes in London on 9 February, and at the RNCM in Manchester on 10 February, was serious. As artistic director Rolf Hind explained in the programme: ‘The kind of music I like – and make – is mostly seen as a rarified, and indeed sickly relative of its nowadays more popular brother. It wasn’t always so: in the nineteenth century Verdi’s music was the call to arms of Italian unification, and Paderewski, one of the great pianists, was such a hero he became Poland’s prime minister. Classical music had power.’ The aim of the Riot events was to remake the case for the power of music through performance and discussion, setting out a challenge: ‘can music change the world?’

This is about something different from the likes of Bono and Bob Geldof using their celebrity to raise awareness of political issues (or posturing on the international stage). It is about music’s ability to move people as music, as art. As Hind argues, ‘Music can thump tubs, start riots, influence subtly, be personal and political or simply show reality in the raw.’ No particular form of music has a monopoly on the aspiration to transcend mere entertainment (or any other function, from religious ritual to dancing) in this way, but wherever else it has arisen, this aspiration has always been central to classical music. This also means it can’t be ‘political’ in any straightforward or prescriptive way, however.

This problem came up in the discussion that concluded the Riot event in London, with Richard Thomas, who co-wrote Jerry Springer the Opera (which provoked demonstrations in 2005 by some who were offended by its treatment of Christianity), and composer and socialist, Richard Barrett. Barrett pointed out that the political controversy about Thomas’ work had hinged on the lyrics rather than the music itself, raising the question of whether the ‘protest’ even in more explicit protest music is ever strictly musical. Tellingly, Barrett objected to the fact that the singer’s voice had been electronically distorted in the evening’s performance of Frederic Rzewski’s piece ‘Coming Together’, so that the text – taken from a letter by one of the prisoners killed during the 1971 Attica Prison riots in the US – was obscured. Barrett argued that this had diminished the political message, and by implication, the meaning of the piece. The music itself was not enough for the piece to be political.

All the music at the Riot event was performed by the percussion group Backbeat, accompanied by the mezzo-soprano Loré Lixenberg, and the choice of music was limited accordingly. But a case could be made that, text aside, percussion has more potential than most instrumentation to sound viscerally political. Indeed, the piece that came closest to sounding political on the evening was ‘Lonquén’ by the Chilean composer Sergio Ortega. Ortega himself perhaps comes closest to fitting the description of ‘political composer’, having written music for the Chilean socialist movement in the early 1970s, and most famously the anthem, ‘El pueblo unido jamás será vencido’ (The People United Will Never Be Defeated). ‘Lonquén’ was written in response to the discovery at Lonquén in 1978 of dozens of bodies hidden there after the military coup of 1973. It is based on Mapuche music, and is fiercely rhythmical, with angry chanting and blasts on a conch shell. Even without knowing the background to the piece, one feels a powerful sense of anger at injustice. Moreover, the music builds to a climax perhaps suggestive of popular mobilisation.

This may be stretching things a bit, though. Ultimately, what made Ortega’s music political was its original social context, including most importantly its audience. Much as we might (or might not) sympathise with the late struggles of the Chilean people, we are not that audience. Similarly, we can glimpse the spiritual yearning in Bach’s cantatas, but that music cannot meaningfully be described as religious when it is performed in secular concert halls to audiences of non-believers. Though we can identify the political aspect of Ortega’s music, it simply does not serve a political function when we listen to it in London in 2007. Nor should it. In both cases the original function has been transcended, and the music is experienced as music. In fact, it is only having done this that it can move as as individuals in very different social contexts from that in which is was composed and first realised. We are never going to be moved by Ortega’s music in quite the way we might have been as hopeful participants in Chile’s socialist movement in the early seventies, or as angry veterans of its subsequent defeat. But because it is good music, we can still be moved by it in a less immediate, and more objective, way.

This objective, universal quality, is what gives music the power Rolf Hind describes. It is important not to confuse music’s universalism with ‘accessibility’, however. Classical music can be experienced and appreciated across historial periods and continents, irrespective of one’s age, ethnicity or social background. But it isn’t necessarily easy. Of course, it’s possible to be carried away by great tunes and luscious sounds; the use of classical music in adverts is testament to that. But it can be hard work to really ‘get’ classical music. It takes persistence to appreciate it fully, and deliberate study to understand it really well. Even then, one’s expectations will often be confounded by genuinely new music. Consequently, there is not always a ready audience, especially for experimental music that is by its nature unfamiliar and strange.

Such is the low profile of a new ‘classical music’ in today’s culture that we don’t even have a satisfactory name for it. It isn’t classical, for a start. Even if we accept ‘classical’ as a blanket term including Baroque and Romantic as well as strictly Classical music, it just sounds daft when applied to genuinely innovative music, and the paradox is hardly resolved by calling it ‘contemporary classical’. There’s ‘serious music’, but that upsets other kinds of musicians, and implies a po-faced sobriety on the part of those involved in ‘serious music’.

As the Riot event showed, this is not compulsory. Claudia Molitor’s ‘Leek’ was a sort of musical comedy sketch, in which two performers struck triangles with various objects (not, in fact, including a leek). A theatrical quality fleetingly reminiscent of Samuel Beckett, as the performers proposed each object to one another before employing it, and our genuine curiosity about how each would sound, made the short piece quite engaging. Comedy can be a tricky path to go down, though. ‘Events Unfold’, by Backbeat’s own Damien Harron, was described in the programme as ‘dadaistic’, and it was certainly odd. By accident or design, the piece drew attention to a certain awkwardness in the audience, a lack of certainty about how to respond. This is a crucial problem for new music in general.

With a percussionist ensconced in a cocoon of paper and foil, and the singer wielding ever more absurd bits of percussion as she chirped meaninglessly, it was not long before stifled laughter could be heard in the audience, soon giving way to open guffaws from some. But others looked round disapprovingly, or simply bemused. I’m pretty sure the piece is supposed to be funny, and those who did laugh were generally responding to the performance rather than laughing at the performers, but I for one was more irritated than tickled. The problem is that what was happening on stage was only funny because of the situation: it depended on the bulk of the audience’s reverence for the concert setting so that it could be irreverent. Anyone expecting a comedy show would not have been amused.

There are certain short pieces in the classical repertoire, funny little ditties often played as encores, that you are allowed to laugh politely at; indeed, audiences often seem to exaggerate their amusement as if to show they get it. ‘Leek’ was a bit like that, but ‘Events Unfold’ was more ambiguous, and because this was a concert of new, experimental music, the audience could not be sure what was expected of us; hence the awkward and varied response. For most people, who never attend new music concerts, the whole evening would have seemed pretty funny. Indeed, the first two pieces, with their more conventional ‘operatic’ vocal style juxtaposed with frenetic percussion and megaphones, would probably have done it for the average school party. New music audiences have to give the benefit of the doubt to the composer and performers – this was amply rewarded in several of the pieces (especially the first two, in fact, by Paul Fretwell and Peter Edwards), but this one left me with the uncomfortable feeling of being on the outside of an in-joke.

That at least made ‘Events Unfold’ interesting, though, and highlighted the importance of the audience in making a performance. What matters is not simply bums on seats, but the engagement of a particular audience made up of people who understand and are sympathetic to the music. In negative terms, this audience can be seen as an elite, or a clique, but in fact all art depends, at least in the first instance, on a committed audience that by its nature excludes the uninitiated. It is only elitist in a negative sense if that exclusion is on the basis of social class or some other non-musical criterion. Elite arts in a positive sense are open to anyone willing to experiment with something new and work a bit at it. New music lacks such an audience, or perhaps more accurately its audience lacks coherence, and new music consequently lacks the agreed standards and conventions even the most avant garde arts need to flourish. (A clash of different standards, such as that between the music of Brahms and Wagner, requires that each has some internal consistency, and preferably a following.) Events like Riot are valuable opportunities to build some coherence by bringing together new composers and performers with the interested public to listen and talk about what music means to us all. The problem is that there are very few ‘events like Riot’.

One other interesting forum for new music is Rational Rec, ‘a monthly inter-art social occasion, incorporating sound, music, text, performance, film and psychological experiments’, held at Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club in east London. February’s event was focused on ‘New Rational Music’, with performances of six new works by British composers. The music was very much at the experimental end of the spectrum. Joanna Bailie’s ‘On and Off’, for example, consists of six radios being turned on and off in different combinations, while John Lely’s ‘Second Symphony’ involved about a dozen players sitting a circle and making one sound each. Interesting, but again, it is not clear how to respond to or judge music like this.

The great merit of Rational Rec, however, is that it has the feel of a real scene, and a lively one at that. The organisers, composers and performers mingle freely with the audience, which clearly includes many of their friends and colleagues. This is an important point – it would surely be better even if the audience were entirely made up of friends and family than if the musicians were unable to get their own mates along. In sharp contrast to most classical music concerts, there was no gulf between the ages of the performers and those attending, no sense of young musicians dutifully providing a service for an ageing classical music audience. Most people who attend Rational Rec are young, but by no means all. More importantly there is a sense of a shared enterprise – everyone is curious and wants to experience new stuff. This is fertile soil for the kind of discussion and dispute through which listeners can attribute real meaning to music, in such a way that it can then be approached by a wider audience. Again, my only complaint is that there isn’t enough of this going on throughout London and beyond.

There is an analogy to be made with fringe theatre, which has a relatively healthy scene in London, which multiplies at festivals like the Edinburgh Fringe. In particular, BAC’s use of ‘scratch’ performances of work-in-progress is a deliberate attempt both to foster and to take advantage of informal networks, comprising theatre groups, their friends and acquaintances, in order to get sympathetic feedback (see BAC-chat: critics, audiences and the importance of the café bar). Before new theatre can mean anything to a broadsheet critic, it has to mean something to the people who make it, and to its immediate audience, and the same is true of new music. The same is true of all artforms, though the process through which meaning is attributed and judgements begin to be made inevitably takes different forms.

Before any artform can be universal, it has to be particular. It is particular scenes or artistic milieux that give birth to new ideas, and also keep a tradition alive; without them, tradition quickly degenerates into heritage. The problem facing classical music today can be seen in the stark divide between the still-loved but ageing tradition and the intriguing but fragile and unapproachable new. There is no reason to despair, however. Events like those put on by spnm and Rational Rec show that it is still possible to bring people together to listen to and talk about new music. This is a time for experimentation, and there are plenty of people who are curious about new music and prepared to discuss and argue about it.

The best new music will of course transcend the particular milieu that spawns it. It will take on a life of its own, moving people in unexpected ways. They might or might not riot. But music is not the only sphere in need of some experimentation. It is when the new music scene or scenes start to interact with people who are developing new ideas in literature, in science, and above all in politics, that things will really get interesting.

First published on Culture Wars.