Celebrity Silence

Posted by Susan Tomes on 14 December 2015 under Concerts, Musings  •  3 Comments

I have been haunted this week by articles about the New York collaboration between ‘performance artist’ Marina Abramovic and pianist Igor Levit. You can read all about it here. Basically, Marina Abramovic seeks to ‘get the audience into a different state of mind’ in preparation for a performance by Igor Levit of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. She summons people to relinquish their phones, watches, tablets, laptops and don noise-cancelling headphones while they sit silently for half an hour ‘in cloth deck chairs designed to Ms Abramovic’s specifications’ before the music begins. ‘They want to listen to Bach, so they have to suffer’, she comments drily.

I discussed this conceit with a few colleagues. We were all afraid it would be greeted rapturously by the very people who usually say they don’t go to classical concerts because they hate being told to sit still and keep quiet.

Most classical musicians crave an atmosphere of silence and concentration. To put it simply, the painstaking work involved in considering and perfecting every tiny musical nuance just isn’t worth it if the details aren’t heard. So with mind-over-matter and body language, performers try to create a powerful focus. In recent years, efforts to foster this have included asking the audience to stifle their coughs and turn off their phones. Some players have remonstrated with noisy audience members from the stage. Though some applaud them for doing so, others find them pompous.

The custom of sitting quietly and paying attention in classical concerts is the single most often-cited reason why the public resents them. I’ve lost count of the complaints about the ‘stuffy’ concert-hall and the ‘old-fashioned’ request to keep still and refrain from texting or tweeting. In fact, in the search for listeners, most musicians have desperately been trying to think of ways they can ‘loosen up’ this allegedly stuffy atmosphere – encouraging the audience to bring in drinks, dress down, move about.

So what are we to make of the fact that a celebrity performance artist is lionised for making the audience surrender their phones and watches and sit in enforced silence for half an hour? And how should we respond when a starry-eyed audience tells us the experience was revelatory?

Life with and without managers

Posted by Susan Tomes on 25 November 2015 under Concerts, Daily Life, Musings  •  Leave a comment

While baking a cake this morning, I listened to an excellent BBC Radio 4 programme, ‘The Joy of 9 to 5’, about managers. Presenter Lucy Kellaway investigated what managers actually do, and introduced us to some new approaches to management, emanating in particular from the United States.

Some American companies act on their belief that a happy and fulfilled person is more likely to make a good contribution at work. Therefore, some companies will pay for employees to learn a new hobby, such as how to play the guitar, or even how to fly a plane. The company might also pay for a family holiday to a special place a team member has always wanted to visit.

The programme pointed out that many people have little control over what happens at work, and are very conscious that their efforts go towards making someone else rich. Employees’ sense of boredom or imprisonment often leads them to put creative energy into flouting the rules or getting away with less work than they could be doing. It makes sense to tackle any potential alienation by giving team members a sense of control and influence, or by facilitating their non-work-related dreams, in the belief that (for example) an employee who’s just been to Morocco at the firm’s expense is more likely to work with a will and be nice to everyone when they get back. In a way you could say this approach is just another form of calculation about how to extract meaningful work from employees, but what a wonderfully constructive way to do it!

Lucy Kellaway ended by saying that she has always worked for conventional organisations and is willing to exchange autonomy for the pleasant knowledge of having no responsibility. She concluded that being managed by someone is actually better than being managed by everyone. I was struck by this because I’ve never worked for a conventional organisation. All my music groups were ‘managed by everyone’ in a very hit-and-miss way. We all had influence, but were sometimes not very wise about how to use it. Nobody ever brought modern American-style managerial principles to our lives or worked out how to get the best out of us. We all did actually give of our best, whenever we could. But this morning I found myself thinking that these new approaches to creating happy team members would be a great thing to experience.

Reaching out to new audiences

Posted by Susan Tomes on 13 November 2015 under Concerts, Musings  •  3 Comments

I’ve just finished reading James Rhodes’s book Instrumental. Nobody can put down the book without feeling intense sympathy for him and admiration for the way he’s turned his traumatic experiences into positive motivation for life as a concert pianist. No-one can doubt his love for the music he plays, or his skill in communicating his feelings about it.

All the same, I couldn’t help feeling stung by his many comments about the failure of classical music to reach out to new audiences. James writes extensively about how he blames classical musicians, promoters and agents for the fact that classical music remains a niche interest. He castigates them for not trying to do things differently, for being stuffy and stuck in patterns of the past, for not realising that today’s audiences need a new approach.

If it were as simple as that, I would have to put my hand up and say ‘Mea culpa’. But the fact is that I, and all my classical colleagues, have tried very hard to reach out to new audiences, and have been trying for years. I and my colleagues in Domus devoted several years of our lives during the 1980s to taking classical music in a tent to new audiences in unlikely places. Although our standard of performance was very high, we had almost no money, no grants, no opportunity for the modern exposure of mass media, no agent eager to exploit the possibilities we presented. Many classical musicians in the years since have played in schools, in universities, in community centres, art galleries, train station concourses, prisons, old people’s homes. We’ve experimented with different clothing styles. We’ve tried different seating plans and concerts of different lengths.

We’ve done crossover collaborations, pre-concert events, late night concerts. We have commissioned new music.  We have talked to our audiences. We have collaborated with young musicians. We have played for free. Every classical performer I know devotes time to ‘outreach work’, and we all know that it’s important.

It’s hard to analyse the situation. Today’s audiences for popular music, particularly young audiences, are highly attuned to image, personality, ‘human interest’ stories and the cult of celebrity as expressed on social media. James is a master of all this. If all classical musicians were to become skilled in these ways, would a mass audience for classical music miraculously appear? I doubt if it’s as simple as that.

Next Thursday at Glasgow University

Posted by Susan Tomes on 23 October 2015 under Concerts, Musings  •  2 Comments

I’ve been looking forward to performing Beethoven’s song cycle ‘An die ferne Geliebte’ with tenor Jamie MacDougall next week at Glasgow University’s lunchtime concert series. Admission to this popular series is free by the way!

Unfortunately Jamie has had to pull out of next week’s concert, so at short notice I’ll be converting it into a lecture-recital about Beethoven’s opus 109 piano sonata. I was going to play it anyway, as part of the programme, but now I’m going to speak about it as well. Come along on Thursday 29th at 1.10pm if you can.

I’ve done a lecture-recital about this sonata a couple of times recently, but each time it has come out differently, according to the size of venue and the type of audience. I suppose it is no surprise that, in an intimate venue where the front row of the audience is practically knee to knee with me when I turn to speak, and I can see their facial expressions, it feels appropriate to speak about some of the more inward aspects of the music. In a larger venue where the audience’s faces are distant and dimly lit, you find yourself speaking more about history and context.

I did one talk in a very large venue where I realised I’d need a microphone. It was my first experience of the so-called ‘Madonna’ headset, hooked around the ears like a pair of reversed spectacles with the connecting wire running around the back of the head. A fine wire with a microphone on the end of it curls forward, around the wearer’s right cheek. I felt very self-conscious, especially when playing the piano, in profile to the audience.

I said to one of the stage technicians that it made me feel like a pop musician. He replied kindly that it must be quite a fun experience for me to feel like a pop star for a few minutes. In fact, it was fun, not because I felt like a pop star (a few things would have to change before that transformation could occur) but because it was my first experience of being able to turn my head any way I liked without losing contact with the microphone (with a ‘lapel mic’ or a handheld mic there’s always this danger).

Once I’d got over the odd feeling of the headset, and the startling sensation of hearing my own voice booming out over the faraway speakers, it was quite relaxing to be able to speak at whatever level I wanted. And the invisibility of the ‘Madonna’ headset was proven when a member of the audience said to me afterwards, ‘I could hear every word you said extremely clearly, and yet you weren’t even using a microphone. Bravo!’

‘The other classical musics’

Posted by Susan Tomes on 18 October 2015 under Books, Musings  •  1 Comment

Yesterday’s Guardian Review carried a fascinating article by Michael Church, editor of ‘The other classical musics – fifteen great traditions’, a new assortment of essays by Church and other world music experts published by Boydell Press (who also publish my books). As well as describing great musical traditions, Church points out that because of changing geo-political realities, many of those traditions are endangered, or are even being driven out of existence.

Many parts of the world have their own ‘classical musics’ which owe their existence to a combination of supporting circumstances – “classical music will typically evolve in a stable society where a wealthy class of connoisseurs has sponsored its creation by professionals. It will have had the time and space to develop rules of composition and performance, and to allow the evolution of a canon of works, or forms”, Michael Church writes.

He refers to the belief that there is a ‘religious’ element to this type of music, its composers, performers and listeners seeking to be in touch with higher forces. “The image of music coming down from the gods, and being sent back up to them – with professional performers as bearers of the sacred flame – is to be found in every civilisation.” This very belief has made various kinds of classical music – and musicians – vulnerable.

A few years ago I thought of writing a similar book. I set my Google search to deliver up articles about classical music wherever they appeared. The result was a frankly alarming cascade of laments from around the world. People reported their fear that local forms of ‘classical music’ were fading away. Sometimes there was a ray of hope in the form of an initiative to keep classical traditions alive by setting up after-school clubs to teach the music and the instruments to children. But equally often there was no after-school club, just an interview with an elderly master of an instrument that nobody else in the village knew how to play.

I started to keep notes on countries where ‘classical music’ was endangered, but the list became long and I began to realise that the reasons for the situation were too varied and complex for a non-expert like me to explain. But the whole picture is still of great interest to me, so I am glad that ‘The other classical musics’ has been published, even if I felt sober after reading the end of Michael Church’s article:

“Folk musics will continue to burst forth as they always have done. But with classical music, what we have may be all we’ll get, so we should treasure it.”