I've not got the power: cultural consumers and our wallets

As consumers, we should have a lot of power. It’s our money that companies want, our money for which marketing strategies are devised, to help us to part with our cash for things we either want or didn’t realise we wanted. (And sometimes things we didn't want that we knew we didn't want but still had foisted upon us anyway: viz, the critical backlash against U2's latest album appearing as a free 'gift' to users of iTunes. Ouch). Audiences are turned into commodities, entities with profiles and habits towards which companies can tailor their marketing campaigns to achieve maximum efficiency, that supermarkets can index and target with specific adverts for products relevant to particular consumer groups. Products are matched with relevant consumers, with advertising crafted to appeal specifically to them alone.


The culture industries are no exception to this: as consumers of culture, we are also labelled, profiled and targeted: how often have you been asked to fill out a questionnaire that came with a CD, or sign up for promotional features by an arts organisation’s website, or been confronted by a pop-up survey on a website saying ‘your views are important to us ?’


The cost of producing a cultural commodity for popular consumption is balanced against consumer group spending power: cost-effectiveness is key.  Ticket prices for concerts and exhibitions, the number of dates on a performing tour, number of nights’ run on a show: all these are factors in off-setting production costs against income recovered. Competition for audiences in the cultural sector must be huge.


If, as consumers, we are so important to arts industries, if companies and organisations are so desperate to attract our custom, and hence our cash, why aren’t we wielding more power ? Why aren’t promoters offering us things that we do want to visit, to see or hear ? Why isn’t competition for audiences and for ticket-sales translating into a Golden Age of Artistic Production and consumption ?

The loyalty-card schemes run by supermarkets are a tool for helping them define customers in terms of the products they purchase regularly. A person who buys nappies and powdered formula milk is probably a good target for money-off vouchers for baby food and clothing; but it’s getting harder to divide consumers so easily across the wider spectrum when looking at their cultural consumption. It’s easier to run a list of products someone purchases from a supermarket, and ascertain what they purchase regularly and what related products might be of interest. It’s perhaps less easy to do this with someone’s cultural predilections (unless companies can access one’s browsing history, and assuming one does most of one’s reading and listening on-line).


As Nicholas Garnham writes, ‘’What analysis of the cultural industries does bring home to us is the need to take the question [...] of cultural resources seriously, together with the question of audiences – who they are, how they are formed, and how they can best be served’ (my italics) (from ‘Concepts of Culture – public policy and the cultural industries’, printed in Gray and McGuigan, Studying Culture, 1993: 60-61). That last part is crucial: as far as dis-empowering the spending power of cultural audiences is concerned, companies are more likely to prefer ‘how they can best be manipulated.’


Why are we often dissatisfied with what we are offered ? One only has to read the critics’ columns in the papers to read of another disappointing exhibition, an artist’s newly-released album that’s a let-down or another mindless summer action blockbuster film.


Perhaps it’s complicated by the plurality of society, both in terms of consumer group identities as well as the multiple streams by which culture can be created and consumed. Society is too diverse in its interests to be formed into meaningful or significant groups, easily able to be defined. With everything from medieval music to Muse, Botticelli to Bacon, Chaucer to Chomsky, it’s difficult to define individual consumer bases as having a specific taste that makes them a marketing consultant’s dream: the intellectual who reads Schopenhauer, listens to Slipknot and Webern, is vegetarian, likes Studio Ghibli films and paintings by Monet would be a marketing nightmare. Television schedules, similarly, of course have to please as wide a spectrum of viewers as they can, and what is enjoyable to one is dross to another. Programming choices are going to upset somebody somewhere; but why appeal to the lowest-common denominator, when there is scope to engage, challenge, educate and entertain audiences, all of whom pay the same licence fee ? Why should one person's love of contemporary music be sacrificed by the axing of new pieces from Proms re-broadcasts on BBC4 for the sake of someone else's love of prog-rock docs ?


I don’t have a simple answer to the question of why we, as cultural consumers, don’t have more power in our wallets. Perhaps the realisation that we ought to is enough to start with. It’s time to start using our power more effectively. How we begin to do that is another question.

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Creating a contemplative space: Hush by David Lancaster

To mark today's birthday of composer David Lancaster, a brief look at the gently undulating setting, Hush,  a mesmerising reflection on the implications of Baba Ram Dass' famous saying 'The quieter you become, the more you are able to hear.' Lancaster draws out the contemplative state implied by the text in an appropriately hushed choral piece, which induces a suitably meditative state created by repetition. The piece suddenly blossoms as it reaches the second part phrase, unfurling some evocative colours.

Lancaster employs an antiphonal handling of the choral texture, with tenors and basses in a dialogue with sopranos and altos. Cascading lines lead off from the sopranos, creating lambent harmonic clouds, before the voices gradually subside, leaving a cluster-chord in the upper voices over the lower voices' slow fading away, still clinging to their initial phrase.

The harmonic vocabulary is richly colourful, reminiscent perhaps of Tarik O'Regan or Eric Whitacre, and undoubtedly sounds astonishing in a resonant (but not necessarily ecclesiastical) space.

Listen for yourself on SoundCloud here. And happy birthday, David Lancaster.

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Let's Get Lost: the thrill of the unknown in music

I was reminded of the title of Bruce Weber’s documentary on the life of Chet Baker, when reading John Terauds’ feature on Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach over on ‘Musical Toronto’ recently. The Glass-Wilson libretto-less opera was being given its Canadian première at the time, and Terauds asked if the work’s success is in part due to the fact that, as an audience, there is nothing that we have to understand in the work: as Wilson himself has apparently said, it’s ‘a work where you can go and get lost.’


As Terauds observes, ”I wonder how many people who buy tickets for a new piece of music or theatre, or who buy a novel from a first-time author — any situation where one can’t see beyond the curtain or the cover until the act of engaging with the creator(s) has begun — are able to commit such a leap of faith?”


In an age of high consumerism, where buyers demand value for money, contemporary art and contemporary music in particular can be a risky venture; putting on contemporary works and premières, launching new commissions, and performing new repertoire does seem to ask potential audiences to trust that they will be experiencing something worthwhile, something valuable which will widen their cultural horizons. There’s perhaps a feeling that, if consumers don’t know what they will be getting, then they’ll be unwilling to risk investing in a ticket for a concert when they aren’t familiar with the actual product beforehand. There is a certain sense in this: as purchasers, we don’t want to waste our money on something if we are unsure what it will provide; instead, we turn to those products with which we are already familiar, safe in the knowledge that we know what we’re in for, and that we like it.


But being uncertain about a concert, about a new piece, or about a new composer, can also be terrifically exciting. Instead of hearing the same old warhorse from the Austro-Germanic symphonic tradition that you’ve heard before, and instead of knowing in advance the range of emotional highs and lows that you customarily experience during a piece, your emotional spectrum is now a blank canvas, waiting to respond to a new work and to be led through a previously unchartered emotional landscape. With familiar works, you know that you’ll cry at that phrase, or start getting excited at that point where the brass come in, or that a particular chord or harmonic passage will make your heart stop; but with a new work, you don’t know where the music will take you.


Sometimes, you listen to pieces with which you are familiar because you want that emotional experience you know that piece provides. For me, it’s a particular phrase in Gabriel Jackson’s gloriously colourful motet O sacrum con vivium,for instance, that occurs four times, growing louder with each repetition until I find it overwhelming; the slow and stately opening to the final movement of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, with hypnotic piano chords and that yearning violin.
Or there’s the open horn-chord and urgent strings ostinato that kick-starts Walton’s First Symphony, or the ‘Infernal Dance’ in Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite that thrums with the menace of deep-throbbing strings and timpani, both of which immediately set the pulse racing. I turn to these pieces when I feel ready to experience the emotional odyssey they offer.


But there’s a sense of excitement in the new as well. I can still recall the first time I heard Antheil’s Ballet mecanique, George Crumb’s Black Angels, Reich’s The Desert Music; all concerts that will resonate with me for years.


In return for surrendering your certainty, there’s the potential for undergoing a new emotional experience, the chance to revel in a new sound-world and be taken both aurally and emotionally across a new, unchartered landscape. It may well require, as Terauds puts it, a ‘leap of faith;’ but the rewards can be worth it. Go to any music festival or concert offering the chance to hear new work; surrender your certainty, and be prepared for a new experience. You won’t be disappointed.

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Garden of earthly delights: Dai Fujikura's Ampere

The Minabel label offers an enchanting sonic odyssey through the musical landscapes of Dai Fujikura in Ampere, a collection which sees the composer’s constant hunger for musical expression take form in a range of compositions, from large-scale orchestral works to chamber music and pieces for solo instruments. Yet, as always, each piece offers the composer’s own distinct perspective on the forces for whom the piece is written, in his exploration of new expressive possibilities and extended techniques


The opening work is a case in point. Ampere is not traditional concerto, in which soloist is pitted against the orchestra; rather, the piano is the catalyst, evoking responses from the orchestra that reflect the various hues and textures the pianist draws from the instrument, extrapolated into a series of orchestral colours. Ultimately, though, the piano falls victim to the sympathetic responses it evinces from the orchestra, and amidst a breathless sea of fluttering pizzicato strings, is transformed from sonorous grand piano into a toy piano, whose exotic utterances are now limited in colour and scope; no longer able to provoke a range of replies from the orchestra, the toy piano falls silent, and the piece comes to a conclusion.

The shimmering orchestral textures of Stream State see the surface of the orchestra scintillating with shifting layers of material, pitching differing orchestral textures against one another in a constant state of change. Far from the homogenous, blended sound of a traditional symphony orchestra, the sound here is always in flux. A more sedate second section attempts to impose some semblance of unity across different families; low, restless brass, pizzicato strings, brittle percussion. The rest of the orchestra rises in revolt; sustained woodwind chords try to impart a centre, soon shouted down by a defiant tutti chord. Wisps of material dart elusively through the strings, to be answered by clattering percussion. Rasping brass drives a fomenting orchestra to a frenzy, before a strangely calm conclusion.

Balancing the larger-scale works are three pieces for solo instruments. The balletic grace of Fluid Calligraphy is painted in ethereal arabesques in an exploration of the full range of harmonics on a solo violin. In Poyopoyo, the solo French horn almost attains the state of being able to speak, in the fluttering, muted survey of its articulatory possibilities. For anyone familiar with the talking trombone of the teacher in those Charlie Brown cartoons from the seventies, this is a more refined, introspective version – the schoolteacher caught alone, in a reflective soliloquy. There’s mischief here too, though, with laughter often bubbling to the surface. The natural state of the horn’s soundworld is refashioned, like plasticine, handled like something ‘soft and squidgy’ (as the title translates) and moulded into something much more articulate. The solo instrument really is speaking its own language, if only we could just catch the words – the piece is beautifully executed with superb control in this recording by Nobuaki Fukukawa. Perla is a slow, often sensuous exploration of the expressive power of the bass recorder, employing flutter-tonguing and overblowing techniques as the instrument lurks lonely beneath the moonlight.

The gentle, diaphanous opening of the final piece on the disc, my butterflies, evokes an iridescent heat-haze; the texture gradually opens out, embracing muted brass chords, building to the first sustained vertical sonorities and a moment of release. Fujikura demonstrates (as elsewhere on this disc) his extraordinary ear for texture, for instrumentation that works to enhance as well as to draw out distinct differences between families of instruments.  An oboe and bassoon melody moves in slow, measured steps, underpinned by a sustained chord in the distance, leading to a sedate and serenely noble conclusion, reminiscent of Stravinsky. Of all the pieces on the disc, this is perhaps the most lyrical, the most expressive, permeated throughout by a hushed expectation – a reflection in part, maybe, of the initial inspiration for the work, Fujikura’s wife in the early stages of pregnancy.

Coming away from the disc, you are left with a sense that your ears have been opened to the experience of sound anew; Fujikura’s music, in its tightly-controlled expressive means allied with a wonderfully articulate textural language, opens the doors to sound in a manner which makes you listen with a renewed inquisitive sense. For all its surface-level industry and constant exploration of textural possibilities afforded by the instrument(s) for which the composer is writing, there emerges an overall unity of vision, a singular concept from Fujikura’s music; that of being enchanted by sound, of being enthralled by the sonic landscapes through which the music moves. The works on this new disc show his handling of instrumental forces continuing to broaden and mature, in his continuing investigation into new aural possibilities

Ampere is released on the Minabel label.

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What the flock: audiences for contemporary music

I was heartened by an article in The Guardian a couple of years ago, which proclaimed that ‘difficult’ concert programmes are attracting audiences in their droves, and that contemporary music audiences are actually in robust health. Alex Needham`s article painted a portrait of people turning out in their droves to a plethora of modern works being programmed over the ensuing months, from a festival of Minimalism in Scotland to political opera in Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer at ENO and to the Glass/Wilson libretto-less marathon, Einstein on the Beach.


People have been proclaiming the decline of contemporary classical music ever since the avant-garde were thought to have lost touch with their audiences in the twentieth century. The image of the high-minded composer writing difficult works, deliberately antagonistic to audiences, and uncaring as to whether people came to listen to them or not, is an enduring one, trotted out whenever pundits want to paint a depressing picture of an art-form increasingly in decline. Or so they would have us believe.


But contemporary composers aren`t like that anymore. It may have been desirable, in the middle of the last century, to write music in Darmstadt that sought to alienate listeners, and, as Needham mentions, if your concert attracted more than thirty people in the audience, it had to be immediately rejected as populist and therefore deplorable; but these days, composers are striking a balance between pursuing their own inner vision which may indeed involve a challenging musical language, with finding ways actually to draw audiences in, instead of turning them away.


Turnage in particular has managed to combine a musical vocabulary rich in wild textures and shrieking harmonies with a self-confessed love of James Brown, Tower of Power, jazz-funk and pop tunes to create pieces which audiences notice; Blood on the Floor, with its improvising jazz trio at the heart of a modern ensemble; the piece Hammered Out at the Proms in 2012 wrong-footed a few critics, who failed to notice its roots in Beyoncé when younger audiences got it immediately. Fair enough, his choice of salacious, head-line generating subject matter in the opera Anna Nicole (set to return to Covent Garden next week) may have been in part a shrewd move, but within the brash music he wrote for the piece, there lurk some affecting melodies, deft jazz writing, and even a moving aria or two in his exploration of celebrity and the destructive power of fame.


Festival programmers are responding to this desire for new music. The ravishing orchestra-meets-electronics vision of Jonathan Harvey was celebrated in a `Total Immersion` weekend at the Barbican; one was also devoted to Australian composer Brett Dean, and another on the music of the Estonian composer, Arvo Pärt, whilst recent events have celebrated Unsuk Chin and Thea Musgrave.


As the composer John Adams observes in his autobiography, there was a time when nineteenth-century concert-going audiences expected to hear new works at concerts, and were actually disappointed when they didn’t (Faber, 2008:48). Some shrewd programming by Simon Rattle, when at the helm of the CBSO, would see him sandwiching challenging modern works between classical staples of the repertoire, such that he was able to champion composers such as Turnage, keeping this tradition alive and cannily using programmes of better-known works to introduce audiences to contemporary pieces at the same time.


People will always proclaim the ‘death of classical music’ or harp on about its dwindling appeal and declining audience numbers. But a closer look at what’s happening across the UK suggests that the truth may be a lot healthier than you think.

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Two in perfect step: new album by Martin Speake

The latest CD from British saxophonist Martin Speake is a fertile offering of free improvisation, with music created on the spot in the white-heat of the recorded moment together with pianist Douglas Finch. Recorded almost in a single take, often without prior agreement on material, the album shows Speake in sparkling form, with Finch a perfect foil for his restless, yet lyrical, skirling improvisations.

Chorale proceeds in stately poise, with a highly flexible piano accompaniment moving in chords beneath Speake’s melodic line. Stück has an understated robustness, with solid pulsing chords supporting questing melodic shapes, which develops a bluesy character before the two instruments peel off into linear improvisations, chasing and leaping over each other with the agility of cats at play.

There’s a timelessness about the gesture which opens the beautifully lyrical Berceuse, echoed in the piano - two musicians absolutely in tune with one another; the melodic line in the saxophone unfurls slowly above a beautifully colourful, lulling accompaniment which eventually draws the piece to a close as it evaporates in a gossamer haze.  In contrast, the later Hoedownup bustles in with ceaseless movement, the two instruments locked in a kind of frantic grappling.

Speake’s unmistakeable, trademark lyricism is matched by the warm, impressionistic palette of Finch’s piano-playing. He has an enviable gift for linear, melodic improvisation; his lines have an organicism to them, a linear logic that gives them a sense of direction, of integrity. Listening to this disc, it’s difficult to believe that the music is spontaneously improvised, with little or no prior organisation.  There’s a shared musical language between the two instruments, an empathetic exploration of similar soundworlds that means both saxophonist and pianist are moving through the same landscape.

Speake’s career began in the fierce, no-holds-barred furnace of Itchy Fingers (a legacy you can hear in the wailing dissonance of the title track, a homage to Xenakis), moving on through various groups including the Change of Heart Group with the great pianist Bobo Stenson, to the current trio which includes the astonishing inventiveness of guitarist Mike Outram. Speake and Finch met through working at Trinity Laban, and this disc is a tremendous record of a serendipitous musical symbiosis.

Sound Clouds is available from Speake’s own label, Pumpkin Records.

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A new spirit abroad: are new music advocates growing in confidence ?

The reaction to the cutting, by the BBC, of new compositions from the re-broadcasting of Proms concerts on BBC4 has caused quite a stir; and the exciting thing is, it seems to be growing. 

Writers, performers and composers have all taken to newspapers and social media platforms to give voice to their outrage in a feverish outburst. Charlotte Higgins in The Guardian;  Chief Executive of Sound and Music, Susanna Eastburn also in The Guardian; pianist and teacher Frances Wilson in Sound and Music; Maxim Boon in Limelight magazine; the list goes on.  (There was also something from Lebrecht, but we needn't go into that).

As Master of the Queen's Music, Judith Weir, observed in Higgins' article: "There is a new spirit abroad.' Twitter has been awash with critical backlash from both established composers such as James Macmillan, as well as a distinct crop of emerging composers too. It feels as though there is a growing confidence in those prepared to stand up for contemporary music, a real vigour developing in their desire to fight its corner. 

The wonderful thing about building your own community on social media platforms such as Twitter is that you can see a trend emerge and develop, and even participate in dialogue and debate about those same trends too. Composers, journalists and performers have taken to social media to express their outrage as well as to broadsheet newspapers. Alex Ross, whose pen is sensitive to even the slightest twitch in the musical web, re-tweeted Susanna Eastburn's article too all the way from New York. Of course, the danger with creating that same online community is that it's all too easy to lose perspective, to be unable to see past the confines of your own Twitterverse and feel that the whole world is addressing your issue. But this feels different, as though it is attracting more and more voices, as though it is giving them the confidence to stand up and support the growing reaction to the situation.

New music has always had its detractors; for every Ezra Pound urging us to 'Make it New,' there is always a multitude of people ready to stand entrenched by the Old. But the rash of articles, features, blogposts, tweets, Facebook status updates and the like is blossoming rapidly at the moment, bearing an increasing momentum.

Trends, by definition, blossom and then fade; let's hope that this one mobilises the wider community of those of us passionately committed to contemporary music, and makes the establishment aware that we are here, we are growing more confident by the hour - and we won't stop championing the cause of today's music, the composers who give it voice and the audience that clamours to hear it.

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