Resounding success?

Last week SDG put a link on Facebook to a very stimulating article entitled ‘Classical Music hits a High Note’ which claims (against much conventional received opinion) that, far from being in its death throes, classical music is currently on a surprising upcurve. The evidence? 33 million views for the YouTube Symphony Orchestra finale, a 13% jump in classical CD sales in 2011 compared to 2010 and the burgeoning production of new recordings by orchestras with their own in-house labels.

What is going on here? Does this mean brighter times are ahead for classical music which is now, the author of the article claims, ‘in tune with the masses’? I am always somewhat wary of simplistic analyses, but these figures certainly deserve investigation, even if it should be said that any enthusiasm at a 13% increase in sales compared to 2010 needs to be tempered by a recognition that the portion of the musical market represented by classical sales remains marginal.

MacMillan-St-John-Passion-cover-300x295The recent proliferation of self-produced orchestral recordings, such as those released in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s highly successful ‘Resound’ or the London Symphony Orchestra’s ‘LSO Live’ series, is one interesting trend that merits consideration. Does it mean that orchestral music is now flourishing in a new way, as the article seems to suggest, entering an era in which the shots are no longer called by major record labels, in which recordings can be channeled directly by the performers to an audience empowered with ‘a sense of ownership and belonging’?

Here I think there are grounds both for optimism and caution with regard to such democratizing talk. On one hand, there is definitely a positive aspect to the loosening of the exclusive hold of the majors over the recording of orchestral repertoire (a consequence of the technological advances of the last decade which mean that the equipment required to produce professional-quality audio is now basically accessible to anyone with a laptop, a few software tools and a little know-how) and the by-passing of layers of middle management.  On the other hand, it is perhaps stretching things somewhat to see the creation of record labels by prestigious symphony orchestras as a genuine democratization of musical production: it is important to recognize that we are after all still talking about powerful corporate organizations with multi-million dollar budgets which can hardly be compared to podcasters with USB microphones operating out of their basements.

Even if audio production tools themselves now cost next to nothing, creating music in the professional orchestral and operatic world remains a hugely expensive business by the very virtue of the scale of the human forces and price of the instruments involved in performance. These expenses, linked to the spiralling costs associated with classical music’s love affair with the glamour of star performers, of course mean that in-house labels on their own are not going to stave off the orchestral bankruptcies and threats of closure about which there have been incessant reports on both sides of the Atlantic over the last few years. Assuming that it is desirable for symphony concerts to be affordable to a general public rather than restricted to an elite, the reality is that the future of orchestral music remains dependant on large-scale philanthropy or state subsidies (the latter being the condition of possibility of the laudable commitment to recording less well-known early twentieth-century music by the BBC Philharmonic, one of the orchestras mentioned in the article). To the extent that public and private sector giving are clearly both under intense pressure in the current economic climate, any talk of a new dawn for orchestral culture requires substantial qualification.

Nonetheless, the broader point that the article seems to be making about the positive potential for both producers and listeners of innovation in the area of recording still stands. World-famous orchestras are not the only ensembles to have established their own labels, a strategy which has been used to positive effect by choirs, chamber groups and festivals (such as the pioneering Louth Contemporary Music Society in Ireland) determined not to allow their artistic vision to be constrained by limited budgets.

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Equally, if saying that classical music is now ‘in tune with the masses’ may be something of an exaggeration, it is indisputable that it is now available to a greater number of listeners than ever before, especially if the discussion is expanded to include those whose primary interface with music is via digital media. Here it should be remembered – especially by performing musicians and orchestral management who are used to thinking of their audience in terms of those physically present in a concert hall – that this group dwarfs concert-goers in numerical terms. Through recordings, high-quality classical music now reaches many people who have never attended a professional orchestral concert in their lives (a large proportion of the 33 million YouTube viewers, I would suspect). These include those living outside striking range of the large urban centres in which orchestral music is almost exclusively performed, those for whom concert-going is prohibitively expensive, those intimidated or repulsed by the socio-economic connotations of attending a classical concert, the hospitalized and other shut-ins (a significant if little talked-about group of listeners to whom we need to pay more heed, as I have observed elsewhere on this blog)… Perhaps the entry of these diverse and sizeable populations into the orbit of classical music is an area in which we can speak of a genuine democratization and empowerment that is very much in process.

Cries and whispers

Where I feel that the article requires some complementary discussion is in the exclusivity of its focus on the rôle of large, visible institutions in shaping classical music’s future. Important though they may be, music is after all not merely about ‘hitting the high notes’ of public success demonstrated by tangible statistics such as CD sales and box-office takings.  One of the greatest benefits offered to classical music by affordable recorded media has surely been the lease of life brought by recordings to music focused on the invisible, for which the element of ‘spectacle’ in live performance is more of a distraction from musical communication rather than anything else. The game-changing contribution of ECM to classical music over the last three decades is a remarkable testimony to what might be termed the ‘comeback of the private’. Labels such as Manfred Eicher’s have brought to light much music of great intrinsic value which is simply not primarily destined for the limelight of the concert stage or opera house, but which can come into its own in a recorded environment in which the intimacy of a Schubert Impromptu or a Silvestrov Bagatelle is not going to be lost in an over-sized auditorium or shouted out by the sound and fury of Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben. Values such as subtlety of phrasing, delicacy of touch, nuance of instrumental colour and attention to the space between the notes can now be appreciated as perhaps never before – values all the more vital to genuine music-making for being so counter-cultural.

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I am not at all arguing here – in contrast to the position taken by, for example, Louis Andriessen as an angry young radical back in the 1970s – that the future for classical music lies in dismantling symphony halls and other centralized musical institutions. Though enormously costly, the corporate ritual of an orchestral concert remains a powerful event, one which can still have a meaningful place in public life in the same way as a stadium gig by U2 or an open-air Mass during the World Youth Days (without going into the rights and wrongs of the case, the current fracas caused by the Proms concert protest against the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra is proof that some people at least feel that the symphonic concert is something worth caring about). For all the ambivalence of the dynamics of the music ‘industry’, I do not consider it sentimental to believe that the symphony orchestra is more than a cultural white elephant draining precious resources that would be better used elsewhere. Like any large corporate entity, it retains potential as a force for good in terms of enhancing social cohesion around values of genuine beauty and the realisation of a common project that is more than the sum of its parts (even if it needs to be acknowledged that all such corporate entities have the negative potential of degenerating into de-humanizing systems which can and have frequently been harnassed to darker, totalitarian agendas, as the appropriation of the symphonic tradition by both the Third Reich and the Soviet Union makes all too plain).

There is however surely an important truth in the remark I have quoted elsewhere made by Valentin Silvestrov and cited by Arvo Pärt – both composers whose most important artistic statements are frequently uttered in whispers rather than shouted in public – that ‘nowadays great music isn’t made in concert palaces. Instead, it is created in lofts, basements, and garages.’ Here, my intuition tells me that the advent of recording technology has, like so many human achievements, proved a double-edged sword. On one hand it has undoubtedly played a negative role in generating the omnipresent noise and bluster that characterizes late modernity in an urban Western context. On the other, it has more positively also enabled an increasing number of us to hear that bluster’s whispered opposite, a still small voice that might otherwise have been drowned out in our era of sensory overload.

Whether we can recover the interior silence necessary to pay attention to the message of that voice is another matter.

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