Monthly Archives: February 2013

Cultural prosperity is not a numbers game

Sir Peter Bazalgette, incoming Chairman of Arts Council England

We live, as a certain salmon-hued daily newspaper likes to remind us, in financial times.  It is no secret that the austerity measures being implemented by more or less every major government around the world has put the squeeze on national arts budgets.  Arts Council England (ACE), for instance, had its budget cut by £11.6m in December last year, on top of a 30% reduction announced in 2010.  These would appear to be dark days for the arts.

On the Today Programme this morning, Sir Peter Bazalgette – who, as incoming chairman of the ACE, will need to make the case to the government against any future spending cuts – was defiant.  The arts, he said, “inspire us, they enlighten us, they are a massive contribution to our eduction – but they are also a fantastic contributor to our economy.  They are part of the offer of tourism, and regional regeneration, and employment and training.”

Echoing an interview in yesterday’s Observer, he pointed to the overwhelming success of “that marvellous celebration of the arts and culture of Britain,” the opening and closing ceremonies of last year’s London Olympics, whose overseers Danny Boyle and Stephen Daldry both kicked off their careers in regional theatre.  Meanwhile, the Bafta- and Oscar-winning film musical Les Misérables got its start, we were told, on stage at the RSC in 1985.  (Actually, it got its start in a book in France in 1862, but let’s not split hairs.)  In another profile in Saturday’s Daily Mail, Bazalgette cited yet another cultural success story in the form of Margate’s recently opened Turner Contemporary gallery, visited by “an incredible 500,000 people in its first year, resulting in an estimated £13.9 million in economic benefit.”

Bazalgette, by all accounts, is a shrewd and likeable operator, but he faces an uphill battle to overcome the scepticism that greeted his appointment – scepticism based largely on his notorious reputation as the man who inflicted Big Brother on British audiences during his time at Endemol Productions.  For the moment, I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that his heart is in the right place – he has after all been a long time supporter, board member and (now) chairman of English National Opera.

Nevertheless, he continues a refrain spouted by many an arts bureaucrat, and one which I find concerning.  By emphasising the financial achievements of the arts in this country, he is lending weight to the notion that, for arts investment to be considered a success, it should be able to demonstrate sound economic benefit.

Perhaps the arts really are a solid financial bet, as Sir Peter suggests.  But making the case for them on that basis is foolhardy, for two reasons.  Firstly, it is very easy to point to other areas of government spending that, in purely financial terms, offer a better return on investment.  Spending on infrastructure, scientific research, or on healthcare will easily outperform spending on the arts in terms of measurable economic reward.  And secondly, nobody who cares deeply about the arts – not those who create it, nor those who consume it, nor those who support it – care one jot about its financial benefits.

Art appeals to the emotional, creative side of our brains: the (somewhat misleadingly named) ‘right brain’.  Economic concerns, meanwhile, are rooted in the logical, critical thinking side of our brains, known as the ‘left brain’.  Our lives are made bearable only by the stimulation of both these parts of our brains, which we might equally call the ‘spiritual’ and the ‘rational’ sides.

Yet, despite the nourishment our brains undoubtedly receive from the arts, it is often difficult to rationalise their role in our lives.  Art, after all, brings us no material comfort: it does not feed or clothe us or keep us warm during the winter.  Nor does it offer us security, success or attractiveness to other members of our species.  Its rewards are less tangible, and therefore less quantifiable.

But how does it benefit the local community?

So why then do the Bazalgettes of this world constantly seek to make appeals on behalf of the arts using purely rational arguments?  Artistic expression, and the value generations to come will place on that expression, is not something that can be easily measured.  If anything, attempts to measure the ‘success’ of art are likely to a stifle it.  A composer friend of mine once mused that the surest way to kill creative work “so that it dies beyond all reach of light” is to fill in a funding application form for it.  Is it coincidence, I wonder, that so many of the revered artists of the past lived in poverty and/or obscurity?  Vincent van Gogh – whose work nowadays sells for upwards of £50m a pop – sold just a single painting during his lifetime for 400 francs.  Would he ever have received Arts Council funding?  How would he have justified the “benefits” of his art on a form, I wonder?

I find it telling that in Germany – where the arts have long been viewed as having their own intrinsic value, rather than being seen as just another means to attract tourists, or rebuild communities, or garner Academy Awards – the culture budget this year is being increased by 8%.  That’s against an overall reduction in government spending of 3.1%.  Announcing the increase, the German culture minister Bernd Neumann, described it as “an essential investment in the future of our society”.

And that, to me, is just it.  When you invest in the arts, you are investing in riches you cannot begin to conceive of today.  A mere handful of people might have seen Leonardo da Vinci’s unassuming portrait of Florentine housewife Lisa del Giocondo during his lifetime; but five hundred years later, 6 million people a year visit the Louvre to examine the Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile.  That sense of permanence, of universal and timeless significance – that is the true value of art.   And that is the point Peter Bazalgette should be making: with arts funding, you may not see a five year return on your investment – but you will enrich people’s lives for centuries to come.

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Maria João Pires realises she’s turned up with the wrong concerto

I had the great good fortune to hear Maria João Pires in concert last night, performing Beethoven’s 2nd Piano Concerto with the London Symphony Orchestra under Bernard Haitink.  Pires is one of a handful of pianists working today whose performances are always worth seeking out, even if she is performing something you really didn’t think you liked.  I’ve always felt fairly ambivalent about Beethoven’s 2nd Piano Concerto, for instance, having previously written it off as ‘the boring one’ – despite the number, it is the earliest of Beethoven’s concertos, the least revolutionary, the least packed with good tunes or Beethovenian touches.  But Pires played as though it was the greatest concerto ever written, and for the length of her performance, that’s exactly what it felt like.

As if further proof of her consummate artistry were needed, a friend has just forwarded me this remarkable video, in which you can see the horror on her face as she realises the orchestra has begun playing a different Mozart concerto to the one she was expecting.  This isn’t during a rehearsal either – this is during the concert itself.  Conductor Riccardo Chailly assures her it will all be all right and, with some considerable effort, she manages to gather herself together during the orchestral introduction, before beginning what sounds like a typically beautiful account of K.466.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CJXnYMl_SuA]

What an incredible artist.  And what luck she wasn’t supposed to be playing Beethoven’s Fourth.

Musical appreciation is a function of conditioning

Turn it off!

Here’s something that will tickle those of us whose taste in music runs the gamut from “noisy” to “for heaven’s sake, can you turn that bloody racket off, it’s making my ears bleed”.  Ever heard the argument that certain types of music are just objectively nicer to listen to than others?  That certain harmonic patterns are superior to other ones?  That your love of the spicy stuff goes against some kind of musical “natural order”?

Well, now Australian researchers have shown that your ability to enjoy certain types of music is a product of nurture rather than nature.  It seems that the brain’s ability to comprehend and appreciate certain types of harmonies is not, as was previously suspected, a characteristic of the harmonies themselves, but in fact a function of conditioning.  In other words, if you were brought up in a house filled with free jazz, you are much more likely to find free jazz pleasant to listen to.  The same, I imagine, goes for Schoenberg.

According to Associate Professor Neil McLachlan, who led the study at the University of Melbourne, subjects found it easier to distinguish individual notes within compositions if they were familiar with the harmonies.  If the harmonies were new to their ears, they found it hard to hear individual notes and therefore found the music “unpleasant”.

The good news is that with only ten short sessions of “conditioning”, subjects were more able to find notes within unusual chords, and thus began to find such music more appealing.  So it turns out all that Xenakis and Stockhausen they made us listen to at University did open our ears.

More on this story here.

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What’s in a name?

Aerith from Final Fantasy VII. On a classical music blog. Yep.

“Classical music” is an awful, awful term.  It’s meaningless at best, and downright confusing at worst.  Have you ever tried to explain to someone what classical music is?  Or what specifically defines a piece of music as “classical”?  It’s an impossible task.

I find myself caught up in this quandary whenever I feel the need to establish that something isn’t classical music.  Usually it’s Classic FM who inspire me with this this foolish need to define and distinguish.  I’ve just found out that at the end of last year, Classic FM listeners did their annual purist-baiting trick of voting something not-really-all-that-classical into their Hall of Fame.  This time, following a committed campaign by a video games journalist, the 16th best-loved classic was unveiled as. . .  “Aerith’s Theme from Final Fantasy VII“.

Now, I don’t know about you, but my knee-jerk response to this is to recoil in horror.  Without really stopping to think about it, I transform into Outraged of Tunbridge Wells and saddle my high horse*.  Video game music?  Fifty-one places higher than the Eroica Symphony?  Are you having the proverbial laugh?

Next thing you know, I’ve managed to get myself sucked into one of those arguments that begins, “So smarty pants: if this isn’t classical music, what is?”

And thus one starts trotting** out definitions.  Useless ones.  Classical music is art music.  (So, uh, what exactly is art?)  Classical music is serious.  (As opposed to the irrepressible frippery of all other forms of music?)  Classical music is instrumental.  (Except for when it’s not.)  Classical music is notated and through-composed.  (Most of the time.)  Classical music is, as Paul Morley recently put it, “music of permanent interest”.  (Tell that to the guys at Marco Polo.)

In the end your attempts to define such a nebulous genre go around in circles.  At one point, I thought I’d nailed it with this: “it’s music where a composer is acknowledged as the principal author, rather than the performer”.  But doesn’t that include all singer-songwriters?  Are Noël Coward or Burt Bacharach classical composers?  Are ballet scores denied a place the classical table because a ballet tends to be billed as the work of a choreographer?

It’s a fruitless exercise.  And I hereby officially give up.

But perhaps the more interesting question in all of this is not “what is classical music?” – but rather, “why do we feel the need to ringfence it?”  Where does this protectionist mentality come from?  Why do we feel so irritated by the incursion of a Final Fantasy soundtrack onto our turf?  Why do we so fully reject the Official Classical Charts (full of popular artists like Richard Clayderman, Ludovico Einaudi and André Rieu) that we feel the need to establish a parallel Specialist Classical Chart?

Is it just snobbery, plain and simple?  Or are we genuinely concerned that, by throwing film and video game soundtracks, “alt.classical” tracks, and bikini-clad amateur pianists into the mix, record labels and retailers are sending out the wrong message about what classical music is about?   Is that even so very wrong?  After all, it could well be argued that it is the very likes of the Titanic soundtrack that keep classical labels afloat in the first place (oh the irony!).

Perhaps it’s best not to worry about such things, and just get on with listening to the music we really care about.  In the end, it doesn’t really matter what other people want to listen to, or indeed what they want to call it.  The most important thing is that you know what you like, and you know where to find it.  At Lelio, we’re not planning to stock soundtracks, Katherine Jenkins albums, or André Rieu DVDs (an atrocious business decision, I can tell you), but we will stock the music we love, and hope that you love it too.

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* I assume it’s a horse.  It may be a cow for all I know.
** Another horse reference.  Horses are in everything these days, don’t you know.

The BBC would like to apologise. . .

Still from BBC Four’s “The Sound and the Fury”

Last night, BBC Four aired the first episode in a new three-part series on modern classical music, entitled The Sound and The Fury.  For me, as a great fan of the screechy, discordant, hell-raising music of the 20th Century, it was a programme I was greatly looking forward to.  But I have to confess I found it a little disappointing.  Obviously, modern classical being the niche interest that it is, the show was aimed more at expanding the audience than in engaging the current one.   Fair enough, but in trying to explain and justify such ‘difficult’ music to a presumed audience of unbelievers, it made a cardinal mistake: it ended up apologising instead.

Schoenberg, we were told, was responsible “for the great rot that happened in classical music”.  The popular American composer John Adams pitched in to tell us that he liked Webern, “but I also find it extraordinarily emotionally stingy.”  His was music “that gave particular kinds of anal retentives a frisson of pleasure.”

Of course, there were a number of other talking heads, such as George Benjamin, Tom Service or the Southbank Centre’s Gillian Moore, who were genuinely enthusiastic about the music.  But I suspect the average viewer at home would have been scratching their head during the justifications of the bizarre and unsettling music on screen, and instead found themselves nodding along vigorously with the dissenting views of Adams and co.  After all, everyone enjoys hearing their own prejudices confirmed.  “I find most of [Schoenberg’s] music amazingly aurally ugly,” said Adams.  I imagine many agreed.  “I’ve never ever been able to find a way into loving it.  I find it sensually very punishing to my ear.”  Hardly inspires you to dig deeper into Schoenberg’s fascinating and enormously inventive oeuvre, does it?

Make no mistake: this was television as apologia.  The BBC seemed to be saying, “Look, we know this music is horrendous to listen to.  We’re sorry.  We hate it too.  But it’s culture, so, you know.”

To me, this constant desire to make excuses for classical music is part of a wider problem, which is that it is almost impossible to read or hear about classical music in Britain as something that should simply be celebrated.  Instead, it is presented as something difficult that must be explained, or something unpleasant that must be made more palatable, or something broken that must be fixed.

This last charge is especially virulent.  The COO of Universal Music, Max Hole, recently gave a speech to the Association of British Orchestras in which he enumerated the many problems facing classical music today.  Orchestral musicians dress too formally.  Concert halls are overly forbidding to outsiders.  Audiences are constrained by a plethora of unspoken rules.  The words “elitism”, “etiquette” and “tradition” were deployed in a pejorative manner.

I believe such proclamations are counter-productive.  In fact, I would go so far as to argue that the only serious problem facing classical music today is that people keep saying there is a problem with classical music.  There just isn’t.  It’s a myth.  This is music that has survived for hundreds of years, through countless upheavals in popular taste, and which has found its audience – a niche audience, to be fair – for generation after generation after generation.  Its audience is not young, nor trendy, nor especially interested in the “shared experience” of a rock concert.  In short, it is an audience that loves classical music for what it is, not for what it’s not.

And this is where I think we can all make a difference, even in a small way.  Let us stop being shy about our love for classical music.  Let’s stop flagellating ourselves for the fact that it is inaccessible to the masses.  Let’s stop worrying about whether it is as popular as Jay-Z, because it really doesn’t matter.  All that matters is that it is great, great music – and worthy of our unapologetic enthusiasm.

So, celebrate it.  Enthuse to your non-classical-loving friends about your taste in music.  Tell them why you love it.  Explain to them why Beethoven stirs your senses like no other, or why Webern is so very far from “emotionally stingy”.  Share your passion.  Above all, sit your friends down and play them the music you love.  Play it loud.  Let them hear it with their ears wide open, rather than through a soggy blanket of apology.

And if they tell you that they don’t like it, enthuse some more.  Enthusiasm is infectious – even more so than dissent.

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Lost in translation

The former president of EMI Classics once told me that classical music had a natural advantage over other forms of music: since a lot of it is instrumental, it travels extremely well.  There are no language barriers.  Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is just as comprehensible in São Paolo or Kyoto or Reykjavik as it is in Vienna, where it was composed.

Putting aside obvious exceptions such as opera for a moment, I tend to agree with this idea.  Classical music is the most abstract of all the arts.  Literature, fine art, theatre, dance and film all started out as essentially representational art forms.  Music has always appealed to some other, less literal part of our brains.

So the task of having to describe it in literal terms is somewhat antithetical to its nature.  For most of classical music’s existence, composers have rebelled against the notion of ascribing concrete meaning to their music.  That’s the reason a work as elementally powerful as Beethoven’s Fifth is known by its form, Symphony, and its number, 5, rather than by some reductive nickname such as “Fate” or “On Deafness” or “The Napoleonic Wars Really Suck“.

However, that essentially abstract nature doesn’t help us much when we’re trying to find music, because the way we communicate – with search engines, just as with one another – is through the medium of verbal language.  With search engines we don’t even have the advantage of being able to ask them what the name of that piece that goes “da-da-da-daaa” is – at least not yet!

So we’re stuck with written language, and that’s where things start go awry.  The other day, a friend told me I should check out Jos van Immerseel’s recording of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade.  So this morning on my way home from the gym, I thought I’d try and find it on Spotify and give it a listen.

I was looking for it on my iPhone, which gives me the option of searching Tracks, Albums or Artists.  As I wanted to listen to the whole album, I searched under Albums.  No results.  What a shame, thought I.  But then it occurred that perhaps I should look under Tracks.  Still no results, but this time a suggestion: “Did you mean immerseel sheherazade?

I had to look closely at my screen to see how that differed from what I’d asked for.  When I tapped the suggestion it brought up the following set of tracks:

  • Shéhérazade, Op. 35: La mer et…
  • Shéhérazade, Op. 35: Le réci…
  • Shéhérazade, Op. 35: Le jeune…
  • Shéhérazade, Op. 35: La fête à…

etc.

It was clearly a French release of the album that had been left untranslated for an English-speaking audience.  The problem with this is that Shéhérazade is, to the English-speaking world, a completely different piece by Ravel, a set of orchestral songs not to be confused with the symphonic suite by Rimsky-Korsakov.

It didn’t help that Spotify’s iPhone app had also handily removed Jos van Immerseel’s name from the metadata.  Instead, underneath each track was the mysterious term “Anima Eterna“.  In other words, if I hadn’t known the opus number of Rimsky-Korsakov’s piece and the fact that Jos van Immerseel’s orchestra is named Anima Eterna, I’d have had absolutely no idea that I’d actually found what I was looking for.

This is a classic example of how badly classical music suffers from shoddy metadata.  In Lelio‘s master database, we have a way around this: every piece of data is multilingual.  We don’t have Scheherazade in there yet, but try searching for something like “Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus”.  You should get The Creatures of Prometheus Overture by Beethoven.  Once we turn on multilingual support, German speakers will be able to do this in reverse.

In the meantime, do check out Immerseel’s Scheherazade or Shéhérazade or, as Rimsky himself would have known it, Шехерезада.  It’s worth waging battle with a search engine for.

Why online music stores are failing classical

All the way back in October 2007, I penned a little rant for The Guardian entitled iTunes is clueless when it comes to classical music.  I was fairly new to the world of digital music in those days, but even then it was clear that online music stores weren’t really working for classical music.  My particular gripe in that instance was that there was no way for me to download an individual work – in this case Vivaldi’s Gloria, consisting of a dozen movements – without shelling out for the whole album.

It was a small issue, but it illustrated an important underlying problem: classical music was a poor fit for the ‘songs’ and ‘albums’ model being used by online music retailers.

Given five years is the equivalent of about three millennia in the technology world, you would expect things to have moved on since I wrote that piece.  And indeed they have.  iTunes now acknowledges the concept of multi-part compositions, offering them as complete works you can buy as discrete bundles.  They’ve addressed a number of other complaints from classical fans, too, such as improving sound quality.

But there is still a long way to go.

For a start, searching for classical compositions is still a hit-and-miss affair at best.  A few months ago, I tested both iTunes and Amazon to see how they handled a variety of search terms one might use to find recordings of Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony.  Just look at the huge variance in the number of results:

Search Results

Every one of those search terms unambiguously points to a single piece of music – and yet the two biggest online record shops will give you a wildly varying set of results depending on the exact set of words you choose.

It would be very easy to blame the retailers themselves for this.  But the problem is more pervasive then that, and in fact affects even the big specialist classical record labels.  The problem is metadata.

Metadata, for the uninitiated, is data that describes other data.  In this case, it’s the text that describe what you’re listening to.  For most pop records, this is pretty straightforward stuff: Artist and Song Title are usually sufficient to find pretty much anything in the popular music back catalogue.

But who is the Artist on a piano concerto?  Or an opera?  Is it the composer?  The soloist?  The singers?  The conductor?  I’ll bet everyone reading this has had the experience of finding the Artist field taken up exclusively with the name of the composer, and thus having absolutely no idea who the actual performers are.  Matters are made worse by the fact that many classical performances are a collaboration between several artists: ‘Herbert von Karajan & the Berliner Philharmoniker’ is not in fact the name of a 60s garage band, but rather two separate entities unhelpfully crammed into a single metadata field.

Worse yet is the problem of Track Name.  This is particularly problematic because most classical compositions don’t even have proper names.  Generally, we know them just by a set of parameters.  Going back to the example of Beethoven’s 3rd Symphony, for instance, you could describe it like this:

  • Musical Form: Symphony
  • Musical Form Instance: No. 3
  • Key Signature: E-flat major
  • Catalogue Number: Op. 55
  • Nickname: “Eroica”

You can pretty much assemble those parameters any which way you like to describe the piece in question.  And indeed that’s just what record companies do, squeezing all that data down into a single field called ‘Track Name’.  Because nobody condenses their data in exactly the same way, this leads to enormous inconsistency between record labels, which in turn leads to inconsistent search results.

Of course, it’s hardly surprising record labels and online retailers haven’t felt inclined to build a completely new metadata standard for classics.  Classical music accounts for just over 3% of total record sales worldwide.  It’s simply not worth the investment.

This is where Lelio is different.  We’ve built an entirely new standard for classical music, and paired it with a brand new type of search engine that ‘gets’ how classics work.  Our aim is simple: we want to make classical music easier to find, easier to buy, easier to compare and easier to enjoy.

I’ll be blogging in more detail about how we’ve gone about addressing the problems described above, as well as how Lelio plans to thwart a number of other bugbears that have plagued classical fans since the dawn of the digital revolution.

In the meantime, let us know what you think.  Do you share these frustrations?  Do you think things have got better over the years?  Or worse?  How would you rate the online experience versus the good old bricks-and-mortars approach?  Is there anything you prefer about it?  Or do you long for the days where a record meant something made of vinyl that you could hold in your hand, rather than just another entry in a database?