BY Adam Harper in Opinion | 11 SEP 17
Featured in
Issue 190

New Rites

From Stravinsky in a car park to concerts in living rooms, how is classical music culture changing? 

BY Adam Harper in Opinion | 11 SEP 17

Since the 19th century, there has been a paradox at the heart of classical music. The sublime abstractions of sound should be centre stage, soaring above all accompanying stimuli, yet the sonic experience is laden with visual, spatial, social and ideological preferences. Performers, audiences, architecture: all are supposed to be invisibly visible; they must disappear into the music. Yet, they don’t, and it is frequently these non-sonic trappings that are seen as preventing classical music from flourishing in the 21st century.

The idea that classical music needs to reach out – particularly to young and minority audiences – has dominated critical perspectives on it for decades. One strategy has been to mix it with pop in the concert hall. Another has been to bring it out of the concert hall altogether. In London, one of the best-known recent examples was the 2011 performance of Igor Stravinsky’s avant-garde classic Rite of Spring (1913) at a concrete multi-storey car park in Peckham, run by the arts organization Bold Tendencies. This led to the foundation of the Multi-Story Orchestra, which now performs at the space as part of a yearly festival, as well as in school halls and playgrounds; last month, they returned to reperform Rite of Spring in the car park that made their name.

Multi-Story’s website promises ‘amazing live classical music experi­ences’. This shift of emphasis away from the works themselves and onto the unique live experience is not exclusive to classical music, of course, and has been a widespread response to the dominance of recorded music and, lately, its consumption through streaming services. For classical music, however, the live experience carries the aura of historical authenticity: J.S. Bach did not intend for you to hear his Saint Matthew Passion over Spotify and, it is often presumptuously assumed, would be aghast were you to do so.

J.S. Bach didn’t intend for you to hear his Saint Matthew Passion over Spotify and, it is often presumptuously assumed, would be aghast were you to do so.

One of the most interesting recent responses to the anxieties and opportunities regarding classical music’s place in a digital world is Groupmuse. Founded in Boston in 2013, it’s a company that serves as a social networking website which also facilitates small-scale concerts by matching professional classical musicians with local audiences who are willing to open their homes to friends and strangers signed up to the website. Musicians choose their own programmes, which they advertise beforehand. Attendees donate to them partly through the website and partly via a donation bowl that the company invites hosts to pass around. Sitting on the floor is encouraged. Groupmuse is classical music’s digital version of the ‘gig economy’ (spearheaded by Uber and Deliveroo) – but, this time, it’s quite literally for gigs.

Groupmuse’s introductory video emphasizes the authenticity of the live experience, as if to apologize for its digital character: ‘real’ people, places and experiences. But, as with the Multi-Story Orchestra, whose concert settings may seem informal, the format of the music’s consumption remains fairly traditional. The host guide states that ‘Groupmuse performances are not background music. As the host, you’ll help set a tone of respect for the music. This is music to disappear into, not music to talk over.’ And it’s not just the mode of listening that is suggestive of the 19th-century. The choice of image header for Groupmuse’s website is significant: a detail of Gustav Klimt’s painting Schubert at the Piano (1899), which depicts the composer surrounded by listeners as he sits at the keys. The setting is not a concert hall, but a salon performance of the kind in which Franz Schubert and his contemporaries developed a Romantic chamber music culture for enthusiasts who weren’t necessarily the aristocratic owners or patrons of house orchestras. By the time Schubert at the Piano was painted, what we now think of as ‘classical music’ had emerged and dead composers (Schubert died in 1828) dominated concert programming: a century earlier they had been in the minority. Klimt’s painting embodies this by depicting Schubert’s audience in contemporary Viennese dress, highlighting the timelessness of the composer’s music. Now, under the auspices of Groupmuse, Schubert might find himself surrounded by jumpers and jeans.

Gustav Klimt, Schubert at the Piano, 1899. Courtesy: Photo Austrian Archives / Scala, Florence

It is unclear exactly why Groupmuse is focused on classical music or what its definition of the notoriously fuzzy edges of that genre might be. Hosts are directed to ‘make sure at least half the music is classical canon: think Bach, Mozart and Beethoven’, but no rationale is given for this. And, in fact, with past Groupmuses being searchable through the site, examples can be found where the second half of the concert has consisted of contemporary classical music, jazz or folk. I wonder if Groupmuse’s policy has seen jazz fans waiting patiently through pieces by Luigi Boccherini, or whether Boccherini fans have been baffled by experimental works. Such variety can be a great asset, of course, so why not make it deliberate? Groupmuse’s structure would be a boon to jazz and folk concerts, including jam sessions – even ones whose participatory natures break down the barrier between performer and listener – or to open-mic nights that go beyond music and into spoken word.

If we pursue classical musical authenticity further back than the 19th century, the culture of silent reverence for the work and its dead composers becomes more difficult to maintain, even within the now-hallowed concert hall. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart once wrote excitedly to his father that audiences had stopped talking amongst themselves and actually paid close attention to his music. In the 18th century, operas traditionally featured what was called the aria di sorbetto, a song sung halfway through the proceedings during which the audience was served sorbet and ice cream. Owing to the lack of attention paid to the stage, and not least the sound of spoons tingling throughout the auditorium, this aria was typically given to a third-rate character played by a third-rate performer.

With so much focus placed on the autonomous sonic art of classical music culture, it is easy to forget that opera and ballet are quintessentially multimedia experiences. An exhibition which opened last month at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum recognizes this. ‘Opera: Power, Passion and Politics’, produced in collaboration with the Royal Opera House, explores the history of the genre – from its origins in the courtly social events of Renaissance Italy to its globalization at the hands of prestige capitalism – through the lens of seven premieres in seven cities. The show includes a selection of paintings and photographs created before, during and after the performances. Music’s life beyond sound ought to be noted and celebrated – a necessity that becomes all the more obvious when dealing with opera.

The possible settings for the appreciation of classical music have been changing. But does the socio-political content and context change with it? Taking classical music beyond the concert hall may not lead to social equality, but it is a step in the right direction nonetheless – one especially valuable to anyone who has been intimidated by the posh atmosphere of the opera house bar. The question remains as to what it is about classical music culture that ought to persist: the many permutations of the musical imagination or increasingly fragile high-art values together with the social and economic privilege that have historically underwritten them? If it is the latter, classical music culture is not going to escape the paradox that threatens to unravel it.

Main image: The Multi-Story Orchestra performing Kate Whitley’s I Am I Say, Bold Tendencies, 2015. Courtesy: The Multi-Story Orchestra; photograph: Ambra Vernuccio 

Adam Harper is a lecturer in music based in London, UK, and the author of Infinite Music: Imagining the Next Millennium of Human Music-Making (2011).