My group Fifth Quadrant performed at the opening of a conference the other day, where no less a speaker than Malcolm Gladwell was giving a keynote. He had some fascinating insights about how global society is changing (which I think can inform the way in which musical ensembles, orchestras, and musicians model their work).
Generational Paradigm was his term for describing the fundamental shift in mindset that occurs between different generations. For people who lived through World War 2, the militaristic-hierarchical structures that powered much of society’s infrastructure were crucial to their need of forging a secure and stable reality in an environment that had often seemed apocalyptic.
As time passed, things began to change. New opportunities emerged throughout the Western world, and the arrival of the ‘Baby Boomers’ gave rise to a new sense of individualism that built upon the strength of hierarchy. ‘Pay me what I’m worth’, ‘the better/more/etc. that I achieve the higher up the hierarchies I will go’, ‘if I win a reward for what I do, it’s entirely mine to keep and spend’; these are all classic attitudes that have permeated much of the professional world during the final decades of the 1900s.
But as we move into the 21st Century, the ‘Millennials’ – loosely defined by Gladwell as those born in the 1980s and 1990s – have begun to turn away from hierarchical structures. Wikipedia, said Gladwell, is a great example: whereas a paper encyclopedia is a closed, finite structure, created by the few for the many, Wikipedia, is an open, crowd-sourced structure. In fact, it’s exactly the opposite of an encyclopaedia. It’s a very different way of achieving the same thing (and brings with it very different problems).
What exactly has caused this change in mindset is beyond the scope of this blogpost, however it’s fair to say that the internet and networked social media has been the predominant force behind the change. Technology has enabled different types of behaviour, and those behaviours have in turn changed the structures that we use to make things happen.
Occupy is a good example of a movement that changed the global conversation about how society works. People grouped together on the basis of shared interest; there were many things they wanted to see happen, and much common ground between people about what they believed in. But they did so without a leader, and without an ideology.
This model of interaction reflects the transformation of how the youngest generation sees the world; the ‘old-fashioned’ offline perception of manifold, wide-ranging hierarchies is replaced by an ‘everyone is equal’ attitude, which mirrors the hyperlinked, social-media-enabled online worlds where everything is just one click away. If everyone can be linked directly to one another online, why not take a similar approach offline?
Of course, there are massive advantages and disadvantages to this ‘network model’ way of thinking that you won’t find in hierarchical models. Network learning, for example, offers big benefits; forget the received wisdom of 10,000 hours to become ‘really good’ at something — if you can eat up the accumulated wisdom of many thousands of other people, then in very little time you can acquire the knowledge of a master.
But therein lies the rub. Acquisition of knowledge is one thing; application is another. Just because you can cut the learning time in half, doesn’t mean that you can shortcut the mastery process. Learning still takes time, and for that, you need the guidance and leadership of someone who has already achieved mastery. In other words, you still need a hierarchy to guide you through. Someone who is committed to a network model instead of a hierarchical model is in danger of missing the important roles that hierarchical relationships have to play. I use learning as the example here, but it is true of many things.
The network model is just as susceptible to corruption as the hierarchical model, only in a different way. What happened in Egypt in 2011 was a perfect example, said Gladwell. The revolution was sparked initially through online networks. But once those online networks were blocked and people were forced offline and out of their houses in order to interact, that revolutionary energy spilled out into the ‘offline’ physical world.
But the revolution was not a success. The network model got things started, for sure, but the lack of effective hierarchy prevented any meaningful followthrough. The net result was that the candidates who finally ended up competing in the elections the following year had very little connection to the revolution at all. One was an incumbent minister of the previous pre-revolution administration, and the other was from the Muslim Brotherhood, which had kept apart from the revolution all along.
When the network failed, the hierarchy came into play. But for the Egyptians who had started the process, they were not the hierarchies which they had had in mind.
So, how do you successfully fuse hierarchy and network?
Culturally, this is going to be one of the biggest questions of the next few years. For music, we have especially interesting models to play with; orchestras and conductors offer fertile ground for exploration, although perhaps it is in the smaller and more subtle models such as the string quartet – where such tensions have always seen the most subtle interplays – that the most interesting insights will lie.
What would a musical ensemble look like if it optimised the best of hierarchy and network models? It certainly wouldn’t be the didactic, Toscanini-led conductor-as-god structure of the 20th century orchestra. What could it be instead?
Classical Revolution London opened in Highgate last night at The Red Hedgehog in Highgate, an absolute gem of a venue that will be great for developing Classical Revolution in North London. There were some seriously terrific performances from the featured acts (Richard Harwood, Busch Ensemble, Christine Stevenson), the Open Mic worked well, and although I curtailed the ChamberJam at the end (we were running very late), the show had a nice flow and lots of people had a good time.
But I don’t think I’ve got the format right. Don’t get me wrong, it was a great concert. But it was a great classical music concert in a classical venue that certainly didn’t feel like a revolution. I don’t exactly know what was wrong, either, but I think I have a good idea of what wasn’t right. It felt like we were again falling into the ‘exclusive’ club… the club of ‘this is classical music, this isn’t for you’.
A little bit of this may have been down to our approach to audience building – we were focused on attracting the core local audience, people who are already into classical music, and growing it from there. But maybe I’ve got that all upside down. Maybe we need to take bigger risks, and go straight to the people who have NO knowledge WHATSOEVER of classical. Perhaps, in Soho in Tuesday 27th, that’s exactly what we HAVE to do.
The feedback I got from a couple of audience members who didn’t consider themselves ‘knowledgeable classical’ people matches this assumption. The whole point of a club night is to subvert the etiquette of a traditional classical concert. But they didn’t feel free to clap when they wanted to last night, for example. For that matter, I had the same problem. When the Busch Ensemble built up a thrilling crescendo at the end of a movement of Mendelssohn, everyone wanted to acknowledge it, but for some reason no one felt they could, and the classic ‘awkward silence’ of a between-the-movements-of-a-classical-piece pause ensued.
I have to get to the bottom of that. And the message I’m getting back from people is that no detail of presentation is too small, and nothing is too basic to explain. This is hard for ‘traditional’ classical musicians to grasp, but we’ve got to if we have any chance of making this work.
So we’ll try a different tack on Tuesday. No black clothes. No suits. Plenty of (moderate) background noise. More compelling verbal presentations from the performers. Proper, highly basic explanations of where the breaks will be in the music. Maybe a few suggestions of what to listen out for, or how to listen to the music.
And zero assumptions that anyone knows anything about anything, ourselves included.
There’s an interesting article in the Guardian today, asking whether the ‘Classical Club Night’ trend is ‘tearing up the rulebook’ or ‘playing the game’. You can read it here:
And here’s my response… (I guess I’m coming down on the side of ‘playing the game’!)
A timely piece… we are launching ‘Classical Revolution’ in London tonight. It’s one of the longest established of these Club Nights, having been founded in 2006 in San Francisco.
The link is http://www.
For us, revolution is an easy word to use, but we’re not really reinventing the wheel – we’re putting really great performances of really great music into a nice bar. As I wrote here, there’s nothing wrong with the music, and it doesn’t need any help. Classical club nights just change the context and the presentation of Classical music. Why do this? To cater for two distinct types of people:
1) People who already love classical music but want to have a choice of environments to enjoy it in. Sometimes you’re in the mood for a full-blown tails-and-bow-tie evening out with a major symphony orchestra playing in a major concert hall. Other nights you just want a really intimate, low-key environment in which to experience a Beethoven String Quartet at close quarters. You get a very different experience if you’re on a sofa in a small room with a glass of wine, than if you’re sitting amongst a large audience in a big auditorium. Neither is the ‘right’ way of doing it, they’re just different.
2) People who aren’t already into classical music, and who are coming to it fresh. How do we make classical music attractive to people who haven’t spent several years going to classical concerts, and don’t really have any preconception of what a classical music concert might be like? (or who have a negative preconception). This isn’t an age thing – it’s equally applicable to young and old people. What’s important is that we’re re-imagining the context in which this great music is presented, so that it feels relevant to a contemporary urban audience. Then it won’t feel like a foreign or unapproachable culture to people who are new to classical music.
Once again, I’d reiterate, there’s nothing wrong with classical music itself. Classical music doesn’t need our help. It’s fine. What classical club nights can do is offer a unique type of setting in which people can enjoy classical performances in a different way. Offering these ‘alternative’ classical music experiences helps to reinforce the genre’s place at the heart of our musical culture.
Harry White is absolutely right to use historical examples of classical performance too – just take a look at 19th Century Vienna etc. and you’ll find plenty of examples of such models in action…
I’m looking forward to Classical Revolution London starting this week – one show on Friday in Highgate, then another on Tuesday in Soho.
It did occur to me that ‘Revolution’ is an easy word to use. But basically what we’re doing is just presenting really amazing classical music played really well in a nice bar.
Not so much a revolution, as an execution of the bleedin’ obvious. We’re not trying to change the music. The music is great, it doesn’t need any help. We’re just tweaking the context and the presentation (as I have been banging on about for about 7 years) so that people who already like classical music have a choice of environments to enjoy it in. And people who don’t have a really easy way in.
It works. You’ll see.
Snapped in South Kensington last month… An idea very much of the moment… (and I love this kind of grassrootsism, though the use of 'Classical' terminology is a much longer conversation for another post…)