You might think that an all-Mozart programme in the Berlin Konzerthaus would be the height of stuffy traditionalism, but you'd be wrong.
An 11am concert featuring just such a programme with the excellent violinist Daniel Hope looks fairly predictable on paper, but there were two critical things that this concert-concept had that so many similar programmes in England lack.
Perhaps you can guess which of my favourite buzzwords I'm going to use… Relationships and Experience !
There's something about the purity of an all-Mozart programme that's made for congregational consumption. Perhaps it's that notion of breaking the bread: a feeling of ritual that's both comforting and familiar, a cleansing, rejuvenative process that brings together the community and simultaneously soothes the individual spirit. Is Mozart the new Church?
The cementing of the experience through coffee and croissants is simply the glue that binds together the varied elements of the process… as is the Mozart. What do Mozart, Coffee, Croissants and indeed the Church have in common? They are all social objects ; all tailored to their respective audiences of course, but all reasons for an experience to happen; conduits for ideas and emotions and interactions. How often have you arranged to meet someone for coffee, with no intention of drinking coffee?
An experience is most powerful when it is authentic, because everyone involved in the experience is intuitively committed to it (there's no messy fringe area where people sit on the side, awkwardly, like a high school disco). You're either in, or you're out.
That's easy to achieve at a cinema, where there's a screen, and the room is dark. It's easy to find in a theatre or a nightclub, where you're enveloped by your environment. There' s no mental escape. You either snap out it and leave the room, or you submit to the experience, and it gradually envelopes you, floating you out of your brain, until you become part of the performance's world.
It's more easy to be distracted in a classical concert. There are sometimes penguin-tails there to take your attention away; listen too to the cough sweet rustlers, the programme-book hustlers, socialite flakes, connaisseur fakes, distractions of all sizes and flavours. Whose responsibility is it to overcome the plague of broken concentration?
A performance that entrances and enthralls needs no gimmicks to succeed, but to succeed, it needs the best environment in which to enthrall and entrance. And even the most committed audience member needs help to make that happen.
And to my surprise, the all-Mozart concert did just that. The lighting was perfectly honed to pinpoint the mini-orchestras spaced around the hall for a 4-group sinfonia. The personable conductor introduced everything over a radio microphone. There was no interval. Our attention was guided, expertly, precisely, through sharply engineered logistics. Tiny things, but they make all the difference in setting the atmosphere. And the platform that these details create, is the platform upon which the whole experience is built. When the framework of a performance is honed with the same care and attention that the performance itself receives, the experience feels organic. It feels truthful. You want to commit to it.
Was this experience perfect? Not quite. The quality of the croissants was very mediocre.
Eh?!?! The croissants? "You Bourgeois snob!" I hear you say…! How can I complain about croissant-quality without first commenting about the music, about the subtlety of the orchestra's interpretation, about their shimmering variety of textures, about the charming interplay between soloist and orchestra?!
Ah… but aren't the croissants just as integral to the experience as the Mozart is? Aren't they just as relevant as the quality of the orchestral performance? I couldn't care less about the quality of the croissants per se , but integrated into the two hours for which the experience lasts, they don't feel of the same world as the crispy, fresh Mozart-interpretations. They are damaging the integrity of my experience!
If you pay 20 Euro for an hour's music, that in itself is part of the experience… 20 Euro may be a significant ticket-payment for some people, but the excitement and value in return is far more. Handing that shiny 20 Euro note to the ticket seller is a metaphor, not a price tag; it is the wafting aroma of freshly ground coffee beans, the bite of the croissant exploding into your consciousness, the innocent, sparkly vigour of the orchestral exposition in K216.
It is your committment to experiencing the music. And his committment, and her committment, and their committment, too.
"It feels like there's a shift in consciousness. It feels like something really big and bold has happened here, like nothing ever in our lifetimes did we expect this to happen." – Oprah Winfrey, yesterday, to BBC News
Homogeneity is not a combined blandness; it is an integrated separateness.
The importance of personal and group dynamics and of live recording in the creative process
I did some work recently for a seriously brilliant producer who works regularly with a major band, and we had a couple of conversations that I found very interesting. One of them was about the use, and the future, of using live musicians for commercial studio recordings.
I brought it up with him (tentatively – I wouldn't want to become superfluous before we're even established!) because I'm increasingly aware of how easy it is to use technology to create, or should I say 'fabricate', an emotionally engaging performance.
I know for a fact that there are forces, for example in Hollywood, who have London Symphony- quality samples at their fingertips, as well as programmers and technicians worthy of the finest Googler-algorithm-crunchers, and who are not afraid to use them. There is no doubt in my mind that at a certain point in the near future, it will be quite possible to fabricate an entire film score with pre-programmed instrumental samples, and be able to fool even the most experienced ear (it is, after all, ultimately a question of sound waves).
[UPDATE: I'm told it has actually already happened, within the last few weeks...]
So where is the value of 'live' if 'live' can be perfectly recreated in every way? This has been worrying me.
I'm not talking about live performance. Anyone who's ever been to a concert (of whatever genre) knows the unique place that a live concert holds in the human experience. That won't die. I'm talking about the fabrication of recorded music as a faux-live performance that creates a genuine emotional response.
The process of artificially manufacturing something genuinely moving and lifelike is all very well, but it is a strangely inhuman process (I would liken it to the genetically modified production of food: you might not notice the difference in the end product, but for a lot of people there's something disturbing about the underlying process).
But if the end result sounds just as convincing as a genuinely live recording, why should we actually bother with live musicians at all?
The producer's answer surprised me. "In a strange way," he said, "it's more about the process than the end result".
What is the value of the creative process for the artists involved? I don't yet have a brilliant answer, but the ability to learn, to discover things, and mature one's ideas through interactions with other people must be a big part of it.
That's not something you get by sitting programming an algorithm to get the same result. Because although you might get the same result that time, the next time you sit down and start to 'program' the next 'live' recording, your work is devoid of all the development and experience that you would have gained through a truly 'live' set of working relationships and recordings.
So let us welcome sample technology with all the possibilities it brings for enhancing mock-ups, amateur work, low-budget work, and emergencies, yet acknowledge that the process inherent in live recording has a lasting set of values that will stand the test of time.
One meeting I had in New York was with a fascinating violinist, who is essentially an exact contemporary of mine at the Juilliard School, and now runs Cultures in Harmony , an organization that I strongly recommend you check out. If you find my work interesting, you'll certainly like his.
William Harvey (who blogs here ) is a leading exponent of the emerging 'cultural diplomacy' sector, and his organization creates annual programs that bring people together through music, by forging connections across cultural and national barriers. They create dialogues where there were previously none. What startled me about Harvey's outlook is the belief that music can be overtly used as a political tool.
Up until now, I have always thought of the arts as something that is best served up in an apolitical environment; you might go to a concert that inspires you in a way that ultimately affects your long term outlook, but you don't necessarily go to a particular event and expect your worldview to be changed instantly.
This longer-term process, which I continue to believe is immensely valuable and important, is what John Harte of the Choir of London described as 'engagement': the tacet acknowledgement that anything can be interpreted as political simply by the fact that it is happening, and that is enough to begin to seed change without bludgeoning people over the head with political opinion as well. But is that just part of the picture? Do we also need a more proactive attitude to the social resonance of cultural program delivery?
At the other end of the scale, Daniel Barenboim is forever asserting that he comes 'not as a politician, but as a musician' – an absurd suggestion, for it's quite obvious that a lot of what he does in the public eye outside of performances contains an element of political maneuvering. (This was very clear to me after our cancelled Gaza concert last year, when he immediately jumped on all the news networks to decry the situation. The facts as broadcast were very twisted and out of proportion to what actually happened, and done in the manner of the best politicians. With the best of intentions, of course. But it was interesting to note the compromises needed to reach a justifiable means for a noble end).
I suppose therefore, that through 'cultural diplomacy', William Harvey and his colleagues are only making clear what has really always been the case: that the presence of the arts on the international stage often has a political resonance. Examples: think of the cultural games played in the cold war when pianist Van Cliburn won the Tchakovsky competition in Moscow – these matters would be totally irrelevant now (international music competitions have become astonishingly irrelevant in the last 10 years, though that's for a different blog), but then it was world news, as artists were shifted around as political pawns on a space-race-esque chessboard.
Equal exchanage – not cultural colonialism – is the key to making this work. Harvey and his teams of musicians approach each project as a mutual learning exercise, and I hope that we do the same in Palestine. Al Kamandjati , by recruiting international teachers now, is aiming to bring in the expertise that will help the younger generation of Palestinian musicians to have the skills to self-define their cultural identities, not to define that identity for them (this is a topic way too complex for this blog, and one I'd like to come back to, but suffice it to say this is frequently something that 'interfering' western influences often get accused of, often with good reason).
It should be noted that it is arguably a good thing to introduce the understanding of western culture to a place, in order that the people who live there gain a greater understanding of the global context in which they exist. And vice versa: the awareness of a foreign people picked up by cultural ambassadors should be taken back to the home country to increase understanding there. It's very important to note that these cultural diplomacy projects are not all about outreach, although that does form a significant part of such work.
Where these projects work the best, are the times when they are delivered with a quality that speaks for itself, and that means the highest possible levels of performance. Any great performer can engage effectively with an audience in a way that a less experienced person cannot, and where is there greater need for effective performance than in intercultural situations, where a single performance can make or break a meme that will spread through a community for generations? In the words of one audience member at one of Cultures in Harmony's events: "You’ve changed the image that I had about Americans because you’re completely different. You’re nice, kind, friendly, generous, awesome, beautiful.”
"We remain committed to music’s ability to dispel the clouds of ignorance that mar the relationships between cultures", says Harvey.
"The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude." – George Orwell
Whilst in Boston, I’m staying with my Artistic Director from Al Kamandjati Camerata, Peter Sulski. He’s an ex-London Symphony violist (now a collaborative chamber musician) who is engaged in creating new community-based models for bringing international-quality music performances to specific areas. In his case, that’s three places: chamber societies here in Worcester MA, and in Sussex (in the UK) where we took the Kamandjati Camerata a few weeks ago, and of course for the Al Kamandjati Festivals in Palestine).
I like to think of Sulski – and people like him in other places – as custodian-advocates of musical life for the communities in which they operate. But what’s interesting about his model is that it works in a way that’s massively beneficial for the community, yet is entirely sustainable. Sustainable, because it creates enough paid performance opportunities for seriously good musicians to commit to regular performances and education work in a single community. Which means that rather than rely soley on the fly-in-fly-out visitations of artists from further afield (which is no doubt important, but shouldn’t be the whole picture), a loose collective of artists create a growing bond with and between members of the local community, at a much higher level (in every respect) than traditionally has been the case.
[The UK has always had a large number of outstanding musicians in all areas of the country, and perhaps it’s a much more competitive environment as a result, even in regional areas. But in the USA, the standard of artistic work outside of major metropolitan areas has not always been so consistent. This can have a detrimental effect on musical life in an area, because when musicians become uninspired, so do audiences...]
This also provides considerable new possibilities for the employment of musicians in a sustainable way that maximises their creativity and performance skills (not even a job in a top orchestra can do that). Deployed widely, this kind of setup could really do wonders for the development of cultural and educational possibilities at a community level.
Additionally to this, and from the performer’s perspective, I believe that if this happened more consistently throughout the world of classical music promotion, the possibilities for touring of concerts would be far easier, more artist-led, and decisions would be informed more by the art itself, rather than commercial allegiances and obligations.
I’ll blog more on how this model actually works sometime soon, but in the meantime I’d be very pleased to hear from anyone who has created similar structures in their own communities.
A key part of what I’m going to be doing imminently with this tech startup I’m involved in is identifying what’s lacking at community levels in terms of the infrastructure and resources that are needed. Then, the challenge will be to try and find a way to build an international infrastructure to help create the solutions that will solve those problems. Hopefully I can try and find a performer’s perspective on that, anyway.
Most people don’t seem to know how to use New York properly. Almost everyone I meet here seems to fall into one of two categories: either they’re engaged in that cliched daily material-struggle, desperately trying to live up to what they think the city demands them to be. Or, they’re way over-engaged, hoovering up experiences without allowing the space and time for them to be savoured properly (I know I’m often guilty of the latter).
When we have infinite choice, infinite opportunity, infinite information (digital world), it takes great strength to start to choose between things and narrow down the focus of your experience, but there comes a point at which the need for quality of experience over quantity of experience demands that choice.
That’s the beauty of a big city; there is so much choice that when you do finally decide what you want, it’s there, ready and waiting.
But the beauty of a big city is also its downfall; infinite possibility can become a trap, not an opportunity.
Same is true with music.
Did you ever read any of my old blog posts? See the first few paragraphs of this one: http://www.simonhewittjones.com/blog/2007/11/15/creative-tension-in-free-markets-long-post/
OK some of it is perhaps pretentious waffle. But have you seen the stock market indices of the last few weeks… are they not the most perfectly thrilling structures, full of uncontrolled adrenaline, like a 1st year undergraduate virtuoso rushing through their end-of-year recital exam with brilliant, earth-shattering technique, yet not a shred of musical humility or stylistic integrity?
I bet you any seriously good musician who had enough time on their hands could have predicted last weeks’ market crashes, if only they had been able to sit down with the last few years’-worth of data from all the various companies, housing markets etc etc. Even with a layman’s knowledge [ha! Lehmann. No pun intended!], and without being able to explain it properly, they could have sensed it, and also sensed roughly when it would have occurred.
Let us hope a little proportionality is now introduced back into this world…