Barely a fortnight before the sound of sirens roared through the riots in Peckham Rye, the London district had been singing a rather different tune. Stravinsky’s in fact. For one night only, 102 musicians from Oxford, Cambridge and the London Colleges gathered to perform his groundbreaking ballet music, The Rite of Spring, in a multi-storey car park. Surprised? This performance actually represents an emerging trend in the capital as a new generation of musicians and promoters challenge concert conventions. ‘The Rite of Spring Project’ was co-promoted by NONCLASSICAL, one of the more innovative ‘classical’ London club nights, founded by composer Gabriel Prokofiev in 2003, who featured after the performance with his own DJ set based on a remix project of The Rite.
With its grating dissonance, fragmentation, metric irregularity and extreme dynamics, the commission for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, rather ironically, provoked riots during its 1913 premiere in Paris, compelling police to shut down the show. Due to monumental innovations in composition over the last century, however, Stravinsky’s work falls differently onto our twenty first century ears since with serial, experimental and electroacoustic music under our belts, we are an unshockable generation. To us, Stravinsky sounds relatively tame, banal even. Where is the space for free improvisation, the ambiguous graphic score? What about pre-recorded sounds and instruments made from scrap metal? Now, more than ever, there is a need to restore the music’s startling impact, as it would have been to its original audience.
When I interviewed Kate Whitley, Cambridge composer and organiser of the whole event, she offered some insight, ‘I think there is a need to restore ‘startling impact’ to the performance of all classical music! I think that in twenty first century performance practice, from superficial things like concert etiquette, stage manner and concert dress to more fundamental things about performance style and manner, the violence, impact and weirdness of a lot of classical music seems to get neutralised.’
The unexpected venue, with its rich acoustic, was provided by Bold Tendencies, a non-profit sculpture project who use the car park as an exhibition space. They are not alone in encouraging this radical recontextualisation of art. Vocal Futures, another musical outreach foundation also defines its events by use of spectacular performance space. The foundation came to the fore in April as they worked in association with the Cambridge Union Society on their high profile debate on the motion, ‘Classical music is irrelevant to today’s youth’, with DJ and producer Kissy Sell Out defending and Stephen Fry against the motion.
When asked her reaction to the debate at her alma mater, Kate doesn’t mince her words, ‘It was a stupid notion – ‘classical’ music means so many different things! As does ‘irrelevant’. And a negative motion like that was obviously never going to pass. I don’t think it was a productive debate.’
While I would agree that the debate was not productive as an end in itself, the hype this musical discourse stimulated in the run-up to the event, by virtue of social media, cast a spotlight on the discipline. The process allowed the discussion of music and its place in the twenty first century to be approached more inclusively in a less specialised environment, inclining people to articulate their sense of the significance of music. It took the classical tradition out of its ivory tower and placed it into a more public domain, an action which was reflected after the debate as it became available online and received considerable press coverage.
With the advancement of technology, the way in which we access and share music has changed as much as the techniques used to compose it. The ceremony of buying a record, removing it from its sleeve, placing it on the record player and carefully positioning the needle is vanishing from our cultural memory. Instead, the effortless, digital process affords instant, carefree satisfaction that extends into a certain cursory attitude towards music; any type of music can now belong in almost any area of human activity, it is not a remarkable sonic experience. While music has reached a peak in accessibility with Youtube, Spotify and Lastfm available at the click of a mouse, the real deal has become less accessible, as live performance remains an expensive and elitist venture, calling for the recent trend seen with NONCLASSICAL, Bold Tendencies and Vocal Futures.
Despite her enormous success with a sell-out in Peckham, Kate asserts that ‘to make long term changes, music education in state schools really needs to change. That real change will have to come from younger generations of players and composers, rather than from institutionalised outreach projects.’ While organisations such as the National Youth Theatre, Choir and Orchestra are providing experiences which are becoming increasingly unavailable in state schools, the groups remain dominated by privately educated students.
In August, David Cameron turned to the former chief of the Los Angeles Police Department for strategies to deal with Britain’s disaffected youth: what he should have done is ventured further south. Venezuela’s extraordinary El Sistema project is a publicly financed voluntary sector music education programme which offers a more positive and long term solution to Cameron’s problems.
Responsible for enabling 250,000 children to attend its music schools, with an overwhelming 90 percent from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds, El Sistema employs music as the great leveller, alleviating social inequalities via the democratic nature of the symphony orchestra. This ‘old-fashioned’ practical approach to music-making is unique in its ability in encouraging self-expression and collaboration amongst young people, in a way that contemporary technological approaches to music making, which tend to be more solitary in their process, cannot. It seems acutely obvious to me that this is where the future of classical music belongs – where it is so desperately needed.
But for now, will technology save itself from itself? Is it possible that events advertised on social networking sites will have the power to inject some energy into our iTuned attitudes towards music, whether in government cuts or trends in concert going? Surely if we can coordinate riots up and down the country, the promotion of live performance should be almost as easy as, say, impulsively looting amid the furore of public disorder? We’ll see.