Established in 1999 to honor composer Peggy Glanville-Hicks, the Peggy Glanville-Hicks Address is an annual forum for ideas relating to the creation and performance of Australian music. The 12th Annual event featured a piece by conductor Simone Young titled Music in the age of soundbites and although it is a lengthy piece, it is well worth your time, especially if you are among those who have been fretting over the whole relevance related identity crisis…
You can find an edited version in the 8/6/2010 edition of The Australian and for convenience, I’ve pasted the article below. I know it is long but it really is quite good and even if you have to nibble away at it intermittently throughout the day to finish it, you’ll be glad you did.
Peggy Glanville Hicks Address (edited version). August 2, Sydney.
By Simone Young
Questions are regularly raised as to the relevance of classical music, or the classical arts in general, in an age where statements of policy, intention, emotion, commitment or criticism are reduced to a punchy line of no more than about a dozen words.
In a time where information is available to us at any hour of the day, every day of the week, where news is not only broadcast and printed, it’s also twittered and facebooked, of what value is something which requires stillness, focus and concentration in order to be appreciated fully?
On planes, trains and buses, while driving, while out walking, or even when watching a game of sport, we are the recipients, willing or unwilling, of non-stop information. Some of it is very welcome – I myself have a great fondness for seemingly obscure cricket statistics – but some of it feels often like an invasion into one’s focus, a diversion of one’s train of thought. For some who subscribe to various conspiracy theories, the constant barrage of information may be felt to be an attempt to stop independent thought and to dictate not only styles and tastes, but also how and when thoughts should be actively engaged. It is non-stop and highly seductive – our attention is drawn hither and thither through a maze of news, advertisements, lifestyle tips, event marketing, celebrity flashes, sms’s, tweets, facebook postings, and the like – all of which are communicated in short, sharp, snappy slogans and sound-bites.
Gone are the days of the 24-hour news cycle – now there are fresh revelations, statements, responses, comments and denials, on the hour, every hour. The current generation of 20-yr-olds, often known as “generation share” for their passion for communicating their every action immediately with their friends, as well as the world at large, via sms, tweets and email, must stare wide-eyed and with total lack of comprehension as their parents tell stories of postcards, blue airmail letters, long queues for the telephones at foreign post offices from which students on back-packing adventures would call home, carefully timing the hugely expensive call while relatives back home gathered around the headset so all could listen to the wanderer’s latest stories.
The last 20 years have seen a speed of innovation in technology in all areas, driven by the extraordinary developments in communication technology. In the 70’s my Dad used to joke with friends who called that they were looking fine on his TV telephone – today Skype is pretty standard for anyone who has family in another city. Dick Tracey’s wrist-watch phone, the stuff of many a baby-boomers’ school-playground fantasy, is now readily available in the duty-free selection on many an airline.
It’s all fantastic stuff; the ease, speed and economy of long-distance communication is revolutionising the way we function. Even the hardened sceptics who regard Facebook with great suspicion and would never use the word Tweet with reference to anything other than birds, even they would have to admit that most of these innovations are hugely positive and can be applied to great benefit of all. The romantics amongst us might still write the odd post-card or send a letter by post because it seems to have more substance to it that way, seems to be more personal and significant somehow because of the time taken.
That’s what it all means to us in the end – time. In the nineties, as the paperless office looked like being a genuine possibility, technology’s promise was that the innovations would make us more time-efficient at work, thus providing tempting vistas of infinite amounts of leisure time while at the same time offering us an ever-increasing range of leisure-time activities through the entertainment-technology explosion. CDs and then DVDs of music and music theatre for every taste and interest flooded the market. Historical recordings were re-mastered to satisfy our passion for impressive sound and recording companies raced to find the next recording sensation to compete for our attention and custom.
It was around this time that the catch-phrase “back story” emerged, because it wasn’t enough to be a great singer in order to be in demand – there had to be a story behind the artist, something to catch the attention of jaded editors desperately seeking a “new angle”. If one could not report on a moving struggle against adversity to achieve greatness despite setbacks, then quirks and eccentricities would have to do. It’s not enough that a woman is a great pianist – excitement is generated in the media by the odd fact that she keeps wolves. 18 yrs of age is no longer young enough to generate interest in a brilliant violinist – at 14 however, such talent can be viewed as something a little suspect, providing a titillating hint of over-ambitious parents, a pushed child, risk of burn-out and break-down.
What is not discussed however is the music – and it is the music that makes these people special, not the eccentricity of living with wild animals or of being an astonishingly mature child, nor of being challenged by a handicap, physical or social. It is that these people exist for the music they make and that they create musical performances of excellence and exceptional quality. Why is the pursuit of beauty and excellence seemingly of so little interest, but sensationalism and hints of scandal capture so much attention?
These were the years in which female musicians began to be photographed in provocative poses, physical beauty seeming far more news-worthy than the content. Yet millions around the world thrilled to the sound of an overweight Italian singing a Puccini aria – “Nessun dorma” proved that the music was greater than the story of the man.
We, the musicians and artists, must find some way to make the story be about what we do, the music we make and our passion for it, rather than the story of who we are or how we became who we are. We apologise for the fact that to speak in detail of what we do demands of our audience a level of musical education and musical literacy that would be taken for granted were our specialty economics or sport.
On a Qantas flight recently I saw an old black-and-white clip of Dudley Moore and Peter Cook, I believe from their Australian tour many years ago. The humour was heavy-handed, all based on puns about musical terms. Dudley Moore sat at a piano and played a rather fast piece of music. Peter Cook, dressed as a Bobby, interrupted him with a cheery “allo, allo, allo” and informed him that he had been caught playing Vivace in an Andante zone. He asked to see his licence – at which point Dudley Moore hands over the piece of music he was playing. After examining it in some detail and making the usual puns about “doing a bit of Chopin”, he asks “would you be prepared to blow into this trumpet voluntary?”
What struck me was not so much the jokes, rather laboured puns really, but that the sketch was based on the solid assumption that the audience would understand and appreciate all the musical references – it presumed a level of musical literacy that I think today only exists in a very small percentage of the population. I seriously doubt that Kath and Kim could do something similar today, brilliant as their talent for malapropisms is!
Classical music can engage in so many ways – and the experience and knowledge that each audience member brings means that their experience is unique and wholly individual. Someone attending a concert for the first time will have a very different experience to that of the seasoned subscriber who has painstakingly prepared for the event by listening to the works in advance, reading all the program notes and comparing the performance to the one treasured in their memories from an earlier hearing. Both experiences – the newcomer and the practised listener – are unique and can be profoundly emotional.
While some knowledge will certainly add a level of understanding to a hearing of a work, it is not essential, and the lack of it should never be the reason for staying away. While I was sincerely grateful to a young colleague recently who carefully explained, complete with diagrams, the offside rule in soccer as this definitely increased my enjoyment in watching some of the World Cup matches, I can’t say honestly that my excitement or disappointment at the end of the matches was in any way greatly affected. In the same way, being aware and knowledgeable of the structure of a work or conversant in its origins or performance history may enhance the listening experience for some, but is hardly going to change the emotional impact of the work.
Objectivity requires something else: experience and knowledge gives one the ability to adjudge quality of a performance. In our fear of the damaging epithet “elitist”, artists in general and musicians in particular, avoid discussions in public about quality and excellence. Not wishing to appear arrogant, those who are truly qualified and able to differentiate between a decent interpretation and one of true insight or courage often refrain from doing so. Music is a science and an art and qualified assessment and criticism of performance requires extensive knowledge and experience.
Here begins one of the dilemmas facing leading arts organisations today. While the presentation of artistic experience of the highest calibre, of the best quality, is their mandate and their reason for existence, to discuss the content of their work as such is to attract accusations of being detached from the real world and of placing themselves somehow above their audience. How can an organisation strive for improvement or demand standards from its artists, when debate about quality is stifled? Glossy and beautiful is not enough – art requires substance and standards, exactly the same as any other form of endeavour. We sell music as romantic, resorting sometimes to the sort of hyperbole of which Mills and Boon would be proud, and at the same time deny ourselves the acknowledgement that art has a serious side and plays a role in examining the human condition. In any form of art, be it the written word, a work of visual art, theatre, film or music, emotion and passion alone are insufficient – these must be married with a craftsmanship and technical proficiency that provide the tools for the expression of emotion. Anything less is self-indulgent and sentimental.
We need to engage in meaningful debate about quality and excellence, instead of shying away from those highly unfashionable words.
Words can be highly emotive – that is the power of the sound-bite: a short phrase, so pithy and to the point that it remains in our conscious memories long after the event for which it was designed has passed into either history or obscurity. The phrase “It’s time” is still a part of the collective memory of the Australian electorate although by now, two generations of voters later, some may not remember exactly which was the election for which it was coined as a slogan. By contrast, generations of Americans will surely never forget what “I have a dream” has meant or the magnitude of social change that it inspired. Language – powerful, moving and inspiring.
Music is the universal language. It is at the core of all language – song and vocal sound were the first form of human expression in communication. Just as verbal language was later codified and made visual in picture and writing, so too was music in all cultures codified and a form of notation developed in order to hold it for future use. The form of notation and musical syntax that we associate with western classical music was established around the beginning of the 16th century. You will have already noted that my references are to so-called “traditional classical music” – generally meaning the forms of music we associate with the church, the concert hall or the opera theatre. I wish to underline that this is in no way demonstrates a lack of respect or interest on my part, in the many other fascinating forms of music, it is simply my desire to speak only about the area in which I am considered a qualified practitioner.
The communication of facts can be interesting but rarely inspires – our imagination is engaged when our emotions are addressed. My two earlier examples, “It’s time” and “I have a dream” provided us with no facts at all but with heavily emotionally laden concepts. In both cases the people addressed were moved to strong support or opposition – moved to take a position.
Australians have become extraordinarily economically literate. Financial terms are part of standard dinner conversation, news broadcasts are littered with jargon that twenty years ago would have been reserved for the pages of the Financial Times and would have been of little interest to anyone who was not directly part of the financial business community.
How did this happen? Education and exposure – the two keys to making unusual concepts normal. In the shares explosion of the eighties and nineties, more and more small investors became interested in the workings of the stock markets. The internet made the process simpler and far more accessible and a proficiency in matters financial became pretty much standard requirement for almost any sort of management position. People became less intimidated by the workings of the finance world, tried it out and became far more informed about the processes involved. Education and exposure – followed closely by participation.
Education and exposure –these are two things of which classical music in this country is greatly in need if we are not to lose a hugely significant part of our culture and society. Every great city of the world has at least one symphony orchestra – most have at least one opera house as well. What were some of the first new buildings constructed in the emerging economies of Asia? Concert halls – purpose built for western classical music. Education and exposure – hand in hand.
Participation is a more shadowy area – how is one to participate in experiencing classical music? Not all of us have the ability necessary to perform at a professional level, nor the desire to spend the necessary hours during our teenage years practising to achieve the high standard of proficiency required. Practising is very un-cool for a teenager, and very difficult to explain to one’s far cooler friends who spend their leisure time elsewhere. There’s no way to make practising appear cool – but it can be made much more normal by expanding the accessibility and range of music programmes at school level to increase the percentage of participation amongst the students. It doesn’t need to be piano or violin, a clarinet, sax, trumpet or guitar can give satisfying, literally hands-on experience with music which will enrich one’s experiences for life.
Actually playing an instrument is however only one way of participating. The other is by being part of an audience.
A live performance depends on its audience. It depends on its reception at the moment of being. I don’t mean whether bravos or boos are the response at the end of the performance – I mean how each member of the audience receives the music which is being performed. A musical note has a very short lifespan – each moment living and expiring in direct consequence or contrast to the moment before and then going on to shape the commencement of life for the next moment.
For the performer, each moment exists for itself and is an expression of the performer himself. However, the work in its entirety can only exist in its reception: a great painting which hangs in a vault and cannot be seen has nothing to say. A moment of music or theatre must be seen and heard in order to exist. That moment, that passing of a phrase, a chord or a silence, only becomes reality when the audience member receives it. Therefore, the experience of the recipient, i.e., the audience member, validates the work and brings it to life – you could say that an audience member’s reception of the work becomes the work. This is the participation which is real, tangible and available to us only as part of a live performance.
Minds require nourishment just as our bodies do. My romantic side would like to add that souls and hearts also require stillness and time to contemplate. Where else does one find 40 minutes of physical stillness, surrounded by focus and concentration than in a classical concert? We are so drawn to immediate verbal communication today – the mobile phone and the numerous social networking websites make instant communication a reality for most people. In a concert we refrain from verbal communication (and preferably also from mobile phones!) for the duration of the music. The result? Our minds, relieved of the activity of dialogue, are free to explore new ideas, are liberated to be inspired or simply refreshed by the sensuous beauty of the music. We are offered the chance to recharge our mental and emotional batteries at the source of great thought and beauty.
I am often asked what the essential qualities for a conductor are; my belief is that the answer is the same as for any great artist: compelling instinct which is informed by an enquiring intellect. It is perfectly possible to become a competent conductor on intellect alone and it may be equally easy to impress at a superficial level solely on instinct. Only the combination of both, however, will allow a musician of ability to become an interpreter worthy of the immense riches of the orchestral and operatic literature. Instinct and intellect – emotion and reason, if you prefer – the two key elements of an artistic experience.
If an audience member is to be more than a passive observer of the artistic process, if he is to be an active participant then he must bring both instinct and intellect into the concert hall auditorioum. Experience informs both the intellect and one’s instincts. This is why a much-loved work, heard many years later can seem so different – even when performed by the same artists – the audience member’s experiences alter their reception of the work.
Artists often refer to a particular audience as having a unique character – “tonight the audience was very focused” or ” Friday nights are so hard, the audience is tired and much more difficult to reach” are statements you can hear quite often in Green Rooms around the world. (For the un-initiated, Green Rooms are the backstage spaces where the artists gather – and no, they are hardly ever green!)
The collective experience of an audience and the resultant collective instinct is an often overlooked element in the reception of a work – a community which has recently suffered loss (a major disaster, the death of a leader, a calamitous world event) will receive a work and its subject matter very differently to one in a positive or euphoric mood. The work in its text has not changed, but the reception has and therefore the work as well. Let me provide you with an example: I conducted a concert in Bergen, Norway, two days after the World Trade Center attacks. Our program (planned more than a year prior to the concert) was Britten’s violin concerto and Malcolm Arnold’s 5th symphony. In the rehearsals on the 9th and 10th of September, prior to the New York disaster, the Arnold seemed to us to be charmingly faded: the slow movement was reminiscent of smoky jazz clubs and the final movement, with its military themes (quotes from his film score “Bridge over the River Kwai) seemed old-fashioned, quaint and ever so slightly kitsch. The Benjamin Britten was difficult but very powerful. It impressed rather than moved us during the rehearsal.
Two days later the world had changed – and the audience came to our concert in need of comfort, consolation and the need to grieve for a world gone mad – and so their reception of the works was totally different to that which we had experienced during the early rehearsals. The Britten was suddenly deeply tragic and moving (it was composed as a requiem for a dearly loved friend) and the Arnold Symphony was full of nostalgia for a world lost, and the final movement with military drums and fanfares was suddenly terrifying in its portrayal of military might. The collective experience of the audience and the resultant emotions which then drove their instinctive response to the works – fear, mourning, bewilderment – changed both works dramatically, and yet the text of the works, the material which could be analyzed by intellect alone, had not changed at all. Only the synthesis of intellect and instinct made this concert one which no-one present will ever forget and which no recording could ever recreate.
An audience is a powerful collective, even if it often has differing opinions as to what it is receiving, viewing and hearing and the value thereof. I do not argue that an audience is always right or that to challenge or even to provoke an audience is a bad thing – quite the contrary. Anything which encourages or cajoles an audience member to depart from a passive acceptance of what he is hearing and seeing and to engage actively with both his instinct and intellect is a very positive thing. It defines the difference between entertainment and art. Entertainment is by definition an enjoyment of something at a very superficial level – no engagement is really necessary – relaxation and a good time are sought and these demands are satisfied. Art is a much tougher mistress – but she gives far greater rewards. Art demands interaction, engagement and participation – albeit silently in the theatre or concert hall! What does she give us in return: nothing less than the opportunity to express the best elements of human nature and to give voice to the fundamental need of the human condition to communicate at an emotional and non-verbal level.
A live classical concert is an intensely sensual experience – we hear it, we see it and we can feel the vibrations of it (and the feeling of acoustic vibration that is not artificially amplified is a very different sensation to that of mere decibels). Perhaps we can’t actually smell or taste it but as one often combines a concert with some sort of gastronomic activity, I would venture to assert that it inspires our smell and taste as well!
It is possible to spend much time examining the reception of art and discussing the relative merits of one interpretation or another. With regard to musical theatre, one could indulge in lengthy debates about dramaturgical complexities and styles of direction or in the realm of contemporary music whether a work is of more or less value based solely on whether one likes what one hears or not. Sometimes wandering the foyers of a concert hall when a new work has just been played, one hears “But there was no tune!” exclaimed with the same despairing tone as the hard-core followers who decry the same work for being “too approachable”. Both comments are perfectly valid from a purely emotional point of view. If after hearing a work, one’s general state is of confusion and a sense that it was all just too hard, then maybe that work is not for you – but the wealth and variety of repertoire both new and more traditional that is readily available is immense. Or if you are one of the fans of complex new musical thought and find a work too traditional or simple, there is a range of music on offer to cater for your tastes and to provide the intellectual challenge that is the key to satisfaction for some music-lovers. It takes little more than an open mind and access to the ABC to become acquainted with a myriad of composers and works that can then be experienced live in the concert hall.
You might ask why I place so much emphasis on the “live” aspect of performance. I myself have a huge collection of recordings, covering sound archives from the early decades of the 20th century to the latest state-of-the-art SACD recordings. My own Bruckner series from Hamburg is released in the SACD format, and the quality of the sound is very exciting – you might almost be in the concert hall! Almost – a very important word. As marvelous as recordings can be in offering access to artists and performances that we don’t see here in Australia, or to serve as documents or souvenirs of a great performance, they will never replace the live experience – because you, the audience, are not contributors in the moment of performance. A great recording can be a wonderful guide into a world of beauty and power, but it can never, NEVER, replace the experience of a live performance.
The range of recorded performance available is immense – and hugely seductive. Early recordings were viewed as documents, preventing the loss of great interpretations. In the 70s and 80s artists such as Bernstein and Karajan made them into a new art form and the ever expanding technical possibilities in editing meant that the sound engineer became an ever more important element in the interpretation as you, the listener, hear it.
Buying the CD or watching Youtube is cheaper than attending the concert, so why pay the money to hear the orchestra play live? Because you will be hearing the orchestra when you sit in the concert hall. From a recording you are hearing the sound engineer’s perception of the performance; your experience is filtered by the sound technology.
The days when recordings were made to generate money in the classical music world are long gone. Artists today see recordings as a marketing tool, a way to make their work known and sought after in cities where they cannot be present themselves. They should whet our appetites for live performance, not operate in competition with it. Recordings are like a splendid museum, vibrantly displaying great moments in art, captured for our enjoyment. Let them replace the live experience however, and we risk losing a future for the medium of great music, the expression of great beauty.
It would be naive to pretend that the classical arts are not under threat. This is not solely an Australian phenomenon but an international one. Financially constantly under pressure and highly susceptible to the knock-on effect of fiscal crisis that makes sponsorship difficult to maintain and all but impossible to start afresh, cultural institutions around the globe are re-examining their place in society.
Access, youth education, outreach programs – these are the catch-phrases of symphony orchestras and opera houses everywhere. Crucially, the work of music education, once a standard part of normal schooling and part of family life in some socio-economic groups, now falls largely to the performers and the major institutions, which were not really created or staffed with these responsibilities in mind. These activities are keenly pursued, generally on an honorary basis, by musicians and administrators, because a responsibility for the next generation is a strong feature of the psyche of most musicians. Frankly, the enjoyment in watching young eyes open with wonder when exposed to great music for the first time is a marvellous feeling for the person privileged to witness it. Society in general greatly underestimates how open to new experiences children are. Often it is the bias of adults which can stand in the way of opening the possibility of this wonderful and enriching experience.
You are here tonight because you are interested in my music-making. It makes no sense to ask of the relevance of classical music to you because clearly it is very relevant to your lives – or you would not be here tonight.
The question has to be how to explain the relevance to those who aren’t here tonight, to those who don’t attend concerts, to those to whom classical music, and the arts in general, seem old-fashioned and have nothing to say about our modern way of life. The people who at best believe a concert is a fancy night out, and at worst would be content to see the classical arts slip away into quiet obscurity and insignificance.
To them I can only ask: when did the expression of the noblest ideas the human mind can create become irrelevant?
Yes, the bottom-line matters – but a society lacking a vibrant and challenging cultural environment is a sterile and empty one.
Australia possesses an enormous wealth of talent: in science, in industry, in arts, contemporary, classical, mainstream, alternative and commercial, in sport, and in the extraordinarily beautiful and rich natural environment in which we live. All of these things are of great importance to this country – not in competition with one another, but in the variety and expanse of possibility that they bring.
We like to think of ourselves as pretty laid-back, but we get very passionate about things that are close to us. That passion is reflected in our choice of language – and at its most obvious in the sound-bites that the people in public life put into circulation through the media. When discussing sport, our elite athletes are our heroes. When discussing our environment, protection is a key issue. In the area of architecture, innovation and pragmatism do not seem to tarnish our desire to protect our heritage, and when an Australian innovation in technology or medicine hits the news, we celebrate excellence, perseverance, academic commitment and endeavour.
Why then do these words, protection, excellence, elite and heritage, carry such negative and threatening meaning for the world of classical arts. We should celebrate the richness and excellence of our artistic heritage, not apologise for it.
When I agreed to give this address this evening, I had something rather different in mind. It was quite some time ago that I was approached, and I was planning a talk full of amusing anecdotes, discussing the more humorous side of the classical music industry and my part in it.
We were not in an election then. We are now – and it seems sadly evident to me that the Arts are not on the agenda. I hear a lot of talk on all sides about mining and about money. I don’t hear much about the human condition, about the need for compassion and communication, for inspiration and for intellectual and emotional challenge – but surely they are the keys to the Australian people, whether indigenous, or descendants of the waves of immigration that have come to these shores as people sought homes away from strife that would provide opportunity for themselves and their families. Compassion and communication, inspiration and challenge – I’m Heritage, and proud of it.
And that’s my sound-bite.