BBC Proms goes Pete Tong

What’s all the fuss about the Ibiza Prom? First, it’s a late night Prom, and late night Proms have traditionally (or as recent tradition goes) ventured into other areas of musical endeavour. Second, terms like classical and non-classical for some are increasingly moribund. Music is either good or bad, although the usefulness of these terms is also debatable. Hovering above all of this is of course the slippery question of taste. Third, what’s wrong with experimentation? But perhaps a fourth point needs some attention: the Ibiza Prom, or ‘Late Night With Radio 1’ as its official title goes, appears to be more about the changing fortunes of Radio 1 itself. The problem is with declining interest in Radio 1, not the Proms, and this classical music festival is in the unlikely situation of breathing life into a pop music station.

Leaving this last issue aside, some of the statements made about negative responses to the Ibiza Prom reignite perennial issues in classical music. Radio 1 DJ Pete Tong, the ‘curator’ of the event, has said that, “Just to stay stuck in the past or stay stuck within rigid guidelines, whatever you’re doing, you’ll struggle over a longer period of time”. This poses a problem unique to classical music, for if the past was abandoned we would be abandoning the works on which the history of western music was built – the music that by definition is classical precisely because it transcends history. And since there is a strong case that classical music in the globalised world should no longer be hidebound by the designation of ‘western’ other than to alert listeners to its historical trajectory, the oppressive association between classical music and the past deployed to make unfair claims about its ir/relevance is correspondingly redundant.

Tong’s statement needs some unpacking. What, for instance, does he mean when he says ‘to stay stuck in the past’, with or without ‘rigid guidelines’? (I assumes he accepts the occasional need for rigid bar lines…)

The overriding reason why classical music has endured is as a result of the way in which a score is brought organically to life each time it is performed, irrespective of whether the performer has adopted a revisionist or modernising approach to the text. Past, present, and future seem to dissolve during a performance. The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s Prom last week under Andris Nelsons, a gripping account of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, proved just this point and then some. Such concerts boldly highlight the undiminished vitality of the Proms and classical music.

Tong is not suggesting we stop listening to Beethoven. He is saying that something different needs to be offered by the Proms to revitalise it and, by implication I think, the entire classical music industry, to ensure its survival. What we should be doing is opening up experiences like the CBSO performance to new audiences, playing that sets the score ablaze as if for the first time. The methodologies for doing this are likely to be as varied as the Proms itself.

Still, Tong’s concern is surely wasted on this 120-year-old festival! Nevertheless, a number of thoughts are provoked by the Ibiza Prom. Perhaps the most glaring of all is the idea that classical music is a dead tradition. Contemporary classical music has always had problems relating to audiences; or, rather, audiences have experienced difficulty for whatever reason accessing new works. Some works that were spurned by audiences around the time of their premiere are undergoing late recognition. Minds are opening, hearts are being won.

Contemporary classical music is far from insular or locked in narcissistic relation to the past or its own kind. Think of Thomas Ades, who reimagined the orchestra as a techno machine in Asyla, the third movement of which is entitled (a little ironically, I think) ‘Ecstasio’. It topped the bill on Simon Rattle’s inaugural concert as principal conductor and artistic director of the Berlin Philharmonic in 2002. A prime example, in other words, of one of the most distinguished cultural organisations in the world embracing alternatives. Examples of cross-pollination between classical music and other art forms – beyond, that is, the tawdry enterprise of ‘crossover’ – abound. You can say what you like, but the evidence will strike you down: contemporary classical music is far from dead.

Then there is the thought of classical music and audience development. The image comes to mind of a sea of grey hair in auditoriums listening to their tenth subscription concert. I’m not of that age group but I’ve felt increasingly offended for my elders. They attend concerts week-in, week-out, come rain or shine, and respond genuinely with considerable force in celebration of the music and performers. Yet they’re treated like superannuated members of society.

If classical music is to have a future, more young people need to get hooked before they too become grey or more pressingly before orchestras become a thing of the past. Funny that nobody ever says we need older people at raves. Rave culture doesn’t need older people in the way that classical music needs the young. Audience development is a box-ticking, stereotype-colluding ideology that for good or ill is primarily about financial sustainability. Ethical considerations about exclusion and alienation, certainly in popular discourse, come second.

It seems to me that more than other art forms, classical music addresses exclusion and alienation by reaching out to the younger and the youngest, putting instruments in their hands and inspiration in their hearts and minds. True, this is keyed to government funding criteria, but not always. Philanthropic or business-based funding still exists, even in the UK, for which there may be different criteria than those related to the subsidy regime. Clearly philanthropists and businesses trust the classical music world with their money. They’re not wrong. As a classical music geek, I benefit from their investment and commitment.

The fact remains that orchestras and the wider classical music world put their concern about education and social life into sustainable practice. Orchestras are rooted in their communities, often inextricable from the identity of cities. One cultural notion of the city might demand less the existence of a cathedral than a thriving orchestra. It’s precisely the sustainability they offer to city life – the regularity of concerts, the sense of annual renewal at the announcement of the next season, international relations through touring and guest artists – that somewhat proves the cliché of the beating heart.

If orchestras and the festivals that celebrate them are under threat it is not due to declining audience figures but to philistine governments and austerity. Events such as the Ibiza Prom may be one way of introducing the Proms to new audiences. Or the Ibiza Prom might just introduce that audience to the Ibiza Prom. It’s not snobby or superior to suggest that, for the people who go to Ibiza, the world of Bach and Bruckner is and always will be massively irrelevant. That’s fine. It’s a matter of taste. Supposing some Ibiza veterans (some of whom will form a burgeoning crowd of greying heads) attend the Ibiza Prom and subsequently try one of the more conventional Proms. I can’t deny the likelihood of this happening, though I am pretty much convinced it will be very low indeed. I hope this harsh conviction is proved wrong. But at the end of the day, the Ibiza Prom is self-defeating because it has taken up a slot that could have been occupied by other, maybe alternative, classical practitioners who view working with the past a liberating rather than limiting force. It’s a risky business working with the past. Riskier, that is, than anticipating the future.

Late Nate with Radio 1 is on at 22:15 Wednesday 29 july 2015. Ninety-odd other concerts are also taking place around this one.


4 thoughts on “BBC Proms goes Pete Tong

  1. Wolfin, this excellent posting gives much food for thought!:
    1. I agree that cross-pollination(or whatever word we choose to use) of musics is, intrinsically ,good or, at least, worth a try.
    2. I like your useage of “classical” in the sense of a classic, like we would talk of a classic novel(none of which are ever dispatched, summarily, to some dusty, pejorativized outpost), ie one that has stood the test of time and quality. This useage re-appropriates the term in a positive way!:).
    3. Being more controversial(possibly!), you used the word “quality”; you seem to have a relativistic approach, primarily, which part of me agrees with, viz, its all a matter of taste. Well-I purport:- is it??!! Well yes and no; I think, per se, a piece of classical (in its sense of nonpopular,”serious” music) is no better than a piece of , eg blues: I just happen to not like blues;that is taste. But the blues OR the classical piece, in question,may be qualatitively good, mediocre or bad; or it may be camp(so bad its “good”, in that ineffable way we FEEL camp), or it may be naff(so bad its just bad; {or is that a form of camp or kitsch}). This applies across the board, to any genre. We then go into (mooted) areas of the amount of workmanship, complexity etc of the music in question. Why do some people who love classical music feel unsatisfied by most/some non-classical-tradition musics?
    4. I agree that there is no need to apologize for the relevance(today) and validity of pre or post 1900(roughly!) classical music; this, as you say, is patronizing to the audience. I DO wonder if attempts to “cross-pollinate” are of limited use or, even doomed; it would be interesting to hear how many people had developed an interest in complete operas after listening to the (beautiful) singing of, eg, Phillippa Giordani or Russell Watson.
    5. The trouble is is that classical music is intrinsically bound up with class snobbism and intellectual snobbism; or, I should say,PERCEIVED class/intellectual class snobbism; one could debate endlessly about how classical 18th century music was sometimes the music of the “masses”(access to Mozart operas) and/or commissioned by the wealthy FOR the wealthy; of course, I aver, this does not make it (intellectually) “snobby” nowadays; but the vestiges of this mixed inheritance remain, especially amongst the working class (using the simplistic socio-economic definition thus) and it is still often perceived as a middle class, bourgeois, {over}intellectual(ised) interest/activity. Classical music is, of course, for everyone; a Schubert lied may use the same A-B-A(Coda) structure of a present day pop song; but then it may have complex use, for instance, of leitmotif, counterpoint, alternative harmonic systems; which may make (full) appreciation more difficult; is this where we get REVERSE SNOBBISHNESS? I dare to think YES!!!!!!!!! “Dense”, “difficult”, “not enough{obvious} tunes”, all are bandied about( though I defy ANYONE not to lie Rachmaninov or Tchaikovsky and most do, given the opportunity). So one is often on the defensive, defending/giving an apologia for classical music.
    Anyway, just some ruminations I should enjoy discussing further! Steve

  2. Thanks for your detailed and generous comment, decayetude.

    I must confess that when I was teenager I was like a one-man publicity team for classical music. I believed wholeheartedly, almost religiously, in its higher quality. I was an unapologetic elitist, even if I didn’t quite participate in any debates about elitism or engage Arts Council-type discourse about access and democratisation. In other words, I had ‘snob’ frequently thrown at me, which I suppose I must have sounded like one, if a little unwittingly, searching as I was for the right tenor in which to express my passion for the music I loved. Obviously I am much wiser now, and believe, as you describe, in the elision of aesthetic hierarchies by the matter of taste. Blues music is indeed as classical as classical (note the shift in meaning between both instances of the word). But then all is muddied by craftsmanship and complexity. There are some non-classical genres that are quite complex, and then there are genres which offer examples of a classic in a different sense: i.e. more hinged on memory and evocation of a decade, more often than not in relation to the postwar period and culminating in nostalgia for the 1980s.

    The question of why classical fans feel unsatisfied by non-classical music. This has crossed my mind many times. There’s no getting away from the fact that for all its tight structural cohesion, I feel pop music is too simple, the emotions and intellectual qualities too easily arrived at, to magnetise my hearts and mind. Pop music’s unhealthy alliance with capitalism, in which musical structures and subject matter bend to the will of the market, is another unattractive quality. We mustn’t forget, of course, the extent to which classical music is funded by the banks and philanthropy, although I don’t recall the music ever bending to the oppressive will of the market.

    Classical music undoubtedly has a class issue. I am working class but feel overwhelmed by the middle and upwards classes when I go to concerts. Strangely this doesn’t make me feel out of place. Perhaps this is to do with the fact that I am not there as a result of what my social class tends to do in its spare time but because I am addicted to the music. Class-based accusations of snobbery towards classical music are moribund and misplaced at a time when tickets for pop music concerts can break the £50 mark. True, top tickets for the Berlin Philharmonic rise stratospherically, but that is the Berlin Philharmonic (a band of 80-odd world-class soloists) and in any case the lowest-priced ticket will be affordable to some if not many. Tickets for our own Philharmonic in Liverpool begin at the £15 mark, and arguably for the best seats in the house (certainly acoustically and panoramically) at the back of the hall. That wouldn’t get you three glasses of wine elsewhere in the city on the same night. We need to revise our idea of class and snobbery in relation to classical music. What about the pay disparity between millionaire pop stars and workaday virtuoso orchestral musicians? Is class relevant anymore? Of course it is, but we should be realistic about it, and that means tracking the desire of the market and lust for wealth across genres.

  3. But of course you also mentioned, perhaps more pressingly, the issue of class in relation to the music itself, not just the process of consuming it (attending performances). People responding to classical music in a positive way whilst also confessing to not knowing much about it proves that the concern is not so much class as intellectual capability. Intelligence and intellect are presumed factors in the ‘proper’ consumption of classical music, whereas pop music sets the mind free by allowing you to concentrate on the emotions. I think people do themselves a disservice. When, for example, people confess to enjoying this or that – usually climaxes – in classical music, they are in a sense responding to a work’s structural nature without naming it as such. Over time this is likely to change, as listeners become more acquainted with the music they have recently introduced themselves to, and acquire knowledge borne of experience. Just like anything else.

    All genres have aficionados, unofficial custodians and maniacal fans. Some popular genres are spoken about in a more recherché manner than classical music and opera. Critical traditions arise over history, which is partly why classical music is overwhelmingly identified with intellectual and class snobbery: it has the longest history, it has had the most time to develop critical thinking about itself. People are intimidated by the vastness of classical music. Like with poetry, they somehow feel their minds and even bodies are incommensurate with the work.

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