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.

‘The Jewel Without a Crown’, or, Down with Super-Libraries!

It’s been a while. I’m sorry. Attic Fantasist is glad to be back.

A friend, The Dead Letter Office, has just published a piece on Liverpool Central Library specifically and Super Libraries generally called ‘The Jewel Without a Crown’, namely a dazzling Super Library downtown that lacks smaller jewels to make a library crown uptown in subtopia and beyond. We’re talking Private Finance Initiative, swingeing savage barbaric cuts, Costa Coffee, empty shelves, denuded public lives.

Fans of or those interested in an earlier post on libraries here will be similarly interested if not fans again.

Hope to see you all soon. Take care.

The reader’s fortification

With this month’s release of A Place in the Country and Iain Sinclair’s enigmatic piece from Test Centre, memory of the late W. G. Sebald has resurfaced as it has tended to do in line with the publication of posthumous translations. It is a habit by which devoted readers are dealt another disturbing reminder of his untimely death. Such an (inevitably) melancholic mood hovered over my reading of the extract from A Place in the Country printed in the Guardian a few weeks ago. The structure of remembrance I experienced is an intrinsic element of Sebald’s intertextuality: it is as if by mourning the loss of those writers who most struck his discerning mind, the author could do little else but to spin his own ritual of remembrance in textual form; a gossamer web, as the cliché goes, of references, quotations, and voices. For Sebald’s reader, the sense of the uncanny provoked by the mere mention of things makes us rejoin Saturn’s orbit. One instance occurred today when a friend said ‘oak processionary moth’ as if out of nowhere. It wasn’t random – he was reading a report on the Guardian’s front page about plans to aerial spray the moths to save trees. The paradox of the proposal – destroying one aspect of nature to save another – would likely have perturbed the narrator of The Rings of Saturn as confirmation of the folly of ruthless human endeavour to defend nature against its own processes.

My eyes widened at my friend’s utterance. True, I was startled more by the fact that I couldn’t remember whether the oak processionary moth featured in the Sebald canon at all or somewhere else in the literature I’ve been reading lately. Given the manner in which it is impossible to read Sebald in isolation from those before or after him, such writers form a constellation in the life of reading. I listed the options to my friend: Nabokov, Sebald, McCarthy. Yes: McCarthy (Tom). For moths and silk weavers have significant parts to play at the beginning of C (2010). (Significant, that is, in the sense of symbolism rather than size – although they loom large over the reader’s subsequent experience of the text.)

But were they oak processionary moths in C? I’m grappling for particularity of context. Oak processionary moth. The context will come if I repeat the phrase.

The life of reading is often unmoored from the reader. It’s something more than the usual problem of memory. For instance, take my discovery of Jean Errard’s Fortification Réduicte Art and Démonstrée (Paris, 1600), which happened prior to writing this post. I found it at The Public Domain Review, a curious website about which I know little because it is new to me and whose ‘About’ section I was stopped short from clicking by a compulsion to write. Look at the images of fortifications from what the website describes as a “seminal work in fortification theory”. Errard’s text was published in 1600. Yet some of the images bear a striking similarity to the plans of Breendonk reproduced in Sebald’s Austerlitz (2001). It is tempting to consider whether the author consulted this work when thinking about the idea of the fortress. As a reader I harbour fantasies of retrospective contact with the reading life of the writer.

Another text boards one of Saturn’s rings. Or, a constellation: Errard-Bentham-Virilio-Sebald.

[It was Vertigo that drew my attention to The Public Domain Review for a post that collates all the major texts to which Sebald’s narrator refers in The Rings of Saturn. A link to Sebald begat a Sebaldian link.]

Sinclair on Sebald

A curious small press called Test Centre is about to publish a fragment by Iain Sinclair in which he retracks journeys made by Sebald’s narrator and Austerlitz through East End London. Here’s the publisher’s blurb:

Test Centre presents Iain Sinclair’s new booklet Austerlitz and After: Tracking Sebald. An unused, adapted section from Iain’s forthcoming book American Smoke (November 2013), it recounts an East London walk in the late German author’s footsteps. In the company of Sebald’s friend, the poet Stephen Watts, the narrative moves from Liverpool Street through Spitalfields to the Jewish burial grounds at Brady Street and Alderney Road, considering along the way Sebald in life – his experience of London, his writing methods, and his residence in Norwich – and in death.

Simultaneously it tells of Iain’s history in the same terrain, whilst through its use of images (a nod to Sebald) it provides an insight into his approach to composition. His American adventure flanked by the tale of the actress Gemma McCluskie, finally discovered in the Regent’s Canal, he attempts to write himself out of his locale.

Information on ordering a copy of this artisanal limited edition can be found here.


The Attic

Attic Fantasist was born in July 2007. The blog’s name was inspired by a description of Cuthbert Brodrick, the eccentric architect of Leeds Town Hall, as an ‘attic fantasist’ who apparently lived under the aegis of his parents and whose cossetted domestic situation gave rise to architectural designs of an altogether different order. At the time I identified strongly with this nineteenth-century artist dreaming in the confines of his parental home. We have all been there – or at least, inviting empathy, I hope we all have been there. I’m still not sure whether Brodrick lived in the attic, but I certainly did and continue to do so for various reasons beyond my control. Soon I will start working in a more autonomous space that as far as possible I can call my own. But even there, in architectural echo across the River Mersey, I will scratch away in an attic. Strange to say that despite having spent much of my life under the eaves, since the first Attic Fantasist post and the moment I write to you now, I have not actually spoken about the attic in which the modest life of the fantasist is played out. And so, to inaugurate this blog’s reincarnation, I want to offer some reflections on the meaning of the attic.

An attic is an uncanny inversion of the cave. Attics and caves cannot accommodate the human body without discomfort and constant readjustment of its physicality. They increase our proximity to nature. They are spaces in which things are made to fit rather than being designed, like rooms with high ceilings or in fact any conventional room, to respect the body’s dimensions. The attic is architectural surplus, an apparent accident of building design. This belies its crucial function to insulate the properly occupied spaces of a building and offer a place in which stuff, both real and imagined, is stored and forgotten. Forever in darkness, the unoccupied attic makes itself known periodically with the flapping of wings and the ingress of rain. Its structural angularity and dramatic curves remind us of the cave. Lying under the eaves as the rain taps on the roof and dribbles down to the gutter or sneaks its way through any available opening, the cave’s cradling of nature comes to mind. The birds swooping down as if about to smack the windows but at the last second changing direction for the roof evoke the bats of a subterranean landscape. Light relieves rather than banishes the darkness that is the natural condition of the attic. (The ecstatic sense of the attic’s window onto the world is carried over into the cave and its luminescent opening at the mountain’s base). During the dark and sodden months, the condensation dripping down the attic’s curves are like the vertical rivulets reshaping the walls of the cave. Reminiscent of the cave’s crevices and hollows, the corners of an attic invite you to crawl into them in some form of uterine wish-fulfillment.

Attics and caves paradoxically solicit feelings of security and horror. Perhaps this is due to the analogy of the womb; these spaces might suffocate or nestle us. The urge to escape their confines is incorrigible. There is a tension here: falling asleep under the rain amplifies our sense of comfort and security. The attic is an extension of the bed. Such thinking does not work as well in the summer when we feel those curves and angles converging on the body as if in ultimate restraint. But then nowhere indoors is ideal in the summer. By contrast, the cave offers relative cool and calm from the melee.

A room is an aperture on the world. It refracts the light pouring in, altering the room’s shape and size. Remember that a darkly painted wall should never face a window; if so, a space will contract and fall under the spell of the natural condition and psychology of colour. If the camera analogy testifies to the connection between inside and outside, the attic is the exemplar in this regard. The bohemian living in penury in a garret (a more romantic word for the distinctly mundane attic) conjures thoughts of loftiness (no pun intended), of being above ordinary things, of observing the panorama of life by virtue of sheer elevation. Of being, in other words, closer to the sky with all its symbolism of flight and mortal danger. Little known is the basement fantasist; the sense of being dug down into the earth rarely inspires flights of fancy and freedom. The attic is the vantage point of inspiration. It coaxes the desire to be higher and higher, to resist gravity and the bad faith of being grounded in reality. I am not certain whether the attic fantasist knows when he is getting beyond himself or above his station, for his desire, however unfulfilled, is to make contact with the upper reaches afforded by his attic station.


Patience, released

Grant Gee’s film-essay on Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, Patience (After Sebald), is now released on DVD by Soda Pictures.

The White Review has published an interview with the director online for free. I’d recommend buying the magazine whatever.

I wrote about Gee’s film here after seeing it at Snape Maltings in January 2011.

I am speaking about Sebald – though not on The Rings of Saturn – and Ida Hattemer-Higgins at a conference entitled Affective Landscapes on May 26 2012 at the University of Derby. My paper will link psychoanalysis, architecture, and psychogeography in Sebald’s Austerlitz and Hattemer-Higgins’s The History of History. 

From the interview with Grant Gee:

QTHE WHITE REVIEW — In Patience, someone discusses psychogeography, how it’s become fashionable, and questions whether what Sebald was doing is really psygeography. What’s your relationship to the term?

AGRANT GEE —  Tony Wilson said in one of the interviews he did for the Joy Division documentary that the Situationists were city planners. I liked that. I was always interested in the term from the Situationist stuff that was always on the fringes of punk and post-punk through Iain Sinclair’s early books, Patrick Keiller’s films… But I’m not sure I know what psychogeography has come to mean now. It certainly has a very different meaning from what it had at its conception or even twenty years ago – the utopian, revolutionary politics, combined with the sense of movement through the city as a kind of spatial psychotherapy where all kinds of hallucinatory histories come bubbling up.
But oddly enough, thinking about your question, the debt to surrealism and the hysterical intensity that Sebald brings to bear on places and which places bring to bear on him and the vertigo that floors him when he gets close to The Horror… you could place him in that tradition. Maybe Austerlitz in particular, the London scenes. Certainly he’s more in that line than in the line of nature writing which he also gets put in.