Gramophone – 19 October 2015

What’s wrong with the classical concert experience in the 21st century?

Philip Clark

“Mitchener’s piece forces our idea of what a musical experience can be to shift through the breadth of her interests. Boundaries crumble because they have no choice.”

In the past few weeks I’ve interviewed two remarkable musicians whose work illuminates what I’m talking about. The Baroque violinist Rachel Podger has devoted her life to Baroque music – to exploring Bach, Vivaldi, Biber, Telemann et al with hairline clarity. She’s thought carefully about appropriate tuning systems for Bach’s music. Which tuning system is appropriate for Bach? Is the tuning appropriate for a Brandenburg Concerto the same as for the B Minor Mass? And playing Bach using Baroque tuning systems and on period instruments opens up a whole can of stylistic worms, requiring a radical rethink of how rhythmic flow and ornamentation operates. When I interviewed the Hilliard Ensemble, they spoke of their problems with performing Lassus. They couldn’t get the tuning to work until the realisation dawned that the keyboards with which he would have worked were tuned with slightly sharpened fourths – and when they sharpened the fourths it worked beautifully.

Which is why soundbites suggesting that ‘music is music’ are nonsense. Music is carefully codified by the conditions that surround it – and these you must to respect.

Last week I spoke to the singer Elaine Mitchener whose new piece Industrialising Intimacy will be touring the UK later this year. Mitchener has a background in modern composition, but is known as a free improviser – a vocalist who improvises with her voice. She recently became interested in how body movements affect her voice as she’s improvising and has worked with the chorographer Dam van Huynh to invent a rigorous practice of movement that will alter the colours and tone of her voice. Her new piece is anchored around compositional frameworks composed by herself, George Lewis and David Toop around which she will improvise.

Had I been talking to you next month, I might well have hit you with different examples. But Rachel and Elaine – who could hardly orbit more different musical worlds – have filtered their art down to essentials. They have reinvented their idea of what a concert can be through sheer belief in what they do. And rather than impose gimmicks onto a Beethoven string quartet, or trying to fool people into believing that the musical equivalent of fast food contains any nourishment, they start with the music. They build concerts from the music up. Podger’s take on Bach finds an expressive world too often lost when he is played on modern instruments; Mitchener’s piece forces our idea of what a musical experience can be to shift through the breadth of her interests. Boundaries crumble because they have no choice.

Deconstructing genres means you can dive forever deeper, cutting into styles and finding endless nuances until music becomes a malleable putty which with you can work. The great thing about putty is that it can be easily mixed – nobody particularly notices the joins, but individual strains of colour retain their identity. That classical music ‘still has an image problem’ I find chillingly dystopian, the implication being that classical music will only stop having its image problem when it learns to conform to the fickle whims of fashion and of the market.

And that really would mark the death of classical music and of the classical concert.

28 February 2017

Evening Standard – 7 February 2017

14 March 2017

The Guardian – 3 July 2016