The sound of things to come

The future of music is debated at the TEDx conference in Suffolk.

The "future of music" is a beleaguered term. In recent years you would most likely find it lurking within much new music editorial, alongside a picture of the latest hyperbole-pumped group, destined for the predictable slump out of favour in six months time. It is as if music's future is pinned on short term hopes instead of long term solutions.

What might happen to music, how we might make, listen, and distribute it in the years to come, is not usually deemed a topic worthy of public discussion. Saturday's TEDx (the grassroots little brother of the philanthropic behemoth TED) conference at Snape Maltings in Suffolk, looked to approach the problem afresh.

Though it was an event that looked to compel the audience to ruminate on the possibilities of tomorrow, there were links to local past. Thomas Dolby, the LA-based, one-time synthpop star and digital music entrepreneur who chaired the day's proceedings, told of how his great, great grandfather Newson Garrett had built the Maltings at Snape in which the conference was taking place: later, his grandmother had been an assistant of Benjamin Britten's during the Aldeburgh Festival's first years. The parents of William Orbit, the English producer who was here interviewed by Dolby, retired to the Suffolk coastal town, and attended Britten's early concerts.

The conference's blue-sky, Silicon Valley-inspired evangelism jarred with the earthy, autumnal Suffolk setting, yet there was a common thread that connected the event with the Aldeburgh Festival project, begun by Britten and Peter Pears in 1948, which resulted in the creation of a permanent venue at the disused maltings in 1967 and the evolution of Aldeburgh Music. Britten's ideal was one of breaking down boundaries, eschewing the exclusivity of some avant-garde practice and moving away from the structures within classical music that deter people from exploring the more disciplined yet rewarding aspects of it.

It is a tradition carried on by Aldeburgh's Faster Than Sound team, who helped run the day, and a viewpoint most forcibly expressed by the Anglo-American conductor and infectious speaker, Benjamin Zander, who almost provoked an ovation with his pre-recorded speech that argued that classical music should be for everyone. One requirement of TEDx is that films of past TED lectures are shown. In an earlier film, a familiarly twitchy David Byrne discussed architecture's role in music making, taking in CBGB, Carnegie Hall and the iPod.

There was a lot of rhetoric about bringing people together to form a big, unified conversation, yet often the speakers were so narrowly stuck to promoting their own projects that they they resembled Gold Rush-era salespeople, there to ensure that their work be considered part of this unknown future. The composer/professor/inventor Tod Machover, introduced us to various fruits of his 25 years at the forward thinking MIT Media Lab in Boston, such as his hyperinstruments like the hyperbow (played by cellist Peter Gregson ahead of this weekend's Spheres and Splinters performance) and his robotic opera Death And The Powers, talking at a slamming pace. A besuited Martyn Ware rifled through the huge amount of impressive projects he has been working on, such as Breathing Trees, before an audacious - and quite funny - plug to come and see his reformed group, Heaven 17.

It was the young British loose cannons that distinguished TEDx from the slicker TED events. Sarah Nicolls showed off a deconstructed piano that she had made, complete with bicycle wheel, external strings and reverse keyboard. Tim Exile and Imogen Heap flew the flag for scatty English oratory as they paced the stage befuddledly during their respective talks, the former blowing more traditional minds with his inventions such as The Mouth, the latter explaining in great, meandering detail her internet-savvy approach, from auditioning session musicians online from a pool of fans, to getting her Twitter followers to write the press release for her last album.

Though there was plenty to chew over after the conference had finished, it was not quite the march forward into brave new territory that some might have expected. Many innovations smacked of the opportunism that we are fed daily: you couldn't help but be slightly disappointed that Ware was showing off the work that he had produced for the soft drink company, Fanta.

But that is the reality today - and what have creators of challenging music such as Ware always been but wheeler-dealers and hustlers? To bestow upon music a sense of dignified permanence is to fabricate its position. At the start of the day, over creeping, ambient noise, the opening speaker David Toop ambled through such territory elegantly, summing up the problem one faces when approaching a discussion of this kind. "Objects, images and writings can be preserved for centuries, for millennia, giving us a visible and tactile connection to the physical continuity of history," he said, revisiting his recently published book, Sinister Resonance. "Sounds, on the other hand, fade into air - ghosts to haunt tangible reality."

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The Autumn Statement proved it – we need a real alternative to austerity, now

Theresa May’s Tories have missed their chance to rescue the British economy.

After six wasted years of failed Conservative austerity measures, Philip Hammond had the opportunity last month in the Autumn Statement to change course and put in place the economic policies that would deliver greater prosperity, and make sure it was fairly shared.

Instead, he chose to continue with cuts to public services and in-work benefits while failing to deliver the scale of investment needed to secure future prosperity. The sense of betrayal is palpable.

The headline figures are grim. An analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows that real wages will not recover their 2008 levels even after 2020. The Tories are overseeing a lost decade in earnings that is, in the words Paul Johnson, the director of the IFS, “dreadful” and unprecedented in modern British history.

Meanwhile, the Treasury’s own analysis shows the cuts falling hardest on the poorest 30 per cent of the population. The Office for Budget Responsibility has reported that it expects a £122bn worsening in the public finances over the next five years. Of this, less than half – £59bn – is due to the Tories’ shambolic handling of Brexit. Most of the rest is thanks to their mishandling of the domestic economy.

 

Time to invest

The Tories may think that those people who are “just about managing” are an electoral demographic, but for Labour they are our friends, neighbours and the people we represent. People in all walks of life needed something better from this government, but the Autumn Statement was a betrayal of the hopes that they tried to raise beforehand.

Because the Tories cut when they should have invested, we now have a fundamentally weak economy that is unprepared for the challenges of Brexit. Low investment has meant that instead of installing new machinery, or building the new infrastructure that would support productive high-wage jobs, we have an economy that is more and more dependent on low-productivity, low-paid work. Every hour worked in the US, Germany or France produces on average a third more than an hour of work here.

Labour has different priorities. We will deliver the necessary investment in infrastructure and research funding, and back it up with an industrial strategy that can sustain well-paid, secure jobs in the industries of the future such as renewables. We will fight for Britain’s continued tariff-free access to the single market. We will reverse the tax giveaways to the mega-rich and the giant companies, instead using the money to make sure the NHS and our education system are properly funded. In 2020 we will introduce a real living wage, expected to be £10 an hour, to make sure every job pays a wage you can actually live on. And we will rebuild and transform our economy so no one and no community is left behind.

 

May’s missing alternative

This week, the Bank of England governor, Mark Carney, gave an important speech in which he hit the proverbial nail on the head. He was completely right to point out that societies need to redistribute the gains from trade and technology, and to educate and empower their citizens. We are going through a lost decade of earnings growth, as Carney highlights, and the crisis of productivity will not be solved without major government investment, backed up by an industrial strategy that can deliver growth.

Labour in government is committed to tackling the challenges of rising inequality, low wage growth, and driving up Britain’s productivity growth. But it is becoming clearer each day since Theresa May became Prime Minister that she, like her predecessor, has no credible solutions to the challenges our economy faces.

 

Crisis in Italy

The Italian people have decisively rejected the changes to their constitution proposed by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, with nearly 60 per cent voting No. The Italian economy has not grown for close to two decades. A succession of governments has attempted to introduce free-market policies, including slashing pensions and undermining rights at work, but these have had little impact.

Renzi wanted extra powers to push through more free-market reforms, but he has now resigned after encountering opposition from across the Italian political spectrum. The absence of growth has left Italian banks with €360bn of loans that are not being repaid. Usually, these debts would be written off, but Italian banks lack the reserves to be able to absorb the losses. They need outside assistance to survive.

 

Bail in or bail out

The oldest bank in the world, Monte dei Paschi di Siena, needs €5bn before the end of the year if it is to avoid collapse. Renzi had arranged a financing deal but this is now under threat. Under new EU rules, governments are not allowed to bail out banks, like in the 2008 crisis. This is intended to protect taxpayers. Instead, bank investors are supposed to take a loss through a “bail-in”.

Unusually, however, Italian bank investors are not only big financial institutions such as insurance companies, but ordinary households. One-third of all Italian bank bonds are held by households, so a bail-in would hit them hard. And should Italy’s banks fail, the danger is that investors will pull money out of banks across Europe, causing further failures. British banks have been reducing their investments in Italy, but concerned UK regulators have asked recently for details of their exposure.

John McDonnell is the shadow chancellor


John McDonnell is Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington and has been shadow chancellor since September 2015. 

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump