The death of the concert hall

John Adams’s epic Harmonielehre is being re-imagined in a multi-storey car park.

This Saturday I will be joining 100 musicians in Peckham Rye Multi-Storey Car Park to perform the American composer John Adams’s 20th-century minimalist masterpiece, Harmonielehre. The TROSP (The Rite of Spring Project) Orchestra, conducted by Christopher Stark, is a collective drawn from the UK’s music colleges, and Oxford and Cambridge Universities, while the performance itself comes as part of a summer series run by Bold Tendencies – a non-profit sculpture project that uses the car park for exhibitions. Last year the disused car park provided a space for the orchestra to perform Stravinsky’s seminal work The Rite of Spring, with the acoustics of the low concrete ceiling projecting the dissonant, fragmented roar across the London skyline. In a performance to over 1,400 people, TROSP took a defiant sledgehammer to the high art/low art binary.
 
Last year’s Rite of Spring performance most obviously aimed at breaking classical music etiquette. The audience – talking, drinking, shifting - could now respond more fluidly to the music. It is significant that this movement has grown not out of institutional schemes, but rather a new generation of musicians, tired of the status quo, who understand the need to radically recontextualise classical music. Similar projects in London, removing classical music from the social niceties of the concert hall, have largely been promoted by Nonclassical  – a "classical club night" run by composer Gabriel Prokofiev. Two months ago I played in a performance of the Polish Krzysztof Penderecki’s avant-garde 1960 composition Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima, as part of a Nonclassical night at London’s XOYO club. The newly understood liberation of both performers and audience created an exhilarating experience, far removed from the refined expression and cultural assumptions of a conventional performance.
 
The world of Harmonielehre is very different from Threnody’s visceral experimentation with sound. Adams’s 1985 symphonic poem, ending a period of writer’s block, was inspired by a dream in which he drove across the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and "watched a gigantic supertanker take off and thrust itself into the sky like a Saturn rocket". Driven sequences, chordal gates and melodic soundscapes grow from a postmodern cross-pollination of minimalist technique and neo-Romantic grandeur – an epic of climaxing resonance and slow tension. Its title, literally "treatise on harmony", derives from (and challenges) Arnold Schoenberg’s 1911 musical theory text declaring the death of tonality. Adams has made clear his own dislike of the Second Viennese School and in some senses, Harmonielehre sets out to be a kind of musical cleansing for a violent century of musical provocation. Minimalist music has at times been accused of fulfilling the standard trope of classical music as a source of utilitarian, aural consolation - a signifier for capitalism’s pretensions to "spirituality". Surely this only increases the urgency with which we need to redefine its musical impact.
 
One way of exploring the situation that classical music finds itself today is quite simply to look to a "fear of music". This can be variously explained, but an obvious aspect is sociological – the entrapment of the listener in the concert hall, as opposed to the more physical interaction that an art gallery allows for. The musicologist Christopher Small has devoted his career to exploring the ideologies of the western classical music tradition, stating there is no such thing as music, but rather "musicking" – a broader social activity encompassing all aspects of participation. In short, Small looks at how a musical performance affirms our social and political ideals. In this sense, we need to start thinking about how the western classical concert tradition is a ritual that should be critiqued – a socio-political game in which we take for granted the grandeur of the hall, and where elite performers appear in white tie onstage while the silent listeners applaud only at the correct moments. The music can be as adventurous as it wants to be, but we should be just as concerned with the manner in which both audience and performers participate. Furthermore the concert hall belongs to a world dominated by corporations, who understand that they can use art in a process of self-validation. In fact the original commission for Harmonielehre was funded by the Exxon Corporation and the Rockefeller Foundation. A recontextualisation of live performance allows us to fight both the passive consumption of music, as well as the insular expression of musical knowledge as a form of cultural capital.
 
A debate that erupted in September 2010 when the UK composer Jonathan Harvey attempted some reasoned discussion of the issue, highlighted a curious reluctance to engage with this. His proposal during an interview for Future Radio that "nobody should be deprived of classical music, least of all by silly conventions’", centred around ideas of introducing an amplification element and more audience freedom to the stuffy confines of the concert hall. Several commentators, who had previously never shown much interest in Harvey’s music, descended upon the supposed blasphemy. Such ideas "are like inviting a football match crowd to join in on the pitch" suggested a Guardian article by Fiona Maddocks, while Julian Lloyd Webber, brother of Andrew, complained that Harvey was destroying a central tenet of classical music performance. For an art form that concerns itself with the subtleties of minutiae, miniscule changes of timbre and myriad factors of interpretation, abandoning the precious acoustic of the concert hall holds obvious difficulties. Certainly the sacralisation of music has its advantages. But it is difficult to deny that the cult of the concert hall is disturbing, and the reaction from performers and critics to Harvey’s suggestions was dangerously narrow. On Saturday, we will have come a long way from those sterile halls of culture.
TROSP Orchestra in Peckham Rye Car Park (Photo: Nonclassical)

En Liang Khong is an arts writer and cellist.

Follow on twitter @en_khong

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How Dame Vera Lynn was told to “posh her accent up”

Radio 2’s 100th-birthday tribute reveals how Lynn was forced to change her voice.

“I remember seeing her near an elephant, and this elephant rolled over a bit and she had to get out of the way . . .” Vic Knibb, the vice-chairman of the veterans’ group the Burma Star Association, was one of the thousands of British soldiers serving in the Far East during the Second World War who came across Vera Lynn in the jungle, singing from the back of a Jeep, accompanied by an out-of-tune piano.

Speaking in Radio 2’s celebration of the singer’s 100th birthday, Vera Lynn: the Sweetheart of the United Kingdom (Sunday 19 March, 8pm), Knibb and others recalled what it meant to them that Lynn travelled so far to perform for the so-called Forgotten Army in Burma. Unlike other entertainers, who stayed in Europe or visited only military hospitals in the UK, she deliberately went where few others did – where she felt she was needed by “the boys”.

The programme, which featured a rare interview with Lynn herself, was dominated by clips of her recordings from the Thirties and Forties. We heard frequent extracts from “The White Cliffs of Dover”, “We’ll Meet Again” and “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square”. The contrast between these two voices, separated by more than six decades, was the most arresting thing this otherwise pedestrian documentary had to offer. The now gravelly-voiced centenarian sang, in her youth, with a smooth, effortless-sounding tone and crystal-clear diction. But how did the cockney daughter of a plumber from East Ham end up singing with received pronunciation?

The answer, as ever in Britain, is class. Lynn had no formal musical training, and as she had been performing in working men’s clubs from the age of seven, she was considered closer to a musical-hall crooner than a “proper” singer. But with her small vocal range and flawless self-taught technique, she chose her own songs to suit her voice. The BBC, for which she made her hugely popular radio show Sincerely Yours, requested that she take elocution lessons to “posh her accent up” and even at one point took her show off air for 18 months. “Every­body’s Sweetheart” wasn’t immune from snobbishness, it seems. 

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution