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

Photo: Getty
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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear