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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As the falcon flew towards us, its face looked alarmingly like Hannibal Lecter’s muzzle

In your faces, twitchers!

The BBC2 programme Springwatch may have made the RSPB’s reserve at Minsmere in Suffolk the Mecca of popular birdwatching, but Cley on the north Norfolk coast is still its Alexandria, a haven for wanderers of all species and a repository of ancient and arcane knowledge. I learned what little I know about birding there in the early 1970s, sitting at the feet of the bird artist Richard Richardson as he gave his sea-wall seminars on the intricacies of behaviour and identification. Richard could put a name to any bird, but he never believed that this process rigidly defined it.

The reserve at Cley has been gentrified recently, with smart boardwalks and a solar-powered visitors’ centre, but something of its old, feral spirit remains. On a trip early this winter, we were greeted by birders with the news: “Saker! Middle hide.” Sakers are big, largely Middle Eastern falcons, favourites with rich desert falconers. No convincingly wild individual has ever been seen in Norfolk, so it was likely that this bird had escaped from captivity, which reduced its cred a mite.

The middle hide proved to be full of earnest and recondite debate. The consensus now was that the bird was not a saker but a tundra peregrine – the form known as calidus that breeds inside the Arctic Circle from Lapland eastwards. We had missed the first act of the drama, in which the bird had ambushed a marsh harrier twice its size and forced it to abandon its prey. It was now earthbound, mantled over its dinner on the far side of a lagoon. It was bigger than a standard peregrine, and in the low sun its back looked almost charcoal, flaring into unusually high white cheeks behind its moustachial stripes.

Then it took off. It swung in a low arc around the perimeter of the lagoon and straight towards our hide. It flew so fast that I couldn’t keep it focused in my binoculars, and for a moment its face looked alarmingly like Hannibal Lecter’s muzzle. At the last minute, when it seemed as if it would crash through the window, it did a roll-turn and showed off the full detail of its tessellated under-plumage. In your faces, twitchers!

It was a thrilling display, but that didn’t entirely quieten the identity anxieties in the hide. One or two dissenters wondered if it might be a hybrid bird, or just a large but eccentrically marked common peregrine. The majority stuck with the tundra option. This form migrates in the autumn to sub-equatorial Africa, and days of north-easterlies may have blown it off-course, along with other bizarre vagrants: an albatross had passed offshore the day before.

Calidus means “spirited” in Latin. The Arctic firebird treated us to ten minutes of pure mischief. It winnowed low over flocks of lapwing, scythed through the screaming gulls, not seeming to be seriously hunting, but taunting a blizzard of panicky birds skywards. At one point, it hovered above a hapless tufted duck that dived repeatedly, only to resurface with the quivering scimitar still above it. Then it took another strafing run at the hide.

Does it matter whether the peregrine was a rare variety, or just an odd individual? Naturalists often categorise themselves as either “lumpers”, happy with the great unlabelled commonwealth of life, or “splitters”, rejoicing in the minutiae of diversity. I swing from one to the other, but, in the end, I can’t see them as contradictory positions.

The bird from the tundra was a hot-tempered peregrine to the core. But its strange facial markings – however much their interpretation panders to the vanity of human watchers – are the outward signs of a unique and self-perpetuating strain, adapted to extreme conditions and yet making a 6,000-mile migration that might take in a visit to a Norfolk village. Lives intersect, hybridise, diverge, in the counterpoint between what Coleridge called “uniformity” and “omniformity”.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage