The sound of one hand clapping

It's fitting, but frustrating, that the annual Gramophone Awards were announced quietly in a Hawksmoor church in North London.

In an age of greatest hits, best evers and one-and-onlys, classical music has become a lone voice of moderation in a clamour of superlatives. As an industry we’re modest to a fault, ruthlessly chopping down our tall poppies with chastening reviews and damnings with faint praise, subjecting our artists to the kind of demanding scrutiny that only comes from love and just a little bit of obsession. So while the Grammy Awards are a technicolour extravaganza (only outdone by the MTV Awards) and even the edgy Mercury Prize sprawls over front pages and column inches, it’s fitting that the annual Gramophone Awards were announced quietly last night in a Hawksmoor church in North London.

Fitting, but also frustrating. Taking place within weeks of the Classic BRIT Awards – the commercial face of classical music – the Gramophone Awards risk being obliterated by their louder rival. Voted for by critics rather than by the public (as is the case for the BBC Music Magazine Awards) or industry members (the Grammys, Classic BRITs), the Gramophone Awards are easy target for those already inclined to see classical music as a whispered conversation among the ivory-towered elite.

But while democracy in music has given us One Direction, meritocracy has given us Domingo, Monserrat Caballe, Menuhin and Glenn Gould. Classical music doesn’t need to shout, but that’s no reason why it shouldn’t.

A major change this year saw Gramophone’s individual category winners announced in advance, saving only the public-voted Artist of the Year award and the Record of the Year for the ceremony itself. This gave us several weeks to pore over the eleven winners – Jonas Kaufmann at his peak in Wagner, a vividly quirky Trittico from Antonio Pappano and the Royal Opera, the baroque glories of the Gabrieli Consort’s Venetian Coronation, bold, generous performances all – before they were obscured by the big winner. It’s a shift to a savvier, more commercially-minded approach and not before time. Only through exposure, through champions, highlights and yes, even short-cuts, can classical music reach audiences in the current digital babel.

When the Gramophone Awards were launched in the 1970s the recording industry was a simpler and smaller affair. Each week saw a fraction of the new releases we have now, with radio the only real alternative to buying records. Now, with the amount of digital content available online doubling year-on-year, and a bewildering amount of amateur as well as professional music available to us all digitally, is the very notion of expert-driven awards outmoded?

Quite the contrary. Over-exposed as we are, ears dulled by the constant demands of music in shops, restaurants, on the radio and on the internet, this is the time when we are most in need of curated listening, as Gramophone editor James Jolly explains. “It’s wonderful to live in this age of spectacular excess but every so often you just want someone who knows their stuff to choose and play you the best music.” Far from excluding new listeners, awards like these invite them to cut straight to the good stuff, to defer the learning curve until after they’ve seen what lies at the top of it.

Setting the curve in 2013 with a winning Record of the Year was Moldovan violinistPatricia Kopatchinskaja performing concertos by Bartók, Eötvös and Ligeti. It’s a wonderful result, in large part for being so unexpected. Smart money might have been on vocal winner Jonas Kaufmann, nominee Joyce DiDonato or even Gramophone’s most-awarded artist John Eliot Gardiner. A victory for Kopatchinskaja and three 20th and 21st-century concertos is a victory for grit over polish, for challenge over comfort. This young artist is not one to mince her musical words. Sacrificing beauty for emotional engagement she risks much, and to reward this daring with a win at such an early stage in her career sends a vital message to an industry of retouchers and studio edits that truth is more valuable than the loveliest of illusions.

Gramophone’s 2013 winners – Kopatchinskaja, Gardiner, trumpeter Alison Balsom, guitarist Julian Bream among them – are serious musicians. Their job is to perform to the best of their ability, to answer eloquently in interviews and choose daringly in their repertoire. Ours is to shout about the results. Classical music itself may still escape the vulgarity of hyperbole and excess that dogs the pop music industy, but if we are to have a hope of keeping it that way then we may have to risk a little vulgarity ourselves in promoting it. I’m holding out for a Gramophone Awards ceremony with elephants, Rhinemaidens and a chorus of thousands – after all, it’s what Verdi, Wagner and Mahler would have wanted.

Julian Bream, who won a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Gramophones. Image: Getty
Photo: Getty
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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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