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.