#SoundState at the Southbank – who’s listening?


On Saturday, I went to London’s Southbank Centre for two events in their five-day SoundState festival, which ‘celebrates the artists who are defining what it means to make new music in the 21st century’. First up was a panel discussion, ‘It’s New Music, But Who’s Listening?’, followed by a concert by Ensemble Modern, playing pieces by promising young composers.

The discussion was chaired by Fiona Robertson, director of Scottish new music festival ‘sound’, and included three composers on the panel – Sally Beamish, Dan Kidane, and John Harris – the last of whom is also the director of Red Note Ensemble and festival director of New Music Dublin.

Classical music has a very hypochondriac culture – and there is nothing that people in the industry love more than wringing their hands over the larger audiences that ought to be the sign of a healthy art form. Look, I’ve done it myself, ok? But thankfully, this talk was more than this, and it did provide some valuable insights, from the panelists and some of the audience members.

That said, you can never cover every relevant point in a 90-minute conversation. The fact that Fiona and John both work in organisations dedicated to new/modern music swayed the discussion to the question of audiences for concerts wholly of this repertoire. So the issues of mixed concert programmes, and of composers being in dialogue with established repertoire, were somewhat left aside – even though this is probably how the average concert goer is most likely to encounter a new piece.

Fiona started things off by asking what the problems were in getting new audiences to come and hear new music. John Harris brought some valuable insights from his own group’s research into the (basically working-class) ‘C’ and ‘D’ demographic groups. They were surprised to find that there was no lack of interest in classical music – even contemporary classical – but that lots of people didn’t feel like they would ‘fit in’ in a concert hall. 

John’s response to this finding felt like a very valid point – that we can’t expect people to cross that threshold if we’re not willing to cross theirs. He cited what might be called ‘outreach’ work he’d done in deprived areas of Scotland, playing modern classical in primary schools, pubs, and shopping centres, often with very positive results.

Sally spoke about the simple fact that listening to a new piece of music is difficult. For many it can be hard to admit to this, and people worry that if they don’t get a piece of music on one hearing, it’s their fault. This is a shame, and her honesty here was welcome. Music needs time to get under your skin (as to her suggestion that introducing a more visual element might help, I recently wrote about that issue here). 

Dan picked up on this point, and spoke of thinking carefully about the music from an audience’s point of view. But the extension that wasn’t really explored was that some music is easier to pick up on straight away, or leave a stronger impact on a first hearing. The use of repetition, for example, is incredibly important for music to stick in the mind, as is the formulation of memorable melodic ideas or other distinctive features. So there is a question of compositional choice at play.

Had I felt more provocative here, I might have put my hand up to say that contemporary classical music already has a huge audience – and his name is Ludovico Einaudi. Yes, he’s at the simple and tonal end of the spectrum, but that doesn’t mean that other composers can’t learn from him for the above reasons. And, perhaps more importantly, an overlooked aspect of his success is that his piano music is also within easy reach of amateurs to play themselves. There is a question to whether too many composers rely on the incredibly high standards of professional musicianship in the way they compose, complete with extended techniques. On this occasion the conversation didn’t go there, but Sally did talk of the importance of writing with knowledge of an instrument and with performers in mind – citing wrist damage she’d suffered while getting her fingers around some Boulez in the 80s. Fiona also made good points about how she’d been able to embed music in her local village community with her projects, by getting people involved with doing voice recordings for example, or writing words to be set to music about their environment.

It’s clear the contemporary classical scene is enormously diverse and fragmented – for that reason, John noted, it doesn’t have a tribal identity. There was agreement that a climate in which anything goes is a good thing, but it can make it harder for audiences to know what to expect. Some new classical music has more in common with contemporary electronica or jazz than it does Bach and Beethoven. 

So how do you get to the people who don’t know they will like what you’re doing? Interestingly, Fiona cited her experience that it’s often harder to make people with some amateur classical training interested in contemporary music than it is those who have no training and therefore fewer preconceptions. Nonetheless, the importance of music education got its mention, and diversity of representation too. But one avenue that was left unexplored was the role of the media, and what more the BBC and the wider musical media could be doing in its arts coverage to educate the public about the contemporary music scene. 

There was little time to network after the discussion, and I made a beeline for the Queen Elizabeth Hall, where Ensemble Modern were performing five works by young composers, conducted by Vimbayi Kaziboni. I’m not so au fait with all the new music subgenres, but this seemed to be as solidly and enthusiastically ‘experimental’ repertoire as you’d expect from an ensemble with their name. 

Some disclosure: I came to this event as someone who is interested in new music but by no means immersed in it. In the right frame of mind, I can enjoy new music at its most abrasive and weird, but I generally prefer music that retains at least a vestigial relationship to tonal shapes – like the most recent piece I featured on Corymbus. Without some kind of dialogue with tonality, I find, music becomes a very remote experience, detached from what’s in the everyday musical ecosystem. It can still be fascinating, and stimulating, and even beautiful at times, but it also incurs a mental cost in adjusting yourself to listen to it. It’s hard, as Sally said – and it’s not always clear why this effort is worth it.

On the other hand, if you’re going to listen to uncompromisingly atonal music, then up close and personal in a concert hall with a virtuoso ensemble is the best way. This particular selection of works made for a highly stimulating, and at times exciting, 90 minutes. 

A potential problem for audience engagement is not just that musical language has become a free-for-all, but the withering away of standard structural forms too. To this end, the programme notes by Mark Parker were excellent (and most importantly, provided free), and very helpful in guiding me through what I was about to hear. His introduction to one piece, Ashley Fure’s ‘Feed Forward’, made a point that revealed much about the aesthetic of the whole concert, and perhaps the festival:

The physical nature of sound is obscured when we imagine it only as something abstract. The bodies making these sounds, the vibrations they produce, the whole space encountered as something unavoidably present have become increasingly standard concerns of new music.

Sound, SoundState – what happened to ‘music’, you might ask? If the quasi-scientific language of ‘sound’ seemed revealing, so did the festival logo behind the stage, its glitchy typeface evoking the dystopian cool of Black Mirror. And the words in the piece titles either suggested a degree of violence – ‘Cut’, ‘Skinning’, or at least some kind of motion – ‘Feed Forward’ ‘Runaround’. Someone (I forget who) once tweeted of how video game composers longed for the sonic opulence of the symphony orchestra, while modern concert composers were running a mile from it. In this concert, we certainly experienced a classical aesthetic that shunned the velvet curtains of glamour and prestige, and enjoyed playing with sounds with the grittier, rough-edged contours of our concrete concert hall.

Particularly memorable was Martin Grütter’s Die Häutung des Himmels (‘Skinning the Sky’), which used a percussion section halfway up the audience, with a musical saw employed to some ethereally beautiful effects. At one point a loud crash from this area caused the conductor to look round –  one of those new music moments where I’d have otherwise assumed whatever had happened behind me was simply part of the score. Most of the works were admirably concise – my only quibble was with Feed Forward, whose lugubrious tone clusters trespassed on my patience, and the fact my enjoyment of the final witty Runaround was hampered by growing physical discomfort – after a second session of 90 minutes sat down in succession, the Runaround I needed was my own. 

This was certainly a concert to leave you marvelling at the breadth of sonic potential. But what it wasn’t, for me at least, was particularly moving, nor did I feel like I’d been told emotional stories. To have the component forces of your music deconstructed and remixed can be intellectually engaging, dazzling, and fun, as it was here. But I still find that it’s in familiar forms, either at the smaller or larger structural levels, that facilitate human storytelling more easily. 

Nonetheless, Ensemble Modern succeeded very well on their own terms, terms which equated to a very appreciative Queen Elizabeth Hall audience, at perhaps 50-60% full. Of course it’s quite possible that these five young composers are happy with the highly engaged audience they already have. But as to the question of increasing it, then I think back to what John said, of how you need to cross the threshold, which surely also applies to how we write music too. 

In the talk, Fiona got closest to the hand-wringing mode when she worried that composers who try to think of a wider audience could become too mainstream and ‘dumb down’. But I see no reason why a composer shouldn’t cross the would-be listener’s threshold by composing something that bears some kind of intuitive resemblance to familiar musical forms. Because despite the branding trying to persuade me otherwise, I would still wager that for many of us – perhaps the majority of us – sound and music are still two enduringly,  enjoyably different things. 

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