Porous borders / in praise of the inbetween

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First published in Gramophone magazine, June 2017

A case study. Last summer on the shores of Lake Tuusula in Finland, at a music festival directed by violinist Pekka Kuusisto, I heard a performance of Brahms’s Clarinet Quintet with singer/songwriter Laura Moisio interspersing warped pop songs about love and hurt between the movements. The previous day, when it was announced composer Einojuhani Rautavaara had died, Kuusisto walked on stage alone and played a solemn traditional Finnish polska. That night he blazed his way through the gypsy dances of Bartok’s Contrasts with a rugged, unapologetic virtuosity. “Our Festival is gentle,” Kuusisto wrote in his manifesto. “Our Festival wants to invent new flexible forms for concerts, where the message is more important than dress codes or good behaviour.”

Kuusisto and his brother Jaakko (also a violinist) grew up improvising. Their father would sit at the piano playing jazz standards while the two boys sat on either side adding bass lines and solos. Pekka’s formal violin training was elite and in 1995 he became the first Finn to win the International Sibelius Violin Competition, but he says his artistic epiphany happened when a friend took him to a folk festival in northern Finland. “Those fiddlers looked so happy,” he told me. “It seemed like they had an honest reason for playing.”

A second case study. Eliane Radigue discovered musique concrète in the early 1950s. “One morning I heard it on the radio and I said to myself, ‘well, that’s it!’” the French composer recalls. “It was the realism of the sounds, you know? That you could take any ordinary object and find music in it.” Radigue had grown up singing in choirs and playing harp in the grand Parisian tradition. Her training was conventional; her ear and mind were inquisitive. She began working in Pierre Schaeffer’s Studio d’Essai and was later assistant to Pierre Henry. She spliced together reels of magnetic tape and found herself marvelling at the ‘mistakes’ — the notes between notes, the ephemeral sounds made by accidental electronic feedback.

In the 1970s, Radigue brought a synthesiser back from New York to Paris and started making exquisitely slow pieces that integrated Buddhist meditation and lingered around partials and subharmonics. Around the turn of the millennium, she explored how to produce a similar language using acoustic instruments and she has since written more than 50 solo and chamber works. The select musicians who work with Radigue come from noise, improvisation, jazz, classical and various other traditions. The festivals and concert series that programme them self-identify as ‘experimental’ or ‘adventurous’ or ‘underground’ or plain ‘contemporary’. Radigue doesn’t limit herself to any particular label. She says her technique boils down to “fade in, fade out, cross fade”. She is the master of the in-between.

A third case study. Two musicians who perform Radigue’s music regularly are harpist Rhodri and violinist Angharad Davies — brother and sister who trained in classical music and ended up at the heart of the UK’s experimental music scene. When they were children, they played with their father, an amateur trumpeter, in the Aberystwyth Silver Band. They remember a formative Ivesian experience one Sunday afternoon when the band ventured out to sea on two separate tugboats: tubas and baritones on one boat, drums, cornets and conductor on the other. Angharad played tenor horn and Rhodri played percussion. “Of course the boats accidentally drifted apart,” Rhodri recalls. “The music started sounding really weird. It was hilarious.”

Back in the Davies household, the grandmothers sang hymns and the parents listened to Peter Skellern, Barbara Dickson, Elaine Paige, brass band music. The children had free instrument lessons at school from the age of seven. “Dad always encouraged us to try things out,” says Angharad. They made pioneering cassette tape noise art by pouring water into the toilet and pretending it was someone having a pee. Both went on to work in professional orchestras but both became disillusioned with the creative strictness and ingrained hierarchies so shifted toward more free-wheeling improvised and experimental music circles. Angaharad remembers her father attending a concert in which she played music by the veteran American avant-gardist Alvin Lucier. “Afterwards, dad said to me, ‘all those years of study and now you’re playing one note,’” she smiles. Her reply? “Oh, but what a note!”

A fourth case study. Anthony Braxton grew up in the south side of Chicago in the 1950s. At school he played bebop and show tunes; he did a stint in the army in his 20s before fellow saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell got him involved in the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians — a radical black artists’ collective that would become a driving force in American avant-garde culture and racial politics. It was an environment where “no one was so much concerned with labels,” he describes, where “everybody came from different directions and eventually they went and continued in their own directions.”

Braxton listened to Hildegard von Bingen, Edgar Varese and La Monte Young as much as he listened to Charlie Parker, Dave Brubeck and John Coltrane. In 1969, his groundbreaking album For Alto — first ever full-length album for unaccompanied saxophone — was inspired by the solo piano works of Schoenberg and Stockhausen and included dedications to Philip Glass and John Cage. Frustrated by how the American music industry insisted on type-casting a black musician with a saxophone as a ‘jazz cat’, he went to Paris and investigated the city’s electronic music studios. He ignored prejudice that implied he was too black for classical music and too cerebral for jazz. He wrote pieces for a hundred tubas and launched a roving cycle of operas in the model of Socratic-style dialogues. He never limited himself to one instrument, one tradition, one set of parameters — and instead of ‘jazz,’ he chose to call himself a ‘creative musician’.

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Here’s another kind of case study. The classical programme of the 2017 Edinburgh International Festival contains 48 concerts, four operas, five works by living men (Jorg Widmann, Matthias Pintscher, James MacMillan, Mark Anthony Turnage and Ned Bigham) and one work by a woman (Clara Schumann). In another section of the brochure labelled ‘contemporary’, you will find Anoushka Shankar, Jarvis Cocker, PJ Harvey and other pop, folk and jazz artists whom the festival’s director Fergus Linehan considers to have ‘provenance’ and ‘seriousness’.

Linehan was responsible for introducing that designated ‘contemporary’ strand to EIF two years ago, stressing back then that the concert series must fit together. “There’s no point in putting on completely different events that play to completely different crowds,” he told me in 2015. “Yes, everyone gets very excited by a concert hall full of under-40s, but if it doesn’t fit with the festival as a whole, we can’t justify it.” Now Linehan seems less concerned with presenting music that thrives between designated genres, audiences and spaces. “It’s really complicated,” he says when I enquire why there is scant new music in the classical section and next to no classical music into the contemporary bit. “It’s not simple. Any attempt to simplify it is not useful.”

Simple, maybe not, but grappling with the complexity is useful and enriching — and plain representative of how a lot of music is made and heard today. Besides the base unacceptability of that gender imbalance in the classical series (not to mention other diversity indicators), EIF’s programming fails to reflect the happy mess and nuance of today’s music ecosystem. “Audiences like labels,” says Linehan, but labels that construct walls around specific genres are only indicative of an industry that tells concert-goers to know what they like and like what they know. Those labels make it easier to distinguish the ‘us’ and the ‘them’ — easier for ticket-buyers to navigate a brochure without risking ambiguity or chance encounters with an ‘other’.

’Classical’ and ‘contemporary’ are are old-school binary. They are market-driven categorisations that have become less and less applicable since musique concrete, since the AACM, since the cassette tape, since the internet, since globalisation. Now is the age of cross-pollination. Maybe now is the age of no terms at all. If you want a term, try for something that encompasses alt-classical, indie-classical, neo-classical, folk-classical, experimental-classical, creative music, sound art, noise art, performance art, electronica, ambient, improvisation.  ‘Classical’ is simultaneously too precise and too vague, and misleadingly backward-looking. Andre de Ridder — violinist, astute interpreter of baroque/classical/romantic/20th century repertoire and go-to orchestral conductor for indie bands and experimental pop artists — opts for the term ‘current music’. “It’s less exclusive,” he argues. “It acknowledges the kind of intelligent music being made across many genres by artists who might not have institutional funding and who speak to audiences in different ways and different venues.”

I’m not talking about cross-over or fusion. Naff appropriation has been part of the music industry for centuries — plenty of Romantic composers plonked folksy songs into their music, but for the most part they plundered material out of published anthologies from the safety of their armchairs and the complicating contours were smoothed out, prettified, made polite and assimilated into an acceptable language of formal composition. Porous boundaries between genres are only interesting when the respect for and integrity of both genres is upheld.

Bartok was part of the first generation of composer-ethnomusicologists who travelled extensively, armed with new recording technology and a genuine respect for peasant culture. His field recordings influenced his own music profoundly but never in a cheap or approximate way: he adopted the rogue rhythms of the vernacular songs, the untameable angles of the dances, and his writing grew increasingly taught, jagged, dissonant and bold as a result. He took both traditions seriously. It was a new kind of folk-informed musical realism.

Ever since the collapse of the august compositional schools of the 20th century, an unruly plurality has played havoc with attempts to tidy the classical music narrative into any kind of neat trajectory. Maybe minimalism was the first term to try to harness that disparateness — to put an official ‘ism’ on its blithe mix of jazz and pop music, counterculture and non-Western models. These elements weren’t just cute quotations: they defined the music’s shape, ethos and listening experience. Terry Riley’s In C appealed to a mass audience by challenging the safety line between high and low cultures. What was Western art music if it was no longer ‘Western’ or ‘art’? Like Woodstock and birth control, this music defied establishment societal structures and thereby empowered those on the sidelines to feel welcome.

Is there is a danger of exoticism? Of dilution? Of tokenism? Do we risk prizing novelty, inclusiveness and blurred terminology above heritage and elite achievement? “Over on the populist periphery, the number of events creeps up each year,” wrote the Telegraph’s critic Ivan Hewitt about the 2015 BBC Proms programme. “Some say this is the thin end of a wedge which will eventually drive classical music from its core position.” That’s unlikely, Hewitt went on to point out, given the sheer bulk of the Proms’s two-month orchestral offering.

In a recent Guardian article, the writer Charlotte Gill argued that “diversity breeds diversity,” suggesting the UK’s music education system should shift its weighting away from conventional notation. She hit a nerve. One responding letter — “her conclusions about musical notation and theoretical skills amount to simple anti-intellectualism” — earned 650 signatures by musicians from Simon Rattle to Michael Nyman to Tansy Davies. In another letter, the pianist Susan Tomes posited that “all music-making is certainly beneficial, but Western art music demonstrates a complexity and depth which few other musical genres have attained.”

Tomes is right to stand up for complexity and depth, but her explicit valuation of Western art music above other genres is hardly conciliatory. It’s the same standpoint that justifies the proportion of public arts funding and infrastructure granted to orchestras and opera companies in the UK. It’s also the same standpoint that perpetuates an out-of-date hierarchy and does little favours to the health of music either inside or outside the walls of institutional privilege.

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“Maybe galleries are easier because you can walk away. Part of the problem is the concert-hall environment. Way too much like a church.” Rhodri Davies suspects new music could build an audience as broad and stylistically promiscuous as those interested in contemporary visual art — if only it sorted out the listening experience. Davies isn’t alone in his thinking. Many of the prominent initiatives in new music over the past decade have moved away from the Victorian-era class trappings of the concert hall, real or imagined. Series like Bastard Assignments and Nonclassical have infiltrated pubs and clubs in East London. The composer Kate Whitley co-founded the Multi-Story Orchestra in a car park in Peckham with the intention of getting an audience closer to the music they were hearing. Le Poisson Rouge in New York says its mission “is to revive the symbiotic relationship between art and revelry; to establish a creative asylum for both artists and audiences”.

The London Contemporary Music Festival filled a car park in Marylebone (more car parks) with a conspicuously youthful and artsy crowd. In 2015, LCMF featured the music of Emahoy Tsegue-Maryam Guebrou — an Ethiopian nun who studied classical piano in Cairo in the 1930s and wrote off-kilter waltzes infused with Chopin, Amharic church music and the blues. The following year, LCMF programmed the music of Julius Eastman, a transgressive African-American composer/pianist/baritone who wrote pieces with names like Gay Guerrilla and Crazy Nigger. In amongst these novelties were pieces by canonical troublemakers like Babbitt, Stockhausen, Cowell and Cage.

But for all the hipness of a leaky car park, a finely-tuned concert hall is still the best place to hear a symphony orchestra. Traditional structures — the orchestra, the shoebox concert hall — still deliver heights of experience that must never be lost. Rather than abolishing those structures, how to make the infrastructural boundaries around them more porous? Israeli conductor/violinist Ilan Volkov has thought a lot about borders and space. A decade ago he co-founded an experimental music series at Levontin 7 in the central district of Tel Aviv; it’s a place where music is delivered unapologetically, viscerally and with a total lack of concern for the niceties of neat labels. Four years later, he founded the Tectonics festival — first in Iceland, then in Glasgow, now with editions around the world. The name is inspired by that great jumble of fault lines running a cleft through Iceland’s interior. The mission is to re-define the roles and responsibilities of a symphony orchestra within its community — not by dumbing down, but by inviting non-classical musicians, composers and audiences into the spaces traditionally reserved for orchestras. Within less than a decade, Volkov’s model has found a way for orchestras to engage with the noises made beyond their venerated walls, and has enticed those on the outside to try coming in.

Anna Meredith is one of the most visible faces in UK contemporary music. She writes for concert halls and for clubs. “I love feeling stuff,” she says. “If I’m really into something, I can feel myself clench my fist. I’m off my seat.” Her debut electronic dance album, Varmints, is a bright-energy rumpus of vintage arcade sounds and instrumental layering. It was released in 2016 and Meredith has since been darling of indie platforms like SXSW and the BBC 6Music Festival. Her shift into party music was a personal quest for two things: the visceral and the collegiate. She loves loud volumes and found she wasn’t able to get enough palpable impact in a concert hall.

Meredith’s magpie references, high/low cultural eclecticism (Bruckner, video games), DIY gung-ho-ness and ease in shifting between venues — all that is in keeping with the times. In the early 2000s, she and a group of fellow students from the Royal College of Music (Mark Bowden, Emily Hall, Matt Rogers, Chris Mayo, Charlie Piper) formed the Camberwell Composers’ Collective. “We thought that rather than sitting back and waiting for the BBC orchestras to call us, we should just do stuff ourselves,” Meredith says. “So we wrote things for our mates.” They remixed each other’s pieces using free audio software like Cool Edit Pro. Meredith wrote Axeman, three minutes of mayhem for bassoon and distortion pedal. “It felt like safety in numbers,” she says. “We put on small gigs and introduced our pieces by actually speaking to audiences.” Eventually the BBC orchestras did come calling. “Maybe we gave each other the confidence to try stuff out,” she says. “It was more important than any teachers.”

When the Camberwell lot were in their teens, they might have frequented the classical rooms of CD shops like HMV. Remember the soft-close glass door and hushed atmosphere that separated Bach and Beethoven from pop and the rest? But they were on the cusp. From college age, that generation listened online. They downloaded, shared, streamed, YouTubed. Where the major record labels dictated the listening options of previous generations, the demise of the majors allowed the rise of smaller, nimbler labels that could cater to, guide, even create a more laterally inquisitive customer.

ECM was first out of the starting blocks when it released Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians in the 1970s and accidentally uncovered a nascent and hungry new music audience. Jordi Savall’s Alia Vox interwove viol music with traditions from around the Mediterranean and enticed both early and world music listeners. Today, labels like London’s PRAH, Sheffield’s Another Timbre, Montreal’s Constellation and New York’s New Amsterdam Records (to name just a few) join dots between various margins of the mainstream. One of my favourite releases of last year was a collection of works by the English composer Laurence Crane on Hubro — an Oslo-based label mainly associated with experimental pop and jazz. Suddenly Crane’s music was on rotation on Radio 3 and 6Music simultaneously.

There is a timeliness to all this. Classical music has never been a hermit state; maybe now’s the moment to champion the kind of border crossings driven by mutual respect from musicians, programmers, funders and audiences on both sides. Edinburgh International Festival was established in 1947 amid a climate of extreme polarisation. The founders recognised that the arts could help. With internationalist optimism, they ignored post-war national identity politics and invited German, Austrian and Italian conductors and orchestras in the first years of the festival. The city was declared a ‘platform for the flowering of the human spirit’.

Today we find borders defining the geo-political agenda once again. We see walls going up, metaphorically, physically, across the English Channel, along the southern United States, around the rock of Gibraltar. Our media is dominated by populist politics and tribal sloganeering that steamrollers nuanced narrative. Far-right movements and Facebook algorithms silo ‘us’ and ‘them’ based on economic demographics, colour, gender, welfare values, football teams and click habits. How can stories reflecting in-between opinion cut through? Or indeed the in-between realms of music. Let’s celebrate a paradigm shift that has long been happening in music — even, or especially, if it flouts the dominant political rhetoric of the times.