Tamar Iveri. I feel a bit sorry for her and what’s happened to her career of late. I’m sorry that she married a homophobic man. I’m sorry that she hasn’t the guts to stand up to him. I’m sorry that she entrusted him with the password to their joint Facebook account. Maybe in her culture, she is the ideal Obedient Wife, saying yes-sir-no-sir to everything her husband ever says? In Western culture, we call those people Enablers.
Enablers are not well respected. The Australian example that springs to mind is a woman called Jackie O. No, not Jackie Onassis. For those privileged enough not to know about her, our Jackie O is a vacuous D-List commercial radio presenter who is paired with one of the most overtly misogynistic and homophobic public figures in the country, Kyle Sandilands. She appalls me. They both do. And I put Iveri and her husband in the same category. (Yes, I’m lesbian and biased against her, but I challenge you to try to be nice to someone who calls you a piece of “faecal matter”).
I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about the relationship between politics and classical music. Am coming to the conclusion that it’s really an odd relationship. The issues that seem to get the most attention are about arch conservatives of the classical world making outrageous statements of homophobia or misogyny etc, followed by the rest of the sector coming down on them pretty hard. Tamar Iveri, of course. Or Russian conductor Valery Gergiev publicly voicing support for Vladimir Putin’s anti-gay laws. Or classical music critics in the UK reviewing the shape of Tara Erraught’s body instead of her actual performance in Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. All horrible things against which we must protest. There’s a great deal of talking and clicktivism, but no artworks in response. Yet.
Where in all these dramas are the actual creatives? Not the performers, but the composers and writers? There are some really good examples of political statement through music happening locally, and I wish they were getting half as much media traction!! In 2013, the Song Company and the Canberra International Music Festival commissioned a wonderful piece of massed choral political satire by composer Tim Hansen and writer Hal Judge called Howls in the House all about our Parliamentary system and how it works (or doesn’t work!). There’s the upcoming premiere of Paul Stanhope’s new work Jandamarra for the Sydney Symphony with Gondwana Choirs and performers from the Kimberley, the Bunuba people, telling an important indigenous story that Australians really should know about, but mostly don’t. That’s what makes it political. And I’m quite proud of my own contribution to this genre, my eco-allegory This Paradise Now for Leichhardt Espresso chorus, inspired by our Prime Minister Abbott attempting to ignore the World Heritage Listing on those Tasmanian forests. Since I wrote that piece, he has failed in his attempts to destroy said forest. Ha.
All the works I’ve just mentioned are choral works. I’m inclined to think this is not a coincidence. I think it’s got to do with the genre and the kind of people who get involved in it. There’s a genuine sense of community about singing in a choir at any level, professional or amateur, that I suspect you are less likely to get in an opera company. Opera types will argue with me about that, and we’ll have to agree to disagree. In my experience of going through music school with opera singers, their training is mostly geared toward preparing them to perform solo roles. The educational emphasis is very much against giving them tools to work well in ensemble like sightsinging, aural skills, harmony and counterpoint. They are trained to be soloists and that’s what they desire and consistently work very hard towards achieving. And after all, what use are good ensemble skills to a future Diva?? As a consequence, very few work well or truly happily in ensemble (unless they’ve had a good deal of choral experience). On the other hand, choristers are necessarily about supporting each other and working as a team - good reading, theoretical knowledge, aural skills are central to creating that uniquely powerful unanimity of expression. Can you tell I’m biased? Haha.
Choirs are very much leading the way in that relevance that other classical music organisations are always rabbiting on about, that they think is so elusive. It’s not elusive. It’s in your face, peoples! It’s right in front of every director of a musical ensemble. Every ensemble is made up of real people and those real people have had real lives and have real stories to tell. All you need to do is extract those stories from your people and make a new piece of art from what you get. I did it by asking the Leichhardt Espresso Chorus what thing was happening in the world about which they were the most upset which turned out to be the attempted destruction of Tasmanian forests. It wasn’t hard to get people to write things about which they feel very strongly. In fact, they gave me enough material for at least six similarly sized allegorical cantatas!
Imagine if every classical music ensemble did this? In my own private Utopia, I imagine that all kinds of people would see us telling real stories and would be able to really connect to us. It’s so personal and immediate, much more like working in a rock band I guess. Now I’m not advocating throwing the baby out with the bathwater, I love Beethoven and Stravinsky as much as the next classical nerd. But a genuine commitment to telling our own stories rather than a tokenistic nod to new music in order to get funding… well, that’d be keepin’ it real.
Recently, I presented some composition workshops for the Australian National Choral Association, at their Queensland Choral Convention. It was held on the Gold Coast, a place for which I now have a strange affection. It’s an affection for the way the coast used to be before the developers arrived and built their towers literally in the sand. Upon arrival, I stepped out onto my hotel room balcony, and saw some earth moving machinery moving down toward the beach. I felt a pang of fear. A day later, on my morning walk, I discovered that these machines were destined for something called ‘seawall investigation’, assessing the performance and condition of the seawall so all those towers don’t just tumble into the ocean one day. Eek! It did little to assuage my fear.
So I channelled the fear into writing a song about it with the folks in my composition workshops. Isn’t composition a strange kind of alchemy…!? Anyway, in my mind’s ear I hear a bunch of 8 year olds from the Gold Coast singing it. Here’s the solo part…
I’m off to a meeting this afternoon at City of Sydney where they’ll be discussing their “Live Music Matters: Live Music and Performance Action Plan”. Classical music has been notably absent from this conversation in the media, because the whole debate is somewhat predictably centred around the bar/pub music scene and the accompanying issues of entertainment/alcohol licensing and noise pollution.
It is time to make our voices heard, classical fans!!!!
I have a suggestion. What about more non-amplified music in existing council venues with naturally resonant acoustics? Orchestras, choirs and chamber music groups are much lower impact in terms of noise. A good mix of both professional and amateur classical music events, concerts and rehearsals in venues like the beautifully newly refurbished Glebe Town Hall, for instance, would create vibrant creative hubs for music makers of all levels of experience and would inject some life back into the music scene. How? When you get people involved in music creation, they become good audiences too. Just take a look at Moorambilla Festival for a shining example of that! It’s starting to happen e.g. the lovely folks of the Glebe Salon Orchestra already rehearse in Glebe Town Hall, but a whole lot more of that kind of thing would be great. Further to that, shouldn’t Sydney’s flagship classical music organisations (Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, Sydney Children’s Choir and Sydney Youth Orchestra) all have a regular and visible presence in their own city’s council venues?
The only catch is this: there would need to be top quality grand pianos in these venues. Spend the money on that instead of trouble-creating amplification systems. That’s what I say.
Read a few words from the City of Sydney Live Music and Performance Taskforce here
Max Hole, the new head of Universal’s classical music label, has this to say about how classical musicians need to reinvent. As usual, the journalist and the online commenters focus on how alienating the traditions are, that you have to dress up properly and know not to clap between movements etc. Whatevs.
If I could say one thing to my orchestral colleagues on this matter, it would be this - I want to see them communicate their joy in playing classical music. Classical performance should be a real event! As an audient, I should be feeling a kind of tangible, visceral excitement at seeing 100 musicians on the stage united toward a common goal. I certainly feel it as soon as the music starts, but before then…
I’ve been to major symphony orchestra concerts where I felt like I wasn’t meant to be there. I felt that my presence went unacknowledged and they couldn’t have cared less that the people out there had paid good money to come and hear them and feel the energy and excitement of live performance. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen this - musicians shuffling onto stage in dribs and drabs over a period of about 20 mins, not necessarily to warm up their instruments but to have a chat with their colleagues, as you might in a rehearsal situation. Some of the ladies even bring their handbags on stage and put them under their seats. Wtf. I’m sure there’s a locker backstage somewhere. Anyway they’re just lounging around, all laid back and casual and it hasn’t any sense of occasion.
If I want a room full of casual, laid back people in formal dress with some classical music attached somewhere, I will pay to go to some pretentious charity ball - at least then I’ll know that my money is going to some noble cause and not to the salaries of a bunch of musicians who, judging by the way they come on stage, look like they don’t give a rat’s arse about classical music.
But here’s the rub; I know for a fact that these colleagues of mine care a great deal about their music and they play it extraordinarily well. But until they can communicate that effectively not only in their playing, but in their performance attitude, on social media, in the way they speak to regular non-musician people about it, nothing will change. Regular folk will continue to think (wrongly!) that classical music is stuffy and elitist and doesn’t speak to them.
I’m doing my best to change the state of play through the way that I perform, but I am only one person. How else is the industry to reignite the fire?