Barely 24 hours after the UK election result and well before the Conservative government unveiled John Whittingdale as culture secretary, one of the world’s leading contemporary classical music orchestras put its stamp on the occasion. The London Sinfonietta performed a concert on May 9 on the city’s Southbank entitled Notes to the New Government, 16 new pieces by composers reflecting the society they hope to see. The pieces each had a theme, such as political apathy, education, climate change and the value of the arts.
That latter theme is certainly highly relevant at present, and resonates strongly within my field of music. The evidence from the campaign trail seemed to suggest that music was a long way from candidates’ main concerns. For example David Cameron’s recent interview with Classic FM suggested that music education, although important, was only to be considered after reading, writing, and numeracy are “nailed down”.
This opinion would have appealed very much to the “common sense” of voters, but it flies in the face of research suggesting that pupils’ reading, writing and numeracy are improved if music is incorporated into the curriculum rather than treated as an optional “enrichment”. This reflects the thinking behind Education Scotland’s emphasis on music in its Curriculum for Excellence, for instance.
Former culture secretary Maria Miller meanwhile set the tone for the Conservative view of arts funding in 2013 when she told arts executives that government funding should result in economic returns. It is hard not to surmise that the only notes that the current government wishes to see from musicians are bank notes.
The return of the experimentalists
In parallel, we have seen a growing interest in experimental music in recent years, and the blurring of boundaries between genres and between art and music of an extent not seen since the 1970s. I would argue that this is an alternative reaction to austerity. We can see this in the work of Christian Marclay, for example, clearly revisiting the American composer Cathy Berberian’s 1966 classic Stripsody in his 2015 show at the White Cube in London (complete with performances by the London Sinfonietta).
Another good example would be Janet Cardiff’s sound art. Rather than looking for a government “bail out” to reproduce a financially viable status quo, these are artists well outside of the mainstream, on the outskirts of what is recognised as art or music, creating new audiences by renegotiating what they do and how they share it.
Ilan Volkov’s Tectonics festival, which recently had its 2015 Glasgow incarnation, similarly champions artists from the margins. Although the focus is on music performance, the line-up gleefully ignored genre boundaries by bringing together musicians from jazz, grindcore, black metal, minimalism, slide guitar and the classical mainstream. The performers include visual/sound artists, cross-media performance artists, and artists with their roots in the anarchic and irreverent world of the original 1960s/1970s anti-art Fluxus movement that spawned Yoko Ono.
What Marclay, Cardiff, and Tectonics have in common is a modus operandi that interrupts the mainstream narrative of art and music. This is the sort of disruption for which you cannot plan. It may not change the world, but the force of its commitment and its refusal to conform to free-market values arguably opens up the arena to art forms that reject their own price tag, and refuse to entertain.
The classical cul-de-sac
Contemporary classical music in the UK has, through successive generations of polite subsidy, been manoeuvred into a position from which it can be politely ignored. This position is inherently vulnerable, making it easy to argue that it is not only irrelevant, but elitist and expensive, which leaves artists open to the cutting of that same subsidy (as we see happening already).
The London Sinfonietta itself recently played into this state of affairs with a blog entitled 8 Pieces of Music That Changed the World. Leaving aside the fact that they did not list Richard Wagner’s Rienzi, a work which is said to have inspired Adolf Hitler’s plans for a political career, the most chronologically recent piece of classical music on the list was Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony from 1942. All of the Sinfonietta’s subsequent world-changing pieces came from popular music (Bob Dylan, Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, U2, Band Aid).
This judgement appears to confirm that music written for classical instruments and classical concerts, even if it is written in the present day, is irrelevant and powerless to influence the world – music of the past, not the present or the future. Given the Sinfonietta’s elite position in contemporary classical music, this must be a little worrying. Needless to say it was also at odds with the aim of its Notes to the New Government programme.
Whittingdale to the rescue?
As for this new government, it should be said that John Whittingdale’s arrival as culture secretary does come with one potential silver lining. While the headlines have concentrated on his dislike of the BBC licence fee, one of his central beliefs is that the corporation should not compete with the commercial sector. BBC Radio 3 should stay out of Classic FM territory in his view, for example.
It is certainly impossible to disagree that Radio 3 strays too close to Classic FM. Its breakfast and drivetime programming is devoted to popular classics, for example. If Whittingdale does something about this, it would be very welcome. The question is whether Radio 3 could survive if the Conservatives did privatise more populist parts of the corporation.
Either way, Whittingdale belongs to a party that may have unwittingly helped to restore the old conjunction between experimental art and music that flourished in the 1960s and 1970s. If, as artists, we want our “notes to the new government” to be read, let alone acted upon, we cannot package them up in polite ritualised concerts that observe traditional etiquette. What we need is the musical equivalent of a brick through the window.