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David McGuinness's blog

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Saturday 29 July 2017

In the run-up to the SAY award a couple of months ago, I read something that struck me as rather shocking, but haven’t had time to think about it since, until I was on holiday last week and I looked it up to remind me. Here it is: a discussion on the SAY longlist in The List. BTW, I’m delighted that Sacred Paws won, and would have been just as delighted if it had been Ela Orleans or Rachel Newton.

Here’s the bit that bothered me, a perceptive comment from The List’s music editor, Kirstyn Smith:

For me, Ela Orleans' The Circles of Upper and Lower Hell highlights the difference between her album and the rest of the good albums on the list – the importance of not being a passive listen. It's very hard to forget you're listening to it; while other albums on the list faded into the background, it was impossible to ignore EO.

What bothered me? That even the good albums on a shortlist of the best of the year mostly ‘faded into the background’, and didn’t hold the listeners’ attention. Is that the best we can do? That’s a bit like saying that the most exciting art of the year was worth a quick glance, but not much else.

I've long been convinced that music is more about listening than it is about making sounds, so for me one plausible definition of good music is that it encourages us to keep listening (in a nod to proponents of ambient, passive listening counts if it is deliberately and interestingly passive!). One clichéd response here is that classical music, with its emphasis on musical progression (particularly harmonic progression), and its concert halls as temples of silence, is an antidote to this sort of passive engagement, but I don’t think that’s really the case.

Some time ago I was at a very dull but sold-out, standing room only, performance of a unarguably great piece of music that I had been looking forward to, and I turned round to look at the audience behind me to see if anyone else was as bored as I was, very carefully so as not to breach the all-important audience behaviour protocol. I saw hundreds of people apparently disengaged, sleepy, and disinterested. (The performance really was uninspiring.) Perhaps some were meditating deeply on the sounds wafting over them, but they certainly didn’t look like they were paying much attention. Of course, that audience protocol means that they stayed quiet rather than going to the bar (there wasn’t one anyway), or talking to their friends. One perk of being a classical musician is that the audience won’t lob bottles of their piss at you if they disapprove of what you’re doing: they’ll keep quiet, and even still applaud your efforts politely at the end.

Sometimes small gigs where the performers are so close that there is no escape, can be just as focused as in the temples of silence. As a performer, the moment when you feel that everyone in the room is waiting for the next thing to happen, and that you can hold them in that waiting for a millisecond and it makes a big difference to their experience ... that's good fun. But figuring out how much pressure you can put on audiences to stay silent at times like that is a difficult thing to judge outside of a classical concert hall. Will using a PA help the audience to be relaxed about putting their glasses down or passing a quiet comment to a friend, or will it wreck the intimacy of the experience?

The recording process, and the ubiquity of phones and headphones to listen with, encourage both intimacy and attention to detail, so making an album is an opportunity to at least attempt to hold the listener’s attention. I’ll remember that when we’re finally mixing the ballads album on Tuesday. My school music teacher once said to a class: 'If I let you put your favourite music on now, you'd all just talk over it'. (Yes, I know that's about using recorded music to define a social space ...)

Meanwhile, it’s Proms season, and an excuse for the ‘classical music is for us all’ mantra to come out again. Yes, it should be readily accessible to everyone, and it’s largely thanks to the BBC that there is such a richness available here. However, everyone also should have permission to say ‘You know what, that’s not an experience that really means much to me right now’.

Last week, I finally started to make good my total ignorance of the Gaelic language, something I’ve wanted to do for ages. I grew up living next door to and downstairs from Gaels, Gaelic culture has informed lots of music I’ve been involved with, and it's a huge part of the history of many places where I spend time, so while I’m a beginner, the culture is not alien to me at all.

Now, even after a few days, I can see what a marvellous thing it is to learn, and the temptation would be for me to say (as classical music proselytisers tend to): ‘Everyone in the UK should do this - it’s part of our culture, and look at the benefits!’ But somehow, I suspect that many people in, say, Gloucestershire or Essex, might not immediately see the language’s relevance to them, and understandably be quite resistant to being told how good it is for them.

So it might be wise to take a deep breath before coming out with well-meaning but culturally tone-deaf statements that ‘classical music is for everyone’. (Or, for that matter, as Radio 4 has been saying for the last few days, that Henry James is for everyone.) And as for the deep conservatism dressed up as progress that is El Sistema, here's something to read.