We Need To Talk About Classical Music

By May 24, 2020art, Audiences, Culture, Sounds

Around 10 years ago, I sat in a small public lecture theatre listening to a cancer patient speak about her illness. I was gripped. Hers was a brutal, raging cancer, the treatment more so, leaving her body wasted and broken. She told us how she had listened to classical music in her hospital bedroom. ‘I couldn’t speak, I couldn’t move…’ she said ‘…but I used to go right into that music … deep into it… that was what I did’.

I recalled her words three years later when my own mother was dying. Momentarily escaping the horror, I found myself going ‘right into the music’ – whether I was listening to it or playing it – with an intensity that I didn’t know was possible. Where medicine, human-touch and spoken-word failed, music stepped up – an umbilical thread that kept me grounded as my world crumbled.

Since the outbreak of the Covid pandemic, people are turning more and more to classical music as public emotion runs high. The panic, fear and confusion that has spread with the pandemic, fuelled by a vacuum of reliable facts and a continual torrent of (mis)information, takes the place of cautious reflection. We are living in a nervous era of heightened-alert and growing mistrust, relying increasingly on instinct and gut-feeling rather than fact. In the 21st century, ‘feeling’ has become an important navigational tool – we make snap-judgement important decisions based on it, we allow ourselves to be guided by it, we trust it. The fast speed of real-time media and its ripple-waves of sensation have turned ‘feelings’ and emotions into an important political force. Emotions are no longer ‘soft data’ – they are hard politics that can turn peaceful situations into dangerous ones and can be used to control civilisations.

And in this state of perplexed anxiety, music re-orientates us; it slow things down, helps us locate our place in the world and reminds us of our shared humanity. The crucial quality of ‘feeling’ is its immediacy; we can enhance or counteract one ‘feeling’ with another very quickly and because of this, music is a natural go-to mediator.

Right now, the creation and live performance of music hangs by a thread.  The challenges of rebuilding our shattered, complex musical ecosystem become ever more evident. On Friday 22nd May, Darren Henley announced that Arts Council England will open up conversations for the ‘stabilisation’ phase of their recovery planning. They are keen to hear what change could and should look like, to work together, to be flexible, collaborate and innovate. The first survey inviting responses opens this week.

I would like to see change. I am tired of playing down the emotional value of music. I am frustrated by attempts to demonstrate music’s worth by translating its impact into social, health and economic contributions. And I am fearful that classical music will be trampled on in the post-Covid race to survive because we have been attempting for too long to justify its existence in ways that are opposed to its most vital quality  – its ability to move us. The primary value and importance of music is in what it makes us feel. In this context of welcoming change, I would like to bring the emotional power of music into the conversation as we search for a way forwards.

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During my lifetime, the emotional evaluation of music has had no place in policy. ‘Emotional’ stories such as the two above – mine and the cancer patients’ – are represented as two numerical statistics that barely register on the well-being impactometer. Soft stories stay in soft places – conversations, prose, blogs, interviews.

Why is policy so uncomfortable with emotion? Since the 1980s, culture has been increasingly ‘instrumentalised’. Support for the arts has been based on how well they contribute to and deliver other governmental policy areas, namely DCMS targets for the economy, social inclusion, health, education, crime, community cohesion. Put simply, support is calculated by a measurement of how well the arts can transform society.

The approach was one of target-setting, output-monitoring and performance-evaluating which replaced old lofty art-goals like ‘nurturing the human spirit’. By measuring the arts in this way, there was more funding available under New Labour. But turning the arts into a target-based, data-gathering business case meant that the wider and non-material value of culture has largely been ignored.

Where does all the data go? The CASE (Culture and Sport Evidence) database was set up in 2008 to produce evidence for Arts Council England, English Heritage, museums, libraries and sport. It contains over 12,000 studies on engagement – what drives it, the impact it has and how it can be valued so that the government can decide how much to spend on the arts. The evidence is directed at the target areas that the arts are required to deliver, so many other potentially rich areas of interest are overlooked.

One of the main problems has been that arguments for the arts connected to social or economic objectives can be achieved by other non-arts means. The notion of ‘value to the public’ was an attempt to remedy this. It still meant producing evidence for the Treasury, but it also recognised institutional (intrinsic) artistic goals. Yet the tensions are still there – intrinsic and instrumental, expansion and quality, excellence and access. They were there in Arts Council England’s 2010-20 ten-year vision: Great art and culture for everyone. And they are there in the 2020-30 ‘Lets Create’ strategy: ‘A country transformed by culture. Bringing us together, happier, healthier, to excite, inspire, delight. To enrich our lives’.

Has this preoccupation with transforming society relegated the individual, personal experience of music to something peripheral and insignificant? Has it squeezed emotion and the powerful phenomenology of music out of the frame?

Its not just policy that is queasy about emotion. A sense of emotion as a dangerous, unreliable, irrational and wilful thing stubbornly prevails in Western culture. It dates back to the 17th century when René Descartes valued a rational mind over physical feelings. Around the same time, scientists introduced strict rules for recording their discoveries so that nothing could be exaggerated or distorted. The determination of these ‘experts’ to keep their own feelings out of their observations laid the foundations of the modern age. Data stands for logic, reason, purity, cleanliness. Emotion is messy, ethereal, slippery, chaotic.

Perhaps this is why many music historians and analysts focus more on the historical context or the nuts and bolts of musical compositions. Are we wary of a wild and wilful sense of emotion itself slipping into a debate about emotion? Do we consciously or subconsciously remove its very qualities from the conversation and speak of it in distant, careful terms? Certainly many of the 75,800 articles on the topic of ‘music and emotion’ listed in the JSTOR digital library are a cool, calm and controlled read.

By presenting music as data we are reinforcing this old hierarchy. But feeling is unavoidable in music and understanding that feeling is essential to understanding a piece of music. It makes no sense to remove music’s most powerful quality from the value debate.

So, what is an emotional response to music? What does it mean to ‘go right into’ the music? 

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Firstly, listening to a piece of music is a dynamic relationship – a complex, animated and personal one that fluctuates and changes constantly. Through new ears, with each listening, a piece of music is liberated, refreshed, revitalized and escapes its past. When we listen really hard, we are unaware of the act of listening and can be transported to another place. Each new piece of music is like a building or a village or town; when you arrive, it feels alien and strange – a mix of unfamiliar pathways, languages, accents, colours, textures. And then, as you listen, you start to recognise routines, habits, patterns and local ways of doing things. You begin to ‘live’ in the music and explore it independently and confidently.  In time, the piece of music settles into your own sonic landscape… the vast, shimmering city of sounds you carry in your head and ears. But this personal landscape of music is never static. With every new piece of music you hear, with every expansion of the landscape, new connections are made and routines, paths and patterns collide.

Secondly, music not only generates feelings within us, but it captures, cradles and suspends them. It allows us space and time to dwell on how we feel –  to be ‘in the moment’ – without clutter or baggage.  The shape and form of a piece of music can be a container for wild, helpless grief, delivered in the form of something beautiful, tender, gentle. It can be a vessel for joy, pride, longing, love, excitement, played back to us in an immediate and unspoken language that holds and sustains the sensation for as long as the music lasts. This is an immensely potent quality…. to my mind, unique to music, and its most powerful attribute.

Thirdly, music grows with us over time. Pleasure and enlightenment comes from revisiting and discovering music over a lifetime. Every curated sound, concert, recording, programme and broadcast brings music to us in new combinations. We are part of this story as each new generation brings their tastes and preferences, freedoms and restrictions to the myriad ways we can present and experience music. Music is deeply connected to the imaginations of the people who listen to it and share it. It evolves like a living species, travelling across countries, continents, centuries and generations, cross-fertilizing with other musics and other listeners…. This process is unpredictable, fluid and in a constant state of flux.  The way music ‘behaves’ is beyond fixed categorisation.

Something that is ‘beyond fixed categorisation’ is far less reassuring than numbers and hard data. Doubt is less appealing to policy makers than certainty. But forms of doubt can be rewarding, virtuous and rich. Doubt can produce the sort of contexts that lead to accidental-synergies, inadvertent-connections, diverse view-points and ultimately, new ideas.

The writer Siri Hustvedt brilliantly describes this kind of doubt as one that…

‘….begins before it can be properly articulated as a thought. It begins as a vague sense of dissatisfaction, a feeling that something is wrong, an as yet un-firmed hunch, at once suspended and suspenseful, which stretches towards the words that will turn it into a proper question framed in a language that can accommodate it’

Its hard to think of anything that captures the creative process more perfectly.

She continues:

‘Doubt is not only a virtue in intelligence, it is necessity. Not a single work of art could be generated without it and although it is often uncomfortable, it is always exciting. And it is the well-articulated doubt, after all, that is forever coming along to topple the delusion of certainty’.

‘Toppl(ing) the delusion of certainty’ is one of the things I would like to see acknowledged, embraced and encouraged by policy makers. There is no certainty in music. Its inherent ambiguity, abstract and elusive quality is what makes it unique and extraordinary. It feels disingenuous to bestow qualities and promises upon a piece of music before it is written or heard. And it feels uncomfortable for music to attach itself to policy concerns that might appear more ‘worthy’ or pressing than music itself, such as urban regeneration programmes. All this suggests that music must deliver on the basis of expectations rather than on the basis of what it can offer of itself. 

The ecosystem of music is also ‘beyond fixed categorisation’ because it involves as many fuzzy, porous borders as music itself. Ideas, careers, money and people flow in complex ways and patterns like a constantly turning kaleidoscope. It’s a work-in-progress, a social process and a non-hierarchical ecology. All parts, all people and all musics contribute. 

Some examples: professional musicians move between subsidised orchestras, engagements with commercial recording companies and projects with entrepreneurial producers and promoters. They might also work alongside amateurs (for example, to boost amateur orchestras or choirs). These same musicians are music lovers – they are both consumers and practitioners and they blur performer-audience boundaries.

Cross-arts events (opera, music theatre) have developed ways of working that facilitate the growth and exchange of new ideas such as co-productions between venues and companies. We can also see the ecology at work within a single organisation. A music festival, for example usually combines publicly and privately funded events, commercial activities, voluntary work and charitable outreach programmes alongside a longer-term focus on development and training.

The musical ecosystem is a living, breathing creature  – dynamic and messy, clustered and diffuse. No-one can control an ecology, but we can take care of it and maximise its health and productivity. And healthy ecologies can work together. For example, architecture is increasingly interested in how sound and listening might change our notions of built environments. In Architectures of Sound (2017) Michael Fowler describes an imagined landscape where multiple ‘pauses’ are placed across the city. Citing Luigi Nono’s scale of rest values in his string quartet Fragmente-Stille, an Diotima  (1980) as inspiration, Fowler describes ‘encounters with sound worlds and active spaces [which are] punctuated through ‘pauses’ in the sounds of the urban environment’. Architectural ideas frequently draw on the fluid and organic cohesion of music and its component parts (spatial pulse, density of texture, formal organisation, pace) as a template for design.

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Next steps…

This is not a plea to return to old, elite and lofty art-goals. It is a response to the extraordinary present unfolding before us, where feelings drive change and behaviour, and hard boundaries are breaking up, old-fashioned and undesirable.

In short, this is about finding new ways to value music on its own terms and explore the rich potential of its uniqueness. A practical elaboration might look something like this:

1) I would like policy to stop generating short-term numerical data and broaden all approaches to studying the value of music. This would include ethnographic, anthropological and sociological study, connected directly to ‘real-world’ musical projects. In particular, I would like to see studies explore the longer-term impact of music over many years. This would provide an insightful, honest, surprising and dynamic picture of the complex and multifarious role music plays out in our lives. We cannot know what the wider and far-reaching impacts of music are whilst we stick rigidly to narrow, simplistic, short-term targets, measuring and evaluating systems.

For example, we could:

  • Better understand the significance and immediacy of ‘feelings’ as a driving force of the age we live in and what this means for an art form whose primary purpose is the business of emotion.
  • Track the ways in which music is curated, programmed, how it travels and changes and how this is connected to the imaginations and input of people. Invest in projects that don’t start with targets but with good questions.
  • Embed study deeply within the complex ecosystem of music  – in the lives and livelihoods of those who create it. Explore the impact of music starting from the inside out, not the outside in.

2) Work to change the funding relationship between the DCMS and Arts Council based on new valuing systems. Combine this with a sensitive, people-centered, not purely data-driven approach, that puts the intrinsic qualities of music at the heart of policy decisions.

3) Invest recovery funding in living composers who can shape new pathways by writing for the musical forces and parameters we can work with. Invest in innovative producers, curators and organsiations who connect across the musical ecosystem, who voice doubt and blur boundaries and are honest about what music can and cannot do. Invest in producer-composer collaborations that find ways of using sites, spaces and technology to explore what ‘liveness’ in music might mean in a post-Covid world. For example, 2-way audience engagement, ways in which the performer/audience experience will become more ‘fused’.

The roots of the word ‘emotion’ come from the Latin emovere – to move out or agitate. It seems like a good time to shake things up and change the narrative.

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Kate Romano, 24 May 2020