Maybe representation as a goal isn’t enough

I want to express some problems with the current focus on ‘diverse representation’ as an aim for opera, where my experience is (and for classical music):
  1. It is harmful for marginalised people to come into environments that are not safe and supportive. How can we make sure that we are not encouraging ‘diverse talent’ into harmful situations?  Is the positive story we want to tell about representation making life harder for people who are already here? On the other hand, how can we be honest about how things are without being discouraging?
  2. In my experience ‘diverse talent’ in opera is co-opted into telling harmful stories about itself. How can we address the conflict between these different meanings of ‘representation’? One answer, potentially, is more representative artistic leadership, but without even broader change, individuals in positions of power may achieve little, or burn out (see above).
  3. People have been ‘reinventing opera’ and ‘making classical music open to everyone’ for longer than I’ve been alive. Broadly speaking, either it’s not working, or it is working, but not in the way claimed (or intended?).
  4. Overall, I think the connecting thread between these thoughts is that you have to deal with the ideology of what and who is already there, before/as well as inviting people in, or deciding it’s your place to invite people into. Potential audiences aren’t just put off Covent Garden by the ticket prices, but by (a portion of) the existing audience. Artists aren’t just excluded by an absence of role models but by the presence of racism and ableism. Representation as a goal — in terms of workforce or audience demographics — maybe isn’t enough.

Toria Banks is a director, acting teacher, dramaturg, writer, and producer. She is one of the core team of HERA.

Legitimacy & Aesthetic Ideals

This post is written by Åsa Bergman.

The legitimacy of classical music in contemporary society has been debated by researchers for some decades and has also been described as weakened in relation to the past (Kramer 2007, Botstein 2013). In a discussion that recently took place in the Swedish daily press between representatives of concert institutions, journalists and musicologists, classical music was described as marginalised, compared to other music genres. This was furthermore pointed out as connected to how market discourses today permeate the concert programs and to how they are presented to the audience (c.f. Wallrup 2016, Brodej 2016).

However, based on an ongoing study of how symphony orchestras in England and Sweden present concert programs on their web sites, legitimacy seems to be obtained by maintaining a balance between constructing classical music in line with aesthetic ideals established in the 19th century and more contemporary music ideas. While the former discourse emphasises the music’s eternal values, and its potential to generate transcendent experiences (Bonds 2006), the latter emphasises classical music as an open semiotic space, whose meaning the listener is free to define on basis of needs and desires in a specific situation or context (Kasabian 2013, Nealon 2018).

One way to understand the two identified discourses is that a discursive struggle is taking place, another is that they are interconnected. Since, even if the romantic aesthetic ideals are less expressed in relation to the promoted concert programs investigated than experience-oriented and mood-enhancing meaning, and thus could be understood as being challenged by them, such ideals seem to remain uncontested as long as they are combined.

References:

Bonds, Mark. Evan. 2006. Music as Thought. Listening to the Symphony in the Age of Beethoven New Jersey: Princeton University Press

Brodej 2016 Så här kan vi rädda den klassiska musiken [This is how we can save the Classical Music] Expressen 2016-05-25

Kassabian, Anahid. 2013. Ubiquitous Listening: Affect, Attention, and Distributed Subjectivity. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press

Nealon, Jeffery. T. 2018. I’m Not Like Everybody Else. Biopolitics, Neoliberalism and American Popular Music. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press

Wallrup 2016 Därför skiljer sig konstmusiken från poppen [Therefore, the Art Music Differs from the Pop] Svenska Dagbladet SvD 2016-06-21


Åsa Bergman is an Associate Professor in Musicology in the Department of Cultural Sciences at the University of Gothenburg.

J.S. Bach’s Religious Music in Contemporary European Art Cinema: Western Art Music or ‘Film Music’?

This post is written by Dr. Douglas Knight.

Historiographic accounts of J.S. Bach’s reception have often overlooked European art cinema’s significance as a twentieth and twenty-first-century ‘receptor’ of his music, particularly with regard to those works written for the Lutheran church. Films by post-war modernist directors, such as Pasolini and Tarkovsky, were foundational in making extensive use of Bach’s religious and concert music. More contemporary auteurs of the past twenty years, including Haneke and Dumont, for example, have also actively paid homage to this previous late-twentieth-century generation by using Bach’s religious music in similar ways. I would maintain that collectively their films demand to be considered in a broader historical context, specifically the traditions of revivalist stagings of Bach’s Passiontide works and earlier twentieth-century composers’ modernist orchestrations, such as those by Schoenberg. I would argue that Bach’s church music in European art cinema since the 1960s is an extension of a particular line of modern Bach reception.

That these refunctionings of Bach’s music now occur in the secular, mass-participatory media of film, inevitably changes the music’s meanings, certainly as compared with original historical and religious meanings. Does Bach’s religious music of the eighteenth century now function epistemologically as ‘Western art music’ as it often has done in concert halls, or, instead, as ‘film music’ to be listened to cinematically? The formal role of the music and its poetics may instead come to be prioritised audiovisually over attempts at pietistic observance. Yet, as scholars such as John Butt and Lawrence Dreyfus have demonstrated, much of Bach’s church music ultimately stems from secular operatic influence. To this end, I would argue that European art cinema’s use of Bach’s religious music reveals the dialectical tension between liturgical religious practice and secular artistic expression that is at the heart of this programmatic music to an unprecedented degree. I would encourage network participants, and scholars of both film and art music traditions, to consider this scene of diegetic performance in Dumont’s film, Hadewijch (2009), as illustrative of these critical issues.

References

Applegate, Celia. 2005. Bach in Berlin: Nation and Culture in Mendelssohn’s Revival of the St. Matthew Passion. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.

Butt, John. 2010. Bach’s Dialogue with Modernity: Perspectives on the Passions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Caruana, John. 2014. “Bruno Dumont’s Cinema: Nihilism and the Disintegration of Christian Imagery.” in Camil Ungureanu and Costica Bradatan (eds.), Religion in Contemporary European Cinema: The Postsecular Constellation, 110-125. New York: Routledge.

Dreyfus, Laurence. 1996. Bach and the Patterns of Invention. Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press.

Marissen, Michael. 1993. “Religious Aims in Mendelssohn’s 1829 Berlin-Singakademie Performances of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.” The Musical Quarterly, 77, no. 4: 718-26.

—. 2016. Bach & God. New York: Oxford University Press.


Dr. Douglas Knight is a researcher and organist in North London. He has recently completed a PhD in musicology from Royal Holloway, University of London: “Post-War European Art Cinema and Classical Music”.

Representations of Classical Music Listening and Constructions of the Self in Post-Millennial Cinema

This post is written by Dr. Tobias Pontara.

Depictions of classical music listening in post-millennial European and American cinema can be seen as perpetuating a conception of the listener that has been dominant in Western society since at least the beginning of the nineteenth century. Variously described by writers such as Wilhelm Heinrich Wackenroder, E. T. A. Hoffmann, Eduard Hanslick, Theodor Adorno and, more recently, Roger Scruton, this is a listener that relates to music as an enchanted, psychologically withdrawn and existentially self-sufficient experiencer. As Judith Becker (2010) points out, however, taken-for-given assumptions of ‘an inwardly focused, isolated listener [are] inadequate’, insofar as such ‘portrayal[s] of listener and listening present a set of unexamined ideologies and presuppositions that would not apply for most of the world’. Moreover, even within the Western classical music tradition such assumptions are problematic, since they do not do justice to the manifold ways of listening that exist in relation to classical music. The image of the silent, immobile and inward-directed listener is misleading because it acknowledges only one of many ways of musicking (Small, 1998) that people engage in while listening to classical music in everyday life (cf.  DeNora 2000; Lilliestam 2020)

It is nevertheless an image of the listening subject that ties in with broader conceptions of the self in the modern Western world. In Charles Taylor’s seminal book Sources of the Self (1989) one of the central constituents of the modern Western identity is a deep experience of inwardness and the resulting sense of a strongly detached self. In the history of aesthetics, this self is presupposed already in Kant’s theory of aesthetic judgement and his claim that pure aesthetic pleasure is defined by a disinterested approach to the contemplated object. And this in turn is what underwrites most (if not all) accounts of classical music listening. With regard to cinema this is evidenced by recurring tropes relating to classical music listening throughout the history of Western filmmaking, such as depictions of solitary listening in public and private settings. Whether the focus is on overwhelming experiences in the concert hall, on technologically mediated listening or on personal memories in relation to music listening, contemporary cinema’s portrayal of classical music listening builds on these tropes. In doing so it at the same time draws upon and reproduces the Western idea of an inwardly constituted detached self.

References

Becker, Judith (2010) “Exploring the Habits of Listening: Anthropological Perspectives” in Patrik N. Juslin (ed.) The Oxford Handbook of Music and Emotion: Theory, Research, Applications. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 127–157.

DeNora, Tia (2000) Music in Everyday Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lilliestam, Lars (2020) Lyssna på musik. Upplevelser, mening, hälsa. Göteborg: Bo Ejeby Förlag.

Small, Christopher (1998) Musicking. The Meanings of Performing and Listening. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England.

Taylor, Charles (1989) Sources of the Self. The Making of the Modern Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Professor Tobias Pontara works in the Department of Cultural Sciences at the University of Gothenburg.

The Elevated Status of Opera in Cinema

This post is written by Dr. Johanna Ethnersson Pontara.

During the last few decades scholars have paid increasing attention to how cinema deals with traditional aesthetic values in its representations of opera. Marc A. Weiner (2002) and Marcia Citron (2010) have explored films from the late 1980s and 1990s (Moonstruck, 1987; Pretty Woman, 1990; Philadelphia, 1993; The Shawshank Redemption, 1994) and shown how they connect operatic song with transcendence of particularity and emotional liberation. The opera performance, whether staged live in the opera house or mediated by technology, generates a special experience for attentive listeners in the fictional world at a pivotal moment in the narrative. Recently, Citron (2011: 318) has argued that this idealization of opera is challenged with the James Bond film Quantum of Solace (2008). Here, a staged opera performance is fragmented and serves to reinforce an action scene. Moreover, the performance is not associated with attentive listening. Lawrence Kramer (2013) has, just like Citron, pointed to a new conception of opera in recent cinema. According to him two conceptual supports on which the representation of ‘classical music’ has depended have been removed: ‘the status of a relatively stable whole’ and ‘a model of consciousness and attention’ (Kramer, 2013: 42-43). He exemplifies this removal by showing how the habanera from Bizet’s Carmen is used in the film Up (2009). The specific music and the specific opera, here, only have overall semiotic value – as recognizable classical music – for the film viewer, and the music ‘does not act as a token of a larger whole’ (Kramer, 2013: 48).

Scenes from recent films, however, show that cinema nonetheless continues to uphold an idealized image of opera. Of interest, though, is that this idealization does not revolve around the operatic song as a sonic entity or representation in a staged setting, which is the case in the mentioned films from the 1980s and 1990s, but around the presence of the singer as a real-life singer. This promotion of the singer appears to be connected to cross-promotion strategies between cinema and the classical music industries. Opera singers make use of cinema to promote themselves, while cinema in turn makes use of the real-life celebrities in order to market films containing opera.

References

Citron, M 2010 When Opera Meets Film. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Citron, M 2011 The Operatics of Detachment: Tosca in the James Bond Film Quantum of Solace. 19th-Century Music, 34(3): 317-318.

Kramer, L 2013 Classical Music for the Posthuman Condition. In: Gorbman, C, Vernallis, C, Richardson, J The Oxford Handbook of New Audiovisual Aesthetics. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 39-51.

Weiner, M A 2002 Why Does Hollywood Like Opera? In: Joe, J, Rose T Between Opera and Cinema. New York: Routledge. pp. 75-91.

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Dr. Johanna Ethnersson Pontara is Associate Professor of Musicology at Stockholm University.

Classical Music and Conflict in the Contemporary Novel

This post is written by Katie Harling-Lee.

There is a recent trend for contemporary novels which feature classical music, set during political or armed conflict. This trend can be found beyond the novel and in wider popular culture, and whilst my research focuses on representations of classical music in the contemporary novel, these novels inform and are part of the wider popular imagination, as they can be described as ‘popular high culture’: ‘literary novels that appeal to scholars whilst also functioning as entertainment on the contemporary literary marketplace’.

In my research I use the term ‘musico-literary novel’: ‘a novel which thematically engages with musicological and music philosophy concerns throughout its narrative’.[1] Examples include Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien (2016), The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes (2016), The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway (2008), and Bel Canto by Ann Patchett (2001). 

The novels represent classical music in an in-depth, extensive way, depicting imagined experiences of music listening, music practise and performance, and musical composition. Some of these novels only feature classical music, whilst others include various styles or types of music, yet these particular novels maintain a primary focus on classical music within their conflict context.

In analysis of the novels’ representations of classical music, a common thread occurs. An element of classical music that is repeatedly valued is its established tradition, e.g., formal structures and etiquette, global reach, and its centuries-long tradition. Anna Bull has importantly highlighted the structures of control which are present in the classical music tradition, and the issues this raises,[2] yet these novels complicate such criticisms through their use of the armed/political conflict context. Depicting the human desire for some semblance of control in a chaotic, conflict zone, these novels present a different perspective on classical music’s controlling elements: when a character’s country appears to be falling apart, the character turns to classical music as a source of survival.[3]

Notes

[1] Katie Harling-Lee, ‘Listening to Survive: Classical Music and Conflict in the Musico-Literary Novel’, Violence: An International Journal, 1.2 (2020), 371–388 (p. 373).

[2] Anna Bull, Class, Control, and Classical Music (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019).

[3] What makes this valuation of music in a conflict setting even more thought-provoking is the real-life parallels that can be found in musicians’ memoirs (e.g., The Secret Piano: From Mao’s Labour Camps to Bach’s Goldberg Variations by Zhu Xiao-Mei (2012))

Katie Harling-Lee is a Wolfson Foundation Doctoral Scholar at Durham University.

Informing Audiences

This post is written by Katy Hamilton.

I hugely enjoyed the thrilling performances of the BBC’s Young Musician of the Year Final, aired earlier this month. But it was utterly baffling – to me at least – that almost nothing was said about the pieces we were hearing. This was a majority female composer line-up, in three non-standard concertos which even the conductor, Mark Wigglesworth, admitted were new to him. Yet we were given no information about the people who produced the music; or when the pieces were written; or even whether they were in more than one movement, to help the audience follow along as it listened.

As one of very few high-profile classical events still aired on a mainstream TV channel, this seemed like a missed opportunity. If those who infrequently (or indeed never) attend classical music events find them intimidating because they don’t feel as if they know the ‘rules’, shows of this kind provide a chance to offer some simple, demystifying facts and figures. As we re-emerge from a period of largely digital, screen-led musical performance into the ‘real world’, there is the potential to reach out to a much broader audience base for classical music by using the very technology (a voiceover to a livestream; a short supplementary film with information for first-timers; supporting web content) that we have had to embrace because of the global pandemic.

We have a chance to go beyond the standard models of learning and participation events (where activities, and also funding pots, are largely aimed at children) to encourage the curious but tentative non-attendee to give it a go. So what tactics should we be discussing? What formats, in-person or digital, could help to reach new listeners? And how do we find a way of balancing presentations to help people enough, without succumbing to information overload?

Katy Hamilton is a freelance researcher, writer, and presenter on music.

Going Online: Opportunities & Challenges

This post is written by Martin Cullingford.

Nobody wanted to have to address the challenges the past pandemic year posed classical music. Artists were unable to work – with a huge and devastating impact both artistically and financially – and audiences were unable to be participants through their presence in live music-making. But the desire – need – to address all these elements proved the spring of creativity as many ensembles and artists at first felt their way online, initially with home-grown events shared on social media, and later increasingly high-end and high-tech broadcasts.

This was going on before Covid, of course, but not on such a scale, and not driven to the same extent by artists as opposed to by organisations. But what was two years ago innovative and experimental, and one year ago became a means to still be an active musician in a locked-down world, is now a permanent part of the performance landscape. For just as a year of working from home will have a significant and sustained impact on the office environment, so too will a year of online concerts on musical life. Live music will of course return, but much of the benefits of streaming, having been recognised, will continue, and have already taken firm root.

Some examples: a major record label and an artists agency have established permanent online platforms for online concerts, ones which blend elements of recording and live events such as finite catch-up time for viewing and pay-per-attendance tickets. An online London vocal festival initially conceived to give choirs their first paid work in many months is now heading towards a fourth series, having made a substantial investment in technical infrastructure and having forged a returning global audience. An established festival which, unable to perform to live audiences, took their events digitally into care homes and prisons, and now sees this as something on which to build.

But an important question (and opportunity) with all this is not just how and whether online streaming can reach larger audiences, but whether it can reach new and different audiences too. Whether it just reaches existing classical music audiences by looking and feeling familiar, or whether it uses the moment to harness the accessibility and neutrality of the online environment and further push at the perceptions of classical music that so many live initiatives, from carparks in Peckham to nightclubs in Berlin, have successfully done in recent years.

And if it does, who pays for it? Initially, much of this online activity was free, but that can’t continue indefinitely – music-making of this quality costs, and audiences need to accept that and recognise that value. But once you charge for it, how do you continue to reach those new audiences so easily, and ensure online concert halls don’t find themselves with the same challenges that physical ones have in persuading new audiences to enter in and give them a try? Classical music has a huge opportunity here – but how does it avoid taking the problems of perception and access identified in the physical world, and simply reimposing them in the virtual one?

Martin Cullingford is Editor of Gramophone magazine.

Diversifying Repertoire & Instrumentation

This post is written by Doug Bott.

In the drive for greater diversity, ‘classical’ music itself must evolve. We can’t change the people and expect the music to stay the same.

Sheku Kanneh-Mason plays the cello. We already have loads of music for the cello, so we can book him for lots of concerts. But what if we want to book more disabled musicians such as Evelyn Glennie or Nicholas McCarthy? Compared to the cello, there’s not that much existing music for percussionists, or left-handed pianists. And what about talented young disabled musicians coming through the National Open Youth Orchestra playing electronic instruments such as the Linnstrument, Seaboard Rise or Clarion? Where’s their music?

One answer is to increase new commissions for a more diverse range of instruments and players. I believe we should do this, but this new music will only hit the same problem in future, when the diversity of musicians and instruments has changed again.

Ultimately, if ‘classical’ music is going to benefit from the injection of creativity that diversity can bring, we need to be more adaptable in approaching the music we play. This means not only commissioning more new music, but also being flexible about which instruments this new music is composed for, and more open to rearranging existing repertoire for different instruments and musicians.

I’m not proposing we throw the baby out with the bath water here – that orchestras stop performing faithful renditions of Beethoven and Mozart and switch entirely to a new, radical approach. But I think we can have ‘both, and…’. Beethoven and Mozart would have been excited by these opportunities, because they were innovators. They were at the forefront of experimenting with new instruments and repertoire in their time, and almost certainly would be now too, if they were still here.

Doug Bott is musical director of Open Up Music.

Inequality Talk

This post is written by Dr. Christina Scharff.

The underrepresentation of musicians from minority-ethnic and working-class backgrounds, as well as of women in certain instrument groups and positions of authority and prestige, has been documented in recent years. Along with this trend, discourse around the lack of diversity in the classical music profession has gained increased traction. In my provocation, I draw on qualitative in-depth interviews with female, early-career classical musicians to ask if, and if so in which ways, recent discourse around the lack of diversity in the classical music profession has affected how young musicians talk about inequalities in the field of classical music. My research demonstrates that the research participants were aware of ongoing inequalities and discussed them openly. This marks an important shift from previously conducted research, which highlighted the ‘unspeakability’ of inequalities in the classical music profession and the cultural and creative industries. Going further than this, my research also explores the rhetorical and ideological work that such ‘inequality talk’ performs, arguing that conversations about inequalities may not necessarily pave the way to political change. More specifically, inequality talk can become an end in itself, rather than a means to an end (such as political change); a fatalist sentiment can characterise discussions of inequalities, presenting structural change as unachievable; and acknowledgement and recognition of privilege, crucial to overcoming inequalities, is not a consistent feature of inequality talk, which in turn risks reinforcing the normativity of whiteness and middle-classness in the field of classical music. Overall, my research provides a detailed analysis of empirical data to caution against overly optimistic accounts of the shift towards a more open discussion of inequalities in the classical music profession and beyond.

Dr. Christina Scharff is Reader in Gender, Media and Culture at King’s College London.