Monday, September 11, 2017

Popularizing Experiments

I missed this article when it first came out: BBC Proms end experiment with Strictly and Sherlock after audiences fail to stick around. I think it supports my  view that the strategy of trying to sell classical music by turning it into something else doesn't work:
The BBC is turning its back on TV-themed Proms after finding no evidence that audiences for Doctor Who or Strictly concerts develop a lasting love of classical music.
Sherlock and CBeebies have also been given the Proms treatment in recent years, along with Sir David Attenborough's natural history shows.
But the BBC has decided to “try other things” after conceding that concerts based around its television brands have not succeeded in building new audiences.
This is a slightly different approach than the usual. The BBC hoped that they could leverage interest in, say, Doctor Who into interest in classical music. But the Doctor Who audience are, of course, interested in Doctor Who so I think that counts as another case of trying to turn classical music into something else. Other examples include the use of videos, light shows, venues more suited to other kinds of music like pubs and parking garages, costumes, and so on. Every single one of these strategies involves trying to turn the music into something else, or inserting an element that does nothing but distract from the music. How does that make sense?

I'm afraid that the only method likely to work is the slow and incremental one of actually taking the time and effort to inform your audiences and spark their interest, not in Doctor Who or some odd distraction, but in the music itself. I'm a big Doctor Who fan, and what drew me to the show was that I became interested in it for what it was in itself. Mind you, I can understand why the promotors wanted to try these different linkages as a way of attracting new listeners. But it didn't seem to have the desired effect.

I think you have to go deeper in the audience supply chain! How do people get interested in classical music? What are the "gateway drugs" as it were? What age does this happen at? Under what circumstances are people open to this kind of new experience? How much of an effect do music lessons at an early age have? What about the experience of ensemble playing? What about classes in music appreciation? All this frightfully dull stuff is probably more to the point than just putting on a concert with a Doctor Who angle.

Hey, here is an idea. Now I have not by any means seen most of the Doctor Who episodes, so perhaps they have done this, but wouldn't it be extremely helpful if there was a Doctor Who show that referenced music? In the Fifth Series there is a show where the Doctor and his companion go back in time and visit Vincent van Gogh in his later years and it was a wonderful introduction to his work as an artist in a very Whovian manner. A show where they visit Mozart or Bach or Stravinsky would be equally inspirational, I think.

But what do I know?

Since we are talking about the Proms, let's have a piece from the Last Night of the Proms for our envoi. This is Finlandia, one of Sibelius' early successes. The artists are Sakari Oramo conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra:


Steven said...

This is where I confess to the absolutely terrible TV shows I watch. There was an awfully goofy scifi show called Warehouse 13. In each show there is some artefact with mysterious powers that they have to collect. There was an episode about Johann Maelzel's metronome. A story was concocted in which Schumann attempted to commit suicide but his wife kept him alive using the metronome. Schumann's reliance on the metronome led to his insanity. There was also an episode about Beethoven's clock. When activated, it causes its victim to hear each Beethoven symphony in succession. With each symphony, the victim becomes more deaf. (There are more like this but I will spare you...)

Also relevant, have you seen this exceptionally articulate piece on Gramaphone by a 17 year old UK music pupil? It's on his experience of the complete failure, concerning all that 'frightfully dull stuff' you discuss, to cultivate any interest whatsoever in classical music, particularly in schools.

Bryan Townsend said...

Hey, I'm working my way through all ten seasons of Stargate SG1 right now, so don't feel bad! But Warehouse 13 sounds quite interesting. I see there are episodes on YouTube, so I will have a gander.

Thanks so much for that link to that remarkably articulate essay by the 17-year-old student. In my more cynical moments I wonder if the sidelining of classical music has something to do with its inefficacy in propagandizing the students. Maxwell Davies may be a big fan of the state education system, but I am much less so. Of course his experience was in the UK and mine in Canada. Classical music is always a bit suspect to ideologues. The benefits that flow from an appreciation of it flow largely to the individual, not the collective.

Steven said...

Quite a bit of Maxwell Davies' experience was with Grammar Schools, if I recall (i.e. selective schools; I don't know if there is an equivalent in Canada?). Those of us born too late should feel resentful that past governments decided to ban what were brilliant, academic schools on dodgy egalitarian grounds. There have been efforts to give state schools more autonomy in recent years, but when your school is run by a not-so-ex communist, say, (as indeed mine was) that's not always very helpful.

Huh, been trying to find something to watch. 10 seasons of Stargate could keep me going for about a year.

Bryan Townsend said...

All of my public school education, meaning education in state schools, was in Alberta and British Columbia. Nothing terribly wrong but nothing very good either. I hated most of it except for choir, which was sort of music! Loved university, though, where there were actual subjects with actual content.

I find Stargate SG1 to be more watchable than, say Star Trek TNG or Voyager, which I used to enjoy. I confess that part of the pleasure in Stargate is the locations around Vancouver, always standing in for some alien planet. That and Richard Dean Anderson, who plays a good Everyman. For science fiction it is pretty down to earth.

Steven Watson said...

The UK has some exceptional state schools -- just so long as you live in a wealthy catchment area! Heh, our school didn't even have a choir.

Will check Stargate out. Never much liked Star Trek, but I did enjoy stuff like Babylon 5 -- that's about the same era, isn't it? Though it's definitely the opposite of down to earth.

Marc Puckett said...

There're Dr Who episodes arranged around Shakespeare and Dickens, too. Painting, writing, theatre... no musicians that I can recall, but my knowledge only reaches back to what's his name, Christopher something or other.

Tolkien, on the other hand, works music into his universe quite cleverly, as I recall.

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes, Babylon 5 was quite a good show. I also enjoyed Farscape, Australian science fiction with muppets! Something of an acquired taste, however. I had hopes for Enterprise, the Star Trek prequel, but it never quite came together. I think the problem with a lot of the Star Trek spin offs was that they never really had any good villains.

Right, there was the Doctor Who episode where they meet Shakespeare. But they don't seem to have a leaning towards music. As the anonymous student was saying, music seems to be sidelined, not considered on the same level as the major cultural figures in art and literature. I wonder if this is something of an Anglosphere problem as we don't have quite the same strong music history as the European continent. Between Purcell and Elgar there is this yawning gap where all the great English musicians were imported.

Steven Watson said...

Vaughan Williams writing in 1914: '‘Classical’ music is considered to be a foreign luxury imported from abroad with our champagne and our cigars for those who have the money to afford it and the taste to appreciate it.' [Vaughan Williams on Music, ed. David Manning] Only once, he notes, have we been able to boast of an English 'school' of composers -- in the Tudor period.

But since 1914, England's musical influence has exploded. And more broadly, classical music in the Anglosphere became an important force in the 20th century and continues to be one now. Vaughan Williams, Holst, Walton, Britten have all proven to be very popular composers. So too have Maxwell Davies, Tavener, MacMillan... Then there's the Americans: Copland, Reich, Glass...

And English music, right from the Tudor period to today, has a fairly distinctive 'popular' quality. Our lutenists wrote far fewer fantasias than those on the continent, and almost no intabulations of vocal music -- most of the solo lute music consists of dances and popular melodies. Vaughan Williams wrote for amateurs. Maxwell Davies wrote for schoolchildren and set up a festival for locals. As James MacMillan wrote a few months back, 'Amateur music-making is the jewel in the British crown and is a vital core of the musical ecology of these islands.'

Okay I'm biased. But of all countries, Britain in the last century has had the composers most enthusiastic about (and arguably effective in) popularising classical music. Yet we still suck at music education.

Oh, and I enjoyed Farscape too. Especially Rygel, that imperial slug who expelled helium.

Bryan Townsend said...

That's an excellent quote from Vaughan Williams! Yes, indeed, classical music has seen a huge resurgence in the UK in the 20th and 21st centuries. And the US as well. But Canada seems to be a bit of a laggard. I always love buttonholing people and asking them to name the three greatest Canadian composers. Long silence is a typical response. Good point about the strong populist and amateur element in English music-making. I wonder, is there some aspect of the British aristocracy that did not lend itself to much patronage? Or what?

Ah yes, Rygel, one of the more interesting characters in science fiction! But I was more, ahem, drawn to Aeryn Sun, played by Claudia Black.

How could I have possibly forgotten to mention the best sci-fi tv of all? Firefly! Despite Joss Whedon's recent escapades...

Steven Watson said...

Browsing around, The Oxford Companion to Music offers one theory:

‘One of the impediments to the international recognition of English music in this period [19th century] was the long-standing lack of a truly competitive system of musical education. Outside the church, apprenticeship was still the norm, and the Royal Academy of Music (founded in 1822) catered originally only for junior pupils. The English musical public came more and more to appreciate European composers and performers to the detriment of those born and trained in England … [he then lists a bunch of examples] … English performers lacked the virtuoso skills to maintain their appeal, while composers, unless like Sterndale Bennett they studied abroad, tended to be limited in their vision.’

So were the aristocrats busy snapping up foreign musicians?

Ah, Firefly. Yes, with the exception of Dollhouse, Whedon really went downhill after that. Agents of Shield is so glossy, has no edge.