Tuesday, June 09, 2020
"The position of the perpetual spectator"
I'm reading Music Comes Out of Silence, by András Schiff and the Swiss journalist Martin Meyer, which has just been published in English translation. Its first part is a discussion between them which veers from the fascinating to the eye-opening to several hilarious anecdotes. The second part consists of essays, letters and reflections by Schiff himself. The passage above is from a piece he wrote in 2000 in response to the far-right politician Jörg Haider's election in Austria. Haider was killed in a road accident in 2008, but otherwise Schiff's words are as true today as they were 20 years ago.
Today, while the few newspapers that accord any space to classical music are pointing out that in the UK the industry faces collapse within months, somehow only a handful of musicians are speaking up about the dangers. Many are talking online about music, streaming performances from home or doing both, finding ways to keep motivated and keep their, and our, brains engaged with our art. It needs, nevertheless, to go further than that.
There's no shortage of anger and anxiety, and at first I was convinced that a large part of the problem is simply that newspapers are just not interested enough in classical music to give it the sort of airing that exists for theatre, in which stars like David Tennant and Sam West are household names. There is an excellent piece in today's Guardian by Charlotte Higgins - which asks why we are not putting up more of a fight.
Part of the issue is the lack of cohesion between various organising bodies. I have been wondering where the Musicians' Union is in all this. All I can find at the moment is a report in which it appears to suggest that two musicians sitting next to each other facing forward shouldn't be a problem because they're not breathing on each other. Um. [UPDATE 5.15pm: Today the MU General Secretary, Horace Trubridge, speaks up eloquently in The Evening Standard - in an article that is headlined by theatre. Music is placed second, under cover - as is so often the case. Another indication that media attitudes must shoulder a lot of this blame.] Organisations such as the ISM and the ABO have been active and energetic, but chiefly behind the scenes, lobbying the necessary forces-that-be; and they are only occasionally picked up and yelled about on Radio 4.
What about actual musicians? Chi-chi Nwanoku, founder of Chineke!, has been a fabulous spokesperson for the art form, especially in the crucial area of race relations, and has been featured on LBC. Nicola Benedetti speaks out eloquently on behalf of music education. But there has to be the airtime. Tasmin Little, liberated months too early from the stage commitments she was preparing to relinquish amid much celebration this summer (she should have been giving her final Southbank Centre recital on 5 June), has been on Radio 4 current affairs programmes several times - but too often her contributions have been curtailed by the programmes. On one occasion a guest performance she had recorded for them was reduced to seven notes of "Somewhere over the rainbow". She has nevertheless revealed that she earned £12.34 for 5 million streams and this figure is now being quoted everywhere to show how appallingly our sector is served by the multi-million-pound giants who provide the streaming. Any classical soloist would be able to say the same, so why do they not? Too shy? Too scared? I honestly have no idea.
Here is Sam West, speaking up about why the UK's arts scene is more affected than those of our neighbours in France and Germany. Basically, it's the funding model: we have been trained to rely on commercialism because government subsidy accounts for a comparatively minuscule share of the funding. When commercial activity ceases, therefore, we are harder hit. Please listen:
Samuel West introduces the latest Arts Index - June 2020 from National Campaign for the Arts on Vimeo.
It begs the question: where is everyone? I'd like to think that the philistine media is chiefly to blame for not allowing the oxygen of publicity into the music sector. But I am also aware that musicians are not accustomed to what we journalists shrug away as "the rough and tumble". In times of trouble, the ostrich instinct in many of them runs deep. It's fair enough to be scared. Also, however, when I remember the music college in which I lasted three weeks before fleeing in despair, feeling that if I stayed I'd be turned into a lemon, I'm actually not surprised. How I wish that education for musicians more often included education beyond music itself.
There would be a benefit in this for all. You'll note that the illustration at the top of this article comes from one of the world's most justly celebrated pianists - and indeed the musicians who reach the very top are often those with the laser-sharp minds. Pierre Boulez, Daniel Barenboim, Alfred Brendel, Thomas Adès and Schiff have reached the heights in part because of their extreme intelligence. Igor Levit and Mahan Esfahani are among a newer generation who fully grasp the essential nature of the connections between music and the wider world, the community and what it means to be a full human being with responsibility for our fellow human beings.
Musicians who speak up certainly receive abuse for it, but this is par for the course: there'll always be someone to snipe "shut up and play" if they disagree with you. All it means is that you said something true that got under their skin. Take it as a badge of honour.
If your training has provided no scope for writing and speaking, let alone broader education, don't worry. You can do this for yourself at any time. You don't have to be 18 (it's possibly better if you are older anyway). You don't have to sign up to a course. You can download from the internet any book on philosophy, society, economics, history or global warming that you desire. You can learn languages on Duolingo (I'm finding this quite addictive). There are plenty of actors and acting coaches who need work as much as you do and will train you in public speaking techniques. No time to go to museums, and now they're shut? Look at the online exhibitions. Explore ancient Egypt and the splendours of Pompei, from the screen of your phone if nothing else. Listen to the great gurus of Indian classical music; explore cultures you haven't encountered, their ways of thinking, their traditions, problems and means of expression. Look at what is really going on in Syria, Afghanistan, the refugee camps, the Mexican border, the diamond trade, the tobacco industry, the Palestinian territories. Read the first-hand accounts. Talk to people who have been through it. Read the damn news from a reliable source, and distinguish it from conspiracy theories and propaganda. If you feed your creativity, your curiosity, your strength of character and opinion, it will feed your musicianship. Indeed, you will quite possibly become a better musician for it (OK, you need to remember to do enough practising too.)
Dear musicians, in this hour of trouble do not on any account "shut up and play". Get out there and start yelling.
Tell people what music means to you. Show them what music can and does mean to them. Demonstrate what music does for us all. The financial figures speak for themselves - the UK's music industry is worth billions more to our exchequer than the fisheries the tabloids shout about - but the worth of art music in education and wider western culture has been eroded until swathes of the population are disinclined to give it the time of day. It's up to us to tell them - and you more than me. Though I was also a trained musician, I'm a writer and always have been; I'm used to it and my voice comes through. That's why you're reading this. You need to be able to do it too. Get talking. Get writing. Get shouting. The internet is an open platform and you don't need to wait for someone to do it for you. Get it? Got it? Good. Now, go for it.