Showing posts with label Jack Pepper. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Jack Pepper. Show all posts

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Great Britten

Delighted to hand the floor today to our young correspondent Jack Pepper today for a look at why we need a new Britten in Britain for the 21st century, and what conditions might be necessary for one to emerge. And no, it's not just the mainstream media. Jack, 18, is a writer and composer. JD


Great Britten
Jack Pepper

A centenary stamp for Benjamin Britten, 2013

We need another Britten. Facing social and political divides, and frequent misperceptions of classical music, we need a musical polymath to become an ‘establishment’ figure who can excite the public and prove that all aspects of music can unite us. What happened to the classical musician as the public voice of justice and humanity?

In public and in private, Benjamin Britten was exactly what the 21st-century needs. The problems we face today were all in some ways addressed by the composer. Born in Lowestoft, Britten was never a representative of the highest born elite, and so was a perfect representative of the ideal of music for all. Today classical music faces criticism that it is the preserve of a wealthy minority. Composing for schoolchildren and amateur groups in works like Noye’s Fludde, Britten opened the genre to younger audiences, a passionate advocate of music education. 

Today we are surrounded by debates about how best to engage younger audiences with classical music. Determined to ensure the success and accessibility of Aldeburgh and later Snape Maltings, in 1953 Britten told Imogen Holst that “We’ll have a school here”. Today music festivals are fighting over Arts Council funding whilst trying hard to launch new schemes for young composers and performers. As a homosexual who neither flaunted nor suppressed his sexuality in public, Britten frequently used his music to express his personal viewpoints and comment on contemporary issues, be it conflict in the War Requiem or homosexuality in Death in Venice. In 2017, we commemorate 50 years since the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain, whilst also facing growing conflict in Syria, Ukraine and Yemen. Britten was a vital figure in a divisive century; he came to epitomise freedom, the rights of the individual, and the openness of music to all. He came to symbolise Britain.

But where is our Britten today? We have musicians who champion classical music amongst young people and amateur ensembles, likewise we enjoy high-profile conductors like Sir Simon Rattle championing the arts in the face of cuts and cultural cynicism. But do we have a figure entirely comparable to Benjamin Britten, both in the breadth of musical disciplines they represent and the public platform they occupy? In being equally capable and known as a composer, teacher, conductor, pianist, accompanist, writer, musical spokesperson and civil rights symbol, Britten was able to demonstrate the gamut of music’s potential to benefit society as a whole. Barenboim is probably the most notable and publicised musical polymath of today, known equally as a conductor, pianist, writer and political activist, but who in Britain can claim to combine such disciplines in an equal manner, and with similar publicity in the mainstream media?

Britten: a public voice?
Photo from allmusic.com
A musician of Britten’s versatility is more likely to encourage the public to adopt them as a figurehead, since they represent so much more than an interest in a certain repertoire or an area of music. To generalise, a top-class, frequently-televised conductor will likely appeal to an audience at least partially distinct from that which is attracted to a musical academic; it is reasonable to assume that a conductor of, for example, Leonard Bernstein’s stature, was attracting certain fans who may not have occupied the circles surrounding, say, Charles Rosen. Similarly, a song accompanist will likely have a very different main circle of admirers than a musician who is a political heavyweight. Britten, and Bernstein in America, stand out because they combined these diverse skills, and in doing so they came to represent all that was great about music, making them more likely to be adopted by the broader public as a representative of the arts. In uniting different musical disciplines, and combining this with a distinct personality and determined set of personal beliefs, Britten was able to symbolise all that was exciting, fair and engaging about classical music. A representative in its fullest sense.

But Britten was not only a great figurehead because of his own attributes. Society was receptive to his influence. Britten was commissioned to compose an opera – Gloriana - to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, whilst he also welcomed the Queen to the new Snape Maltings hall, just outside Aldeburgh, in 1967. He was given a platform that made him very much an establishment figure – one who the public recognised and thus one who was listened to – whilst also maintaining the freedom to express his own, often then-controversial, views. He was associated with his country and treasured by its public whilst also able to maintain his own viewpoints. Nowadays, composers continue to be commissioned to compose for royal events, with Paul Mealor writing for the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge; classical music continues to be at the heart of national occasions. Music itself has not lost its ability to unite people or to commemorate moments of national significance; likewise, music has not lost its share of high-profile figures who champion the arts. The problem is that the public platform for such views has diminished. The majority of these figures are still confined to musical circles. The debate about the importance of music in a volatile world is restricted to the musical world alone. What Britain lacks today is a figure that represents the arts to the wider public.

Other nations have this. Gustavo Dudamel opened up music for younger generations when he was appointed music director of the Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar – Venezuela’s national youth orchestra - in 1999. Daniel Barenboim has shown music’s capacity to unite opposing factions by conducting both Israeli and Palestinian musicians at a concert in 2014 to promote peace in Gaza. However, it’s not that Britain doesn’t have its own classical figureheads. Nicola Benedetti established the ‘Benedetti Sessions’ workshop programme that offers rehearsals, masterclasses and performances for young people. Classical music still enjoys a broad range of global and national ambassadors who, like Britten, champion the genre as a way of breaking down age, class and political barriers. But are they recognised in truly public spheres for doing so?

Adele
Photo from Wikipedia
We no longer see vast crowds of excited children attending the opening of a classical concert hall, as we did with Britten in 1967. Nor is the general public likely to identify a classical musician as a national and global figurehead for education, rights and freedom. Whilst Britten came to epitomise musical inclusiveness and the apogee of British musical achievement, today we lack a figure who an everyday Briton would immediately recognise as ‘ours’. Top musicians like Rattle, Benedetti and others are widely recognised for their championship of the arts, but this is still largely confined to musical circles. Think how many movie stars appear on The Graham Norton Show, The One Show or Top Gear, and then consider how many classical musicians we see in similar prime-time slots. Ask someone in the high street which musician best unites and epitomises this country, and they’d probably say Adele. But Adele does not combine the variety of disciplines that Britten did, a diversity that would provide the strongest possible evidence of the power and importance of music to all. Britten was a fantastic symbol of music’s potential to better humanity because he represented so many different aspects of this musical world. 

Yet without a platform, even a figure who did match Britten’s diversity would struggle to become a national icon. Whilst classical musicians are still trying their utmost to promote the accessibility, equality and openness of music in the manner of Britten, they seem to lack the public voice that gave such a platform to Benjamin Britten, and to Handel and Elgar before him.

What makes a Britten so necessary today is that he represented a time in which classical music occupied a central role in society. Whilst music, both then and now, tries to unite people in times of division – look at the ‘One Love’ concert in Manchester – classical musicians no longer seem to occupy a pivotal position in this. It is significant that, on that Manchester stage, not one classical musician appeared. This is at least in part a result of newspaper headlines that today favour a Britain’s Got Talent controversy rather than a Leonard Bernstein, and newspaper arts sections that diminish in size by the day. Whilst classical music used to feature heavily in newspaper columns and radio discussions, we must now travel ever more frequently to specialist music websites and journals to hear the same level of discussion about classical music. There are numerous individuals working tirelessly to promote classical music and to bridge divides, but they are not receiving the publicity they deserve. Their voices are confined to the musical circles that already support their beliefs.

However, it would be wrong to suggest classical music has diminished as an agent of change on the world stage solely because of a lack of mainstream media coverage. Alongside greater media support, classical composers must not be afraid to speak the language they find most truthful to them; with the growing recognition of film and game scores as legitimate forms of classical music, and the movement away from the hegemony of atonality and the accompanying belief that one must only write twelve-tone music to be taken seriously, I believe our musical integrity is improving. We must continue to pursue music as an honest reflection of what is within us, and not write what we feel we ought to. 

Once again, Britten perfectly captured this musical truthfulness; he wrote mostly tonal music at a time when the Darmstadt school was bringing dodecaphony and electronic music into the mainstream, a time when tonality was increasingly dismissed as backward. As Oliver Knussen argued, Britten, “rather than trying to do something new and different for its own sake, says something important with means that can communicate very directly. He deals with imponderables in a very commonsensical way.” 

And so, to be both artistically true to oneself as well as socially useful – is that not the purpose of music, after all? – composers must be strong enough to pursue their own individual goals, without fearing stigmatisation, whilst also trying to have some form of useful voice. Britten was strong enough to admit he was many things at a time when it was unconventional to be so: a pacifist in a time of war, a homosexual in a time of conservatism, a tonal composer in a time dominated by atonality. He was strong enough – and respected enough – to be himself.

As such, we need another Benjamin Britten - someone all people can identify with, and identify with classical music – as well as a mainstream media that gives greater attention to such figures. We need someone who can encapsulate both the freedom of music to say what one desires, as well the necessity of allowing such music to communicate something valuable to the broader public. British classical music needs a polymath public figurehead again.

Jack Pepper is an 18-year-old composer and writer from Surrey. Having written a fanfare for the Royal Opera House in 2016, he has since composed for Classic FM’S 25th birthday, in association with the Royal Philharmonic Society. The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic performed this commission in October 2017. His writing has appeared on the Gramophone and RPS blogs, and in Opera Today.


Thursday, September 21, 2017

Rattle's return: a young composer's view

Culture shouldn't be just a feather in the country's cap - it's the cap itself, says Jack Pepper, 18-year-old composer and writer, in this guest post on the return of Simon Rattle and what this means for his generation. Go, Jack! 
JD



Upping the Tempo
Jack Pepper

Portrait of Rattle by Sheila Rock (licensed to Warner Classics)

Say what you will about the PR drive surrounding Sir Simon Rattle’s return to London. We need classical musicians who can grab the headlines and capture the imagination of the public. Let’s just hope we ride the crest of this wave

Exhibitions of “photos and memorabilia covering Sir Simon Rattle’s musical life to date”. A “large-scale projected artwork” that reduces his form “to a series of animated dots”. And even a screening of Henry V, with the score performed by the maestro himself. If you were an alien landing in London today, you might wonder whether you were encountering the propaganda of some vast autocratic state, or perhaps be fooled into thinking that classical music had produced its own A-List Hollywood movie. But even with eyes that are so myopic they won’t allow me to see my feet from where I stand, I can see that the London Symphony Orchestra is making the most of its new Music Director. And why not?

Rarely has the classical music world seemed so feverishly excited in my 18 years on the planet. As a young teenager tentatively exploring classical music for myself, everything seemed just a tad sterile. Serious, even. Perhaps it would be going too far to say that everyone seemed bored, but to a ten-year-old the classical world appeared, well, indifferent. In reality, classical musicians and music-lovers are never indifferent, but appearances count for a lot when it comes to engaging new audiences. Despite numerous scandals and intriguing personalities, the public rarely hear of classical musicians from the mainstream news. This contributes to an image of sterility, of distance, even if it is far from true.

Whilst my friends would be hyper at the release of a new iPhone, ecstatic at the thought of a new Bond, and positively overwhelmed by the prospect of a wireless speaker, I looked at the classical world and found that its own most publicised stirrings consisted of an elderly female pianist pirating old records and the frequently acerbic response of audiences to the latest opera production that happened to show a nude singer. Whilst a 1920s silent movie would never have shown such exposure, it would be hard to avoid it in the latest Bond release; yet classical audiences seem consistently irritated by similar things. 

Of course, the news hadn’t made me aware of Darmstadt, or of any of the other seismic revolutions that rocked classical music as a force for change. Old habits seemed to die hard, and with its penchant for tradition – constantly wearing dinner jackets and sure to hiss the latest opera production - the classical world on the surface seemed rather glued to routine.  

But it is true that some constants have damaged classical music for too long. If horror at the pettiest of nude ‘outrages’ was regular, genuine excitement seemed equally regularly hard to come by at first glance. I would watch the latest BBC coverage of the Proms to find the presenter insisting that they were all having “a great party”, whilst looking more like they were at a wake. Dig deep and you find huge excitement in classical circles, but this was not regularly communicated on the surface level that any new audience would first see. To a newcomer, didn’t it all seem just a tad rigid? We seemed so busy insisting that we were excited by a new piece that we forgot to appear genuinely excited. To a young person surrounded by glaring digital billboards advertising the latest Tom Cruise blockbuster, the classical music world seemed – to judge by its sparse mainstream coverage alone – decidedly fixed in its ways.

Rattle could not have come at a better time. Not only can he change public perceptions of classical music, nor can he only change the way seasoned music-lovers view their art form, but he can also tackle political indifference. It is disturbing that the arts seem so often to be a mere feather in a national cap, and not the cap itself; for too long, we have been reading articles crying despair at British cuts to arts funding, seen images of the latest American orchestra to close, and (most likely didn’t) read how most UK political parties entirely overlooked the arts in their manifestos in the 2017 General Election. When so many public personalities – faces we see every day on the news, and who influence everything from arts funding to public perceptions – seem so adamantly against the arts, we need a cultural figurehead who can take a stand. If politics are indifferent to music, then music must never appear indifferent to itself. It must never just ‘accept’. Classical music needs a politician, but if it can’t have one in politics, why can’t it have one in music?

The problem is clear. The world of classical music seemed indifferent to itself when I first started exploring its treasures not because it genuinely was ambivalent, but because its public image was stuffy, traditional and old-fashioned. Of course it has its peculiarities, like an audience’s strange aversion to sniffing, sneezing and any other sign of human life at a concert. We should be willing to admit this. But the classical music world is not stuffy. It was only my subsequent experience of meeting musicians, going backstage and getting involved that showed me nothing could be further from the truth. But we need someone out there saying it.

With Simon Rattle, we have a fantastic opportunity to present a rejuvenated image of classical music to new audiences who, like I was as a young child, may be intrigued by the wonders of this genre but hesitant to go further simply because it seems so daunting. If politicians and the mainstream media seem indifferent to the arts, the arts world must redouble its efforts to demonstrate the passion that it undoubtedly has. Rattle should be a kick up not just our own classical derrières, encouraging us to spread our passion to all, but also up the political rear as a reminder that this genre does have its own powerful figureheads. Yes, Rattle’s return has been coupled with a strangely omnipresent and marketing-speak PR campaign, but if it gets people talking about classical music, then consider it a job well done.

Our passion and our determination to open the arts to all must never be restricted to purely musical circles, where we are at risk of preaching solely to the converted. Someone like Sir Simon Rattle can remind us all why we adore this genre, and bring our love of classical music to everyone. That’s worth a PR campaign.
Jack Pepper



Thursday, September 07, 2017

Crying Quietly: is anyone listening?

In this guest post for JDCMB, the 18-year-old composer and writer Jack Pepper, from Surrey, makes an impassioned plea to stop the closure of Dorking's Performing Arts Library. 


Crying Quietly: is anyone listening?

Save Surrey’s Performing Arts Library

Jack Pepper

Jack Pepper
This year, Surrey County Council needs to make savings of more than £100m, and as a result Dorking’s Performing Arts Library – which holds a plethora of scores, books, play scripts, libretti and records - is potentially facing the chop. For the sake of music, musicians, education, and our country’s heritage, we must not let this cultural goldmine close.

We hear a lot of grumbling nowadays. ‘Austerity’ is a familiar word, and it seems impossible to check a Facebook feed or an online journal without someone writing about what in their opinion is a ‘national disgrace’. But this blog is not political – the Surrey Performing Arts Library has faced closure in the past – and I do not seek to condemn one political party or endorse another. Instead, I’d like to shift the focus back to music.

That’s what the Surrey Performing Arts Library does so well. With countless orchestral and choral sets, miniature scores, valuable music history books and records, this building is far more than an efficiency saving. It is a cultural treasure-trove, and for musicians like me it is invaluable. Before a rehearsal up in London, I can rent a score and save hundreds of pounds a month. Equally, I can purchase a music history book for £1 that you could only find for £30 anywhere else. 

This library opens music to all. After a visit today, I have emerged with the writings of Wanda Landowska, the scores for Bach’s English and French Suites, an encyclopaedia of rock and pop music, and countless other volumes. I am hugely excited at the thought of the new discoveries that such books present; pieces of music I have yet to hear, composers I have yet to discover, and new areas of interest that are yet to open up. The books I have come away with today will no doubt inspire many a future composition of mine by exposing me to new ideas and possibilities. All for less than £20.

Some people may argue that this is just a library. But I argue that a library is far more than a building with some books; it is a symbol of our willingness to invest in education, culture and accessibility to the arts for all. Some too often see libraries and cultural centres as soft targets; because they don’t attract thousands of visitors a year, nor grab the national headlines frequently, they are too often side-lined. But they provide a vital service, and one that can hardly be measured in monetary terms. 

Libraries such as this open up music to all. Who doesn’t get a thrill from listening to a symphony? Who doesn’t recognise the power of a song that, despite having forgotten the names and faces of their closest relatives, triggers something in the mind of a Dementia-sufferer that allows them to recall the lyrics? The treasures discovered at a library stay with you for life. Libraries give inspiration to composers like me, and motivation to explore the breadth of what music has to offer. The treasures of our past are only accessible through such resources.

But it means even more than this. To protect this library, and countless others like it, means protecting not just our musical past, but also our musical future. Not only does the Performing Arts Library preserve the works and ideas of past musicians, but in making them available to today’s community, the Library also ensures that the work of the future is secure. Libraries such as this are an indication of our country’s willingness to invest in its own heritage, education, and in both its past and future. It is a statement of intent. So much more than ‘just a library’.

It would be careless to so flippantly discard such a vital national resource. Choosing to protect the Surrey Performing Arts Library is a choice to protect our community’s culture; a choice to allow young musicians like me to continue to access the best resources that will give us every opportunity to advance our musicianship; a choice to prove that we love the music we write so frequently about. It is precisely this love of music – not political character-assassination – that should make you sign the survey below today. 

When you have the choice to protect the music and education you value – you wouldn’t be reading this blog if you felt otherwise – then please take it. We must have this discussion because what it at stake is so much more than politics, or a mere building. This is a choice to defend the music that gives us all so much pleasure. This is a choice to make this music accessible to all.

Jack Pepper

PLEASE FILL IN THE SURVEY HERE:


Jack is an 18-year-old composer and writer from Surrey, who will soon start studying Music at Oxford University. Having written a fanfare for the Royal Opera House in 2016, he has since composed for Classic FM’S 25th birthday, in association with the Royal Philharmonic Society. The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic are performing this commission in October 2017. As a writer has appeared on the Gramophone and RPS blogs, and as a reviewer for Opera Today.