Friday, September 18, 2015

Why Sleep is a smash hit

I had a fascinating chat with Max Richter recently about his new piece, Sleep, which is eight hours long and designed to be slept through. A one-hour version on CD has gone straight to the top of the classical charts and has made it into the pop ones too. The premiere of the long one takes place at the Wellcome Collection - overnight. I couldn't resist asking him what happens if people snore.

My piece was in the Independent the other day, but in case you missed it and fancy giving Sleep a whirl, here it is...

When composers unveil new works, they do not generally want the audience to nod off. Not so Max Richter. The intention behind his latest piece, Sleep – which is eight hours long – is that his listeners should slumber peacefully throughout. He has termed it “my personal lullaby for a frenetic world” and “a manifesto for a slower pace of existence”. The world premiere at the Wellcome Collection on 26 September will apparently offer beds instead of chairs – and as it is broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 you can even try it at home. 

Richter, 49, knows plenty about frenetic pace. This German-born British composer’s works have become increasingly high-profile, and many are ambitious in scale. His Recomposed by Max Richter: Vivaldi - The Four Seasons was a smash hit in 2014; his score for the Royal Ballet’s Woolf Works triumphed earlier this year, and his many film soundtracks include Testament of Youth, Sarah’s Key and Waltz with Bashir. Yet the notion of a piece devoted to the vital nature of sleeping, he says, simply wouldn’t leave him alone. 

“My starting point was a personal fascination,” says Richter. “I couldn’t ignore the idea. It kept popping up while I was in the middle of working on other things. It was something I had to get off my chest.”

The premiere is to be given not in a traditional concert hall, but at the Wellcome Collection, central London, where it forms part of a long weekend of talks, discussions and performances entitled ‘Why Music?’, from 25 to 27 September. A collaboration with BBC Radio 3, this intensive series explores the power of music and the way it can affect our brains, minds and bodies; in the middle, Sleep will become the longest piece the BBC has ever broadcast. 

The work is in 31 sections, each bearing a title such as “Cassiopeia”, “moth-like stars”, “Dream 11 (whisper music)” or “nor earth, nor boundless sea”. “I often choose titles from literature that I love,” Richter says. “Music is writing and storytelling, so, for me at least, the titles are a clue, giving people a door into that material.”

Sleeping is, of course, vital to us all. “I have a sense that while I’m asleep some of the most important work is taking place ‘under the hood’,” Richter says. “I started talking with the neuroscientist David Eagleman, and it seems that cognitive mental processes really are going on while we’re sleeping that relate to our waking life. I think most creative people would intuitively agree: for instance, if we sleep on a decision we often feel more comfortable about our thinking in the morning. 

“I see the eight-hour piece as an environment, a place to inhabit,” he adds. “If it has a subject, it’s that the piece is the experience of the listener. The consciousness of the listener is the story.” 

This idea might have rung a bell with the composer John Cage (1912-1992), whose most famous work, 4’33’’ – supposedly of silence – is really about the audience’s personal experience of the ambient sounds that occur during that silence. Cage, almost as much a philosopher as a composer, had embraced Zen and mysticism while the musical world was still dominated by the rigours of modernism; and Richter agrees that Sleep bears the influence of the American alternative scene, notably 1960s New York, where the notion of an all-night concert at which people could relax, sleep, or come and go as they pleased, was pioneered. “It’s a very New York thing,” he notes. “From ‘the city that never sleeps’…”

“Sleep is another step away for me from the modernist position,” he adds, “which was: ‘The composer’s smarter than you and you’d better sit down and listen, and if you’re clever enough you might understand it’. I always had a problem with that and in various overt or covert ways I’ve been critiquing it for a long time. I think of musical performance more as a conversation than a lecture.”

This work, he suggests, reflects trends that counter our information overload, such as the current widespread interest in “mindfulness” (a rehash of ancient principles of meditation). “Sleep is under siege by contemporary culture,” he says. “We live in a dense data universe; many of us spend a lot of time curating our own data landscapes from email, social media and TV. It’s a significant psychological load to manage all that. 

“I feel that creative work can provide a holiday from that experience. Painting, cinema, music, books: these are places where you have a single object for contemplation and engagement, rather than millions of little objects which we’re forced to react to in a one-dimensional way. 

“You never hear people complain that life’s getting slower or less complicated,” he points out. “I think many of us do feel that there’s a huge emphasis on quantity of information and objects at the expense of real reflection and quality. To a certain extent that’s the inevitable consequence of a networked world: everything just gets multiplied. Therefore there’s this statement of mine – a ‘manifesto for a slower pace of existence’ – which sounds very grand and ambitious! But at heart it’s about engaging with fewer objects in a more extended and deliberate way, which personally I find rewarding. I think there’s something about it that connects with the renewed interest in mindfulness, or slow food – those traditions. It’s a kind of ecology of mind.

“In a painting by Mark Rothko, for instance, there can be a single object with which you engage; it leads to lots of thought, but it is very simple in essence. That’s what I’ve sought to do with Sleep: make a single object that can function like a landscape for the listener to inhabit while sleeping.”

Some people will not sleep at all, though: namely, the musicians performing the piece, including Richter himself (it is scored for piano, strings, electronics and wordless vocals). “It’s a bit like preparing for a marathon,” Richter remarks, “but I’ve structured it so that everyone gets a break. Nobody actually has to play for eight hours. Perhaps the ideal thing would be to be in the right time-zone: to arrive from somewhere jet-lagged and jump straight on stage.” 

One possible downside exists. If you’ve ever been to a performance at which people are meant to stay awake, yet a person near you drifts off into the Land of Nod, they may snore. That can be anything from a mild annoyance to a serious disruption, depending on volume. What happens if people go to Sleep and snore? Richter takes the question in good spirit. “Performance traditions are practical things as well as conventions,” he says. “Some of those conventions I find, personally, sometimes rather oppressive, but at their root they’re there for a reason: so that people can enjoy the music. I think we’ll just have to wing it and see.”

There is also a one-hour version of Sleep, a recording of which is available now; its material is notably different, intended more for active listening than dozy absorption. “The one-hour piece is a little like a daydream, or the tip of the iceberg which pokes above the sea,” Richter says. “I think of that as intentional music: music that you can engage with consciously, listen to analytically and make judgments about. There’s music in the one-hour piece that isn’t in the eight-hour version at all, and vice-versa, because it’s structured for wakeful consciousness. In a way, the two pieces are asking a question about the difference between experiencing or inhabiting the material and listening to it consciously.”

And if you are hesitating about giving eight hours of Sleep a whirl, don’t let the unfamiliarity put you off. “I see the concerts as a laboratory – a bit of an experiment,” says Richter. “I expect some people will try to stay up; others will sleep and I imagine most will do a bit of both. It’s a voyage of discovery. But don’t worry about not knowing the rules. There are no rules.”

Sleep: Wellcome Collection, London, 26 September, midnight. Live broadcast, BBC Radio 3. It is part of Why Music?, a weekend of talks and concerts. One-hour album is out now on DG; eight-hour version will be available as a digital download.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Leading Hungarian conductor sends aid to refugees

Iván Fischer, founder and music director of the Budapest Festival Orchestra, has a foundation which this month has been taking action to aid the refugees arriving in vast numbers at Hungary's strengthening borders.

While ugly scenes fill our screens and papers as the country's forces rebuff crowds of desperate people with tear gas and water cannon, others been doing all they can to help. The Iván Fischer Foundation hired a lorry to help civilian aid organisations and sent supplies of water, juice and baby food to the refugees in places like Gyor and Hegyeshalom. On Tuesday they reported that they hoped to reach the refugees on the Serbian side of the closed border.

Sometimes it takes artists to do the real leading when politicians fail (please read this fantastic article by the poet George Szirtes).

Google Translate seems oddly to tackle Hungarian better than certain other languages, something that's proving very useful at the moment. Here is an article from Origo in which Fischer talks about what he's been doing and why.

He suggests that if any good can come out of the current crisis, it would be to convince Hungarians to drop their prejudices. He dreams of a more tolerant society: "Tolerance just means that I do not watch a different religion, skin colour, or origin - only the person." The issue at stake is not merely religion, but poverty: "Do we really want to draw a concrete wall between ourselves and the world of the poor?" he protests. And what would he like the government to do instead? "Show the world the really wonderful Hungarian hospitality!"

Music can play its role too. It is, he says, "a huge tool capable of miracles... It should be, and it is, possible to awaken people to have a lot of goodness within them."

Fischer's news appears on his Facebook page and in this video from the back of the lorry he thanks the volunteers. (In Hungarian and English.)

People show their true colours in crises. Fischer is emerging as one of his country's real heroes. As for the BFO, they are due in the UK in the spring with their tour of The Magic Flute, and I for one can't wait. I'd go and hear them play anything, anywhere, any time.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Why we need the arts: a great singer speaks out

Sarah Connolly, the wonderful British mezzo-soprano, was the principal speaker yesterday afternoon at a special Arts Council England event in Westminster, addressing ministers, MPs and leading arts figures on the vital nature of art for all, its place in Britain and the dangers that face its future. She has sent it to me to publish, so here it is. Read and be inspired.

274 years ago today, on the 14th of September 1741, Georg Friedrich Handel completed the first edition of his legendary oratorio,‘Messiah’. It is a work associated with children’s charity, and thanks to a royal charter granted to philanthropist Thomas Coram’s Foundling hospital in Bloomsbury, Handel raised awareness and money for the orphans with performances every year for decades. William Hogarth was a governor and he persuaded leading artists Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough to donate works, effectively creating at the hospital the first public art gallery. 
Sarah Connolly. Photo: Peter Warren
Once there, a visitor would see not only the best in contemporary British portraiture, landscape and maritime painting, they would also SEE the children at mealtime and hear them singing in the chapel, and perhaps donate money. This public charity helped cure the symptoms of a deeply divided London society and Hogarth was able to showcase his colleagues’ paintings thereby inventing the NOTION of art for all.
Jumping forward to 1940: In Britain’s darkest hour, when 643m was spent on Defence, Winston Churchill procured a royal charter to create the Committee for Encouragement of Music and the Arts, known as CEMA, he ring-fenced 25k for that purpose.
A small but significant sum, Churchill clearly understood its importance, and said, “The arts are essential to any complete national life. The State owes it to itself to sustain and encourage them ... Ill fares the race which fails to salute the arts with the reverence and delight which are their due”
Towards the end of the decade, CEMA changed its name to the Arts Council, local government authorised spending on the Arts and in 1951,The Festival of Britain was intended as a tonic to the nation. On London’s South Bank, the Royal Festival Hall was built, the interior designed by Robin Day who will shortly enjoy a centenary celebration in the London Design Festival.
The RFH featured concerts conducted by Sir Adrian Boult and Sir Malcolm Sargent, the two most influential British conductors up until the 1970’s and benefitted from many innovative Arts programmes under the passionate stewardship of Jennie Lee who also renewed the charter for the Arts Council in 1967. The South Bank Centre continues to be at the heart of many different and inclusive projects such as Alchemy, a festival of culture connecting with the Indian sub-continent and “Being a man”, a platform which considers children’s rights to culture and growing up.
The reason why I’m giving this "history lesson" is to put into context the relevance and the importance of the arts in our history as a multi-cultural, sophisticated inclusive nation, rich in humanity. Apart from music’s vital holistic importance, let’s never forget for a moment what we have in our keeping; a towering and deserved global reputation for cultural excellence in our theatres, art galleries, cinemas, ballet and opera houses, stadia and concert halls, in our performers, writers, poets and composers. It is a fragile inheritance: all this could be lost, permanently, if we don’t continue to preserve and provide an artistic educational journey for all, from childhood to university and beyond.
The classical music industry is a small part of the economy, but for the health of the nation it is critical that funding continues. For too long, financial support has been seen as subsidy: in fact it’s investment with clear financial return. The economic benefits however, are significant.
In 2012, 6.5 million music tourists spent £1.3 billion. In January 2015 the Department of Culture, Media and Sport issued for the first time more detailed estimates for the creative industries showing that in 2013, the gross value of the Creative Industries was £76.909 billion- that’s 5% of the UK economy. Music, performing and visual arts was estimated as being £5.453 billion, or 7.1% of the total. The number of jobs sustained by music tourism is just over 24 thousand not to mention the benefits to surrounding communities. Of the live performing organisations, the total income (roughly equal to expenditure) in 2013 was just under £550 million. Include dedicated music schools, broadcasting and recording organisations, and this total figure rose to approximately £785 million.
For the number crunchers among you, these are some interesting figures with significant returns on relatively meagre investments but as your illustrious forbear – himself a painter – stressed, the importance of the arts is immeasurable.
Nietzsche claimed that: Without music life would be a mistake.
Robert Browning said: There is no truer truth obtainable by man, than comes of music.
Many musicians work with hospices and hospitals. Manchester Camerata practitioners have been working alongside qualified Music Therapists since 2012 to deliver pioneering group music therapy sessions for people living with Dementia and their carers. A growing base of academic research shows that the projects improve quality of life, self-expression, communication, confidence and logic, enhance relationships with others, and reduce the use of medication. This is one example of social activism through the Arts, which has been a core consideration across all genres for many years.
As Michael Gove rightly said, “Music education must not become the preserve of those children whose families can afford to pay for music tuition.” The coalition government’s well-thought-out National Plan for Musical Education based on the excellent Darren Henley review created 123 music hubs with funding managed by the Arts Council. Awarding the Arts Council £75 million for 2015/16, the Department of Education says, “Music services should now be funded through music hubs (which can cover one or more local authority areas) and from school budgets, not from the Education Services Grant”. 
Economic circumstances have put local authorities in a position where they will find it difficult and in some places undesirable to fund music education. Since music or ANY artistic subject is not planned for EBACC inclusion, a tragedy in my opinion, the only recourse to a musical education will be these music hubs which are not self-sustaining financially and highly unlikely to generate enough income to exist alone. If the government could find a way of ring fencing some local authority money for the Arts then these hubs can supply the critical oxygen to those who most need it, enticing young society into doing something worthwhile, creative and enjoyable. 

Another more feasible route would be if Ofsted was instructed to reward schools for their Arts achievements. An Outstanding grade cannot be given to a school with a poor Arts programme. Lower achieving schools can also raise their profile this way. It's a win win.
I was privately educated until my mid teens but without a doubt, I received the best schooling and musical training at a State funded sixth form college in Nottingham in 1980. My experienced teachers, all of them excellent performers were infinitely more qualified than those at my former school, and I would not be here but for their inspirational guidance. I speak for my fellow students too; one of whom is a multi Grammy Award winner as a classical music producer and another is a vocal coach to the stars in London’s West End. In the present climate, State funded schools are struggling to focus on the Arts and from KS4, curriculum based arts are set to vanish and we will lose an enormous tranche of influence, talent, comment and life-experience. I feel we have a duty to all children from all social backgrounds to share our rich artistic history and to think creatively. This is surely what Winston Churchill meant when he said “the Arts are essential to any complete national life”. Roosevelt said in his New Deal, “Art is not a treasure in the past or an importation from another land but part of the present life of all living and creating peoples”
What musicians want is a snowball effect, retro-education: when the child learns so does the family. It could be called the Billy Elliot effect.
We really are the envy of the world on many levels, punching so far above our weight in the Arts, Broadcasting and Entertainment that it is a source of puzzlement to us (and to the outside world) why there is not more recognition of this. Last week, Marin Alsop said, “It’s our responsibility as musicians and audiences to build bridges. El Sistema already has nearly a million kids (world-wide) playing music”. At the LNOPs she said, “the power of music is to unite us and to bring out the best humanity has to offer”.
Orchestras, theatres, opera houses, art galleries, festivals, like the Deal Festival in Kent, the Philharmonia, Glyndebourne, The Hallé, El Sistema-UK run by Julian Lloyd Webber, the Royal Northern Sinfonia “In harmony” projects based around The Sage, Gateshead, the BBC's successful and engaging 10 Pieces project and many others receive invaluable financial grants from the Arts Council. Musicians put their utmost into helping those who haven’t the means to pay for tuition or who struggle to rent an instrument. 

We need audiences in the future, we need passion from politicians to lead by example, so come to our concerts, we’d love to see more of you and just ask us to help with any idea, however humble, because, "were it not for music," said Disraeli, "we might in these days say, the Beautiful is dead".
Sarah Connolly

Friday, September 11, 2015

Last Night of the Proms: Kaufmaniacs alert

Jonas Kaufmann is going to be the first non-Anglo-Saxon to sing Rule, Britannia at the Last Night of the Proms. This morning he turned on the charm for the BBC Breakfast interviewers, who look rather thrilled throughout. Here's the clip:

Meanwhile, a fan site on Facebook brings us this priceless tract about the Dolce&Gabbana outfits he will sport for the occasion. I'm sure something has been lost in translation, but am still pondering the likely effects on the crowd of black lace slippers, 'English' flag, and 'frog'.

"The Last Night of Proms" is the most important on screen musical event in the world, with over 11 million viewers featured on the BBC Channel from the UK, USA, and Australia as well as across Asia and most of Europe. For this special occasion the German renowned tenor, Jonas Kaufmann will wear Dolce&Gabbana.The concluding event of the concert season composed of eight weeks where a full symphonic orchestra held concerts even twice a day, will take place the 12th of September at the Royal Albert Hall in London.
Jonas Kaufmann will be the first non-Anglo-Saxon voice to interpret "Rule, Britannia!".
For this occasion, Jonas will wear two Dolce&Gabbana looks: in the first part of the concert Jonas will wear a 3-piece Martini Suit in jacquard wool, with a pique plastron tuxedo shirt in white, polishing the look with slipper shoes in silk faille.
While interpreting "Rule, Britannia!" Jonas will flaunt a long velvet jacket with black lapels detailed with black and white polka dots, satin ties and black silk frog, a double-breasted wool vest with black tuxedo pants. The look is completed by slipper shoes in black lace, a gold brooch with the English flag expressly created for the event and a black silk bowtie.
Jonas Kaufmann will be the first non-Anglo-Saxon voice to interpret "Rule, Britannia!".For this occasion, Jonas will wear two Dolce&Gabbana looks: in the first part of the concert Jonas will wear a 3-piece Martini Suit in jacquard wool, with a pique plastron tuxedo shirt in white, polishing the look with slipper shoes in silk faille.While interpreting "Rule, Britannia!" Jonas will flaunt a long velvet jacket with black lapels detailed with black and white polka dots, satin ties and black silk frog, a double-breasted wool vest with black tuxedo pants. The look is completed by slipper shoes in black lace, a gold brooch with the English flag expressly created for the event and a black silk bowtie.

Where's Leeds?

Dame Fanny Waterman with the 2015 finalists
I know, I know, about 200 miles up the M1... It's also - partly - on Radio 3. But in a world where the Tchaikovsky Competition live-streamed absolutely everything, and so will the fast-approaching Chopin Competition (you can follow it here, courtesy of the Chopin Institute, Warsaw), and the Rubinstein Competition in which Trifonov took part is alive and well and living on Youtube, and plenty more, the once mighty Leeds International Piano Competition is being kicked into the long grass for lack of such resources.

Once upon a time we used to see the finals live on BBC TV. Now we get edited highlights on the radio - bits and pieces, essentially - and...this is what the website says:

Through our partnership with BBC Radio 3 and BBC Four, audiences will be given the opportunity to watch the finalists of the Competition performing from Leeds Town Hall on Friday 17th & 24th September, and Friday 1st October. If you cannot wait until then, you are able to hear the full semi finals via Radio 3 online player for the next 30 days. 

But the finals are...tomorrow and the day after.

Last time, the Leeds produced two genuine rising stars in 1st and 2nd place - Federico Colli and Louis Schwizgebel. Louis was snapped up by the BBC New Generation Artists scheme; Federico gave a QEH debut recital that drew 5-star rave reviews from virtually every critic in town (including me). Plenty of great pianists have taken vital steps into the public eye via the Leeds. But now we may have to wait a while to find out whether there's anybody comparable.

It is all about money, of course. Live-streaming costs ££s. But it does seem that the UK's most prestigious music competition has been relegated to a level of assumed interest that lags far behind the TV spectacle of people baking cakes and watching paint dry.

Step up, philanthropists. We know you're out there. We have our spies in the City who tell us that there is more money sloshing around in certain bank accounts in this country than they would ever have believed possible. It's become all too clear in the last 30-odd years that there is really no such thing as a financial "trickle down". But there is such a thing as "winkle out". It takes skilled fundraisers to do the winkling. Perhaps when Leeds's new directors take over from the great Dame Fanny Waterman - they are the double-act of pianist Paul Lewis and BBC producer/New Generations head Adam Gatehouse - their first move should be to appoint a Head of Winkling whose first task will be to raise enough funds to live-stream the next competition complete. This is in no way to denigrate the tough work that no doubt goes on in the contest's fundraising department already - it's tough work and I take my hat off to those who are good at it - but I personally would love to see priority being given to developing Internet capabilities and it really has not happened this time.

Here is the full programme for the Leeds final. Three Rachmaninov concertos, including two performances of No.3. A spot of Beethoven, Brahms and Schumann. Looks like business as usual.

Meanwhile, the first night of the finals clashes with the Last Night of the Proms. Great...