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Ever since a couple of lads in marketing decided around a decade ago that classical music needed a new mass audience, we have been assaulted with a barrage of media campaigns that present the art in every colour except natural and succeed mostly in confusing the public as to what the fuss is all about.
We have been told variously that classical music is an indispensable dinner-party accessory (Classic FM), an IQ boost for the newborn (LSO), a deterrent to vandals (London Underground), an MTV substitute (New York Philharmonic), a mating call for gay men (BMG), a readers’ companion (Penguin Books), a come-on for tourists (Republic of Austria) and a cure for the common cold (lab results awaited).
What any of this has to do with sampling and enjoying a 300-year heritage of lyric narrative and emotion gets lost in the fever of the sales pitch. Like the calamitous 1988 rebranding of the Victoria and Albert as ‘an ace caff with quite a nice museum attached’, the ‘modernizers’ of classical music tend to put cart before horse, attach it to an outboard engine on open sea and then stand back and wonder why the beast is still drowning.
None of these schemes has attracted converts in appreciable numbers to the classical communion. All they achieve is to give the debatable need for audience renewal the force of cliché and render it indisputable, thereby fuelling the demand for yet more marketing. Will they never learn? No matter how often the commercial cart is put before the horse of art, the noble steed is never going to water-ski.
The latest revivalist product is called The Quiet Room and the noise it leaks will be very hard to shut out in the months ahead. The Quiet Room is a two-CD compilation of extremely slow music by modern composers, some estimable, others obscure. It promises instant relaxation for pressure-cooker lifestyles, rivalling Transcendental Meditation, Prozac and Yesterday in Parliament as a stress-busting remedy.
The album goes into shops this week and will be promoted on Classic FM in a six-week series of linked programmes, a jabber of supporting interviews, a flurry of listener mailings and an advertising campaign that will register more than 27 million impacts on air, the equivalent of five smacks on the ear for every passing listener.
That is, by any reckoning, unprecedented exposure for instrumental music that is neither singable nor written by Mozart nor performed by a pouting nymph in a wet swimsuit. Setting aside hyperbole, I cannot recall an attempt so concerted and well financed to present new classical music by living composers to a public that has previously shown itself indifferent if not positively averse to unfamiliar sounds. On these terms, The Quiet Room is conceptually as big an ice-breaker for new music as anything Pierre Boulez has come up with.
Among the recognisable names on the cover are the veteran minimalists Philip Glass and Michael Nyman, the Oscar and Bafta winning screenwriters Jocelyn Pook and Debbie Wiseman, the Italian contemplative Ludovico Einaudi and the mystic John Tavener who contributes a string quartet account of The Lord’s Prayer. Other contributors include the versatile Richard Rodney Bennett, 70 this year and busy writing anything from cabaret songs to orchestral suites; the prodigious Zbigniew Preisner who underscored the movies of Kryzstof Kieslowski and the late works of Louis Malle; Paul Clarkson who has recast for piano solo his reassuring More Than screen ad for car insurance; and the promising Tarik O’Regan who has written Anglican liturgy and BBC orchestral commissions and is presently finishing an opera on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
What the composers have in common beyond an eager accessibility, a desire to please, is a multinational publisher, Music Sales Limited, a firm that has discarded the abstruse aspects of modernity and linked up with the movie-driven Sony BMG to construct a portrait of the acceptable face of 21st century classical music, stripped of anger, dissonance and the experimental instinct.
The third partner in the enterprise is Classic FM, which has lost 1.16 million listeners since its 6.87 million peak in early 2003 and is beset by a pressing need to update its perpetual playlist of Mozart bonbons. Classic is forever cajoling listeners to relax, something one is normally asked to do only before unaesthetised surgical procedures. The Quiet Room fulfils the station’s insistent mantra. It delivers music to ease our stress at the close of day, a wind-down menu that works without alcohol, a massage for the mind. In the short and brilliant history of the shirt-sleeved drive to reinvent classical music as something else altogether, The Quiet Room stands out as almost visionary in its calculated monotony.
There is only one trick it misses. The 41 pieces of music have been chosen with clinical care to soothe the troubled soul. The prescription works for all of one minute, at most for the entire opening track of Bennett’s Song for a Ragged Boy. By the second track the ear rebels. At the third it screams to be let out as The Quiet Room turns into Jean-Paul Sartre’s Huis Clos, where the victim is locked for all eternity with tedious companions, or into George Orwell’s Room 101 where we are confronted with the things we most hate and fear, in this case the madness that comes from being irredeemably bored. After six tracks you lose the will to live.
Where does The Quiet Room go wrong? By putting cart before horse, musical value is destroyed by market force. Had any of the compiled composers been asked for an opinion, they would have underlined the importance of contrast. Michael Nyman may write repetitive cycles of melodic fragments, but when he puts out an album – as he has just done beautifully with Six Celan Songs - it is enriched to a degree by alternating moods and modes, enough to engage the listening intelligence and avert stupefaction. An overdose of adagios, most musicians will attest, is tantamount to brain death.
Monotony, like pain, is endurable in short doses. Stretched over two CDs lasting two and a half hours, it arouses dangerous emotions in those who last the course – an irresistible urge to strangle the ‘concept developers’, having first held the heads of each and every one of the composers under water until they promise to write nothing but atonal sonatas and musical sudokus for the rest of their ingratiating lives. Failing that, they should be sentenced to five years in The Quiet Room. That’ll teach ‘em.
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Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]