Building an Audience for Contemporary Classical Music
Music Current festival director Fergal Dowling helps me understand contemporary classical music as pop music blares from the loudspeakers of a north Dublin cafe. I am not completely ignorant of the subject. I studied and I really like 20th century avant-garde music. I even kind of wrote a master’s thesis on the unorthodox composer Cornelius Cardew. But a lot is beyond me, so I ask Dowling to explain the call and describe what happens over the six days of workshops, talks and concerts – some free – at this year’s festival, at from April 19.
As Ariana Grande tweets in the background, Dowling discusses her transition from a teenager playing classical guitar to an Edgard Varèse-obsessed composition student at Trinity College. “[Varèse’s music] seemed to reach into spaces and speak in a very broad language that seemed able to go anywhere. It seemed like anything could be said. Music is often digitized and flattened into a one-dimensional row of ones and zeros reproduced elsewhere. But there are smaller composers who produce their own work, [music] that was meant to be experienced in a different way, that refuses to be flattened, that refuses to be canned and canned.
So in 2008 Dowling and organist Michael Quinn founded the Dublin Sound Lab ensemble to perform the best international avant-garde scores for Irish audiences. The Music Current festival came out of it in 2016 with a Covid-related gap in 2020. “We tried to kick-start this program with ongoing collaborations throughout 2021. We slipped in a quick mini festival [out] at this moment.”
We leave the café and go to a studio at the end of Dowling’s Garden, where there are speakers, computer screens and an electric piano. “To me, the process is different from what you might think of as a 19th century paradigm, where a composer sits at a piano and he has all the harmonies in his head and [is] just work on them and draw them as you go,” he says. “In using computers to compose, I often think on a much more abstract level right from the start. I often try to use technology to solve a formal problem.
He shows me notes he took with diagrams and calculations then he plays a composition he wrote for the American ensemble Loadbang (bass clarinet, trumpet, baritone voice and trombone) for the concert on Thursday evening . It’s called Everything Is An Illusion and it involves a computer responding to live performers in real time. “They play instruments, but the computer listens to them and responds to them and adds this kind of fake accompaniment. The computer does a bit of improvisation.
Then he plays a video of musicians from the Dublin Sound Lab playing composer Elis Czerniak’s Acceptance of Death. It will be played as part of the concert on Tuesday evening. The piece involves audio of each musician talking about their collaboration which is played over parts in which they each perform solo. “The only thing that gets fixed are the taped-on pieces,” Dowling explains. “[Czerniak is] using collage, spoken word, live processing and that kind of bebop thing where they all take a solo. Spoken audio recordings have a long lineage in contemporary music. “Here it is perhaps about borrowing a very philosophical approach from the visual arts, where the work has become its own documentation.”
Music Current also offers workshops and talks that delve into popular characteristics of the genre. On Friday, for example, the Swiss violinist Maya Homburger and the English double bassist and composer Barry Guy present a lecture followed by a recital. On Wednesday, Australian cellist Ilse de Ziah gives a workshop on writing and performing “graphic scores”, a mid-20th century innovation where composers such as Cathy Berberian and Pauline Oliveros deviated from traditional notation to create something visually arresting that performers could interpret in their own ways.
Increasingly, contemporary scores must be innovative in their layouts and thus partly resemble these graphic scores. He shows me Panyayiotis Kokoras’ score for Stone Age which is also to be played on Tuesday evening. It points to an unknown symbol on the staff. “Here, the key refers to the cello held upside down. A lot of these things become very unique and very particular for the composer and often for the performer. The way a lot of composers work now is they hang out with an instrumentalist and think, ‘Well, what can you do?’ »
The unconventional things they ‘do’ are often, in the contemporary music world, called ‘extended techniques’. With this in mind, Kokoras designed a cello bow which was then created with a 3D printer, and which Ilse de Ziah had to learn to play. The sound is grating and punchy. “He even gave the techs examples of the kind of reverb we should be aiming for,” says Dowling.
Technologists are a very important part of this community. On Thursday there is a workshop called Practical Introduction to Virtual Acoustics which is led by Dr. Eoin Callery, who has co-created a multi-speaker sound system that can change the nature of a sound space. Friday night, Homburger and Guy will perform with this system. “You can map any space to the space you’re in. We don’t hear the room, we hear a church, or we hear a cave.”
On Saturday, a round table simply entitled “The music of the future? delves into the realities of musical creativity in the wake of Covid lockdowns. “Music is not a trivial, distant, abstract thing,” says Dowling. “This awful attitude has emerged over the last few years where some people involved in society have been told they are essential key workers and by implication musicians have been told they are the most essential workers, the least necessary and the most useless.”
Dowling doesn’t like the idea that the value of music can be judged by its economic utility. He notes that in the UK many mainstream music departments have been closed or encouraged to design more industry-focused programs. “They stopped doing counterpoint and harmony and started training people to work in that kind of commercial production environment where you learned that kind of commercial, utilitarian approach to music.”
Is this kind of contemporary music consciously political? Less in the English-speaking world, he says. “On the Continent, the first question everyone will ask is, ‘What is the political motivation behind this play?’ When they ask you what the purpose is, they mean, “Why now? Why here? Why us?’ And you have to be able to explain why.
It is often claimed that modern classical music has trodden down a path too dark for the average music fan. In the 20th century composers like Arnold Schoenberg began to break away from conventional harmony and later in the century people like Karlheinz Stockhausen began to use new technologies to explore sounds, rhythms and timbres that were impossible to create. with conventional instruments. Therefore, it’s usually not the kind of music you can hum or snap your fingers at. “When composers use Functional Harmony less, audiences need to learn the other form of procedures they use,” Dowling explains. “And if they don’t, they won’t like it…it’s true.” There is no formalized structure for learning some of these things. But people may be much more educated in digital technology today than they were a few years ago and may be enjoying creating digital music in ways they didn’t before. .
Dowling rejects the idea that experimental music is too difficult for the audience and thinks it’s about having appropriate expectations. “We use different music for different things,” he says. “It’s just a type where we sit and think about what’s going on. What are these people doing? It is an intellectual process. None of these pieces will make it to Last Night of the Proms [in London’s Albert Hall] but it’s not supposed to work that way.
He remembers going to a concert as a teenager and being overwhelmed by the music of Olivier Messiaen. “Programming music or writing music, I always imagine that person in the concert hall and reaching out to that person and changing their way of thinking about music or their way of thinking about the world. We’re all evangelists.
He laughs and quotes School of Rock’s Jack Black: “I’m out there everyday on the front lines, freeing spirits.”
musical current, From April 19 to 23, at the Project Arts Center in Dublin. To see musiccurrent.ie.