Photo credit: Nick Willsher
London’s Royal Albert Hall has seen a lot this summer: a performance of Beethoven’s Sixth from memory, a concert reflecting the supposed tastes of Sherlock Holmes, a concert telling the “Story of Swing” and Jarvis Cocker leading an “underwater dream” with music ranging from Echo & The Bunnymen to Debussy.
But it was the Ibiza Prom that drew the most attention in the wider media. Produced by DJ Pete Tong, this was always going to be a convenient target for the sort of criticism which, like the festival itself, seems to have become an annual event.
As 2015 BBC Proms season draws to a close with the customary Last Night celebrations, it seems a good moment to revisit the criticisms that the festival has been “dumbed down”.
Classical vs pop
Of course, the supposed opposition between what might be conveniently termed classical and popular music makes for a great story. But it’s a tired one. Back in 1938, jazz clarinettist Benny Goodman’s appearance in Carnegie Hall was accompanied by extensive commentaries on the novelty of swing – then the predominant style of popular music – being performed in a venue usually associated with classical music.
In fact, there had already been plenty of precedents for popular music in such venerated surroundings, including Carnegie Hall itself. Musical “cross-overs” – for example, of the waltz from the ballroom to the concert hall – were hardly new. But this had little bearing on the reporting of the Goodman event as a culture clash.
Goodman’s concert had minimal impact at the time and only really became an integral part of jazz history when a recording of the event was released more than 20 years later. The history of jazz, in common with many styles of popular music, is contingent on recordings. Jazz relies heavily on the individual contributions of particular musicians in the moment of performance, often through improvisation. These are not usually written down and are most readily captured on record.
Although symphonies and operas appear to be fixed by their notation, performance is a key component of classical music, too. Scores provide a way of representing music which only really exists when it is performed, and then in innumerable different ways. Although modern technology allows easy access to a plethora of recorded interpretations of classical works, it’s no surprise that there is still a demand for live performances in this genre too.
Electronic dance music, the broad genre which embraces the music of the Ibiza club scene, presents a different situation again. Here a track may use pre-existing recordings, specially-made ones and other electronic sounds. Through processing and editing techniques, these resources can be manipulated and combined together into something which sounds entirely new.
But the final step is for tracks to be “performed” in a club setting by a DJ, a musician who is able to create an interlinked but continually changing sequence of music by mixing individual tracks and elements from them. This not really so different from the various dances in a Baroque suite by Handel or Bach, or, indeed, a set of numbers performed by a swing band.
There is inherent value in attempting to perform music which exists primarily in recorded form, just as there remains a point to performing the symphonies of Beethoven and Mozart. But, just as with the recreation of older music from historical documentation, straightforward replication of recorded music isn’t usually either possible or desirable, so there’s a need for more creative approaches to be employed.
The Story of Swing Prom featured two bands, alluding to the (usually) friendly rivalry and camaraderie between musicians of the swing era, conveying something of the spirit of those times as well as the sound of the music. In the Ibiza Prom, the Heritage Orchestra intriguingly wove performances of successive tracks together with cleverly composed passages akin to the live mixing of a club DJ.
Dumbing down the dance
So I don’t think there’s any sense in which these concerts have dumbed down the Proms. But it is worth asking whether the Proms took something away from these popular genres. Although both concerts featured superlative performances and excellent arrangements, one might question what is lost when music usually intended for dancing in particular times and places is brought into a concert situation.
Think of the effects of the sound system on your entire body, or the spontaneity of a DJ working the crowd through track selection and mixing. Or jazz musicians responding to the ever more acrobatic manoeuvres of jitterbugs, or each others musicianship, in their improvisations. However, off-air recordings of Goodman’s live radio broadcasts also show how he had to adapt his band’s performances and repertoire to fit the format – bringing the music to new audiences as a result.
Ultimately any compromises are outweighed by the opportunity to encounter music in a new context. Like viewing a familiar painting in a new position on the wall, in a new light, and with different juxtapositions, a different style of performance can open up a genre. Live performance connects musicians and audiences alike with the physicality of music production and reception – from a musician’s bow stroke, exhalation of air or strike of stick to the vibration of the listener’s eardrum. Bringing this awareness to our encounters with recorded music can only enhance our listening experiences.
Recent criticisms of the Proms have questioned whether Sir Henry Wood’s original remit has been expanded “beyond all recognition”. The inclusion of pop is not really surprising, given the new overarching “BBC Music” brand, but also begins to align the Proms with the broad mix of musical styles evident at contemporary music festivals. More than a century on from the Proms’ foundation, this can surely be the only way the festival can continue to be a celebration of live music that provides unique opportunities for us to be surprised and educated. This even extends to the traditional Last Night, which this year includes everything from a world premiere to a video montage of budding singers, all under the baton of a female conductor for only the second time ever. It’s time for us all to open our minds – and our ears.