written by Matthew Swann, Associate Producer of Reverb Festival 2012
Classical music can seem full of jargon. Most of it is very useful to professional musicians and academics*, but it can be confusing and off-putting to people coming to classical music gigs for the first time. But perhaps the most difficult jargon of all is how we describe the thing itself. Classical Music implies stuffy concert halls and formal etiquette to a lot of people – all things that Reverb and the Roundhouse definitely aren’t, so what words should we use to describe what we’re doing?
Perhaps a better phrase than ‘Contemporary Classical’ would be ‘Alternative Classical’ or even ‘Alt-classical’. What we mean by this is that we still have all the amazing, wonderful rich music, but in an environment where there are no pretentions, no set formalities, and anyone can feel comfortable. The Night Shift perhaps have the best phrase: “Classical Music – minus the rules”.
The above all describes what this movement doesn’t do. What this movement does say is that we should put this amazing music in equally amazing venues, that if the best rock shows can have incredible lighting and visuals so should we, we should bring musicians like Imogen Heap and Johnny Greenwood into the fold and explore what they can do with an 80-piece orchestra or an a cappella choir, it says we should explore more of the music being written today and in the last 50 years (much of it a huge influence on electronic, dance and alternative music – just ask any techno DJ about Steve Reich.) and when we do delve into previous centuries, we should present the music in fresh and innovative ways. One more thing this movement doesn’t do though, is mess around with or dumb down the music. The performers are world-class, and the music is incredible.
Hear Steve Reich’s Music For 18 Musicians, here.
Describing the indescribable is always difficult. To use the famous phrase (variously attributed to Steve Martin and the 19th century composer Clara Schumann), “talking about music is like dancing about architecture”. I’m not suggesting that people shouldn’t talk about the music and the experience. One of the things I enjoy about going to alternative classical gigs is the chance to have a drink and conversation about the performance. Don’t take my word for it though – ultimately the best thing to do is come and experience this beautiful, exhilarating (at times shocking), and wonderful music for yourself.
*Perhaps a glossary of some of the terms used in Reverb 2012 might be useful:
To music academics, ‘Classical’ music actually refers to a very specific period in musical history, roughly 1750-1830. The term ‘Western Art Music’ is the phrase used to describe the full span of music from around 1200 to the present. (‘Western Art Music’ always seems to me like describing fine wine as “fermented, barrelled, grape juice”. Accurate, but it kind of kills it…). Beyond academia we tend to use Classical Music as a catch-all for anything written from about 1600 to the present day. The Aurora Orchestra (Sat 25 Feb) explore three different examples of how classical music evolved in the 20th century and how it was influenced by lots of different musical styles including jazz.
Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story:
A solo instrument accompanied by a larger ensemble – usually an orchestra. The word concerto (lots of musical terms are Italian) is thought to come from the words conserere (to join, to weave) and certamen (competition, fight), and concertos tend to both pit the orchestra against the soloist and weave them together. Again, difficult to explain the real complexity of the relationship between soloist and orchestra, and different composers have different interpretations, but Gabriel Prokofiev explains in music far better than I do in words. His Concerto for Bass Drum and Orchestra is performed on Sat 3 March. Visit myspace.com/gabrielprokofiev for examples of Gabriel’s music.
This means playing music on the instruments used when the composer was alive. Musical instruments evolve all the time. Until 100 years ago violins and cellos, for example, used gut strings (yes, actual gut from actual animals – usually cats). Nowadays they use metal or plastic strings. This makes them louder and easier to play but hearing music written in the 18th or 19th centuries as the composer would have heard it can be an enlightening experience, and there is something raw and visceral about the sound they make. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment are one of the world’s greatest period instrument groups, and are pioneers of the Alternative Classical movement with their Night Shift format (Fri 24 Feb), and will play music written in the aftermath of the French Revolution on the instruments of the time.
View The Night Shift’s trailer or see The Night Shift play music by CPE Bach, son of JS Bach, possibly the greatest ever classical composer:
Unaccompanied voices singing together in a choir. Its literal meaning in Italian is ‘in the manner of the chapel’, and comes from a time where instruments were used sparingly in religious services. Today, it tends to cover a wide variety of musical styles and choirs from beat-boxing and R&B to classical, but what they all have in common is that they can create a huge range of textures and sounds without needing instruments. A great example of this is Imogen Heap’s a cappella sound track to The Seashell and the Clergyman on Sun 26 Feb – Imogen creates the most amazing sound world from spooky, whispering effects to driving rhythms, all produced by the human voice, and you can hear a cappella groups in styles ranging from folk to punk at Voices Now (Sun 4 Mar)
See what happened at Voices Now 2011 and some great examples of a capella singing, here.
Reverb Festival runs from Fri 24 Feb – Sunday 4 Mar at Roundhouse, Camden. For full programme & to book tickets, visit roundhouse.org.uk/reverb
Each week until December 2012, we’ll be uploading an interview with one of the artists involved with Reverb Festival 2012. Our first interview is courtesy of rising star Ana Silvera – you can listen via Soundcloud or have a read below:
Ana Silvera – performing with the Estonian Television Girls Choir
AS – Ana Silvera
AM – Alex Mee – Roundhouse Radio
AM: What will you be performing?
AS: I recently wrote a piece called Oracles which is a song cycle in seven parts. And I’m also writing a four piece movement for choir electronics and solo voice which is a work in progress. It doesn’t have a title but it’s a collaboration with composer Max de Wardener who’s working on the electronics and co-arranging with me.
AM: What is it about the voice as an instrument that inspires you?
AS: I think it’s the most expressive pallet you can possibly have especially if you take it beyond the normal realms of what choirs and voices are expected to do. My plan for this piece is for it to take in all sorts of feelings and sounds, so percussive as well as harmonic and polyphonic. It’s just this amazing instrument tool to play with. The Estonian Girls Choir are soprano, alto and tenor and so that’s an interesting challenge to not have bass in there.
AM: When we were doing some research for this, one of the tags that people use to describe you was as a folk opera artist. Is that a tag that you’re happy with and do you feel it describes your work?
AS: Oh wow – that’s interesting. The opera bit is a little misleading because it implies that I sing in an operatic way which I don’t but I suppose that’s referring to the strong classical influence to my music and the folk is definitely true. Perhaps not in the normal sense of a folk sound but probably more in the sense of telling stories, relating narratives using traditional tales to shape my music and taking on personas from various folk tales.
AM: How was it working with the Roundhouse experimental choir?
AS: It was a great pleasure. They are really strong and lovely singers. I felt very supported because it was an interesting process of creation. I had the idea before I had any of the music to make this seven song cycle and they were very much with me as I developed it. Also their willingness to experiment as their name suggests was really helpful because I could just give them a sense of an idea and they could run with it.
AM: You mentioned the folklore aspects of your work. Why have you chosen to use that as inspiration? Was it just a personal interest?
AS: Well that’s a really interesting question. I think there’s something very archetypal about those stories and there are some very important emotions and journeys but at the same time it’s so multi-layered. They work on both the literal – the sheer enjoyment of a story – but also a psychological and also a spiritual sense because they often involve some kind of spiritual question and quest. I think I was also keen to not solely write songs from a personal perspective because I think that can sometimes be quite limited. You create a persona that is the conventional ‘I’ which is the artist and I wanted to broaden that out and deliberately take on different personalities and perspectives.
AM: Are you also doing a collaboration with Imogen Heap on the night?
AS: We are indeed. I’m probably going to be dueting with her on one of her songs and I think it’s going to work the other way round as well although we’re yet to decide on what we’re going to duet on together.
AM: Are you looking forward to it?
AS: Absolutely. For a start she’s got a fantastic voice and I’m getting to know her work. I was obviously already aware of her and her work and thought it was excellent. So I’m very much looking forward to it. Harmonising is one of my favourite things to do. So not only am I going to have a choir but also a fellow solo artist – it’s great.
AM: Do you think bringing in highly recognised artists from pop culture helps people to access more classical inspired work?
AS: Yeah I guess it does. It’s hard for me to say because I’ve come from the other way round. I’m from a very classical background and it’s been a journey for me going towards pop music via classical. So I suppose it can work both ways.
AM: And finally, what pieces would you recommend for someone just starting out with this type of music?
AS: I would listen to Grizzly Bear, which I’m sure lots of people know. They do some pretty amazing stuff with choirs. Also there’s a composer called Max Richter who wrote a series of pieces. One called Infra which was set as a dance by the Royal Ballet. Also connected to that style are people like Steve Reich and Philip Glass whose style is very melodic and rhythmical, something that you might recognise from pop music.
AM: That’s great, thanks for talking to us
To read more about Ana’s performance at Reverb 2012 and to buy tickets, visit roundhouse.org.uk/reverb
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