Between rock and a hard piece…

Will Upton discusses the idea of the audience.

In a week when I enjoyed performing new music by ten Oxford students the musical world was humbled by the loss of a composer at the opposite end of his creative career, Elliott Carter. This is not to say that Carter, born 1908, ever ceased to be creative; a relentless figurehead of modern music, he composed over 50 works in his final 13 years – more than many composers manage in a lifetime. Lots of people in the music world had unconsciously assumed that Carter, a last link to the world of Schoenberg and Stravinsky, would go on living forever. His passing brought to my mind the words of a composer with whom I recently had the pleasure of studying, who had the habit of referring to his living contemporaries as, ‘still not dead.’ This disconcerting phrase elegantly sums up the precarious situation in classical music, where living composers are responsible for barely a fraction of the music to which we listen.

One of the things said most often about Carter is that he made no concessions to his audiences; his thorny, modernist music demands rather than invites attention. Depending on your perspective, this is either a virtue or indicative of why so few of the general public have ever heard of him. Either way, it fails to take one thing into account: composers too are very much audiences for their own works. In general we are too hasty to draw the line between composer, performer, and listener, to the extent that the role of the audience has become almost entirely passive – one hears often of skilful composers and masterful instrumentalists, but one never considers the idea of a ‘virtuoso listener.’

On 23rd November, Oxford will be hosting the debut of The Oxford Laptop Orchestra (OxLOrk), an ensemble whose members are all very much virtuoso composers, performers, and listeners. Laptop orchestras are not nearly as passive as they might sound; each performer uses programming to invent their own digital instruments, whose expression they control using a variety of digital devices, from Wiimotes and dance mats to laptops. Each instrument is represented acoustically by an omnidirectional speaker, which, unlike many forms of electronic music, allows them to be perceived as individual performers. The result is sure to be one of the most alien and engaging performances of the academic year.

Having moved from being a performer to leading a dual life as an aspiring academic I am acutely aware that even in Oxford not all my readers will be at all sympathetic to a column about modern classical music. But imagine a world where non-league soccer attracts crowds of hundreds of thousands while Brazil v Spain takes place in front of virtually empty stands and you will understand how many musicians feel about The X Factor. On the other hand, politicians are quick to reference TV talent shows to prove that they are in touch with the people. What does Nick Clegg or Maria Miller think about Elliott Carter? I feel we have a right to know.

 Will’s Weekly Recommendation

Last week’s recommendation, Steve Reich’s Tehillim, is a great example of a work that sounds simple but is incredibly hard to play. Reich creates in live performance the double exposure effect of his powerful It’s Gonna Rain, which was made through the manipulation of taped sound. The result in Tehillim draws one’s attention to the eerily pure acoustic quality of the vibrato-less soprano voices.

This week’s recommendation is the third movement of Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia for orchestra and eight amplified voices.

PHOTO / GrameK