Friday, 15 January 2016

Is there such a thing as “timeless” music?

Every New Year I go out to the Whare Flat Festival of Music and Dance, I think its current official name is, just outside of Dunedin. I think most attendees still call it the “Whare Flat Folk Festival”. It’s held at a Scout campsite and, though there are a few cabins, nearly everybody sleeps in tents. Which reminds me, I must see if I can find the receipt for the tent I bought a year ago and see if I can get the broken pole replaced.

I’m also in a small classical choir called the Southern Consort of Voices. We perform four or five concerts each year, the next one being with the New Zealand International Early Music Festival. We sing pieces from a wide range of periods, but I think if you were to tally them up over a couple of years you’d find that modern settings of sacred texts predominate. Last year we did a children’s concert, which was a surprise hit, so I’m guessing we’re going to do more, but no promises.

Once upon a time, all music was either folk or classical. Classical pieces were written in a single canonical version by a known composer, and were learned and played from printed scores; folk tunes existed in multiple related versions, their origins usually forgotten, and they were passed on from musician to musician by ear. Then sound-recording was invented, and a third division of music arose: contemporary music, in which the canonical version is the original recording.

An aside, because this is one of those little ironies that fascinate me. Photography has taken the creation of realistic visual images out of the hands of highly-trained professionals and made it something anybody can do. Sound-recording has had exactly the opposite effect on music. Once upon a time, if you wanted music you had to make it yourself, and so everybody learned to sing and whistle, if not to a high standard then at least enough to carry a tune. Nowadays most people think they “can’t sing” because they don’t sound like professionals – though of course many genuinely haven’t learned to carry a tune, because they’ve always had the radio.

Folk music does routinely get written down now, and there are a lot of well-recognised songwriters, but the basic difference in attitude persists. In classical music you’re expected to obey the composer’s instructions to the letter when playing their music. You’re allowed to deviate if you want to, but then you’re playing an “interpretation” of the piece rather than the piece itself. You so much as suggest any such pedantry among folkies, and you’ll have people muttering about “the folk police”. And of course in contemporary music, if you play another artist’s song at all then it’s not their song but your “cover” of it.

I’m a confirmed pedant myself, but I’m also a folkie, and I wondered for some time why classical musicians feel it’s so important to stick to the original composer’s instructions. Eventually, I came up with a metaphor. A classical piece is a time-portal that allows you to have a conversation (one-way, alas) with an identifiable person in another century. If you muck about with it, you’re snarling up that miraculous connection and talking over the person you should be listening to.

A folk-song, by the same analogy, is a time-tunnel, a long chain of singers and listeners stretching back into the mists of the past. That’s not something I’m making up – there are actual songs about the singers gone before us who’ll be singing once again when we sing the songs they sang. Each link in the chain is supposed to embellish the music a bit, to leave their own little mark in that long rich history.

A fellow choir member once asked me whether the music at Whare Flat was “any good”. I couldn’t give a straight answer, because classical and folk ideals of what constitutes “good” are just a bit too far apart. I think my response was something along the lines of folk music being more “participatory” than classical, which didn’t really convey much of what I meant it to.

Yes, folk venues allow space for beginners to perform and get feedback and encouragement, long before a classical musician of equivalent skill and training would be considered fit to be heard in public. Yes, folk audiences indulge the human instinct to move and sing or hum along with music – the whole reason why our species bothers with music at all – whereas such natural behaviour is considered bad manners in classical contexts. But there are also folk performers of international quality who’ve been honing their art their whole lives, and folk songs made for listening to in rapt silence at least the first time around. I hadn’t intended to imply otherwise.

Like classical singers, folk singers are expected to be on pitch on time, and to express mood by varying the dynamic (a word which here means “volume”, for those of you who don’t speak musical theory). But folk singers also avail themselves of a much wider range of variation in tone than classical singers. In classical singing, anything which sounds rough or “forced” is a fault. In folk, the fault would be to use a polished, “plummy” tone for a song which demands gruffness.

I was taken aback when another choir-mate, reviewing the recent movie version of Les Misérables, complained that Russell Crowe “can’t sing”. To my folk-trained ears, Crowe is one of the best singers in that movie: his hoarse, growling baritone nicely evokes the grizzled anger of Javert. Hugh Jackman’s delicately cultured tenor of a Jean Valjean just doesn’t sound like a man on the run from the law.

The steepest learning curve when I went from folk to classical singing – even steeper than recovering the music-reading skills I hadn’t used in a decade – involved something called “blend”. That’s when the choir sing so closely together that it sounds like one big strong voice on each of the parts. In classical music, blend is the difference between an ensemble and a bunch of people who happen to be singing or playing in the same room. A choir that doesn’t blend isn’t a choir. Never compliment a chorister on how well their voice stands out above everyone else.

Folk music, vocal or instrumental, hardly ever blends. It’s not unheard-of, but it’s an optional extra, something slightly gimmicky done just to draw applause, like lying down on the stage with your instrument without stopping playing (I’ve seen this done with a cello). Most of the time, each singer and player has their own ornamentations on the tune, and a good folk ensemble is one in which all the different ornamentations complement one another aptly. Never compliment a folk musician on how faithfully they’ve captured some other musician’s interpretation of a tune.

Classical music revolves around concerts. There’s never any blurring of the line between performer and audience. Folkies do do concerts, but the real fun is in sessions, where anyone joins in who can and wants to. Apparently the best sessions are those where you get both songs and tunes, alternating through the evening. I say “apparently” because this doesn’t happen very often. If someone’s just played a Celtic tune, that will remind one of the Celtic players of another Celtic tune, which by the time it ends will have inspired a third Celtic tune, and so on until three in the morning.

I’ve seen that happen a few times at general sessions, with people who’ve come there to sing songs looking sadder and sadder as the hours roll by. I gather it happened a lot more often in the 1990s, before I got into the folk scene. By the time I started sessioning, the tide had turned. The singers and guitarists had come up with a counter-stratagem: start singing 1960s pop songs, one after another, the moment the first Irish set ends, and give those “diddly” spoilsports a taste of their own medicine.

That cemented my loyalty in the divide immediately and permanently. I was born in 1978; 1960s music has zero nostalgia value for me. And pop music to me is background noise, not something I want to spend an evening paying attention to. Instead of sulking, the Celtic musicians responded by finding other rooms on the festival sites and playing the music they liked by themselves. I went with them. I bought a bodhrann and learned to play it just so I didn’t have to sit there drumming on the table.

So it is with some schadenfreude mixed in with the regret that I must report that what used to be the main evening session at a Whare Flat festival, the singers and guitarists, is now dying out. The hall which was once packed every night now sees a circle of about half a dozen old men with guitars playing very mellow, sentimental mid-twentieth-century American numbers until maybe 12:30, by which time they’ve put each other to sleep. This is only a slight exaggeration. Meanwhile, in a little cabin across the lawn there’s a Celtic session going as crowded and lively as ever.

I can think of two reasons why this might be happening. One is that the people who want to sing traditional folk-songs rather than Golden Hits now have their own special dedicated sessions in the afternoons in the beer-tent, so it’s less of a loss to them if they don’t get to sing in the evenings. The other is that the number of people who remember the 1960s, with fondness or otherwise, is slowly but inexorably dwindling before the scythe of Saturn the Reaper. And there’s a lesson in that, which I think the classical musicians would benefit from as well.

Classical music revolves around concerts, and concert attendance is diminishing. The Southern Consort typically pulls a few dozen people in. Most of our regulars are very elderly. I don’t think it’s just us, either; we get an equally old crowd when we combine with other choirs. This is worrying, if you like classical music. Or is it? After all, New Zealand’s population is aging as people live longer and have fewer children. There will be more and more elderly people as time goes on. Won’t that mean bigger and bigger audiences?

I wish it were so. That’s making a big assumption: that it’s the elderly demographic that likes classical music – that, when you reach the age of about 75, your tastes in music spontaneously mutate and you put the pop and rock away. I don’t think this is how it works. I gather that listening to classical music was once a mark of adulthood, but then in the 1960s adulthood became disreputable, and a whole generation tuned in to Elvis and the Beatles instead of Mozart. It’s an elderly cohort, the people who grew up before the 1960s, who like classical music, and when they die it will die with them.

So the moral of the story is: in music as in everything else, the Baby-Boomers screwed up everything. I’m kidding. The moral is that nostalgia will not keep an art-form alive. You need to appeal to young people, who don’t have the same memories attached to the music that you do. And that means you shouldn’t turn to me for specific advice, because I have never had any idea what young people find cool, especially not when I was one myself. I do hope it doesn’t mean you have to put thumping percussion tracks under all your classical pieces. That was a passing fad of the 1990s, wasn’t it, please gods?

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