On Monday 4 June, I played the upstairs room at the Lexington in Islington. It was an unusual pub function room gig for many reasons, and for once being on a Monday night was the least of them.
I was playing with ambient / chamber fusion project Dream Logic, the live expression of composer / pianist / guitarist Adam Fulford. They’re a fairly unusual act (featuring live string quartet – miked and at some points fed through effects processing – Ableton Live sample / loop triggering, a fairly terrifying tech setup, and live guitar and keys work from Adam), especially for what I believe is mostly a rock (alternative in the broadest sense of the word) venue. We played a good set, and the experience (live gig no. 2!) was a significant step up from our first live outing, not least in proving that his concept (both music and instrumentation – and indeed the decision to score everything, even if with cues, click tracks and aleatory sections in several places, and hire more-or-less classical players) works better at lower volumes both onstage and out front, where it can be engaged with as quasi-acoustically listenable rather than ‘immersively’ all-consuming as had been the case first time round.
However, I want to do one of those posts where I mostly talk about something other than what I was actually involved with.
This night was part of a project – a series, I suppose – by the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, called ‘the Night Shift’. To those within the classical-orchestral sphere, OAE are known as one of the stalwarts of the historically-informed performance approach – including not only researching how people played in 1650, 1750 or indeed 1850 (still markedly different to today’s defaults, which probably crystallised around 1920), but how many of them there would have been, and using reproductions (occasionally restored originals!) of the instruments they would have had. The Night Shift seems to often involve chamber groups drawn from the orchestra’s ranks, performing under the same brand. And it is the strapline of the series – classical music, minus the rules – that I have stolen for the title of this post.
After Dream Logic’s support slot, the repertoire was fairly typical of the more progressive wing of professional classical music at present. A string quintet and a quartet movement by Felix Mendelssohn – and a quartet movement by his sister Fanny, now being discovered as another creative woman close to a household-name composer but discouraged by gender norms from serious musical ambition (in this she joins Clara Schumann, wife of Robert, and ‘Nannerl’ Mozart, sister of Wolfgang Gottlieb; the same movement is of course bringing to long-deserved greater attention many female composers who did not happen to be immediate family of male ones!).
Musically, the approach was uncompromisingly OAE. Not only was this 19th-century chamber music performed without concession to the setting, it was done so on instruments set up as their cousins were before the increases in volume and brilliance of ever higher tension and ever more ambitious engineering and technique through following decades; and on gut strings. These come up in discussion of period-instrument string playing a lot (those readers to whom this is teaching my late grandmothers to suck eggs, forgive me); almost all mainstream classical players use nylon-core strings with a metal binding today, but these did not come into use until well into the 20th century. Before then it had been gut for centuries, and they have somewhat less volume but particularly less ‘edge’ (and, less to the point for the listener, are maddeningly more difficult to keep in tune!). The different sound of Bach, and indeed Mozart a couple of generations later, played on gut-strung replica instruments is something that has become fairly generally familiar to listeners with any interest in what might soon stop being called ‘early music’. But I think this was the first time I had heard gut strings on Romantic chamber music, or on Romantic music live (as opposed to radio / TV) at all. It is remarkable how much more intimate and privately sociable – rather than publicly performative – it makes a period of music that I generally associate with seeking out extremes and ever-greater massiveness of sound: bigger orchestras, longer symphonies, louder pianos, more virtuosic playing.
So far, so very musical, very OAE, but quite within ‘the rules’. So how serious is the ‘minus the rules’ strapline, besides moving the performance into a pub (or various other non-concert hall locations, it appears from the website)? I have to admit my heart sank a little when I saw the OAE players turning up in all black. Granted, it is better than black tie (the formal dress of the interwar years, the last time audiences as well as performers wore formal dress to professional classical concerts), and definitely better than the still-common pro orchestra uniform of white tie (the formal dress of roughly 1900-1920, when most of our other classical concert norms crystallised); but the modern uniform of service staff from session musicians to stage hands to canapé waitresses still doesn’t quite say unwinding to me.
But I was to be pleasantly surprised. Once the venue had filled up (and it did – though, rather like many a rock night, not properly till after the support act), the audience demographic certainly included a significant fraction of the usual middle-aged and upwards, middle-class and upwards classical music listener-base, but was more heavily slanted towards under 35s, still mostly with money but probably making it themselves, more likely to buy craft beer between sets than small glasses of wine. And the performance was genuinely not what you would get at most straight-up chamber music recitals.
Three of the players (seemingly whoever had least to do in the changeover, as they were revolving parts, seating and instruments (!) to some extent) took it in turns to introduce pieces – amusingly enough, the only thing for which the OAE contingent used mikes or the PA system. Arguably the length of some of their comments illustrated that classical musicians are generally not used to doing this (though I have heard some conductors do it in wholly ‘serious’ contexts, and generally very well) – but there was no mistaking the commitment to the music as well as the project of making it immediate, meaningful and un-distanced for a 21st-century London audience, even in the case of the violinist who got accidentally sidetracked into describing an awkward cinema date with a cellist he was playing Mendelssohn quartets with while at university …
I do need to turn aside here to query why spoken introductions are seen as a dispensible part, if a part at all, of the classical musician skill set. The arguments that not everybody is confident speaking in public, and that the musicians are there to perform the music not explain or comment on it, seem reasonable – in isolation. But every diploma, university or conservatoire assessed recital I have come across has awarded some marks based on the production of a written programme. In other words, musicians have to write about the music, but not necessarily talk about it (and they are not generally allowed to substitute talking for writing; indeed, my ATCL recital did not even allow adding talking to writing). Speaking in public is a skill, learnable and indeed teachable, especially for a professional performer (!). Finally, as both a performer and a fellow audience member, I would rather live audiences sat through some introductory remarks and then watched the stage, rather than burying their heads and making rustling noises in a paper programme, however useful one may be.
Back to the Night Shift. One of the introductions (and they all clearly had not been ‘vetted’, from some of the musicians’ reactions to each other!) did eventually comment ‘and feel free to – do anything!’; by that point, it was clear the usual classical rules were not going to be followed. People did arrive (though I didn’t notice any leaving) during music, and some ordered drinks, albeit generally in a whisper (the mere fact of the bar being open in the same room throughout constitutes a rule broken I suppose); applause was general after every movement.
There is a separate, and much more niche, post to be written about how most of this is reverting to the older (absence of) rules rather than doing anything completely new. The point is more that this became, even for me a fairly seasoned classical concert-goer, an effective way of making the music more immediate, more meaningful, more significant. Discovery: however ‘finely’ one may be supposed to appreciate art music, it does not lose significance from being taken away from theatre-style seating, hushed silence, onstage behaviour minimising the performers’ humanity and intervening noise withheld until the end of what the composer presented as a unit. It may even grow stronger for the removal of those apparent props.
In sum, I approve and commend OAE for the Night Shift. And not only would I recommend going to a Night Shift performance if you have the chance, I recommend to organisers and promoters considering putting ‘classical’ music into informal spaces and unritualised behaviours where people usually find and seek other kinds of music. It might just work out better for everyone than you think.