Reinventing classical music

Edward Farmer, composer

When I first started going to orchestral concerts I noticed that the music was presented without any real explanation. Unless you’d studied the history of music you might not really understand the significance of whichever Beethoven symphony you happened to be listening to. It felt like classical concerts were an exclusive club and unless you were involved in orchestral music you were on the outside.

When I was going through university and music college I spent a lot of time composing for theatre and, after graduating, started working in film. There is a lot that goes on in those worlds that I think classical music can learn from. Both disciplines use visual and aural media to enhance your experience of an evening. That can apply to an orchestral concert too. You go to the Royal Shakespeare Company to watch old literature being performed in the most fantastic three dimensional way and browse an art gallery while listening on a pair of headphones to biographical details and interesting stories about the artwork. I’m experimenting with some of those methods in orchestral concerts.

Let’s create and promote orchestral experiences where we assume no prior knowledge from audience members; where they don’t need to do anything before they walk through the door because we will deliver a complete concert experience.

Cross-arts performance is a real buzz phrase at the moment. One thing I’m very keen to do is make sure we’re not dumbing things down. Whatever you’re doing, whether its serious or light hearted repertoire, you should treat it with same level of engagement. You need to offer a point of entry for audiences. If you are performing one of Beethoven’s nine symphonies, why have you chosen that one? What is it about that one which makes it different? What was Beethoven doing at the time of writing it? Who commissioned it? You can take those facts and treat them in an artistic way, without losing any element of finesse and precision to the musical performance.

There is always demand for ‘pure’ musical performance; undiluted, undisturbed, traditional. But I do believe there is a place for both types of concert. As a musician, I love going to hear London’s finest musicians performing, to shut my eyes and just listen. But at the same time there are people who find that particular concert environment intimidating or dull. We need to change this perception. We should be aiming to attract as many people as possible. At the moment, orchestras generally do one performance of a particular programme. That’s due to lack of demand. We should create demand by creating more performances that are engaging to more people. It’s about encouraging a wider cross section of society to enjoy classical music as an experience. At the moment its polarised; you either have Classical Spectacular with canons or uninterrupted Mahler Symphony without one single word spoken.

A way of engaging people is by playing more recently composed and culturally relevant music. London Arts Orchestra just performed the War Horse suite by Adrian Sutton; a fantastic piece of orchestral music rearranged from the score to the sell out National Theatre production. Playing new music is a fantastic way of getting people into orchestral music as an art form.

I think there are two types of composer that come out of the music college education system in this country; those that take the artistic route and those that take the commercial route. When I talk to my friends they tell me of all the millions of people who have listened to the film score they have produced. Then I talk to the classical composers and they tell me how two hundred people attended their one premiere performance. Of course, the numbers alone don’t mean everything, but I do think more can be done to take an amazing art form to more people. We live in a world where more people listen to orchestral music than ever before – through its use in film and videogames – but we must bring that audience to the concert hall. We shouldn’t just accept that classical music is a niche art and think that it’s OK that only a few people understand it and go to the concerts.

It takes two to tango. It’s about the orchestras taking a brave approach to programming and actively looking for pieces by current composers that will engage audiences. It’s also about the composers; there are some for whom the number of people in the audience just isn’t a consideration. Many create music that can seem academic and impenetrable, which is fine, but if the result is that it only gets one performance in their lifetime, is it really worth the effort?

More of the composers on the commercial side in theatre and cinema need to be looking at the orchestral scene in Britain – all the fantastic new orchestras being created alongside the old orchestras – and writing music for the concert stage. I often think, ‘What would Mozart be doing if he was alive now?’ He’d probably be writing film music! But I’m sure he’d also be finding opportunities for his music to be performed on a concert platform. So much amazing music is written for films and then just disappears. People should hear that, and hear it as music that isn’t drowned in sound effects. It would be great for composers to also think about the performance as a reason to compose. Writing pieces that include a narrative or scene setting is certainly nothing new, but it’s a tried and tested method of reaching many more people through music.

I am perhaps caught between two worlds – that of the traditional musician addicted to the buzz of high level musical performance, and that of the cross-arts enthusiast who understands the exciting relationship between music and storytelling. Whatever the mix may be, I hope contemporary composers and performers continue to look beyond the status quo because it will enliven and enrich orchestral music in Britain.

Edward Farmer is a British conductor, composer and co-founder of the London Arts Orchestra. Since it’s formation in 2009, the orchestra has experimented with visual media and theatre to create inventive concert experiences. Previously, he was a member of a Royal Opera House composer scheme to develop music with its singers and musicians. He has also written music for short films, documentaries and theatre shows.

After first studying as a pianist and double bassist, Edward attended the composition class of the Royal College of Music with the support of a Constant and Kit Lambert Scholarship, the Kit and John Gander Award and the Worshipful Company of Musicians.