Music for the Hell Of It

[written in 1998]



A few nights ago—April 7th, to be precise—I supplied the sound equipment for an interesting concert, the sort I’ve helped with for almost forty years. Some classical and jazz musicians, most of them involved in both genres, got together at the Wigmore Hall and explored the interrelationships of early music, modern jazz, and the avant-garde. Almost all were people I’ve worked with for decades: double bass virtuoso Barry Guy, baroque violinist Maya Homburger, Gregory Rose’s vocal quartet Singcircle, and composer & sound designer Stephen Montague.


In 1998, what makes this event worth writing about is the fact that it happened at all. Putting together even a slightly unusual concert of serious music in London has become so difficult and so prohibitively expensive that few musicians are now prepared to take the risk. It’s a year or more since I’ve worked with these people. This time a multi-talented classical/jazz pianist, John Law, was crazy enough to make it happen.


The cost was so considerable that he had to apply for Lottery funding to the tune of £4,000. For those in outer darkness who are not familiar with it, the British Lottery is a complicated taxation system whereby money is taken from the poor, who jostle each other to get rid of it, and crammed into the pockets of the rich, thereby making them even richer. In order to justify this insane ritual, something like 20% is siphoned off into “worthy causes”, which means that for this particular event to take place the gambling populace had to toss £20,000 to the four winds.


The Wigmore Hall used to be the venerable venue where aspiring young musicians played ambitious recitals for their relatives, friends, and a second-string critic or two. That’s history. It’s now sleek, fashionable and well-catered. If you want to launch your career there today it will set you back £850 just to occupy the stage. The management will strongly urge you to advertise; that will cost you £350 or so, much more if you’re persuaded to opt for more than one publication. As for the critics, the dailies no longer devote their valuable column space to nobodies; even established performers usually pass through town unnoticed.


Perhaps you’d like a documentary recording of the event for a demo tape. There are competent professional engineers who will do a good recording for a hundred pounds, though many charge double or triple that. For many years the Wigmore Hall has had steel cables on winches that can position the mics correctly. Since its rejuvenation it also has a shiny new control room complete with tie lines, where your recordist must set up his equipment. That will cost you another hundred.


John Law couldn’t afford the extra Big C’s, and so he had to forego a document of this unique event. Not so long ago the control room was available only to the BBC. I used to run my mic lines back to the green room, where I would set up my gear in a corner and listen on headphones. The cost? Zilch. That was before the new imperative, which prevails throughout the art world, to capitalize every asset. In those generous days the management was not required to charge for a few pence worth of electricity and the air that vibrated the mic capsules. I hope that John had an unobtrusive friend in the front row with a couple of mini-mics clipped to his specs.


The wheel spins, the cost escalates. By the time all the bills were in, John’s evening of music-making didn’t leave him much out of £8,000. He was unusually lucky at the box office: even without the expensive advertising—which would probably have been a waste of money—over 150 paying punters showed up. How much longer will they be ambulatory? They were decidedly middle-aged going on elderly, a trend to be observed at most jazz and classical concerts. Aside from a plague of tenors or a crazy Australian keyboard-basher, the only exceptions are certain “crossover” concerts at which the amplification is gross enough to make the prematurely deaf ravers feel at home.




My active involvement with music began in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1960s. At its epicenter was KPFA, a non-commercial FM station which broadcast live and specially recorded concerts of all kinds of music, including every nook and cranny of the avant-garde. In 1964 it took over an old IWW meeting hall at 321 Divisadero Street in San Francisco, whose premises it then shared with the San Francisco Tape Music Center and the Ann Halprin Dance Studio. The musicians who emerged from this fertile triangulation—Pauline Oliveros, Morton Subotnik, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, Loren Rush, Ramon Sender, Charles Shere and many others—learned to compose by performing each other’s music (usually for no money), trying things out, seeing what worked and what didn’t. Music-making was as informal and spontaneous as conversation. The idea that they should have contracts and be paid by the session would have appeared both laughable and obscene.


Shortly thereafter Charles Shere became KPFA’s Music Director. In e-mail correspondence within the last few days, he has referred me to The Gift, a book by Lewis Hyde which puts forward the intriguing premise that the most fertile developments in art and science grow out of a gift-based economy in which ideas are freely given, accepted, modified, and passed on. Even the barter system, based on equal exchange, constitutes a barrier. By the time you arrive at a profit-based economy of ideas, in which you hold back a segment of whatever passes through your hands, you have set up a system in which creativity, like a desert stream, diminishes as it flows, and ultimately disappears.


The arts in Britain today are forced by the very pattern of their support structures to imitate capitalist models whose function is to rob, to reassure, and to accumulate. In The Spread of Sponsorship (Newcastle, Bloodaxe Books, 1993—a book that should be on every arts administrator’s desk) Sir Roy Shaw, who once headed the Arts Council, points out the obvious fact that “Brutal self interest underlies most sponsorship deals.” He quotes John Drummond on his experience at the Edinburgh Festival: “We put on the kind of concerts that wouldn’t frighten directors’ wives.” For those who care for the survival of art which is worth having, there is nothing more to be said. But artists (and arts administrators) have families, even hobbies, to support. To paraphrase Sir Thomas Beecham, we don’t like art, but we like the money it makes.




We could have taught the ancient Greeks a thing or two—their greatest philosopher need not have died in vain:


Tell me, oh Socrates, what is truth?


My dear Plato, I’m glad you asked me that question. I’ve got an answer to it that I’m about ready to launch. Would you like to be a subscriber? You’ll get your name at the top of the scroll. Messenger! Come here! Take this new application for intellectual funding over to the agora. Tell them I’ve removed the ideas they thought offensive. They can pour the hemlock back into the amphora.


©1998 John Whiting


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