Philip Clark on Deutsche Grammophon's 1970s forays into free improvisation, and the impact of DG's current boss, former A&R pop picker Max Hole
Classical music aficionados whisper the name with an air of hallowed reverence. Deutsche Grammophon, the record label of Herbert von Karajan, Leonard Bernstein, Mauricio Pollini and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau is the Penguin Books, the Ford Motors and the United Biscuits of opera, chamber composition and orchestral music on record. The label remains the defining classical brand.
In 1974 someone at Deutsche Grammophon HQ made the unlikely decision to release a box set of three LPs documenting European free improvisation. Three groups with ideologically distinct approaches to the music were all given carte blanche studio time, and music by Wired, New Phonic Art 1973 and Iskra 1903 appeared in the DG release schedule alongside Karajan’s new recording of Richard Strauss’ Death And Transfiguration. At Gramophone magazine reviewer David Murray poured disdain on the label’s sincere attempts to engage with this evolving art form: “This album is much more likely to interest the performers and their friends than anybody else. Not knowing any of them, I hear only loose strings of sounds,” he wrote in the publication’s November 1974 issue.
But to care about free improvisation is to feel protective towards this box set. As DG were readying an unsuspecting classical public to experience free improvisation, they were also preparing the release of compositions by a little known American composer called Steve Reich. With a line-up that included Cornelius Cardew on mallet percussion and vocalist Joan LaBarbara, DG’s faith in Reich rolled out his reputation in Europe. And then the company waited for their free improvisation set to achieve similar stellar success. Which, of course, it never did. It tanked at the sales tills and has never been reissued officially.
New Phonic Art 1973 featured clarinettist Michel Portal and trombonist/composer Vinko Globokar, both members of the ensemble led by Karlheinz Stockhausen, also signed to DG. There were links, albeit tenuous, to the label’s hub activities. The Wired session was produced by Conny Plank, Krautrock’s George Martin. So no obvious links there. And Iskra 1903 – Derek Bailey (guitar), Paul Rutherford (trombone) and Barry Guy (bass) – with its filthy Commie moniker and those apparently “loose strings of sounds” could hardly have been further removed from the label’s core values. The cover art said it all. A match is setting fire to a conventional music stave. Key and time signatures are about to go up in smoke. Tradition is being torched. Watch the fuck out.
Having speculated long and hard about the box set’s backstory, I put a call through to Barry Guy who I hoped could tell me more. Guy thinks it was Rutherford who initiated the approach to DG – and Bailey saw it as just another gig. “But there were those of us who thought, wow, if the major labels are taking an interest perhaps this music is about to get big,” Guy tells me. “At the time, DG were releasing a series of LPs of new composed music under the title ‘The Avant-Garde’ and the hope was that a series devoted to improvised music would run alongside. Perhaps that was hearsay. But that’s my memory. In the end, though, the series never happened and they decided to put out what they had as a box set.”
As devoted as Wired and New Phonic Art 1973 were to wrenching open fresh terrain, Iskra 1903 is still noticeably ahead of anyone’s idea of the music. Bailey’s belligerent guitar filters notes and patterns as it spins them towards consequences unknown, structures snapping as they take shape, all those sounds emanating from one man, two hands, one guitar. Where does Bailey’s guitar end and Guy’s bass begin? Where indeed! Guy’s bowed roars and his tickled, spanked notes are a jagged bass counterpoint to Bailey – space mapped out for Rutherford’s melting-moment melodies and deconstructed tailgates.
Deutsche Grammophon had a belief in new music that bordered on the Reithian. If you were man or woman enough to deal with Karajan’s Beethoven or Pollini’s Schubert, surely you had it within you to appreciate Stockhausen, Ligeti or Kagel? And a label willing to invest time and resources into releasing records of Stockhausen’s Mikrophonie I, Berio’s Coro, Cardew’s The Great Learning, Ligeti’s Aventures, and music by Reich and Cage, had no fear of new and apparently subversive ideas. Finding new environments for sound. That was the project, the obsession and suits at the top cocked one ear at the future. Free improvisation came to DG’s notice as another new music worth investigating and disseminating.
That was then. With Deutsche Grammophon swallowed up by Universal Music in 1999, the man in charge today is onetime A&R pop picker Max Hole – a man who goes on the radio to say things like: “Going off to the Royal Festival Hall (I saw) a wonderful concert of (classical) music where the lighting was like the accident and emergency unit of a hospital. There were no screens to show the musicians up close, the conductor had his back to you, he didn’t speak to you. I thought this was all wrong.”
Last year Hole claimed such was his exhilaration during a performance of Beethoven’s Choral Symphony that “I wanted to jump on my feet and shout and yell.” But if you’re Max Hole, best stop digging. Because an unfortunate impression is created that Hole shows little understanding of the internal workings of the music he is meant to be promoting. Coming from someone who welds so much power within the classical record industry, this is disheartening.
Is Hole seriously advocating that conductors should perform with their backs turned towards their orchestra? Interrupting the flow of any extended piece is a seriously bad idea. Beethoven’s symphony is not a parade of numbers glued together by the occasional show-stopping tune (cue applause). The piece follows a seventy-four minute trajectory, its motifically interwoven structure predicated on listeners piecing together slivers of information as the symphony steamrolls towards its commanding choral conclusion.
So forget free improvisation. The label that once handed you modern composition by Ligeti, Reich, Nono, Stockhausen, Boulez, Kagel, Bernstein and Holliger is now the place you go to hear pretendy, have-a-go composers like Karl Jenkins and Max Richter. Music by Sting, Jonny Greenwood and Bryce Dessner add that de rigueur dose of celebrity, while the label’s star violinist Daniel Hope whores his talents with a dismal concept album: Bach and Fauré juxtaposed against the ambient doodling of Ludovico Einaudi, Gabriel Prokofiev and Michael Nyman, an album he calls Spheres. And there’s more Karl Jenkins; and a piece by the Australian composer Elena Kats-Chernin made famous by an advert for a high-street bank.
Imagine how you’d feel if visiting Tate Modern you found the Rothkos, Matisses and Picassos had been replaced by Athena poster art – this grab bag of boardroom-endorsed recently written music (note I’m avoiding the word ‘new’) rehearses such a scenario. Facing declining CD sales, the Max Hole brain trust decides that the problems are not cultural, but down to presentation – if only conductors didn’t face the wrong way! – and salvation lies with the spectacle of Jenkins (a composer who uses photographs of Mother Theresa as album cover art) and the soundbites of Richter – a composer only as good as the last arpeggio by Eno, Nyman or Glass he has happened to hear.
During late summer I sat in the O2 Arena alongside 15,000 other eager punters watching Monty Python write themselves into the history books, and therein a vision of the mass entertainment circus to which Hole aspires. The flogged-off cheap Millennium Dome, re-christened The O2, is by some considerable margin the most charmless music venue in London. At the Festival Hall a cocoon of silence surrounds, and prepares, you for the music you are about to hear. This is a space for reflection, for re-negotiating your relationship to the everyday. At The O2, that everyday is thrust back at you. Sport! Banking! Cars! Aggressive advertising screens loop the loop. The aesthetics are pure pop-up – a true Guy Debordian dystopian nightmare of spectacle becoming a new reality.
Max Hole’s vision of the future concert is currently being workshopped at the Bristol Proms, which has recently completed its second season. Audiences are encouraged to applaud at will, to walk around the performance space, to chat to their neighbour, to take photos on their smart phones. Presumably no objections if you wanted to phone out for pizza during the middle of the B Minor Mass. Anyone who considers a slice of pepperoni and Bach’s most sacred work to be incompatible is being crabby and elitist, one of those old-school classical bores who insists that the best way to grapple with difficult music is to actually listen to the bloody thing.
The Bristol Proms are organised in collaboration with the Bristol Old Vic’s Tom Morris and the next time I attend a Morris produced play, I’m going to clap at random in the middle of a soliloquy and strike up casual conversations with strangers in the audience. Because what’s good for music, must be good for drama too? In interviews, Hole’s ad-man patter about downloads and streaming plots his next move. Deutsche Grammophon was once about peerless, fearless permanent documents of the Western classical tradition – Monteverdi and before to Boulez and beyond – but now the mood music is about ephemeral downloads of disposable new music. Which doesn’t sound like a healthy future to me.