The Artistic Price of the Magic Money Tree

or Why I Don’t Like Karl Jenkins

Guest post by David Lake

A few weeks before Christmas, I sang Karl Jenkin’s “The Peacemakers” for our choir’s Remembrance Day concert. Whilst I applaud the pacifism, multi-culturalism and the secularism which Jenkins demonstrates and it passed BoS (that’s Bums-on-Seats – we sold out for the first time many-a-concert), the more I sang, the more I actively disliked the music.

Here’s my first problem. I find that the work is repetitive, simplistic and lacking a personal, “Jenkins” voice. Many times, he simply seems to appropriate an idiom – Celtic prayer? Let’s have a Bodhran and a lilting Irish melody. Words of the Dalai Lama? Ha! Tibetan bells and a couple of “eastern” sounding modes! Plus it is just turgid and dull to sing at times.

Now I’m no classical-music-or-bust person – I’ve been bopping along at WOMAD for decades and appreciate most musical styles and genres. And the best-of-the-best have been taking folk music and crafting it into other works for centuries (Brahms’ Hungarian Dances, Ralph Vaughan Williams just-about-everything for example).

But here, there is very little in terms of development at all – most climaxes seem to be driven dynamically rather tonally and to be honest, very little happens beyond loud-soft-loud. Or vice-versa. And the repetition – again and again and again. Did I mention the repetition? “Adiemus” takes the prize there.

If I took a section of, say, Bruckner aside, I’m pretty sure most people would be able to correctly identify it in a few bars. Take a piece of Jenkins and you’re all at sea. Classical, new-age, cross-over, pop? Mozart, Vivaldi, Enya, the Gyuto Monks? It’s everywhere and nowhere baby…

I came out of the concert happy that we’d remembered the tragedy of war but musically bereft. The orchestra and choir performed to the very best of their abilities – we had put in the effort but personally, I got nothing out of it other than the joy of singing in a choir with my mates.

And now my second problem – the concert was deemed a success and much of the audience appeared to lap it up! This fact is made worse by every one of my much more learned musical friends agreeing with my point of view that this is essentially “un-music.”

We’ve a dichotomy here – when we next go begging for funding, the chief controllers-of-the-purse-strings are likely to point to this concert and say “You don’t need funding – you’ve reached your BoS nirvana and therefore the magic-money-tree does not need to produce for you. Simply go and do that again and your money worries are behind you.”

As a choir, what do we say? “Thank you – but we’d rather have some small, even brown leaves from the magic-money-tree to sing something we find more musically fulfilling and that challenges our audience more, even if there are fewer of them to be challenged.”

Who is the arbiter of artistic merit here? The musicians? The audience? The funding bodies?

What criteria defines “success” in music?

David is a research scientist, engineer, pianist, concert-goer and choral singer and sees the barriers between art and science as purely artificial and unhelpful.  He is currently studying for his DipABRSM (piano) and a BA(Mus) whilst carrying on with the science-stuff in 5G mobile networks for the “day-job.”

1 Comment

  1. Oh wow! Nail on the head. On. The. Head. I don’t sing in a choir that makes money or has to apply for funding, but boy, do I get what you say. I love it. Finally, someone who has the orchestra stalls to speak out.

    As a choral singer who has done their apprenticeship in certain kinds of choirs that can actually hack the more high-brow material, the choirs themselves aren’t much cop. However, I do despair when I hear of choirs doing some pieces that I personally don’t rate – and guess what? The Karl Jenkins has been one of those things. I’ve even sung a movement from it (although years ago I did some numbers from the Adiemus era, and enjoyed singing the pseudo-ethnomusicological sounds, because I feel very strongly that folk and traditional songs are not best served by the pretty sounds only a classically-trained singer makes – it just doesn’t fit), and it was deeply, um, boring. That sort of fare appeals to a certain kind of consumer who has never been challenged. I speak as a fifth-generation musician (the previous four all pro), and someone who trained in musicology – I have been inside the music, I have delved and queried and discovered and interrogated. And to get the public ‘engaged’ through ‘initiatives’ such as the BBC’s ‘Ten Pieces’ [why?], or their many and varied gimmicky in-roads into classical music that Radio 3 has decided it needs to do in order to be ‘trendy’ (currently, New Year, New Music [why?]), leaves me absolutely cold. What is the target audience? Why have a target at all? Music is music, man. My father, a session bass-player, wouldn’t have been able to understand it; my great-grandfather, a violinist, wouldn’t have been able to understand it. Hell, I don’t understand it. Musical pap.

    Actually, while I’m on the soap-box, this is not the same topic, but does concern the state of music-making in general – I refuse to watch the Eurovision Song Contest. On what grounds, I hear you not ask. Well, put simply, WHERE ARE THE MUSICIANS? There used to be a band, and each entry, maybe with the odd exception, had a Musical Director who would come in and conduct. Now that there is no band, what has happened to those jobs? What has happened to live music? What is happening to those musicians? What is happening to music-making? What is happening to the consumption of live music, where the audience can actually see people reading dots, and a bloke waving a stick? And why has the Proms got a bit rubbish? Opening up the festival to new ideas is one thing – the series was originally intended to premier new works – but we seriously need to question the appropriateness of some of the themes that have been introduced. There are more suitable platforms. Who needs all these extra complications? Again, do I detect the magic words, ‘target audience’? I surely do. And somehow, we’re back to Karl Jenkins et al. The overriding theme is ‘market’ and what the Big Guns can do to perpetuate it.

    Far from being all about da bass, it’s all about the green stuff.

    Sad, isn’t it?

    Ah, but then again: Art for art’s sake – money, for gawd’s sake.

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