The View From The Chair

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By Simon Brackenborough

Last year saw the first Music Into Words event. As one of the organisers – alongside Frances Wilson, Mary Nguyen and Mark Berry – our idea was to bring together a variety of writers on classical music, from academics and journalists, to bloggers and music enthusiasts. We wanted the event to be a place to share ideas and best practice, and make new connections, in a friendly and inclusive environment.

Our second event on 12th February will be longer, and takes the form of an afternoon conference. We have more speakers too, with what promises to be an excellent panel for the Q&A (see the full line-up here).

While we arrive with different experiences and area of expertise, we are ultimately all on the side of the music. So what can we learn from each other? As I will be chairing the discussions, I thought I would lay down a few themes that I hope will be picked up on during the day.

As I’m sure nobody needs reminding, we live in an extraordinary time both for writing and for music. Internet technology has enabled instantaneous connection to near-infinite numbers of articles, reviews, videos and and recordings. It has given a platform to people who would previously never have been able to publish their thoughts.

For those of us involved in western classical music, there is now an odd disconnect – the music has not changed much at all, while the technologies through which we can share and discuss it have changed dramatically.

A striking moment from last year’s panel discussion was Imogen Tilden’s bleak assessment of the situation at her newspaper, The Guardian. With the business model of journalism in a huge state of flux, the question of how best to preserve the practices and standards of professional writing in today’s fast-changing media landscape is a crucial one, if perhaps one without a single obvious answer.

Another key concern are the different, though sometimes overlapping, audiences of readers. What do people want from different types of writing (and speaking) about music? How can we best serve our audiences? And where do the needs of musicians fit into the picture – whose art, wrestling with that mercurial force called sound, we try so hard to put into words?

Connected to this question is a wider one, of how writing on classical music might be better at making connections to other musical cultures, to related art forms such as theatre and dance, and to wider culture in general. Further to this, to what extent can (or should) music writers be ambassadors to potential new listeners, and to what extent do we instead cater to a knowledgable and engaged existing readership, with the greater mutual understanding that allows?

Here we touch upon some of the hot buzzwords of our times – ‘echo-chambers’ and ‘identity politics’. Is the classical music world in fact a (mostly white, middle-class, higher-educated) identity group with its own version of the truth, its own Gods and demons? While it seems that key iniquities around diversity are starting to be addressed by music institutions, could greater awareness of different demographic perspectives come into our writing about classical music?

I am a big believer that anyone who writes about music in the tiniest way, even just on Twitter, is a part of a bigger conversation, and their input matters. A big challenge – and opportunity – of the present time is finding out how best to utilise the interactivity of online conversations around music, alongside the ‘big data’ that organisations can harness to learn about their audiences.

Similarly, it is fascinating to witness how new communications tools are transforming modes of expression. Informality and humour, not normally associated with classical music, now play an important role in the way that many artists and critics speak to the wider public. Listeners are able to connect to cultural figures as relatable human beings, and follow their thoughts in real time on any topic under the sun, from the profound to the mundane.

Yet in spite of all this, my view is that the online impact of classical music in the UK is still less powerful than it could be. Several speakers at Music Into Words are bloggers and avid social media users, and I’m sure many in the audience will be too. Ideas about what makes a good social media presence may be one of the most important topics for anyone looking for a career in writing on music in the future.

These are at least some of my key concerns, which reflect my own writing on music, and others will have their own ideas. Part of the inclusiveness of the day is that the audience gets to join in the discussion during the Q&A sessions, and I look forward to hearing people’s thoughts. If you have questions you would like to submit online in advance of the event, please do so via our Facebook or Twitter pages.

While thinking about this, I’m also bearing in mind that it is all too easy to slip into musical hypochondria, and fixate on what is ‘wrong’ with institutions, or with writing about music. So it’s worth noting that the aim of Music Into Words is not to air grievances, it is to cultivate ideas around what we are all ultimately interested in: helping the art of classical music to flourish.

Crucially, we want the networking and socialising part of the event to be as important as the formal sessions – a chance to make new connections over tea and coffee, and cement those already made in the online world. We will circulate a delegate list after the event so conversations can be continued, for those who want to be included on it.

I look forward to seeing some familiar faces on February 12th, and hopefully lots of newcomers too! If you haven’t booked your ticket, you can do so here.

For those of you who can’t make it in person, you can follow live-tweeting on the day via the #MusicIntoWords hashtag, and any write-ups will be linked to on this site after the event. Even if we don’t see you on February 12th, we hope you can join in the conversations.

Simon Brackenborough is a music graduate who divides his time between Hampshire and London. Alongside being a co-organiser of  Music Into Words, he is the founder and editor of the online classical music journal corymbus.co.uk. He tweets at @sbrackenborough.

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