Shell Out Sounds are actively campaigning for the end of Shell’s sponsorship of the Southbank Centre, with music as their vehicle for raising awareness. Shell’s unjust activities regularly stand in sharp contrast to the values of the pieces being performed and the aspirations we have for the arts more broadly. Tonight’s Shell Classic International concert, conducted by Michael Tilson-Thomas, opens with Schoenberg’s Theme and Variations, ‘a late testament to his love of 19th century music’. He is perhaps most famous though for being a trendsetter in modern classical music, developing vividly new ways of writing music in an attempt to change the way people listen. In this way, music’s ability to engage with politics and change attitudes often runs deeper than we might at first think. The ethical questions of arts sponsorship are interwoven with, and not separable from, the politics of the pieces being performed.
If you ask people to envisage the early Greenpeace voyages back in the early 1970s, bearded men, inflatable rafts and whaling ships will probably come to mind. But on one of those early voyages was Will Jackson, later to become one of the co-founders of Greenpeace International. Jackson was a musician involved in performing experimental electronic music using newly developed synthesizers and was particularly interested in the qualities of whale song. When they came alongside a Russian Whaling ship in the Pacific, Jackson set up his gear on the deck and started playing – not everyone was a fan of what they heard! His performances on that early voyage may not have had a tangible impact but even in those early days of Greenpeace, they were creating a space for music as an intrinsic part of action.
Some years earlier, the British composer Cornelius Cardew set up an ensemble called ‘The Scratch Orchestra’. Formed of musicians and non-musicians, professionals and amateurs, music was the means of demonstrating alternative models. Hierarchy and elitism was replaced by horizontality and inclusivity. Also, conventional music with notes on staves was often replaced by text instructions, games and improvisations – music was about the process, the experience of performing and the values that underpinned it.
This ethos, in different forms, found its way into the music of other composers. For example, the Dutch composer Louis Andriessen composed a piece called Workers Union where the musicians play loud clusters almost completely together for the whole 20-minute piece. The instruction for the piece reads ‘only in the case that every player plays with such an intention that his part is an essential one, the work will succeed; just as in the political one’.
Like Cardew, Andriessen understood the act of writing music as being inherently political:
‘Many composers view the act of composing as, somehow, above social conditioning. I contest that. How you arrange your musical material, the techniques you use and the instruments you score for, are largely determined by your own social circumstances and listening experience…’
These are perhaps a few select examples of where music is very clearly active, engaging and consciousness shifting, not simply holding up a mirror to society. However, the subtlety of Benjamin Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, and the richness of Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen have the same power and potential to shift thinking about militarism, conflict and injustice. There are, of course, many issues relating to classical music, access and privilege but a concert does set aside a space for a composer’s work to provoke thought and be absorbed at a deeper level. Britten’s work opened the Shell Classic International season by praising peace and Strauss’s will conclude the season, contemplating the destruction of culture caused by World War II. Meanwhile Shell, who sponsor the concerts, exacerbate conflict in Nigeria and erode Indigenous cultures in Canada and elsewhere through environmental destruction. The music programmed and the circumstances of its performance stand in sharp relief to one another.
Shell Out Sounds, musical protest groups and engaged musicians have a crucial role to play in bringing about a necessary cultural shift but not just in the words they choose to sing or where they perform. The music itself and the relationships between the performers and audience members are a crucial part too. We sometimes forget too quickly that musical performances aren’t just good to listen to. To borrow Nicole Garneau’s term, they have the potential to be ‘public demonstrations of a revolutionary practice’ and perhaps that revolution needs to start with the sponsors…