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Labour under Corbyn and anti-war politics

PoliticsPosted by john sloboda Fri, August 28, 2015 08:32:01
Even bearing in mind that my friends and associates might contain more people of an anti-war persuasion than average, I have been surprised at the number of them who have told me in the past couple of weeks that they have registered as a Labour supporter in order to vote for Jeremy Corbyn as leader, and that his unwavering and principled stand on Iraq has been a clincher.

If, as many are predicting, the Labour election is now a "done deal" it is now pertinent to ask to how what one might loosely call "the anti-war lobby" consisting of SNP, Greens, Lib-Dems, Plaid Cymru, and a Corbyn-led Labour party can best operate to influence parliamentary and national debate on some of the key issues, including defence and foreign policy.

It is parties other than Labour that have most consistently held out before the public an alternative to the "Washington consensus" these past two decades. The "conversion" of the wider parliamentary Labour Party - if it happens - will still be viewed with suspicion by many as tactical and opportunistic. How Labour relates to other parties that have been torch bearers for the policies it abandoned under Blair will be a crucial test in the eyes of many.

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PoliticsPosted by john sloboda Mon, March 09, 2015 22:17:20

Facebook is a new communication technology. It has only been around for 8 years, and yet huge numbers of people now conduct a great deal of their social and professional lives on it. Because different people use it in very different ways, and with different underlying assumptions, there are all kinds of possibilities for misunderstandings and conflict. Few of us have been taught to use it effectively - we stumble into it - and we probably are only partially aware of its effects on us and others, until we stumble into some unforeseen problem.

Like any tool, Facebook can be used for good or bad ends. It is the behaviour of those who use it (primarily the content that they post, whether originally, or in response to someone else’s post) that determine that.

Facebook is unlike Twitter. Twitter is a public application, where everything you post is instantly visible to the entire world and where the poster has no control over who follows, responds to, likes, or retweets, his or her tweets. That is why injudicious tweets have brought down individuals and organisations. One libellous or insulting tweet could, in principle, be enough to land the tweeter in prison (or worse in some countries).

Facebook allows its users control over the privacy settings. Some Facebook users make their pages public. Many, probably most, don’t. They set up private communities to which they invite and admit selected “friends” one by one.

I see a private Facebook page as, essentially, an extension of its owner’s living room. By setting up a facebook page, I am inviting my friends to “drop in on me at any time”, look at what I am interested in, respond, and point me to things that they are interested in.

But, like my home, my Facebook page is my private space. I decide who comes into it, and if they behave in a way that I don’t find congenial, I don’t invite them back. No-one has a right to be in my private space.

I have nearly 500 Facebook friends. Some know each other, the majority don’t. Every time someone makes a posting on my wall, all 500 of my friends see it. Since the poster does not know who most of these people are, the poster should - surely - take great care to ask him or herself what impact this might have on the other 500 people. Since I am interested in all 500 people, I need to take a view on who will get on with who, what might be offensive or inappropriate for some of my other friends to read, and act accordingly.

To make a set of rules to cover all eventualities is probably an impossible (and perhaps not even worthwhile) task. A Facebook user has to use his or her good sense to respond to the situation as it develops, drawing on general principles of courtesy, fairness, generosity, and - of course - an appreciation of the law.

However, everyone should at least ask themselves the question “what kind of a Facebook community and conversation do I want, and why?”. And then we might ask ourselves the further question “which of my facebook friends show - by their own responses - that they know and respect my “style”?

In general, my priority is to share information and views that I have found (mainly, though not exclusively) about public events and public figures, and - where I feel I have something to say - comment on it. Sometimes I post things with which I agree, sometimes things I disagree with, and sometimes things which I am not sure what I think about, but am interested in other people’s opinions on. The topics I post on include topics on which strongly differing opinions exist, including the wars and international disputes that Britain and its allies get involved with, the behaviour of key British political allies such as the USA and Israel, the behaviour of banks and multinational corporations, and so on. I expect and welcome clear and informed contributions which take different perspectives to the ones I post.

What I do not expect are comments which directly call into question the character or motivation of a person within the Facebook community I have created through my postings. It is the difference between “that was a stupid thing to say” (unacceptable), and “I don’t agree with what you said, and here is why” (acceptable).

There are a few of my Facebook friends who have found the general tone of some commentators to my postings so unpleasant that they have blocked those people from appearing in their own feed. In a few cases, where a comment was directly insulting to another one of my Facebook friends, I have had to delete the comment myself.

I have not yet taken the step of “defriending” anyone, though I have been privately urged to do so on several occasions. I would prefer it that people become aware of the character of my page and operate in a way that doesn’t do injustice to that. But there may well come a time when taking a tougher line is right, both to protect the majority of users, but also to make it clear what steps over my boundaries of acceptability.

Now that internet communication is overtaking face-to-face communication as the main means of interpersonal contact for many people, internet users need to consider their own internet behaviour as thoughtfully and self-awarely as they hopefully consider their personal behaviour when in the direct presence of another person. What you say on the internet is a written record which stays there for the rest of your life, and may be looked at and referred to by many, including those who may wish you harm. It’s little wonder that so many open forums (including those on most online newspapers) are moderated, and comments which violate their codes of behaviour removed.

As always, I’m grateful for thoughtful comment on this issue, and being pointed to published contributions on the same topic.

Postscript: I showed this article to a Facebook contributor whose own contributions I find exemplary. This person added the following points which I think are spot on: “I try to imagine saying the things I write to certain people in person who may read the post. I have friends who are devout and I therefore avoid posting disrespectful things about religions. It’s a small consideration that doesn’t compromise me in any way I think”.... and “One breach of etiquette that I sometimes find myself drifting into is starting a dialogue with another respondent and wandering off the subject of the original posting. To use your analogy of your Facebook page being like your living room, it can be rather like being invited over for dinner and then two of the guests taking over the conversation. Knowing when to call it a day with a topic is a useful bit of etiquette”.

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London Friends of Music Fund - Events for Spring and Summer 2015

Art and MusicPosted by john sloboda Fri, March 06, 2015 06:07:57

Greetings to Music Fund friends and supporters, old and new!

We’re delighted to announce several exciting events in the UK to build support and contribute to the work of Music Fund. There are two special fund-raising concerts:

* A Chamber Concert by the Conchord Ensemble. Friday 17th April
* A Choral Concert by the City Chamber Choir. Tuesday 12th May

See below for full details. Please come and bring your friends and family. We look forward to seeing you there!

We are also very pleased to inform you about two other forthcoming events.

* a BBC TV documentary on the work of Music Fund in Gaza (on air from 26 March) including a special story about a piano…..BBC plans a broadcast on BBC World, also to be shown on the BBC News Channel in the UK, a radio documentary for BBC World Service (on 26 March), and an online feature on the BBC website as from 27 March. We will try to give more detail in due course.

* a Musical Instrument “Amnesty” at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club. Saturday 6th June. Do check if you are harbouring an unused musical instrument - jazz or classical! .This will be a first collection of musical instruments for Music Fund in the UK. (More details in due course). Note that Ronnie Scott’s is also planning to give jazz and improvisation workshops for Music Fund, starting in Ramallah in August.

Keep in touch with Music Fund on
Email us at the London Group .
Tell your friends and help to grow the number of UK supporters of Music Fund.


Chamber Concert by the London Conchord Ensemble. Friday 17th April, 2015. 22 Mansfield Street, London W1G 9NR. £25 including drinks and canapes.

We are delighted that Elisabeth and Bob Boas will devote one in their celebrated series of charity concerts to Music Fund. Artists all give their services free of charge. These concerts, held in their splendid Marylebone home, supplemented by food and drink, and surrounded by beautiful art, keep alive a vibrant tradition of informal salon music by showcasing the best of chamber music talent on the London scene.

7.00 pm Welcome drinks
7.30 pm Concert
Duruflé - Prelude, Recitative and Variations, for flute, viola & piano, Op. 3
Loeffler - Rhapsody for Oboe, Viola and Piano
Faure - Piano Quartet
9.00 pm Drinks and canapés after the concert, and an opportunity to mingle with the performers

Julian Milford (piano), Emily Pailthorpe (oboe), Daniel Pailthorpe (flute), Daniel Rowland (violin), Rachel Roberts (viola), Thomas Carroll (cello).

Recognised as a leading chamber ensemble, Conchord was founded by principal players from the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Royal Opera House and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, and has won over audiences with its fresh, communicative style. It has recently celebrated its 10th Anniversary. See

It is essential to book in advance by email to mentioning that you come recommended via “Friends of Music Fund”. If you do not have email then phone 020 7436 0344 or write to 22 Mansfield Street, London W1G 9NR


Choral concert by the City Chamber Choir and City String Ensemble. St Paul’s Church Covent Garden (The Actors’ Church), Bedford Street, London WC2E 9ED. Tuesday 12th May 2015, 7.30 pm. £15

Handel - Dixit Dominus. Cantata for choir, soloists and chamber orchestra.
Handel - Nisi Dominus. Cantata for choir soloists and chamber orchestra.
Handel - Concerto Grosso Op 6 no 7

Conductor: Stephen Jones. Katherine Boyce, Rosemary Zolynski (Sopranos), Tim Morgan (counter-tenor), Nick Pritchard (tenor), Nick Morton (bass).

An evening of master works from the beginning and end of Handel’s extraordinary career. The City Chamber Choir was founded in 1987 by its musical director Stephen Jones. Performing to professional standards, this amateur unpaid choir has won many accolades for its music-making, including reaching the semi-finals of the Sainsbury’s Choir of the Year competition. A recent review in the Church Times said: “A whole evening of unaccompanied music of considerable complexity was delivered with panache and elegance.”

50% of the proceeds from all tickets prepaid through the following web link will go to Music Fund.
Tickets bought on the door will NOT benefit Music Fund. However, there will be a retiring collection totally in aid of Music Fund. The concert will also be an opportunity to meet Music Fund founder Lukas Pairon. Wine and soft drinks are on sale in the interval.


About Music Fund and the London Friends Group

Music Fund ( ) supports young musicians and music schools in impoverished countries and areas of conflict, believing music can enrich lives and contribute to the cultural development of local communities. Music Fund collects musical instruments in Europe, repairing and then delivering them to music schools in countries such as Mozambique, DRC, Morocco, Palestine and Haiti. It trains local musicians in instrument repair and maintenance. In UNWRA schools in Gaza, it also supports a role for music in general education.

Music Fund is based in Brussels with a London Group of Friends and many partners across Europe.

Music Fund’s London group was inaugurated in late 2013 with a launch meeting at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama. It is building active partnerships with other organisations, including the Angel Orchestra, the string auction house Amati, Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club, and El Sistema UK. It has an active steering group,involving both musicians and professionals from a range of walks of life, who are always looking for new enthusiastic and energetic people to join them. The group’s current chair John Sloboda ( would be delighted to hear from you if you are interested in helping the group practically.

To be kept in touch more generally with the activities and events of the London Group, please email and check out the facebook page at .

Donations to Music Fund may be made at any time by bank transfer to “Friends of Music Fund (London)” Triodos Bank, account number 20488459, sort code 16 58 10

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The Charlie Hebdo killings must widen our vision, not narrow it.

War and peacePosted by john sloboda Sat, January 10, 2015 17:56:55

The traumatic events of the last 4 days in France have wiped almost all other news off the headlines. But gross daily suffering and death did not abate elsewhere in the world.

On the same day that 12 people were killed in Paris in or near the Charlie Hebdo offices, 35 people were killed by a massive car bomb outside a Police Station in Yemen’s capital Sanaa (, and 53 civilians were killed in 9 separate locations across Iraq (

In one of the Iraq incidents, four Iraqi doctors and three Iraqi lawyers were executed in Mosul by ISIL for collaboration with the Iraqi security forcesداعش-يعدم-سبعة-أطباء-ومحامين-لاتهام.

By a strange twist of fate, Wednesday was the first day in the three-year Syrian war when no-one was reported killed by violence, according to Human Rights monitors there. The reason? A fierce snow storm that made fighting impossible simply brought a different kind of suffering to the dispossessed of the conflict, trying to survive without homes or heating.

And in the remaining days of last week, when another 5 Parisian hostages were killed in at a Kosher Supermarket, an estimated 2000 civilians were killed in and around Baga, Northern Nigeria, by Boko Haram militants (

The sheer enormity of the Nigerian tragedy has briefly jostled with Paris for some recent headlines, but, for the majority of other violent incidents this week, such as those in Iraq and Yemen, the attention of the world’s media has been negligible.

Of all this week’s victims, only those connected to the high-profile Charlie Hebdo magazine have been widely named. Even the victims of the kosher supermarket siege are yet hardly visible, named only in one or two obscure places. Because Yohan Cohen , Yossef Siboni, Dominique bat Sarah, Sarah bat Louna, and Noa bat Sarah are not public figures, few seem interested in who they were (see:

In a powerful and challenging commentary on the week’s events, Teju-Cole, a Nigerian-American historian writing in the New Yorker sheds some light on this skewed attention when he points out that “when we rightly condemn criminals who claim to act in the name of Islam, little of our grief is extended to the numerous Muslim victims of their attacks” (

The killing sprees at the Charlie Hebdo offices and the Kosher Supermarket were atrocities, for which no justification or defence is possible. But that judgement not absolve us of our wider responsibilities. Other people’s wrongdoing does not change the moral character of our own responses, even when we are the injured party. For instance:

1. It is a matter of significant regret that the Paris perpetrators are now dead and therefore cannot face justice in a public court according to French law. They have, in effect, received a summary death penalty in a country that has abolished the death penalty – and I regret that I saw no indication that the French authorities were strenuously seeking to terminate the hostage situations without any further loss of life, including that of the killers, or that any section of the French society was urging this. It seems to have been just somehow assumed that, of course, the hostage takers would be killed, thus denying them any of the rights or opportunities offered in France to defendents of all, including the most heinous, crimes. The justice of the courts has, sadly, been replaced in this case by the justice of the bullet.

2. There are many highly questionable killings perpetrated or supported by Western governments, such as the British and American killing in captivity of prisoners, the USA’s use of drone strikes against civilians in Pakistan and Yemen, and the killing of women and children in Gaza by the Israeli Defence Forces. The Charlie Hebdo killings cannot and should not turn attention away from these other tragedies and misdemeanours, nor be used to justify our role in them. If they were wrong or illegal before this week, they remain so now, and justice for these and other victims must continue to be sought.

3. Although they may not have been breaking any law, many of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons are - in many eyes including my own - vile, infantile, prejudiced, and entirely destructive in their intent. Their main purpose seems to be to foment hatred and misunderstanding of their targets among members of French society. For others to demand that these cartoons be widely reproduced and circulated as an act of solidarity with the victims or an act of defiance against radical Islamists, is unacceptable and counterproductive, and I applaud those who refuse to comply with what amounts to societal bullying – particularly where their refusal is not out of fear of the consequences – but out of principle. We can and should respect the right of the publishers of Charlie Hebdo to publish their cartoons. They, and others, need to recognise other people’s right to have nothing to do with the cartoons, and to actively oppose their use or circulation if they so choose, by any means other than violent means. Such opposition does not mean that we view the brutal death of their staff with anything other than the utmost horror and condemnation.

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Advertising Standards Agency response to Sainsbury/British Legion complaint

War and peacePosted by john sloboda Wed, November 26, 2014 21:01:50
This is the response from the Advertising Standards Agency to the 700 or more citizens, including myself, who felt moved to complain about the "Christmas in the Trenches" ad.

The widespread complaints were reported in the press, although the number of complaints was eventually far higher than early reports indicated.

ASA have decided not to uphold the complaint.


Dear Mr Sloboda,


Thank you for contacting the ASA and for your patience.

Our role as an organisation is to help ensure that advertising is responsible by, in essence, being legal, decent, honest and truthful. We can intervene if an ad appears likely to be in breach of the Codes of Advertising by, for example, being likely to cause serious or widespread offence, being materially misleading or risking causing significant harm.

In this case, we decided to put your concerns, along with a number of similar complaints we had received about this ad, to the independent ASA Council for consideration, rather than simply using the delegated responsibility of the ASA Executive’s staff. The ASA Council is the jury that decides whether advertisements have breached the Advertising Codes.

They have now carefully considered the ad, in the context of its appearance on TV, in the cinema and on YouTube, and the issues raised by all complainants, but have concluded that there are insufficient grounds for further ASA intervention on this occasion. Although we acknowledge the particular resonance this ad may have for those who lost family in the First World War, or any other conflict, we can only intervene where there has been a specific breach of the Codes we administer.

I should explain that the ASA does not intervene where advertising is simply criticised for being in poor taste. The Code requires that ads must not contain anything that is likely to cause serious or widespread offence, but ads may be ‘distasteful’ without necessarily breaching this rule. Complaints about offence often require difficult judgements. Apart from freedom of speech considerations, even well-intentioned and thoughtful people will have different and sometimes contradictory opinions about what constitutes ‘bad taste’ or should be prohibited. We can only act if the ad, in our judgement, offends against widely accepted moral, social or cultural standards.

I should also make clear that the ASA has no influence over the wider creative decisions taken by advertisers (or the agencies that work on their behalf) to use a particular character, situation, music or theme in their ad campaigns. We consider the particular content of specific ads and as long as the content of the ad does not breach our Code, it is really up to the advertiser what they want to put in it and what theme they choose.

In this case, we received over 700 complaints about this ad and the ASA Council considered four main issues;

1. Whether the ad was offensive because complainants had found the use of an event from the First World War to advertise a commercial company insulting, demeaning, disrespectful, insensitive and exploitative;

In terms of this first issue, the Council noted that the only reference to the advertiser was the brief inclusion of their logo at the end of the ad and that the only identifiable product was a bar of chocolate, the profits from the sale of which were to be donated to the Royal British Legion, with whom the advertiser had partnered in making the ad. It was understood that the ad had been made, at least partly, as a celebration of the 20 years of support that the advertiser had given to the charity and that they had worked to ensure historical accuracy by basing it on original reports and letters, as well as working with historians throughout the development and production process.

Although the Council acknowledged that some would find the use of an event from the First World War for advertising purposes distasteful under any circumstances, they considered that viewers in general were likely to see the specific depiction in this ad as respectful to both sides of the conflict, relevant to both the First World War Centenary and Christmas, and a poignant reminder of the historical event which inspired the ad.

Despite the fact that it had clearly divided opinion and some had found it to be in poor taste, the Council did not consider the content of the ad likely to cause serious or widespread offence in breach of the Code.

2. Whether the depiction was too "sanitised" and that the ad therefore trivialised and undermined the tragedy and glamorised, glorified and romanticised war;

With regard to the second issue, while the Council noted that the ad was not as graphic as the real events would have been, they considered that viewers were likely to be aware of the horrors of war and understand that the reality would have been very different. They did not consider it likely that viewers would require overtly graphic or explicit imagery of violence and death in order to appreciate the message, or to remember the sacrifices made in the First World War.

The Council considered that viewers generally would see the portrayal in the ad as emphasising the positive nature of the event shown and the message the ad aimed to convey rather than as trivialising or undermining the tragedy of the First World War, or glamorising, glorifying or romanticising war generally.

3. Whether it was inappropriate for broadcast given that this year marked the First World War Centenary and the ad appeared shortly after Armistice Day;

In relation to the third issue, the Council noted that the ad had first been broadcast the day after Armistice Day but that no specific complaints had been received about the ad being broadcast around programmes specifically dedicated to the First World War or Remembrance. Although they understood that some consumers had found the timing to be distasteful, they considered that the ad was likely to be seen as topical and relevant and, given the content, its broadcast around this time was unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence.

4. The objection that the TV version of the ad did not make immediately clear that it was an ad for supermarket.

Finally, in terms of the fourth issue, the Council understood that the ASA had not received any complaints suggesting that the ad had been shown around programmes specifically dedicated to the First World War or Remembrance and that complainants had believed it to be either a charity ad or a trailer for a programme or film before the advertiser's logo appeared. It was noted that the Code required that ads were obviously distinguishable from editorial content to avoid confusion between the two and that the audience should quickly recognise the message as an ad. The Council considered that the TV ad, in the context of the scheduling they were aware of, was obviously distinguishable from editorial content and given that the complainants had quickly recognised the message as an ad, albeit not one for a supermarket, they considered that it did not breach the Code on this point.

For these reasons, the ASA Council have concluded that there are no grounds for further investigation on the issues raised and that the ad does not breach the Code for the reasons suggested. As such, we will not be taking any further action on this occasion.

I appreciate that this may not be the outcome you had hoped for, but we have passed a summary of the issues raised to the advertiser (without revealing anyone’s identity) so that they’re aware of views such as yours. We will also continue to monitor the response to this ad.

Although we are not taking further action on this occasion, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to share your concerns with us. If you would like more information about us or our work, please do visit our website,

Yours sincerely

Emma Smith
Senior Complaints Executive
Direct line 020 7492 2203

Advertising Standards Authority
Mid City Place, 71 High Holborn
London WC1V 6QT
Telephone 020 7492 2222

Follow us on twitter: @ASA_UK

Legal, decent, honest and truthful

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and the Advertising Standards Authority (Broadcast) Ltd will use the information you have given us to deal with your complaint. If your complaint falls under the remit of a different regulatory body, we will normally pass it on to that body. If you are seeking suppression from an advertiser’s database or have not received goods or a refund, we will pass the details of your complaint to the advertiser so it can take action.

We would like you to be available to take part in the ASA’s customer satisfaction research. On our behalf, an independent research company contacts complainants by email. If you did not opt-out when completing our online complaint form, or made your complaint in writing or by phone and do NOT want to participate in this research please email or write to Advertising Standards Authority, Freepost LON20659, LONDON, WC1V 6BR. We will not contact you for marketing purposes unless you have given us permission to do so. You can register on our website for communications you would like to receive from us, and can amend your choices at any time. We will not sell, rent or exchange your details with any other organisation. Our full Privacy Policy can be found at

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The Peckham Multi-story car park project: a new model for classical music audience engagement

Art and MusicPosted by john sloboda Sun, July 27, 2014 11:38:52

Last night I attended a brilliant performance of Shostakovich’s cello concerto played on the upper floors of the main car-park in Peckham town centre, South London. Matthew Barley was the soloist, and the conductor Christopher Stark drew passionate and committed playing from his young professional players.

Putting on classical music in unconventional venues is not a new idea. My first experience of this was 15 years ago, when Graham Vick’s Birmingham Opera Company started staging major operas in disused factories, redundant aircraft hangers and the like. It was a revelation, not least because the audience became participants in the drama, moving around the set, and adopting semi-theatricalised roles at different points. I still vividly recall the revelatory impact of these productions.

Since then, taking classical music to buildings not customarily used for this purpose, has become commonplace, and – in the eyes of some – almost a cliché.

As in any other area of artistic endeavour, non-traditional venue work can be good, mediocre or bad. There is still much to discover about how “going outside the concert hall” can encourage or facilitate new and productive forms of audience engagement. The work only becomes clichéd when it unthinkingly repeats a formula without care and attention to the artistic and contextual opportunities that a specific combination of work, artist, place, and audience afford.

On those grounds, the Multi-Story project, conceived and directed by Composer Kate Whitley and conductor Christopher Stark, must be recognised as a very significant contribution to this field.

Before identifying the really innovative elements which justify this judgment, I’ll just mention some features which, while important elements in the overall experience, are more standard in this emerging field.

There is a set of choices that concert promoters can make which are more likely to attract a predominantly young audience. I would estimate that the average age of last night’s 1000-strong sell-out audience was no more than 30. As someone over 60, I was in a tiny minority.

Peckham is fast becoming a trendy mecca for the social and professional life of the culture-rich but money-poor under-30s, with some of the edgy vibrancy that characterized Shoreditch and Hackney before gentrification took hold. A whole range of cultural and artistic enterprises are springing up in the disused factories and warehouses, not least the now iconic Bussey Building which faces the Peckham Car Park across the railway lines. These rails carry the newly-enhanced circular Overground Line which allows experience-seekers from all around London’s inner suburbs to disgorge from its sleek air-conditioned carriages in their thousands into Rye Lane. Multi-story is less than a 5 minute walk from Peckham Rye Station – a very important consideration for the traveler to this hitherto “out of the way” and “exotic” (even threatening) location.

Almost every warehouse and alley nearby now seems to have a pop up (often outdoor) bar, packed to the gills with a young white middle-class constituency for whom alcohol seems to be the stimulus to and accompaniment for the kind of animated but relaxed conversation that has long characterized gatherings of young adults in the bars and cafes of Paris, Berlin, and Milan – and very far from the more aggressive and carnal encounters that alcohol tends to be associated with in town centres around the UK. [An analysis of how this influx is affecting or impacting on the predominantly black indigenous population of the area, while important, is beyond my scope. These locals were not in evidence at the concert!].

In other words, Multi-Story is tapping into exactly the same young educated and eclectic demographic that already flocks to such offerings as the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment’s (OAE) “Night Shift”.

And Multi-Story replicates some of the tried and tested features of the OAE experience. People are free to wander in and out of the space, check their mobiles, talk quietly to their neighbours, buy alcohol (from bars that stay open doing business throughout the performance). There are no reserved seats, and people sit or stand where they choose. So far, so standard.

What Multi-Story brings, which is new (at least to me), is an educational element that is fun, interactive, and very appropriately enhancing to the performance itself.

For around 40 minutes before the main performance began, groups of the players spread themselves over 5 or 6 different locations, and each offered a mini-tutorial on some element of the music, its performance, and its social and historical background. Each tutorial lasted about 5 minutes, and was repeated at regular intervals, so you could pick up four or five of them in the time available.

Each tutorial was a semi-scripted opportunity for audience engagement, entirely choreographed and delivered by the players themselves, each of whom stepped forward and engagingly spoke, played, invited questions, and – in one case – invited audience members to come forward and conduct them for a minute or so.

In this way there was no “invited expert” pontificating on the music, but a narrative which was woven out of the perceptions and enthusiasms of all of the 70 or so young performers. By the end of the tutorial period, I felt I knew, and had connected to, more than half of the orchestra as individuals, and had learned quite a lot I didn’t know about the music, about Shostakovich, and about the Stalinist context in Soviet Russia in which he had to work.

I took the opportunity to speak to one of the groups of performers, inbetween two repeats of their “show”. I learned that all the performers were either conservatoire students, or recent graduates from them. They told me that they had been given a broad area around which to devise their tutorial, but had then been given an hour during rehearsals to go away together and work out the precise script, and who would do what.

This worked brilliantly well, so that by the time we all assembled in one part of the venue for the actual performance, we all had key themes and moments buzzing round our heads, and so the sense was of meeting fully a person to whom we had already been briefly introduced.

It would be really great to be able to find out a bit more about the experience of this young audience, and how, and to what extent, their engagement with the players last night might have helped create lasting and committed enthusiasm for classical music in all its various presentations both live and recorded. How many of last night’s audience will be hunting out performances of this piece on Spotify or Youtube? How many will hunt out other performances by Matthew Barley, or by these players? What would make them more likely to do this? These and other related questions are the ones that the classical music profession needs urgent answers to. Building committed younger audiences for classical music is the only way to ensure its future survival. And for that we need a deeper and fuller understanding of what motivates these young adults, and what works to secure their lasting commitment (both in time and money) to the art form.

That’s one of the reasons why I am delighted that the Guildhall School of Music & Drama (where I work) has invested in a long-term programme of experimentation and investigation on the very issue of “Understanding Audiences”, in collaboration with a number of forward thinking artistic and academic partners. Visiting Peckham last night has reminded me again of why this work matters!

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Simon Bolivar Choir at the RFH: Redeemed at the Last Moment

Art and MusicPosted by john sloboda Sun, April 06, 2014 15:28:27

Is it a good concert experience when the event really only catches alight in the encores? That was exactly my experience at London’s Royal Festival Hall last night when the Simon Bolivar National Youth Choir gave a concert as part of two concurrent festivals, the “Pull Out the Stops” festival celebrating the restoration of the hall’s magnificent 8,000 pipe organ, and the “Chorus” festival “celebrating the power of singing together” and involving participatory workshops running over a week.

The conjunction of these two festivals could possible explain a rather unusual, even bizarre, piece of programme planning which involved no less than three full settings of the Roman Catholic Mass sung consecutively, each for full choir and organ accompaniment. The rarely heard Requiem Mass setting by Venezualen composer Juan Batista Plaza was followed by settings of the Missa Brevis by Britten and Kodaly, with Mendelssohn’s “O for the Wings of a Dove” based on Psalm 55 thrown in for good measure.

This is a group of 100 magnificent full-throated voices, yet I got the experience of struggle, as if they were trying to inhabit an ill-fitting suit. Part of it might simply have been under-rehearsal. The choir is on a UK tour with a punishing schedule, and involving other concerts which don’t include these particular works. There were a few ragged moments in the ensemble, and signs of vocal exhaustion, particularly from some of the soloists drawn from within the choir. Part of it also might have been the Royal Festival Hall’s notoriously punishing and clinical acoustic. I have sung on that stage several times and it is – to say the least - a challenging vocal experience. The hall offers no warmth or resonance to a singer at all, and one can feel exposed, unsupported, and “out on a limb”. In that context the frequent application by the choir’s director of a detached “portamento” approach, which in a more generous acoustic might have come across as highlighting the articulation and the line, came across as ugly and unmusical.

But deeper than these specifics was a strong sense I got that much of this music was simply not “in the bones” of these singers, that they were struggling to inhabit a musical world which was not familiar to them and didn’t allow them to shine. There was a huge amount of tension manifest, which resulted in a stiff and unyielding effect, both aurally and visually. Director Lourdes Sanchez seemed ill-at-ease and offered very few expressive cues for her singers, concentrating on large and somewhat inflexible beats, as if she was worried that without this the performance would go adrift. This reflected itself in the singers’ demeanour. Many of them simply looked (and sounded) worried for much of the time.

Thank goodness that the sympathetic audience gave enough support to encourage four short encores – which I didn’t recognize but seemed drawn more from an Latin American folk ambience. For me, the real concert began then. It was as if shackles had dropped, and everyone became themselves. The organ was switched off, a female choir member stepped from the ranks, sat down on a stool, and played a guitar accompaniment with direct effectiveness. Sheet music was set aside and the pieces were sung from memory. Choir members smiled – made eye contact with the audience and each other, and began to fully inhabit their bodies. For the last two numbers Ms Sanchez stopped conducting, joined the front row of the sopranos, and sang along with them, looking happy and relaxed. Ensemble difficulties melted away (even in complex poly-rhythmic sections sung without a conductor), and voices became mellifluous and seductive. The audience responded in kind, with whoops and cheers, and people getting up out of their seats, and in those last 20 minutes the hall “rocked”. That was - at last - live choral music making at its best.

This choir is one of the many manifestations of the vast El Sistema empire that has received huge international attention and support for its groundbreaking work with the disadvantaged youth of Venezuala, now being replicated in “franchised” projects around the world. This choir is the pinnacle of a complex multi-levelled pyramid of local youth choirs around the country, with last night’s choristers having been selected as being the best of the best, city by city, and having being supported into burgeoning careers as young music professionals. What El Sistema has achieved in transforming the lives of thousands of young people is uncontestable. However, whatever the personal background, and however deep the early disadvantage, when a choir of experienced young adult performers (and I estimated ages being from 18 to late 30s) show up on the stage of London’s premier symphony hall to perform pieces from the mainstream European classical repertoire, they have to be judged by what they bring on the day – and judged in comparison with who else might have been heard on that very stage performing those very works.

It’s pretty hard to bring something special or distinctive to either Britten or Mendelssohn choral music in a country and continent that majors on both. The performances we heard last night were competent but unremarkable. Many British and European choirs could have done as well or better. What could not have been approached by most English choirs, however, was the spirit of solidarity, warmth, even passion, which shone out from this choir when allowed, finally, to be itself in the music which it has taken to its collective heart.

London’s South Bank shares with El Sistema many characteristics. They are both huge state-invested juggernauts, with an incredibly complex mix of public and private stakeholders, patrons, and multi-dimensional economic, political and artistic priorities and expectations. They are both no doubt hugely over-committed and over-invested. The sheer variety of events and initiatives that involve the South Bank, even in a single month, is dizzying and overwhelming. And lots of what they try is innovative, experimental, out-on-a-limb, magnificent. And bravo to them for that. Any adventurous and experimental organisation will have successes and failures, a mixture of the fabulous and the unmemorable. Ditto for El Sistema.

But it is still sad to see a situation which apparently sets up a world-class choir to be less than world-class by shoehorning it into the demands of programming priorities which seemed more to do with allowing the hall to show off its undoubtedly magnificent organ rather than being designed to reflect the nature of this remarkable choir, or reflect the interests and expectations of those who booked to attend, drawn mainly I would imagine – as I was - by the allure and reputation of the Simon Bolivar brand, as exemplified through the stunning and world-class achievements of the Orchestra of the same name under its director Gustavo Dudamel. I had no idea, until I showed up in the room, that there was even going to be organ music at this event.

It was also – to me - a rather sad visual symbol of the cultural contradictions inherent in this concert that the choristers were wearing clothes that represent the most conservative and establishment-oriented portion of the performing arts world: dress suits and white bow ties for the men, black ballroom gowns for the women. This is garb that many contemporary choirs (particularly youth choirs) are finding elegant ways to evolve from or leave behind. It just doesn’t make sense for a choir from a country with its own rich and vibrant culture of dress and body language to attempt, unsuccessfully, to adopt a “frozen in time” European stage persona whose heyday was half a century or more ago. Such decisions become more and more culturally and artistically problematic as the years pass.

I love the European classical music tradition and want it to survive and flourish. But this will only happen when musicians from the contemporary cultures that interact with it are encouraged and enabled to approach it from a secure and authentic grounding in their own artistic and cultural heritage which breathes new and authentic life into it. Sadly, this choir somehow left its musical soul at the door last night, whether at the behest of South Bank artistic management, internal politics within El Sistema, or both. It isn’t easy to know how to be culturally authentic in an age of globalization and post-colonialism. But there is one sure barometer of success, and that is audience reaction and engagement. During the pre-announced programme the character of the audience could be described as polite, cool, and a little "absent". During the un-announced post-concert, we became as involved, engaged, and “fully present” as the singers finally did.

By the simple expedient of changing the frame, the same people in the same room created two very different events; the first being ordinary and the second being remarkable. What an object lesson that is for all of us who think and care about making live music as good as it can be !

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Tony Benn and the politics of hope: RIP

PoliticsPosted by john sloboda Sat, March 15, 2014 09:18:01

An extraordinary sense of bleakness has descended on me at the news of the death of Tony Benn. It feels to me, and I hope I might be proved wrong, that he was the last authentic manifestation of the politics of hope in this country, and that we are now a bereaved people, whether or not we fully realise it.

Whenever Tony Benn spoke, the thing which always shone through for me was his absolute commitment to human welfare and fulfillment, to the exclusion of any other consideration. Whether some of his specific policy proposals were workable was not the point. In everything he said and did, he upheld the principles which must guide humanity if it is not to self-destruct – people and their fundamental needs come first – systems power-structures and policies exist to serve people, not the other way round.

There is much talk about “conviction politics” but this elides a hugely important distinction. Conviction is often destructive, when it is rooted (as it so often is) in fear, prejudice, or hidden agendas (such as the preservation of special interests). Hitler was a conviction politician, so was Stalin. There’s a surfeit of “conviction” in the dreary recitation of fixed positions which substitutes for political debate in most of the world’s media. Only when explicitly guided by principle, morality, and a complete absence of self-interest, does conviction become fruitful. Tony Benn was compelling to, and respected by, millions precisely because he so obviously pursued his deeply held beliefs wherever they took him, with depth and oratorical genius. His loss of institutional power within the Labour Party and parliament gave him a different – and probably much deeper - power in his later years, a power to win hearts and minds across the political spectrum by encouraging people to take hold of and reflect on fundamental truths about the purpose of society and the politics which serve it.

It is sad that the more generous and clear statements about Benn have often come from outside the Labour Party. Too many within the Labour Party are unable, even now, to see him as anything but the person who (in their eyes) kept them out of power for so long and split the party. That is a narrow and small-minded response from people besides whom Benn was a giant.

For being a tireless crusader particularly against the havoc that British militarism has wreaked around the world, I salute his memory, and hope that I may remain as tireless in this cause as he was in his late eighties. In common with millions of others, I was present at the massive demonstration against the Iraq War on February 15th 2003. Tony Benn was, for me, an essential voice at that demonstration, who epitomized and manifested – not only in London but across the world - the deeply held values that brought us there.

This short documentary about February 15th 2003 contains a number of appearances by Benn, including an extract from his speech of that day. It is a suitable testament to his legacy:

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