In a world of choice, we all need a little listening help

Martin CullingfordTue 1st March 2016

The importance of embracing the unexpected

Regular readers of this column will be familiar with my advocacy of the extraordinary music-making that can be heard in churches and college chapels throughout Britain and beyond, for free (though a donation in the collection plate is always welcome). A recently launched website – choralevensong.org – now makes things even easier: type in your town and you’re presented with a list of nearby churches offering Evensong.

But such is the web-savviness of the choral world that you don’t even have to leave your house to hear choirs worldwide these days. I visited Trinity College, Cambridge, to interview Music Director Stephen Layton for the latest issue of Gramophone. He talked about how the college live-webcasts every single service, although, he says, ‘nobody says much about it’. Well, I’ll help change that: trinitycollegechoir.com/webcasts.The acoustic is clear, the singing excellent, yet there’s still a palpable sense of presence and place which greatly adds to the appeal. And Trinity is not alone in webcasting: King’s, St John’s…cross to the ‘other place’ for New College…cross the Atlantic for St Thomas, New York… This is all superb. Have we ever been able to get this close to the musical and liturgical traditions of such widespread choirs? 

Well, yes, we have. Every week, for decades, BBC Radio 3 has broadcast Choral Evensong. As a devoted listener I’ve been presented with a great breadth of both repertoire and location. And the key thing there is ‘presented with’ – for not only do we get the choice of music offered by Layton, Stephen Cleobury et al, but also the BBC producer’s choice of church. In all cases, it’s an entirely enriching and educational experience of ‘get what you’re given’.

Which raises an interesting issue. We live in a world where the web has meant we can increasingly choose exactly what we want to hear – to personalise our listening experience. It’s what people are demanding, and it’s something I welcome wholeheartedly. 

But the danger is that we risk reducing the scope for serendipity, to be guided by others towards something we didn’t know we wanted to hear. It’s not just in music either. Consider how a well-designed newspaper leads you to read stories that you might not click on. You might think this is all rather rich coming from a magazine devoted to recorded music, where it’s always a matter of personal choice what you take down from the shelf to listen to. But even there, the format and length of an album allows a thoughtful programmer to lead you to unexpected and unknown works. This is why, when streaming allows you to aim straight for a specific work or even movement, Gramophone produces and publishes playlists, listening suggestions curated by experts to offer you intriguing musical journeys.

A couple of issues ago I used the phrase ‘multi-channellers’ to describe the way people increasingly use varied recorded music formats. Perhaps we should extend that phrase to the way we listen in general. But at a time when we’re offered more choice than ever before, it’s perhaps even more incumbent on us to actively embrace that diversity. Or, whether through albums, playlists, our pages, or indeed good old-fashioned radio, sometimes to let others do it for us. 

martin.cullingford@markallengroup.com

Martin Cullingford

Martin Cullingford is the Editor and Publisher of Gramophone.

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