30 January 2018
Insight: 'Le Sacre du Primetime' 1
On the composition The News in Music (Tabloid Lament) and its reception
© Raphaelle Mueller
Thomas Meadowcroft's The News In Music (Tabloid Lament) was premiered by the SWR Symphonieorchester (Southwest German Radio Symphony Orchestra) under the direction of Ilan Volkov at the prestigous Donaueschinger Musiktage festival in Germany in October 2017. At the first performance, the piece was greeted with heckles and expletives from the audience. In this article in our 'Insight' series, the composer gives some background to the piece, as well as responding to the heated reception.
If you have two guys on a stage and one guy says, 'I have a solution to the Middle East problem', and the other guy falls in the orchestra pit, who do you think is going to be on the evening news?2 (Roger Ailes)
The News in Music (Tabloid Lament) celebrates the technical aspects of the often-overlooked sub-genre of 'orchestral news music'. The News in Music is a 'package' of imaginary television news music for symphony orchestra, presented live in the concert hall. Inspired by the short forms that composers write for TV news productions, the work consists of sixteen cues of news music from sixteen different imaginary TV networks. The package is followed by a coda entitled Tabloid Lament.
Although I wrote the work to contribute to current debates on the social function, and symbolic relationship to power of contemporary TV news media, I also wanted to make an intervention with regards the sites of transmission for contemporary orchestral music. By placing orchestral music normally associated with televisual content and reproduction back in a live, concert hall setting, listeners are prompted to reflect on the social function, and symbolic relationship to power of the orchestra.
TV news music
TV news music is sold to media outlets in the form of pre-fabricated 'packages', either as commissions, or from stock music libraries (e.g. 'Sonoton', 'APM' and 'Sony/ATV'). The packages include such musical forms as 'opens' and 'closes' (introductory and credit music), 'stingers' and 'bumpers' (music clips used to cut to and from advertisement breaks), as well as 'promo beds' (promotions for the evening news at other times of the day) and 'topicals' (short variations on main themes). Aside from providing sonic branding for a media outlet, these various forms punctuate the televisual time format of the evening news. Time is the commodity on television, and pre-packaged musical forms assist viewers in seamlessly navigating news discourse.
Since the sound era of classical Hollywood (with orchestral soundtracks by Alfred Newman, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Franz Waxman et al.), audiences have been familiar with how orchestral music increases the dramatic effect of an image. Music for television news is similarly employed for dramatic purposes, but it also highlights the cultural standing and technical prowess of news media services, emoting qualities such as 'strength', 'reliability', 'neutrality', 'precision' and 'speed'. When orchestral music is employed for the nightly news there is the added signification of the orchestra as a social body, one that works together, and one that emanates civic pride: you have a functioning, civic society if you have a functioning symphony orchestra. For television news audiences, the symphonic sound emanates from an imaginary civic space where collective experiences, and subsequently collective facts, are made.
Although the history of news music can be traced back to as early as 19133, high water marks were reached in 1985 when American broadcaster NBC commissioned composer John Williams to write The Mission, a package of orchestral music conceived to accompany the network's various news programs, and, in 2006, when American broadcaster CBS revamped its news and current affairs programs with commissioned orchestral music from James Horner. Importantly, these commissions from leading film composers indicate a willingness of large American media outlets to imbue flagship television programs of the time with Hollywood production values.
In recent years, particularly in Europe, TV news music has either moved towards contemporary electronic/techno styles (BBC, TVE, TV2 Norway), and/or employed midi-generated orchestral music. This change in production and aesthetic may have as much to do with production costs as with perceived market reach of the symphonic sound.
The kind of money and care once spent by big media networks on incidental music seems now to be considered relatively culturally obsolescent by content providers. In the era of cheap, democratised, DIY Internet news sourcing, orchestral news music appears as nostalgic as the orchestral tropes of Richard Strauss, Stravinsky, Copland, Vaughan Williams et al., upon which much of high-production value news music is modelled. Nonetheless, Williams's work still remains in use at NBC, as well as in various updated forms at Channel 7 Australia and RTD Jibouti, as does the American ABC news music at Channel 9 Australia (Lalo Schifrin's 'Tar Sequence' taken from the film Cool Hand Luke).
These instances evidence a minor tradition of orchestral news music where values of 'prestige' and 'heritage' for corporate news media remain significant. They also indicate an ongoing global reverberation of American media hegemony, its presentation formats and music.
Authorship in news music vs. authorship in new music
Despite the cultural cachet industry professionals attach to commissioning big-name Hollywood composers to write TV news music, authorship tends to play very little role in the reception of news music by TV audiences. TV news works best when the illusion of unmediated fact is created. Audiences need to think that 'television is speaking', not its producers.4 Consent is best won when the news reflects the ideological world view of viewers directly back at them. Technical choices made on television news should appear as if 'choices are made by no subject'.5 Mysteriously, television news does not need any explanation. 'It just happens'.6 In keeping with news discourse, TV news music is also encircled in a kind of self-authenticating anonymity.
Unlike TV news music, authorship plays a critical role in the reception of new orchestral works presented in the concert hall. Authorship enables the critical public to assign meaning to the work by 'discovering the author (or his/her hypostases: society, history, psyche, liberty). Once the author has been found, the work is explained'.7
The contemporary composer in the concert hall is also encouraged to work within this cultural framing. Composer subjectivity manifesting itself in a personal musical style is a sign of success. The success is measured by how far she can push the technical limits of instrumental idiomaticity while nonetheless creating an original composition that adds to the literature by sounding 'new', which substitutes for 'the sublime'. The idea should transcend the instrument, but technical limitations of the instrument should be affirmed. The sublime is what elevates composers each time to write orchestral music, and in the reception of new music for orchestra, keeps audiences engaged in the composer's work.
Cultural exchange in the concert hall
For producers in the concert hall (orchestra management, performers and composers), contemporary economic rationalist policies adopted by state and private institutions amount to further pressure for all to produce work, like their TV colleagues, under the sign of the commodity. As the orchestral archive also continues to grow, performance time comes at a cultural premium for producers.
On the other hand, listeners in the concert hall hope, suspend belief and/or expect that music in the concert hall ideally exists outside of the field of capitalist exchange. The cultural valorisation of the concert hall over the course of the twentieth century as a privileged site of cultural archiving, together with the acoustic, spatial and technical limitations of orchestral performances in concert halls, means live orchestral music is best directed at smaller, exclusive audiences. Exclusivity may lead to claims of cultural irrelevance when culture is understood as something primarily driven by market forces and units sold, but, nonetheless exclusivity sustains an orchestra's cultural capital, and therefore market potential.
Orchestras rightly trade on this contradiction and tread the delicate path between their historical past, their present relevancy, and their increasingly commodified futures. As exemplified by the appearance of soloists with Mohawk haircuts, pops orchestra programming, or the inclusion of compositions by Bernard Hermann in 'regular' orchestra concert programs, the concert hall is both culturally and financially safeguarded from the ephemeral realm of everyday culture while free to promote certain aspects from this realm for its own profit.
The transference of forms and contents from one genre to another, regardless of brow level, as described above, is a central and ongoing part of Western cultural production. Any artistic activity that is not part of this mode of transference is academic. Since the beginning of the twentieth century when Duchamp proposed that we use a Rembrandt as an ironing board, or inversely, view a urinal as a work of art, ideas have passed upwards and downwards between the cultural archive (the concert hall, the art gallery, the museum) and the world of the profane (the rock club, the street, the home).8 The live orchestra is no exception and twentieth-century orchestral music is filled with these kinds of cultural transferences across brow levels, which may take the form of genre crossing, musical material, extra-musical subjects or choices of instruments. To be sure, transference is multidirectional, with each music genre symbolically profiting from the other's cultural status.
The News in Music in the concert hall
Regarding cultural exchange across genres and social spaces of different status, The News in Music is intentionally multidirectional. On the one hand, by placing TV news music in the concert hall, without a mediating televisual image and without authentic context, the music loses its 'aura', to borrow from visual art nomenclature. 9 Indeed, the music falls flat in the concert hall the same way the news would if viewers had to actually visit a TV studio every evening, rather than watch its seamless reproduction on TV. In short, the means of reproduction are exposed.
On the other hand, the live orchestra enriches the TV news music sub-genre by enabling audiences to experience the unique acoustic beauty of a large ensemble of musicians reproducing sounds that normally are experienced through cheap electronic means. The cultural space for the symphonic orchestral sound is once again transferred, from concert hall to TV screen and back again.
Concerning authorship, each part of the package for The News in Music was written as if sixteen networks had commissioned sixteen composers. Obviously, since the work is written by one composer, there is some natural copying of ideas from one imaginary composer to the other, but the recourse to what is 'in use', and not 'the new', is that which makes news music intelligible to its listeners. In keeping with the authorial anonymity of commercial news music, and in direct contradiction to the cultural expectations of concert hall listeners and the cultural duties of composers, any distinct composer signature with which a concert audience can assign meaning to the work is not immediately audible. By consciously choosing to write music under the sign of the commodity, received notions of 'originality' at play in the reception of new works in the concert hall are questioned.
In reference to the history of TV news music, by making use of orchestral styles and tropes of the twentieth century with the technical machinery of a live orchestra in the contemporary concert hall, The News in Music creates nostalgia for the news music subgenre. Orchestral news music is conserved in the concert hall while the point of musical conservation of music from the profane realm is questioned. Furthermore, with particular attention paid to news music tropes from the 1970s and 1980s, The News in Music conserves the 'periodisation' of the news media and its format from this time. It is not without coincidence that the social inequality of resources, as prescribed by Reagan-Thatcher economic policy, came into being at the same historical moment that neoliberalist news media presentation formats were established.
With respect to sound and form, The News in Music contradicts the symphonic form referenced in the immediate symphonic sound world employed in news music because each part of the news music 'package' in live performance makes no pretense to a more 'organic', developmental' whole. Instead, a playlist of news music emerges in the concert hall. The resultant 'files' reference twentieth-century neo-symphonic harmony, late nineteenth-century Franco-Russian orchestration techniques, studio orchestra voicings, faux-minimalist and telegraphic string articulations, brass and percussion fanfares, pop hooks; in short, the musical staples of news music written for orchestra. Although the playlist is the default way to listen to streamed music, it is a relatively recent musical form in the concert hall.
Music as cultural critique of the news
Unlike news media that trades on the class and status distinctions associated with 'tabloid' and 'broadsheet' styles, music used as a tool to culturally critique the news is often popular in genre. Often extensions of the protest song tradition, these works incorporate a diverse set of compositional techniques in a variety of styles such as hip-hop, punk, and country and western: found audio (7 'clock News/Silent Night by Simon and Garfunkel, 1966), telegraphic rhythms synonymous with music which accompanies TV news (Watching The News by Iggy Pop, 1982), vocal styles subtly parodying news anchors (Here is the News by ELO, 1981), ironic self-reflexive song texts on news media misrepresentation of the artist (More News at 11 by Public Enemy, 1991, and Breaking News by Michael Jackson, 2010), and texts with explicit social critique of war propaganda in the news (That's the News by Merle Haggard, 2003).
The News in Music rectifies an imbalance between popular genres and classical music, by introducing a critique of the news in the culturally perceived privileged space of the concert hall. However, paradoxically, cultural critique of news media is not immediately made explicit in the piece. Instead, orchestral news music of a professional standard is first presented so that the work 'immerses itself in the reenactment of what it is critiquing'.10 Any deviation from the presentation of a catalogue of music cues in the form of a metamusic, that would comment upon those cues, would have meant an ironic distancing from the tropes of news music, in turn rendering their spatial reconfiguration from TV loudspeaker to concert hall harmless. Instead, in Kantian terms, news music is presented as 'the thing in itself'.
In The News in Music, cultural critique of news discourse is advanced by prerecorded text, spoken by professional newsreaders and played back through a central mono loudspeaker in the auditorium. Initially in the piece, these voiceovers are used as part of promotional examples demonstrating the functionality of the accompanying opening credits music. Seemingly mundane text samples such as, 'this is Channel 4 News, good evening' are cued-in over the live orchestral music. In the following 'promo beds', more elaborate texts promoting the technical and ethical accomplishments of a given network news program are used. Cultural critique of the news is then finally advanced when prerecorded text is accompanied by derivative technical failures associated with TV, such as ambient noises of analogue tape, lavalier microphone noises and intrusions by floor managers. Here, self-reflexive texts, on the relationship between telecommunications and power, recited as if studio outtakes, dominate.
The 'news package' in The News in Music is followed by a coda entitled Tabloid Lament. Technically conceived as a descending, 'sheparding' series of superimposed triads, without musical figuration, without prerecorded texts, circling through the cycle of fifths, Tabloid Lament is not a metamusic that passes comment on the television news, after-the-fact11. Rather, it is a temporal reconfiguration of the music it follows.
News discourse is fixed on 'the tyranny of real time'.12 This tyranny is best exemplified by the news' obsession with 'the cross to the live feed', or by the seemingly endless chain of events presented in the same format every evening. Tabloid Lament proposes an alternative politics of time, reminding listeners of a 'chronodiversity',13 a time outside of time under the sign of the commodity.
Although, the packaged news music in The News in Music is presented as a high-speed playlist of musical events, each event is acoustically legible and directed. Tabloid Lament presents the listener with an undirected field, where the listener is free to focus on as much or as little musical information as she sees fit (in the sense of the musical field described by John Cage, or in the ambient sense described by Brian Eno).
These different ways of listening are mirrored by the orchestral musicians' attitude to performing the news package music and the coda. The deadly seriousness-cum-detachment of performers successfully rendering high-end orchestral music that signifies the news, gives way to a music that involves a different sort of concentration and way of ensemble playing. The coda is everything the nightly news is not when it comes to recovering television's most precious commodity, time.
Audience and critical reaction
The News in Music was premiered at Germany's 'oldest and most prestigious festival for contemporary music', Donaueschinger Musiktage14. The piece was premiered in a concert hall setting, but presented alongside other new compositions, as opposed to orchestral repertoire, and with the added cultural expectations that festival audiences attach to 'the event' (as opposed to those of 'an evening out' for a subscription audience). For readers unfamiliar with 'new music', the genre can be historically and culturally understood as both an extension and interrogation of the same means of production and modes of reception found in generic classical music (orchestras, concert halls, string quartets, chamber music halls, players, stages, audiences etc.). Historically compelled to subvert and affirm its own classical music lineage, new music promises producers and consumers the possibility of unknown sound worlds, where idea is unfettered by style, sound is augmented by new technology, but nonetheless where critical notions of authorship, the masterpiece, and the sublime recast as 'the new' are in the cultural field of play.
In keeping with tabloid journalism's catch phrase, 'if it bleeds, it leads', the work opened the first orchestral concert of the festival. It was greeted with boos, heckles, and one expletive in authentic international English15, which unintentionally echoed the use of expletives in the pre-recorded texts of news anchor outtakes in the piece. I would venture that this particular response by the concert audience at the premiere indexes a cultural and moral panic when what is deemed of cultural value in the concert hall is questioned, and thus serves to continue the work's critique. If 'neoliberalism is capitalism taking advantage of "globalization" to dismantle all protections against commodification', then this includes cultural protections such as the state-funded concert hall.16 Accordingly, when Anglo-American news media is a key player in the advancement of neoliberalist ideology, the orchestral music that accompanies it will arguably also be, to use a 'Denglisch' expression, too much for a localised concert audience.
In their role of gatekeepers to the concert hall, the critics also hated the piece. Predictably, critics read the work through the lens of what they understood as the composer's intent, and could not work out if they hated the piece because it was not real, or because it had all been done before. Preferably, critique of the work could have been levelled at its outmoded use of cultural referencing, specifically 1980s TV music framed by 1990s montage techniques, but this type of art-historically informed criticism was lacking, as was any appreciation of the piece's contemporary look at the news music of those two decades where, through stealth, neoliberalism took hold. However, as with audience reactions, I believe the press's response to The News in Music arguably also continues the work's critique of media mendacity in the age of neoliberalism, beyond performance. By responding to the work, I suggest critics are either in unwitting agreement with the work and/or fully co-opted in end-game capital's news media masquerading as neoliberalism.
The News in Music on TV
The premiere of The News in Music was broadcast live on TV and streamed live via the internet. By way of this footage, now archived on YouTube, the piece has returned to a small screen format, though the accompanying fast-moving graphics and talking heads of the evening news have been replaced by close-ups of orchestral musicians and cutaways to loudspeakers. Poetically, as with the responses by critical press and audience, the close-ups in the TV footage introduce an entirely new subject to the composition, beyond the score, the voiceovers, the pre-recorded electronics and their interaction.17
The link to this TV footage can be found at the beginning of this article. The audience reaction to the work has been airbrushed out in post-production, replaced by a sloppy edit which includes the introductory applause for the bass clarinet soloist in the work that followed The News in Music in concert. Although this edit is regrettable, it is not to be lamented - it demonstrates beautifully the assiduousness of media deception.
1 Tony Buck, e-mail message to author, 3 November 2017.
2 As cited in: Bruce, Brendan (2014) On the Origin of Spin, Editions Gigouzac, London, p. 198.
3 For further information on the history of music and news, see: Burwell, Carter (2004) 'Music at 6', Harpers, February 2004 http://www.carterburwell.com/projects/News_Music.shtml (accessed 14 January 2018)
4 As cited in: Lewis, George E (2000) 'Stan Douglas: Hors-champ. toujours et pour toujours', Magnetic North, ed. Jenny Lion, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, p. 148.
5 Bourdieu, Pierre (1998) On Television, transl. Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson, The New Press, New York, p. 25.
6 Langer, John (1998) Tabloid Television: Popular Journalism and the 'Other News', Routledge, London, p. 17.
7 Barthes, Roland (1977) Image, Music, Text, transl. and ed. Stephen Heath, Fontana Press, London, p. 147.
8 Groys, Boris (2014) On The New, transl. G M Goshgarian, Verso Books, London, p. 63-71.
9 See: Benjamin, Walter (1968) 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction', Illuminations (ed. Hannah Arendt, transl. Harry Zohn), Harcourt, Brace & World, New York.
10 George E Lewis, e-mail message to author, 3 November 2017.
11 On the purported failures of the fourth estate as 'lamentable', see Langer (1998), p. 1-11.
12 Virilio, Paul (2012) The Administration of Fear, with Bertrand Richard, transl. Ames Hodges, Semiotext(e), Los Angeles, p. 68.
14 Benda, Susanne (2017) 'Bachs Banjo und das Streifenkauzenei', transl. author, Stuttgarter Zeitung, 22 October 2017, https://www.stuttgarter-nachrichten.de/inhalt.donaueschinger-musiktage-bachs-banjo-unddas-streifenkauzenei.7b5d9e09-dfaa-4c9a-b5ad-2e9b1d4644c3.html (accessed 14 January 2018).
15 For news media coverage of the audience's response to the work see, for example: Dick, Alexander (2017) 'Intellektuelle und infantile Seifenblasen', Badische Zeitung, 23 October 2017, http://www.badische-zeitung.de/klassik-2/intellektuelle-und-infantile-seifenblasen--143827652.html (accessed 14 January 2018).
16 Streeck, Wolfgang (2017) 'There is Great Disorder under the Heavens', interview with Aleksandar Matković, Filozofija i društvo, Volume 28, Broj 1, http://www.instifdt.bg.ac.rs/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/11_IV_Matkovic_2017-1.pdf (accessed 14 January 2018).
17 Ronald Robboy, e-mail message to author, 3 November 2017.
© Australian Music Centre (2018) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.
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