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The tricky matter of striking just the right note

It has been more than half a century since High Fidelity magazine ran its most infamous, most inflammatorily flippant of headlines.

“Who Cares if You Listen?”, it read, a damning introduction to the 1958 treatise on audience culture by the American serialist Milton Babbitt. His article went on: “The unprecedented divergence between contemporary serious music and its listeners on the one hand, and traditional music and its following on the other, is not accidental and – most probably – not transitory.”

In that last prediction, at least, Babbitt was depressingly bang on. Contemporary music remains of rarefied appeal; the difference now is that the vast majority of those who write it and perform it would rather it wasn’t. Take, for example, the pair of musicians at the helm of Red Note Ensemble. As cellist Robert Irvine and organist/composer John Harris sit chain-drinking coffee at Glasgow’s CCA café, bickering cheerfully and finishing each others’ sentences, they make one thing clear above all else: they care a great deal if we listen.

When they founded Red Note in 2008, it was a shared “old-fashioned socialist belief in high art for the masses” that brought them together. They have no manifesto as such, just a basic remit of performing contemporary music in Scotland and promoting Scottish composers abroad. The colour in their title is no accident, they point out, and these days more than ever they feel acutely aware of the values underlying what they do. “We were awarded our last chunk of Creative Scotland funding in the same week that the newspapers were full of Coalition Government cuts,” Irvine explains. “We had a very long, very serious conversation at that point. We felt uncomfortable. We felt hugely responsible. There we were, getting money for what appears to be satellite culture, while bus services in rural areas and hospital facilities are being slashed.”

Harris cuts in. “We’ll never be as important as bus services or cancer facilities. But remember Reith’s founding principles for the BBC? To inform, educate and entertain. Well, let’s say ours is a Reithian agenda. We want to play a part of the creative life of this country, and to encourage others to play a part in it too.”

Which in real terms translates into events such as Red Note Noisy Nights, when the ensemble sets up shop in Edinburgh’s Traverse Bar to perform internet commissions and on-the-spot composing challenges. Noisy Nights are pointedly relaxed; they’re a laugh, a bit hectic, and attract an audience that might not otherwise be seen at contemporary music concerts. The education and outreach at their core – catchwords for public funding bodies – come naturally, says Irvine, who is scathing of those who “manipulate the system by ticking the right boxes. We have not done anything to tick a box to get a grant. That’s one of our rules.”

The biggest challenge, and the recurring topic of Red Note board meetings and soul-searching, is formal concert programming. They might care if we listen; the problem is, most of the public doesn’t. Irvine points to last spring’s tour as an example. “We offered a rare opportunity to hear music by Salvatore Sciarrino live in Scotland. We really wanted people to discover this fabulous composer, so we tried every form of publicity in the book, but it was very, very tough to get people through the door.”

Harris says the goal is getting past preconceptions of this music as “inaccessible, difficult, squeaky gate”. “Once people actually hear the stuff they tend to find it interesting. It therefore comes down to framing the music to make it more initially appealing. Hooks, tricks, to lure people in. Call it contemporary music by stealth, if you like.”

And so in September Red Note performed Philip Glass’s 1000 Airplanes on the Roof underneath a Concorde at the National Museum of Flight. The show sold out. They perform the piece again at Sound Festival this Friday, then at City Halls on October 30; here they’ll screen the original video projections from the 1988 premiere.

In November they premiere Pass the Spoon, a “sort-of opera” by cartoonist David Shrigley and David Fennessy in co-production with Magnetic North. A Concorde, a celebrity cartoonist, a quirky theatre company… those frames come in all shapes and sizes.

But put something too shiny around a delicate picture and you end up concentrating on the frame, not the picture. “We can use 100 naked dancers and a wind machine just to get people’s attention,” says Irvine, “but we have to be respectful to music that is written to be listened to.” A further consideration, says Harris, is how the frames affect Red Note’s image as a serious ensemble. “There’s a danger that folk will assume we can’t be that good if we need to swing upside down from lampshades to get an audience. Maintaining our reputation as a real ensemble is important.”

The bottom line is about striking a balance in order to court multiple stakeholders simultaneously. What’s the common denominator between funding bodies, local venues, foreign festivals, journalists, record producers, and audience members of all description? Decent quality, says Harris. “The frame might shift, but the core product has to stand up. Even if we’re swinging from lampshades, we can’t dumb down the music. That’s the only thing that transfers universally.”

1000 Airplanes in the Concorde hangar got the balance about right, he says: the playing was top-notch, and the mix of audience – children, East Lothian locals, trendy thespos, Glass fanatics – was nicely varied. Driving out to the museum on that rainy Sunday night, there was a traffic jam. “A traffic jam! For a contemporary music gig!” For Red Note, there could be few greater victories.

Red Note performs 1000 Airplanes on the Roof at the Woodend Barn, Banchory, on Friday as part of Sound 2011 (www.sound-scotland.co.uk). Also at City Halls on October 30, part of Glasgow’s Minimalism (www.glasgowconcerthalls.com/minimal). Pass the Spoon is at Tramway, November 17-19 (www.tramway.org). See www.rednoteensemble.com

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