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  Chief Heckler made bankrupt  CT News at 08:32 on 15 July 2008

Composer Keith Burstein, known mainly as a founder members of the 'Hecklers' who booed performances of Birtwistle's opera Gawain, has been made bankrupt following an unsuccessful attempt to sue the Evening Standard newspaper for a review they published of his opera 'Manifest Destiny'. Burstein said the review implied that he had sympathy for suicide bombers.

Yesterday, Mr Burstein failed in an attempt to convince Stephen Baister, the Chief Registrar, that the costs order made by the Court of Appeal should be stayed until he had a chance to take his case to the European Court of Human Rights.

More Info

  Re: Chief Heckler made bankrupt  Misuc at 12:03 on 21 July 2008

Does anybody know anything about this composer or the `hecklers`? I am all for making a point for or against a piece of music. It`s a bad thing if music is thought to be `hors de combat`- above or below other inter-human activities and statements. But is heckling appropriate here? And if so were they heckling for the right reasons (inane and story and concept - signifying everything and nothing) or for the wrong reasons - because Birtwistle uses an idiom which they find difficult to follow? There would be nothing progressive about such an attitude "Destroy everything which is too clever for us" is a sort of philistine quasi-fascist approach.

What of Burstein`s own music? And in particular the accusation that he sympathises with terrorism? From what I have read about the case, this sounds very, very improbable. There have been modern operas which do more than express sympathy for terrorists (e.g. `Klinghofer`) but I read that Burstein expressly denies supporting terrorist methods. Is there anything in his opera which contradicts what he believes his opinions are - or is the attack on him another example of a sort of bosses`Stalinism that is becoming fashionable in ruling class circles?

Why not invite him to an interview on these pages and see if we can discuss these issues a little more informatively than you`ll get in `the Telegraph` and such papers?


(still less the filthycynical lying muck-and-slander-sheet, the `Čvening Standard`)

  Re: Chief Heckler made bankrupt  Nico_Bentley at 18:27 on 22 July 2008

why would you possibly want to boo a piece of music. If you don't like it then there are two options:

a) Leave

b) Sit quietly and don't applaud at the end

Booing just ruins it for people who might be enjoying it and also, and this is probably true in this case, shows you to be a pathetic and sour individual who is either jealous of someones success or not big enough to accept that other peoples opinions may differ from your own.

The guy sounds like a petulant child.

  Re: Chief Heckler made bankrupt  Misuc at 21:36 on 22 July 2008

OK, but do you agree that there are some things which should not be said: some things which ought not to be done and some music which should not be enjoyed, and that it is one's duty as a responsible representative of the community of real musicians to point this out ? Of course, you will rightly say, this is a matter of opinion, not fact. So have audiences no right to express any opinion except enthusiasm and gratitude? Any 'composer' who demands such a police-state atmosphere - unquestioning adulation and the suppression of any possibility of open criticism - needs booing before a single note is played.

  Re: Chief Heckler made bankrupt  James McFadyen at 00:11 on 23 July 2008

Too much criticism , not enough listening, perhaps?!

I don't think there is any need for booing during a performance, it's just unprofessional and downright disrespectful.

If someone is a self-proclaimed "failed composer" perhaps it is because of an unwillingness to see the greater good of music and the ability to work as part of a team... Just an observation, misuc.

  Re: Chief Heckler made bankrupt  Misuc at 06:59 on 23 July 2008

Oh dear! Under James' regime, audiences too have got to be professional: pay up, sit down, shut up, sit back respectfully and uncritically devote themselves to their allotted task of team-listening to what's given them, in the interests of the greater good of music.

I'm a failed listener too.

James does not hold back from criticising composers, but would it not be more enlightening for everybody if he were to do this on the basis of their music rather than by way of 'observations' about something else?

  Re: Chief Heckler made bankrupt  Nico_Bentley at 10:46 on 23 July 2008

Right, you don't need to be a professional listener! Just if someone elese has also paid you should not pollute their ability to get their money's worth, just leave quietly! An empty audience with no applause says more than booing and has a bit more class to it...and I a not saying don't criticise but there are ways and means of doing it!

And there is no music that cannot be enjoyed, there are lots of different types of music for lost of different types of people.

  Re: Chief Heckler made bankrupt  Misuc at 12:22 on 23 July 2008

OK. Seriously, I don't advocate generally going round spoiling other people's pleasures etc.

But it would be a poor politician who could not cope with hecklers.

If you take music seriously you have surely to believe that it is at least as important a means of communication as political speech-making etc. Surely much more important! So occasionally, when there is a significant issue at steak it is important for committed musicians to step out of their prescribed passive role as listeners and stand up for something they believe in. Say: make a fuss for a moment and walk out quickly but noisily.... or listen quietly till the end and then shout a few well-chosen words and catcalls.

Heckling has played an important and progressive role in the history of music. The most common form of music-making in the Baroque era, it is sometimes not realised - owing to the lack of published scores - was opera. The gondoliers created the great composers and the great era of Venetian Opera with their informed taste and experience of life + the aid of rotten tomatoes - and this was repeated in Naples, Hamburg etc. Although one has to guard against mob-rule, ultimately, a greater degree of audience involvement and education has to be part of any call for a more democratic music-culture...


...and I should add: a more democratic music culture is a necessary but not sufficient basis for better music. There is much marvelous music being created right now, music which transcends the limits of all hitherto existing music - based on what is most dynamic and progressive in modern thinking (cf cosmology, quantum theory, biophysics etc.) and on techniques and methods of thought derived from 'traditional' music thinking of all types. But the rubbish that exists is genuinely worse than any music that has ever existed for the reason that it is not the product of someone who is interested in music - nor written for a public that has any interest in music. Some of the worst is the result of the deliberate undermining of the curiosity, inventiveness, imagination, independent thinking, facility to imitate, remember and play/ improvise which is the very basis for all human (and ape) culture

  Re: Chief Heckler made bankrupt  Ben Mueller-Heaslip at 02:43 on 27 July 2008

Heckling has played an important and progressive role in the history of music. The most common form of music-making in the Baroque era, it is sometimes not realised - owing to the lack of published scores - was opera. The gondoliers created the great composers and the great era of Venetian Opera with their informed taste and experience of life + the aid of rotten tomatoes...

In principle, I'm for it. But you have to consider the context and effectiveness of this sort of action. I imagine the circumstances were, in every different, in the example you're proposing, Misuc: the cultural and ideological uniformity of 'concert music' in the Baroque period (relative to today, I mean) and the greater density of performances of this sort of music - to give two examples of contrast - must've changed the intention and effect of being disruptive quite a bit. And, I think, presented a more positive challenge.

By which I mean that if what you're disrupting is part of an ongoing branch of an established form and aesthetic of music-making, the point of view that disruption might be an honest and valid voice has some validity.

But in a world when the presentation of any new opera is a diversion from the norm, not really attached to an ongoing convention, then - regardless of your views on the quality of the music - can stifling in by disruption make either an honest or valuable point? Or does it come off as a purely egotistical gesture?

A second contextual argument against this sort of thing would be the resources available then/now to get one's point across. I'm not sure the gondoliers had a range of newspapers/magazines in which to publish their feelings about Venetian opera, not to mention Blogs, Billboards, Television, Radio, or 'Composition Today' to get their points across.

And who knows what brilliant works of art the damn gondoliers squashed with their tomatoes? History, and musicology, is written by the victors.

Either in blood or ketchup.


You're right about apes' recall facility. Check out this virtuoso:
There used to be a video on that page that was really impressive. Now it's just the article but you can find the video on YouTube. They're amazing animals.

  Re: Chief Heckler made bankrupt  Misuc at 12:44 on 27 July 2008

Point taken, Ben. I don't advocate heckling, but you've got to admit there's a load of conning going on which needs to be exposed/ridiculed before we can begin to create a half-decent musical scene. It should not be easy for composers to hide behind PR hype, meaningless platitudes or self-important sound bytes. They should be able to explain what they are doing in language that a serious listener could begin to grasp. I am sure all of the good ones could, but whether they will depends on there being a sufficiently aware, creative and critical public. Without this, even the best composers are flattered, trapped and imprisoned by the market-image that has been created for them (Cage, Boulez, Carter, Reich.....the lot of them). Where it did exist (say in Harlem in the 1950s, Venice in the 1650s, Vienna around 1800 etc), composers did not meekly accept mob-judgement. On the contrary they regarded it as a spur to their own inventiveness an opportunity to challenge or to break down/ extend old limits etc. There was a living and by no means cosy dynamic between performers, composers, public, patron etc. But don't forget that the very bases of the tonal system: that made the achievements of the great masters possible were not made by composers at al. Who says that G7 has to lead to C? And what effect could a 'resolution' on to A flat have if the 'lingua franca' of musical language shared between all participants, including 'mere listeners', had created a pattern of expectations etc. over a period of generations?

The benefits or drawbacks of heckling depend on the cultural level of the heckler as well as that of the composers.

Taking this example. it is now 400 years since Monteverdi mocked librettists who wanted him to set words uttered by the North Wind etc. He said that since the wind doesn't even talk he wouldn't know how to make it sing. The gondoliers made sure that impossibly virtuous heroes did not take too long expressing their inner sentiments about the bodily details of impossibly beautiful virgin princesses before swiftly dealing with impossibly brutal mysterious forces of evil/rebellion with beastly heads and human buttocks for the glorification of the aristocracy. They would have seen to it that Birtwistle came up with something that said more about the whys and wherefores of human bestiality rather than merely having man/beasts indulging in guilty thoughts about it for the vanity of the corporate clients of the Royal Opera House. (Look at the multiple simultaneous plots, the mixture of tragic and comic, heroic and ludicrous, the fast pace, the mature, exaggerated, but not unrealistic picture of a whole society etc. that you get in the librettos of Legrenzi and Cavalli etc. and of Monteverdi's later work, like 'The Coronation of Poppea'.

To show you what I mean – it is the lack of a critical audience which allows Birtwistle to say things like that his pieces are ‘about repetition’ instead of just admitting that they’ve got a lot of repetition. He is, in my opinion, a hugely gifted and skillful composer, who does actually have a lot to say. But, in my opinion, much of this goes to rot in the pretentiousness that is demanded of his particular market niche.

The myth itself is rooted in the nature of ancient imperialism, based on loot and tribute: the defeat of the Minoan regime with its totem bull etc. It was a patriotic epic for the Greeks. Incidentally, in his efforts to make the myth even more profound and irrelevant than it already had become, (e.g. by making Theseus the son of Poseidon and thus related to the beast etc.) Birtwistle’s librettist missed an opportunity to show an aspect of the reality implicit in the myth.
Here is something I found on the internet:

"....During different periods of the last century, this cave was used by people who lived in the surrounding area as a refuge during war-time persecution.
During World War 2, a section of it was used as a warehouse for German munitions. The German army forced the locals to build storage areas inside the cave to house the guns and ammunition. Also, the people were made to maintain the arsenal. The munitions being housed there were on their way to Egypt, via the Tympaki airport, to strengthen the army of Field Marshall Rommel.
Tympaki also had its own tragic story during the Second World War. In the middle of the night, as Tympaki was being bombed and destroyed by the German Air Force, its residents abandoned their homes, loaded all they could carry onto animals and sought refuge in neighboring villages. Then, the local villagers were forced to build a German airport with stones from their own ravaged homes.
When the Germans were preparing to depart from Crete, the Labyrinth was blown up so its contents would not fall into the hands of the Greek army. Due to this horrendous explosion, the Labyrinth entrance was destroyed and altered, with entire chambers wiped out. The stone structure was weakened to such an extent that its total collapse is a constant and very real threat.


[CORRECTION - there's a NOT missing towards the end of paragraph one.]

Here is a link to a site where the librettist tries to explain his purpose.

The Bull/man is 'innocent' according to him, because he doesn't feel guilt! That may be OK for a librettist, but I think most judges would find that argument BULLSHIT - though no doubt Field Marshall Rommel would have found it convenient.

  Re: Chief Heckler made bankrupt  Ben Mueller-Heaslip at 17:19 on 28 July 2008

Your main point seems to me that the substitution of hyped-up platitudes in place of substance - the sort of substance that can be articulated and have a real impact - is a serious problem.

I'd agree with that.

But it begs several questions: there being many different, often contradictory, but generally honest and valid views on what makes a work substantial and valuable. Would you agree that petty divisions, particularly in composers' views of this concept, in fact lead to the lowest common denominator of vapid PR that you're talking about? And, if it does contribute to this problem, is it then a question of media integrity or composers' integrity?

If there's significant culpability in the latter - which I suggest there is - than the constant griping about and belittling of other composers' work that slips into every forum topic is inherently disingenuous.

Picketing, heckling, disrupting, and extreme criticism is fundamentally a negative reaction: its purpose is to expose and degrade something that one finds repugnant. A negative reaction implies the existence of a positive force to work against, something stable and ingrained that one sees as meriting that sort of action. In such a situation, all of the above can be seen (regardless of the quality of what's being attacked) as honest, courageous, and effective.

In the absence of something stable to react against, a hyper-active critical response is diversion and the projection of responsibility onto unjustifiable third parties. Yes: a work may be entirely awful and artistically suspect. But unless it's a a real burden that limits the work of others, using it as a scapegoat for the burden of composition's general failures is pointless.

Articulate and rational criticism backed up by action - presenting an alternative (and allowing it to be exposed to the same criticism!), is effective. Ego-massaging is not.

  Re: Chief Heckler made bankrupt  Misuc at 21:37 on 28 July 2008


  Re: Chief Heckler made bankrupt  Ben Mueller-Heaslip at 22:29 on 28 July 2008


But regarding the original topic, which has more to do with Burstein's law suit than his heckling, does anyone else find it sadly ironic?

The poor guy - whose claim to fame is heckling - got himself worked up by a shitty 142-word review and put himself badly into the hole for it. Sure the review was probably complete junk and misleading, but you'd hope the "heckler" would have at least as thick a skin as the "heckelee".

I guess not. Looks like if one way of making yourself look ridiculous gets dull (heckling) you can always try another (law suits). I can't find the review online anywhere... if anyone else has it maybe they could post it here?

  Re: Chief Heckler made bankrupt  stro at 16:30 on 09 September 2008

Try performing music on mainland Europe: concert music, rock, pop, light, chamber, theatre, dance, club... anything, and you'll quickly find out that public booing is a way of life there! Britain is caught between two extremes: one of overt politeness, which I agree allows us to 'take it or leave it' but the other is one of 'sit there and listen, because this is what it's all about'. The composer Laurie Anderson once parodied this on one of her albums with "Sit up stiffly in that straight-backed chair, undo that top button, and get ready for some Difficult Music"..! I work in the field of techno/chill and theatre performance (dance, drama etc.) where 'difficult music' is only ever used for effect. Its exciting to watch a dance company like Rambert move to a cacophony of sound, because it's rather filmic. But after nearly thirty years of following concert/orchestral music (almost as an outsider!) I really am so tired of the pointilist, the serial, the so-called shock of the new. It's not new, it's old hat. The music of Birtwistle and his ilk is dry, unemotional and unpopular, and belongs to an elite - and very, very small - world of occasional opera-going, South Bank-attending concert lovers. No wonder the symphony orchestras are struggling, no-one's really listening. True, the other extreme to this is a cheapening of quality, involving orchestras and composers in silly TV-based competitions and tiresome 'Pops' concerts which even those of us in that world hate too (ask Damon Albarn) but it says something about flogging dead horses when time and time again we have to be pinned in our seats to listen to another screaming Pope. it doesn't shock, it doesn't enlighten, it doesn't fill us all with wonder, it's just re-hashing the sixties.

  Re: Chief Heckler made bankrupt  Marc at 10:58 on 19 October 2008

I am a British composer and my music has never been heckled or booed at, and I'm not sure that people listen to it like stiff puppets either - perhaps I haven't written anything good enough to merit such a response! But to say that Birtwistle's music is dry and emotionless tells more about the listener than the music.

I for one find Birtwistle and other composers like Xenakis etc., to be full of emotion. It troubles me that music that does not reach out to large audiences and has no populist appeal is deemed both elitist and poor. If it were so easy to conclude the quality of a work by it's mass appeal we would know for certain that the most popular works which reach very large audiences are the best music that is being written. I for one do not believe this to be the case and I feel sure that history also shows us the error of this conclusion. Lets not forget too that many past composers who now inhabit the 'more popular classical' music world were considered difficult, experimental, revolutionary, even cacophonous in their day - did this make them elitist then, and have they remained such now?

Taste and subjectivity of listening are important factors for individuals - we all use and exercise such opinions but we also need to realise that we are not necessarily open to or receptive of all that exists in musical endeavor - that is our personal loss. But this loss does not of itself devalue or diminish the achievement or quality of the work of others we find difficult to relate to. Opinions are opinions - facts are facts . . . . . there are very few 'facts' in the art of composition!

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