In early December, I went to a concert in London called a noisenight. Founded 18 months ago by through the noise, led by Jack Bazalgette and Jack Crozier, this nascent live music group organizes classical gigs in traditionally non-classical venues.
Cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, arguably the UK’s top classical star of the moment, performed with pianist Harry Baker at The Jazz Café in Camden. The night had an informal but hushed and attentive feel, the audience grouped tightly around the performers in a horseshoe. Kanneh-Mason and Baker improvised on Bach’s Chaconne in D minor. They played Big Thief and Nico Muhly, a gorgeous arrangement of the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, plus original compositions, folk songs, and jazz standards. As the late set went on, I realized that I was also noting rhythms of audience chatter and focus: glasses dropped, bar staff serving, laughs and chatting in between pieces. I had to check my knee-jerk sense of impropriety. This atmosphere was allowing for spontaneously shared moments of deep listening that ebbed and flowed through an organic, shared effort from the audience to keep hold of the thread of concentration.
“I think ‘live music organization’ fits the bill the best,” says Bazalgette, when I ask him to define through the noise. “I think ‘promoter’ has slightly dirty associations, of dissociated people eking money out of artists whose music they’re not really that interested in,” adds Crozier.
Some tentative back-and-forth follows between Bazalgette and Crozier towards a definition of the company. If the two Jacks are promoters, they are promoters in a wider than usual sense. They are devotees of live classical music and have a firm belief in its continued relevance, both aesthetically and socially. This enthusiasm is backed up by practical entrepreneurial sense. Noisenights are run via a crowdfunding model—events are announced, artists and venues secured, and when audience members buy tickets, they are helping to create a fully-funded event. Each of the 17 noisenights so far has sold out.
Bazalgette and Crozier became friends at the same state grammar school in southwest London, which they both describe as “aspirational” in its focus on cultural excellence, and particularly on classical music. They performed together in school choirs, bands, and local youth orchestras, and visited London jazz clubs like Ronnie Scott’s and the 606 throughout their teenage years. Both studied music at different universities, then moved back to London. It was only once COVID struck that they started “thinking about doing something together,” says Bazalgette.
The trajectory toward the first noisenight in August 2021 began with a weekly listing service of independently run classical concerts at lesser-known venues in post-lockdown London, on an early version of a through the noise website. Deciding to try putting on their own kind of gig, Bazalgette and Crozier reached out to two artists they admired: cellist Laura van der Heijden, and Chi-chi Nwanoku, conductor of the Chineke! Orchestra. Asking Nwanoku whether she could suggest a smaller ensemble from the orchestra for a gig, they booked Sarah Daramy-Williams (violin) and Natalia Senior-Brown (viola) for the first of two nights at the Hoxton Underbelly in Hackney, a noted cabaret bar. Two weeks later, van der Heijden played alongside violinist Max Baillie.
“We were taking different elements from concerts that we really liked,” Crozier says. “The format [at Ronnie Scott’s] is two sets, and then they do a late-late show.” With aftershow music and DJ sets, noisenights become night-long affairs. Ticket holders can come for either set, or stay late, which makes venues happy. “We agonized over every detail like we were hosting a wedding,” Bazalgette recalls of the first two nights, “and we learned quite a lot. The interesting thing was how special other people thought it was. By the time it happened we’d got totally used to the idea of it happening there. Some people were like, ‘I can’t believe I was sitting one meter away from them.’ Some people were like, ‘This is really weird’—full stop.”
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Bazalgette, who was working in music education and charities in the pandemic, and Crozier, who still works a full-time job in marketing strategy for commercial theater, both recall the “negativity” in the classical music world during COVID. “I can understand why that happened,” Bazalgette says. “But people saying that classical music wasn’t viable, that perhaps it’s a ‘good times’ thing which, outside of austerity, the state can bankroll, but now the state’s not doing that—it’s gone. And we just felt passionately that it’s a force for good, and we still loved going to it.” From the beginning, the two knew that through the noise had to be commercially self-supporting. In their funding model, they projected a vision for a more grassroots cultural sector, community-led and community-serving, and they emphasize that their hope is to help spearhead a wider cultural movement in this direction. This means functioning like much of the rest of the live music industry: No loss-leading reliance on ever-shrinking state subsidies, no syndicate of wealthy donors holding influence over artistic direction, and no boards holding committee sway over decisions.
At the same time, Bazalgette and Crozier want to spread awareness about classical music to as many different parts of society as possible. They are registered as a Community Interest Company (CIC), a social enterprise aiming to use profits and assets for the public good. The charitable aspect of their work began through Bazalgette’s connections in music therapy. “Over COVID, we did a weekly Zoom meeting with about 15 patients,” he explains, “and it kind of developed as it went along. It built up to where 25–30 people had come every week for something like 70 weeks in a row. And it was kind of a relief to see: the music is so good that it does captivate people.” Mindmusic, the charitable adjunct to through the noise’s commercial activity, began here. It has grown with local grants toward running live sessions in Dalston and west London, for people in full-time care.
“We felt almost compelled to do that,” says Crozier. “We believe in live music being a wholly positive experience, and we had to try [to] make sure that was available to as much of our local community as possible.” Their audience is largely composed of people under 35, and few of them come from “a classical crowd.” The fact that they platform young artists from diverse backgrounds no doubt contributes; their concerts also have generally been in North/East London, reaching many more in the local Afro-Caribbean or Turkish communities than a typical Albert Hall concert might. At the same time, they are keen to resist any narrative of being “the kind of idiot rebel, cliché teenager who thinks they’re going to reinvent the wheel,” or that the classical world is just in need of some youthful “jazzing up,” Bazalgette says. It’s a broader mission: “Taking classical music to as many different communities as possible, rather than waiting for them to come to you. We love going to the concert hall because we’ve grown up with it. We can understand that a large section of society doesn’t because they don’t feel comfortable.”’
For traditional classical venues, old audience dynamics are struggling to readjust themselves post-COVID. In the UK, many promoters’ numbers are down between 20-50 percent from pre-COVID levels. Even before the pandemic, the Audience Agency released a report saying that just seven percent of UK classical audiences were under 31. Decades of continual cuts to both music education and infrastructure in the UK over the decades has contributed to fewer young people in concert halls, and a cultural situation in which, as Bazalgette puts it, “the level of literacy for this music is really low.”
But trying to open new concert-going territories has often elicited resistance from those representing the bigger classical names. “The few people who are in demand are guarded by layers and layers of people because they’re being managed so carefully,” Bazalgette says. “I do think we’ve become like middlemen between the staid classical conservatism and the very commercial, quite straight-up, working, gig scene, and actually interfacing them together, and making them understand each other.” Crozier adds that “the thing that we’ve taken solace in is that the artists, when we get them in the room, love it.”
Noisenights have been eclectic so far, with performers choosing a mixture of traditional classical fare, diverse national folk music from their home countries, and pop and jazz arrangements and improvisations. Disco, soul, funk or afrobeat DJ sets take the evenings into small hours. Artists are given freedom (and sometimes need encouragement) to trust their instincts in building a program. “Some people come with preconceptions that they need to play their least classical stuff,” says Bazalgette, “and that’s something sometimes I need to manage a bit. If anything, we’re realizing as we go on just how much you can do—the assumption that you need to dumb it down is wrong, basically.”
Performers, acquaintances, insiders, and audiences mix easily after each noisenight. Crozier wants to see “everyone feel comfortable in the same space. We can have a drink with the artists afterwards—it’s informal, but without any detriment to the quality of the music.”
When I ask if they have future ambitions for expansion, both Jacks demur. “We don’t want to just put on bigger and bigger gigs,” Bazalgette says. Crozier agrees that their ambitions are about building more connections within the musical world they care about, both for new artists and new audiences. “Our whole thing is about trying to encompass everyone in live music: there are lots of people out there who don’t care about genre, they just want good music. So, it’s about throwing the doors open, taking it to them, and just saying: this is music.” ¶
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