Monday, September 09, 2002


Welcome back. This has been a much longer hiatus than anticipated – nearly six weeks longer. I’m sure you’ve coped. But welcome back anyway. Expect irregular updates from now until the Autumn. And, yes, for those who queried it, contemporary music can and should embrace tradition as part of its forward march, in my view. That’s why you’ve had Handel and Ravel blended in with Birtwistle, Crumb, King Crimson, Zappa / Boulez and new jazz in the recent past. New ears need old sounds just as much as old ears need new sounds. That’s surely where the musical ‘front’ really happens? Meanwhile, here’s an essay with a spark of provocation (I hope) to get things going again…



Classical music is in crisis. But classical music is also on the cusp of reinventing itself for fresh generations. Take your pick. Or, perhaps, make your mix. As Margaret Thatcher once said (and, unoriginal as it is, it’s the only thing I’ve ever wholeheartedly agreed with her on), ‘it’s a funny old world’. The conundrum is that, on the one hand, audiences for live classical music and original classical recordings in Europe – and in Britain particularly – are statistically sliding further into oblivion; while on the other hand, the Proms are booming, genre-busters like Joanna MacGregor are reaching well beyond ‘traditional’ constituencies with music of unquestionable quality, and stalwarts such as Simon Rattle are shaking up traditional institutions (in his case the Berlin Philharmonic) and proving that the avant garde is not inherently elitist.

So, what’s going on? Part of the answer, as ever, is the silly season: that summer literary lapse when old stories get re-sprayed to fill in an ancient newspaper institution known as ‘August’. Even so, you don’t have to be Cassandra or Norman Lebrecht to notice the habitual fear that the classics are going down the people’s pan now has further evidential weight behind it. The Times, the Independent and the Guardian were full of doom recently. So what is to be done to reverse the declining interest of the young, in particular? As ever, there is no simple answer. But it is helpful to realise at the outset that there’s a huge gap between ‘making classical popular’ for a casual and occasional audience and making classical meaningful for people who really love music, but have never crossed this particular cultural rubicon.

In the former category, perhaps, are Raymond Gubbay’s operatic ‘soap’ extravaganzas, chill-out compilation albums (Dido meets Barber) Venessa Mae wet suit melodrama and the dire Bond (only one step up from those ‘70s 'Hooked On Classics' abortions). ‘Popera’ and ‘lounge’ have a certain point, even if it isn’t one that would be likely appeal to the instincts of a Blog reader such as come across NewFrontEars. But the other two are merely culpable features of the attempt to make ‘classical’ (yes, I know, the term becomes more and more questionable the more one uses it) widely commercial. ‘Demographically sellable’ isn’t identical with ‘popular’ however. Just as the crime of rape has more to do with violence than sex (though it involves both), so the phenomenon of ‘popularising’ classics has more to do with money than popularity (though it involves both). And no, I’m not making a facetious moral comparison: that’s why I used the word crime for rape. But the analogy does make some sense. The music industry is interested in units not unicorns. The fact that there is a growing market out there for creative music that crosses traditional boundaries is of marginal interest to them: what they want is lucre from baubles. That is the tunnel vision mentality that imprisons the debate about making more demanding music ‘popular’.

There will always be those for whom music is an accessory, a fashion statement or a soundtrack. They will remain fickle, volatile and fleeting in their attention. Meanwhile the people who really ought to count more are that smaller but nonetheless significant chunk of the potential listenership who are quite literally ‘lost in music’ – disconnected from quality sounds they could certainly grown into in cultural territory they rarely traverse. The jukebox feature in ‘The Wire’ magazine gives an indication of just how broad are the listening habits of experimental popular musicians. This is because artists have to listen horizontally if they are going to progress vertically. Aphex Twin and A Guy Called Gerald are undoubtedly among those leading (not just feeding) their ‘popular’ audiences. But it’s a safe bet that people who go to hear them also live in somewhat smaller sound worlds most of the time. This is an indication of the musical bridges still waiting to be crossed.

Part of the dilemma is ‘cultural’ in the narrower, social sense of that term. Recent research shows that people reared on clubs and gigs simply can’t conceive of ‘concerts’. Opera North’s factory and prison workshops are a move in the direction of ‘taking the concert to the people’, and there are many fabulous hands-on events associated with BBC National Music Day and individual ensembles and venues. But much of this still has the air of ‘social service’ or ‘doing good’ to the imagined masses, even if its intentions are otherwise. What we really need are new generations of classical musicians who themselves can live in different musical orbits and chart quality in all of them. That is quite a different matter to visiting them from one or more remove.

I recently had an exchange with a friend about the qualities of hip hop. I don’t think she was convinced, but she commended me for my capacity to find something ‘redemptive’ in the noise. That is, quite understandably, an outsider’s perspective. It is the instinctive generosity of someone trying, very genuinely, to understand. And since I also inhabit, to a significant degree, her operatic sound universe, I can ‘translate’ or ‘re-encode’ musical sensibilities and aspirations across such divides. But at the end of the day I don’t have to ‘find’ something redemptive in rap. It finds me… though as with most musics, the percentage of redemption to remorse may be much lower than one would like.

The point I’m making is that ‘classical’ musicians can only communicate with (not just ‘to’) a techno audience, say, if they themselves are at home in the lived world in which it creates its meaning. And that is still all too rare. BBC Music Magazine, a fine popular journal that still manages to take its readers seriously, has a regular feature called ‘Music That Changed Me’. Each month a noted musician – player, singer, conductor composer – lists and describes key works on their musical pilgrimage. The number of those who namecheck anything outside the classical or contemporary classical repertoire is still very small, even among the newer generations. This is some measure of the gulf.

By contrast, pianist Joanna MacGregor is one of the few assuredly to make the many-worlds grade. She grew up with Top of the Pops. She imbibed South African township music first hand. She breathes jazz. She works with Django Bates. The recent collaboration between percussionist Evelyn Glennie and ex-Genesis guitarist Steve Hackett is another example of creative, non-compromising, natural fusion. Blur’s Damon Albarn has recorded with street players from Mali as well as a contemporary classical composer. Elvis Costello’s work with the Brodsky’s wasn’t as laughable as some have said (nor nearly as successful as its promoters claimed, of course). Guitarist John Williams has found Africa on his latest project, such that we can forgive him for the abominable Sky men from the ‘70s. Less ironic times. Kennedy, when he’s not being a bit of a twat, can play Bach, Bartok and Hendrix like an angel. And both the Balanescu and Kronos Quartets have endured criticism from the narrower eschelons of the concert-going crowd to generate new possibilities in serious, demanding, postmodern music.

What is needed now is even more risk taking. Simon Rattle is getting the BPO involved in urban regeneration. Great. The establishment Wigmore Hall played host to some serious jazz talent a year or so ago. Marvellous. The Handel museum, adjacent to Jimi’s haunt in London, is hosting a Hendrix event and a film exploring what links the unlikely musical passionistas across the three centuries that separate them. Remarkable. Now let’s have Gospeed You Black Emperor! on the Proms bill at an unexpected venue, ‘chamber’ events in clubs. Whatever. ‘Mistakes’ will have to be made. The important thing is that musical cultures get crossed – and not because of money or fashion, but because creative, challenging musicians no longer find it possible to live in boxes and want to take their audiences out for a good time on Planet Alterity. This is crucial. We’re talking about evolving, innovating, not ‘trying’.

Where it all starts, of course, is with learning and cross-fertilising different musics. The web is a democratic space that can play a crucial part in such a renaissance of musical purpose. MP3s are a tool for spreading the notes. Internet radio can break the usual, commercial rules. Independent music production has never been so cheap, and the web can find the niche market more easily than in the past. Schools can be part of the new wave, too though music education is often in a parlous state. The one truly abstract, non-linguistic form of communication deserves a place at the core of any national curriculum and we should fight for it. Above all, musicians and promoters must dare to be rare. And the campaign to get Arts Council and Lottery funding for jazz and artistic new musics of all kinds should be stepped up.

Maybe this sounds highly idealistic. But much of it is already rooted in the real world. In some respects we are in the worst of times, with the homogenisation of culture and commerce; in other respects, the best of times – creativity and difference (with quality) being found in all kinds of nooks and crannies. We therefore have to discover more ways of talking, working and financing up the best in musical endeavour, as publicly and popularly as possible. ‘The gap’ between serious music and its potentially larger audience(s) will certainly not be crossed overnight, and there are forces moving against it. But raiding parties are possible. Classical musicians can and should ‘play with the enemy’, discovering what we should surely have known all along – that vernacular styles can deepen and enrich musical language as well as simplify it. What we need is not half-assed ‘fusion’, but whole-hearted synergising. That means distance as well as proximity. Variety as well as combination. Tradition as well as innovation.

What this new ideology of creativity and musical purpose (‘seriousness’ with joyous flexibility) does is to create a fresh context for thinking what ‘classical’ might usefully mean as an epithet for music today. That’s an issue I will take up in a follow-on article shortly. Meanwhile the fate of classical music belongs firmly in the hands of its generators. Only they can change so that it can move forward in being what it is. They might not call all the shots, but they call enough to make a real difference.

SB, 09/02.