Saturday, 4 September 2010

Classical Music Is Something You Don't Think About Enough

The European Union Youth Orchestra's viola section. Did you know there's a whole subculture of jokes about viola players in orchestras? Well there are. My favourite is the one my old A-Level music teacher (a conductor himself) told me:
Q. You see a viola player and a conductor standing in the middle of the road. Which one do you run over first?
A. The conductor. Business before pleasure.

So, classical music then.

Wait, come back! I don't know if I'm projecting, but it seems there's this inherent fear of classical music from most if not all quarters of the young music fan community. Certainly around the music I tend to go for, anyway. I should qualify this a bit, so here goes.

I've been to a couple of Proms this summer, at the Royal Albert Hall. I've got one more planned too, next week, and it's a unique benefit of living in London that you get these 70-odd events mostly fairly affordable (I paid £11 a ticket, you can get them for as little as £7 if you don't mind restricted view). It's a couple of hours, in an absolutely lovely venue, listening to the sort of stirring dramatic music of styles that essentially persevered – and changed perceptibly many many times during this time – for a couple of hundred years. And still does today – not only is a vast majority of computer game, TV and film music essentially influenced by or styled upon various eras of classical music, many many bands incorporate it into their music. Every fucker has a string quartet at some point, and think how bands like Mercury Rev, Sufjan Stevens, The Delgados, Vampire Weekend have built music around it rather than just using the odd flourish.

Where was I? Oh yeah. No-one talks about it. Maybe when I was about to rail about inherent fear, what I meant was this kind of apathy towards classical music that I see in fans of pop music and its derivatives. I want to be ageist and say “especially those in their twenties”, but I have no idea how applicable that is. I remember reading a thread on a music message board when the Prom line-ups were announced. It was full of people getting excited about Stockhausen and Webern. I say 'full', but there were about 5 posts. On a popular site. Stockhausen and Webern are composers of contemporary music, and contemporary classical music is to classical music what modern art is to, er, art. I don't want to detract from contemporary music, purely because I'm a bigger fan of 19th century era music, but 20th century contemporary stuff probably has more in common with what you'd call the most popular experimental acts. Hell, Squarepusher's performed with the London Sinfonietta before. What I'm getting at here is, yes, it's people dipping into classical music, but it's the kind of classical music that probably isn't that much of a logical leap for them from the music they like. I realise this is sounding like criticism; it's not. Or at least, not meant to be.

Later today I'm going to an all-dayer. It'll be a good gig and a lot of fun, but I'm quite tempted to try and start up conversations about Prokofiev, Haydn, J.S. Bach. Mainly this is because I'm a contrary fucker, but just because no-one'd be bothered to get involved, or maybe some would express sort of vague intention to go to a Prom in the future. Now, my taste in 'indie' music is pretty narrow, I'm more than willing to admit that. So, why do people who have more diverse tastes than me have a classical music blind spot?

Well, maybe they don't. Maybe it's just something that never comes up; if you're getting enough joy from a relatively diverse area of music, you're in your mid-twenties or something say, there's not really any need to think “whither classical music?”. People come to classical music later in life, perhaps. Or maybe it's the fact that there's a different atmosphere that emanates from classical music than say, going to see The Thermals or something. That's a no-brainer. And yeah, you don't really want to be stuck watching the Proms surrounded by Talkers, people who aren't interested but just want to say they were there.

What do I get from classical music? Well, I'm a bit of a beginner, but I can be stirred by the wonderful swooning motif from Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet Fantasia Overture; I can thrill and be entertained by the joyous Barber of Seville. Popular classics like Ravel's Bolero, Beethoven's Symphony No.5. But it just gradually seeps in, the vast dynamic differences, the changes in mood and the way it rises and falls, whether you've got a stirring, dramatic piece, or something light and whimsical. Sure it's not as full of hummable tunes but everyone knows fucking...Peter and the Wolf, or Dvorak's New World Symphony or something. It soothes the soul.

I seem to have lost the run of myself a bit in this piece. I'm just...I just don't really know why classical music isn't even considered by the people I talk music with, that I see at gigs. Yes, it's a different atmosphere and type of appreciation of music, but it's – okay, not valid, but I think more people would appreciate classical music earlier than they expect they would. Are you in your 20s? Never considered giving classical music a chance? Well, maybe I wouldn't either. And yes, maybe I wouldn't choose to listen to it while sat at home or something, but the unique experience of sitting in the Royal Albert Hall, as a whole host of amazingly talented musicians create such a vast collage of moods, it's a wonderful experience.

So, classical music then. Anyone fancy giving it a go? Proms next year?


  1. An interesting piece Nick. Obviously I cannot comment from the perspective of people who you chat to at those certain type of indie gigs you go to but I can comment from my own strained relationship with classical music.

    I have only ever purchased one classical music "album", which happened to be Rachmaninov's 'Symphony No.2 in E Minor'. I have listened to it quite a few times in order to kind of train myself to understand what I was hearing. I think that in many ways this is the main problem as it it simply not instantly accesible, especially to those trained in modern music and the notions of "tune" or "hook".

    I do appreciate the music now but I rarely listen to it and have not been driven to go out and buy Bach or Mahler or Handel. And again that highlights another issue which is of scope. I mean where do you start? The choice of eras, countries, and styles is frankly endless.

    However ss time has moved on I have become less and less interested by pop music or its modern guitar based off shoots and have found that I am more and more inclined to listen to more orchestral popular music like early Divine Comedy or Dirty Three. I have also realised that the thing that separates orchestral music from regular popular music is its elemental quality. Can anything ever be as melancholy as the singular violin or mournful piano?

    I am also now regular drawn to "modern" classical music by people such as Max Richter and I think that maybe as I become more and more accustomed to the idea of this type of music and appreciating the wonderful ups and downs it creates (or 'journey' if I wanted to go all Tony Blair) that I will begin to delve into more "classical" stuff.

    Sorry to ramble but like you I find it hard to express me exact thoughts on this subject. Perhaps a move away from calling something "classical" and instead calling it "orchestral" helps to remove those stuffy stereotypes?

  2. I agree with Darren in that it can be baffling - where do you start? I guess the only way to find out is to work your way through composers until you find exactly what you like. But that's a problem in itself: classical musical just isn't that easily accessible. That said, I've just checked Spotify, and I now feel like a liar *christsake*. Well, what I have experienced is: a) buying classical music from places such as Amazon can be expensive and confusing. I like lots of opera, but most of the cds I want to buy are probably £14 or more. And then there's the added confusion that your favourite opera is available for sale with x dozens of different orchestras in x dozen countries, or with x dozen sopranos taking the lead - which soprano best suits your style? And on this one I KNOW I'm right - there's no way for me to preview those dozens of examples to know which is likely to be my favourite, and to be able to then make an informed cd purchase. It's extremely time consuming, and whilst I don't mind making the odd £5 mistake with indie or whatever on Amazon new and used, I'm not prepared to continually make £14 mistakes.

    And then there is b). I appreciate that the proms bring moderately-priced classical music to us all, but that's a rareity. Unless you want to be up with the angels at the RAH, *most* things tend to be at least £35 to get a reasonable enough view. And don't even get me started about the ENO and their prices. Jesus wept. So so expensive. Even when I've had an abundance of money, I've not been able to justify paying their prices.

    So, let's say you're at a loose end on a Saturday night in London, and your choices are: a) go see an indie band for £12, b) go see some opera for £35 (and struggle to find anyone who wants to go with you, not particularly because nobody likes opera/classical, but because of the prices). What are you gonna do? Chances are, you're going to go see the indie band. I've been to opera and classical stuff on my own on a few occasions though, being brave and whatnot. But I simply can't afford to do it often.

    In summary: it's confusing and just not accessible enough.

  3. Oh, and in response to your question: yes to the Proms next year please.