Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Classical Music Today

Ex-ACE head Alan Davey is now at the steer for Radio 3, the BBC's classical music station. He writes an interesting piece in the Guardian that posits classical music's future as being about having a "counter cultural place in society." There's much to agree with in the article - but I'll comeback to that slightly startling statement later.

Growing up, classical music hardly impinged on my life at all. My dad had the usual Mantovani and other Readers Digest boxsets, but whereas I explored his Beatles albums, I don't think these ever came out of the box. Music in school was staid and horrible; focused on teenage string players, and a mix of light classical and show tunes. When I did start obsessing about music, the idea that pop and rock were anything "worthy" was never ever considered. My sister, a diligent musician, ended up playing in the Staffordshire Youth Orchestra, and the establishment nature of that world - concerts in cathedrals, formal dress, a repetoire of pre-20th century composers - was something that I was aware of, but wilfully ignored.Where "classical music" came into my life it was in some of the more dramatic pieces used in films - particularly Carl Orff's atypical piece that was used in "The Omen."

By the time I was at University, I had an understanding that there was another classical music - the experimental and 20th century repetoire - and Philip Glass soon became a favourite via the film "Koyanisquatsi" and his album "Glass Works". But the big pop cultural hit of the early 80s was the risible "Amadeus" movie, which took Mozart's life and rewrote it at baroque soap opera. When I got a CD player, cheap CDs from Naxos, tempted me to build a small classical collection - "Night on Bare Mountain", "Symphony Fantastique", "The Four Seasons" - but little more.

Aged 50, I'd almost rather go to a classical concert than a rock gig these days. But this hasn't been that traditional mellowing of taste - rather a sense that the "complexity" that Davey talks about is exactly what I'm looking for in the modern classical tradition. Alex Ross's superb "The Rest is Noise" gave me an "in" to 20th century repetoire that I read alongside listening to the downloads of the tracks he talked about. More recently I've been picking up classical vinyl, figuring (correctly), that these old records will have been either well looked after or hardly played at all.

Yet my classical interests are primarily 20th century - and even into a liking for the living composer. I'm very excited to be finally seeing a John Adams piece in Manchester as part of this year's Manchester International Festival  (what took you so long MIF?); had a great night at the Red Room Sessions in Salford a month or so ago, tempted by the BBC Phil performing of Darius Milhaud, and on Saturday I go to Liverpool for a unique performance of Pierre Henry's Liverpool Mass, in the Roman Catholic Cathedral, for which it was written fifty years ago.

Younger classical musicians know that repetoire is critical - and that expanding the repetoire beyond the "crowd pleasers" of Mozart, Beethoven and Bach is important for both their own art, and the artform. Yes, as Davey says, there is classical music in pubs and bars - and there is certainly a thriving experimental music scene whcih is likely to be "classical" in inclination as to incorporate jazz, folk and rock noises. Yet I'm not sure to what extent Radio 3 reflects that in its regular programming. Riskier that Classic FM it maybe, but it does seem that to call classical music "counter cultural" is a bit of a stretch, given how it is the establishment programme - from Edinburgh festival, to Last Night of the Proms, to much of Radio 3's output - that defines much the place of classical music in the UK today. Yet there is change. The interface with visual arts has been highly productive, as has collaborations with pop and rock musicians. It turned out that the "gateway" drug for me getting into classical music was very much on the more experimental end of things, rather than "Hooked on Classics" (or to bring that up to date) "Hacienda Classics." Indeed the trope of the orchestra playing pop (and house tunes) seemed almost hackneyed before it began.

But one has to say that seeing that there does seem to be an audience for Stockhausen and Reich and the like, and modern composer's like the inventive Max Richter (whose 24-hour "Sleep" was a Radio 3 triumph), that would have been surprising a few years ago. I saw a classical recorder ensemble at Bramhall Hall one Sunday last summer performing from one of Cornelius Cardew's visual scores; have heard a pianist perform John Cage's early piano works alongside the Mozart that influenced him; and via the experimental and avant garde scene, find a shared loci that runs from Kurt Schwitters to Bob Cobbing to Stockhausen.

It seems that Davey and others are beginning to realise that the future of classical music is less about the broader audiences that flock to orchestral versions of Elvis, and far more about populating that sector of the Venn diagram where classical meets electronica meets avant garde rock meets free jazz. Interestingly, it is in the live space, rather than the recorded space, where this work really seems to engage, with the late 20th century avant garde composers being hard to find on record or CD.

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