Sunday 18 August 2019

Ludovico van Beethoven - or, elitism in music, part 572

I've been on holiday - so perhaps it's inevitable I feel a bit removed from online, as well as real life, hustle and bustle. It might just be my imagination. But, dipping a virtual toe into the virtual water... is it even more full of cyber-piranhas than usual?

I know that the classical music / elitism 'debate' is always rumbling away somewhere, and perhaps never more so than when the Proms are up and running. It's a tale that can be told in newspaper editorials and opinion pieces. Are the Proms doing enough to bring in new audiences? Or are they dumbing down? Is there enough in the season to delight the casual consumer? Or is there enough that truly challenges, champions the new? As Private Eye (one of our foremost satirical magazines in the UK) might have its fictional columnist Phil Space mutter, "Will this do?"

But across the city, the Barbican played host to composer-pianist Ludovico Einaudi and, one might say, took one for the team in drawing some fire away from the Royal Albert Hall, for it to ricochet instead between its concrete towers. 

Inevitably, the newspaper that seemed to get the most confused about what it thought about the Proms laid into Einaudi's gig with the rabid fervour of a velociraptor. They weren't alone, with one of the kinder reviews dismissing the music as soporific. But one of the things that I found most interesting - and in some ways, slightly disturbing - was the subsequent pile-on in various corners of social media. Some of the vitriol came from your actual musicologists, sure, but also from self-appointed 'citizens of the internet' (as in, punters: classical music experts, afficionados and enthusiasts, I've no doubt, but wholly unofficial).

Of course, I fall squarely into the 'punter' group myself, but I prefer on the whole to only write about music or performances I really rate, find particularly interesting, or would wish to recommend. I feel that as an amateur in the field, that gives me the most pleasure, and it's how I can also be most useful - spreading the love, if you like, or hopefully drawing readers' attention to things they might enjoy or possibly miss.

And full disclosure: in this piece, I'm emphatically NOT talking about the friends I've made online who really are experts: from musicians to critics, from academics to connoisseurs. To a great extent, possibly more than they realise, most of them have taken me under their wing, not just wearing their knowledge lightly but giving it extremely generously - especially when I'm shamelessly prompting them to do so.

It's important to mention this because of what happens when matters of taste arise. To take a couple of examples that spring readily to mind: I'm a huge fan of both the composer Philip Glass and the singer Ian Bostridge - while being fully aware that they can be distinctive, polarising artists who provoke wildly different reactions in listeners. I also know for a fact that one of my music pals in particular - whose experience and appreciation of classical music is far longer-standing, deeper and broader than mine - cannot stand either of them. However, in all our conversations, this friend has never felt the need to 'school' me into a different opinion, explain to me at length how 'wrong' I am, or perhaps worst of all, simply dismiss either or both as 'rubbish' or 'useless' to my face on in my presence (virtually or in person). You're probably thinking - well, that's manners, or mutual respect. I would almost certainly agree, and can be 100% positive in this case that the respect is there. So why are so many of our experiences online of a much darker hue? As humans, are we not sophisticated enough to make this civilised behaviour universal?

To return to the Einaudi pile-on, one of the threads I read through actually shocked me in its levels of venom, contempt, even aggression. I realise that online forums like this require brevity - and, as a result, you can't preface everything with "Of course, this is only my opinion" or "Personally, I disagree because..." But as a result, it lets people off the hook very lightly who are keen for their personal viewpoints to stand as fact. This kind of language is precision-tooled to be as cutting as possible - in other words, it is not there to fuel discussion or an exchange of ideas, but to conquer the opponent. Hence, Einaudi is rubbish; is empty; is limited; is not classical music; and so on. Eventually - as battle lines are drawn and Right vs. Wrong positions are taken - contributors feel empowered to go further. One memorable comment described Einaudi's popularity as due to his fans being educationally wanting, or at least symptomatic of the failure of music education. Stupid or at best, misguided, in other words.

And at that point, I - Mr Positive, distributor of good vibes - became angry. Too angry, in fact, to trust myself to respond in the discussion itself. So much arrogance, disdain and wrong-headedness seemed coiled up in those few lines, waiting to snap open and spring on any poor fool who had Committed the Crime of Quite Liking A Bit of Einaudi. (If only they'd been brought up proper, on a diet of Cage and Stockhausen, with perhaps some John Adams if they'd been very good. And there I go, with my own sarcastic venom. It's like a virus.)

Crucially, I felt this sort of statement crossed a line - a blurry line, granted, but one that most people can identify: between kindness and unkindness. And very few things irritate me more than unkindness, especially coupled with self-accorded superiority. And so, with clanging inevitability, we get drawn back into an elitism discussion again. Once you cross that line, you're no longer having a go at Einaudi (like he cares); your target is the folk who like him. "How dare they? Well, at least I can make any of them reading this feel really small."

Personally, I think Einaudi's music is ok - I can't imagine myself gathering his complete works, but I always find it pleasant when I encounter it. And that's not damning with faint praise, because there's plenty of music I find unpleasant. But like it or not, I would never assume that writing anything huge numbers of people love to listen to is easy, let alone 'limited'. Given that Einaudi seems to inspire both adulation and loathing, it seems impossible to conclude he's as bland as his detractors say he is - to provoke such responses possibly means he's doing something right..?

I don't think we can rule out snobbery here. Part of the problem seems to be that Einaudi presents himself (or is presented) as a classical composer - and this problem begets others. I think it's generally accepted now that 'classical' is simply a catch-all term to denote music that is often - but not always - acoustic and/or orchestral, of a certain vintage, and that we instinctively know is not rock / pop / jazz / dance and so on. Of course, I've already implied exclusion of contemporary classical music using electronics. The point is, the more you try to define classical music, the more it slips away from you. So it's far easier to decide what you think isn't classical. Step forward, the Einaudi issue.

He composes music in an idiom we encounter more in the 'standard' classical repertoire: piano-based instrumentals. But he functions rather more like a rock star (if a very quiet, low-key one). He performs his own stuff. He makes 'albums' rather than recordings, with pieces carrying relatively brief, memorable titles rather than descriptions and opus numbers. The use he makes of hypnotic patterns or hooks / riffs will make perfect sense to someone who enjoys the same forms in rock music or electronica. And - most annoyingly of all, maybe - he is massively popular.

(Photo of Einaudi looking blithely unconcerned by negative reaction, taken from the media area of his website. Portrait by Beniamino Barrese.)

A friend who teaches piano has said that students enjoy playing Einaudi and it enables them to find their way towards Glass, Adams, or Reich. I saw a counter-argument made to this point that surely what actually happens is Einaudi fans just buy more Einaudi, without exploring further. Even if this were true, it's hardly surprising if his fanbase retreat into the safety of his wider catalogue if classical media just spends its word count calling them idiots.

This reminds me a little of a story from about four or five years ago, when it was announced that the 'crossover' classical singer Katherine Jenkins was due to perform 'Carmen'. General consternation ensued until it emerged that she wasn't singing the whole opera as written; instead it was all the arias. (In other words, none of the connecting dialogue-style 'recetative' passages.) So, while this still sounds like a fairly impressive undertaking to me, and a plausible artistic move from someone keen to 'raise their game' or try something new, it was not a 'role debut' as Carmen and wouldn't require the usual level of stamina, acting chops and vocal power the actual opera demands. Overall, I remember a kind of sense of relief online, as if the natural equilibrium were back in balance and there was no danger after all of having to regard KJ as a 'real' opera singer.

Does any of this matter? I think it does. If there are well-meaning individuals in the classical music industry who really are passionate about opening the artform up to as many rookies as possible, then it cannot, at the same time, function as an exclusive club. It seems that Einaudi and Jenkins are not allowed in. OK - but then that means their fans are not allowed in, either. At least, not until the 'establishment' stops slagging them off.

And I don't mean - as I'm sure most of you realise - that we have to switch off critical faculties and pretend we love stuff that we don't. It's more a matter of tone, and rigour. When I write about why I like something, I really go to pains to explain why, and if I can, how. What's causing the effect it's having on me. Writing that is more negative and dismissive often gets away with that language as an end in itself - none of the anti-Einaudi pieces I saw, for all the insults, really grappled with why it could enrapture some but leave others completely cold. There was an assumption that the 'Real Readers', who obviously agree, will nod sagely, and the rest didn't really matter.

I do worry that some observers see anything that's 'crossover' or genre-bending as 'dilution' - as though approaching the classical repertoire or sound in any kind of modern way can somehow ruin or sully what's already there. But whatever one may feel about it, artists are already walking tightropes between genres. This can be in their practice - take Anna Meredith, who records electronica albums while carving out a successful career as an orchestral composer, or Max Richter, who operates as if there is no difference between his soundtrack and 'straight' classical projects. Or it could be more a matter of marketing - for example, the way young musicians Sheku and Isata Kanneh-Mason, Jess Gillam or Martin James Bartlett have released debut CDs that present mostly traditional repertoire in an album rather than recital format. (This approach seems to be becoming more widespread and, as a result, enabling musicians to put together really interesting and rewarding programmes on disc - so long may it continue.)

I think it's too easy to forget that technological advances now tend to mean we will never re-create the way certain music develops again. Massively obvious example to illustrate the point: there will never be another Beatles. It simply couldn't happen - not just because uniting four particular blokes who were so much more than the sum of their parts in such specific ways would be so improbable - but because people consume, access and buy (or not) music so differently, the conditions for their mega-stardom are irreversibly historical.

In the same way, the elevated, preserved-in-aspic way we sometimes view classical music will no longer do. For hundreds of years, what many people think of as 'classical' encompassed both popular and avant-garde music of its time. And ideally, it had to have instant staying power, as we couldn't record it. Fast-forward to the last century and suddenly there's jazz, pop and rock as we know them, all vying for the listener's attention. I sometimes wonder if this is why some contemporary classical music gets a reputation (deserved or otherwise) for being difficult or lacking melody - challenging rather than welcoming ... because most people go to one of the other, younger genres for their quick fix - a 'tune they can hum' from a chart hit - and come to modern classical when they're ready for a more complex dish that will take longer to digest.

Maybe one of the classical music world's next challenges will be deeply bound up in the language its adherents use. Instead of moaning about people taking a softly, softly approach and steadily making their own way through a route that should, apparently, be beneath them... why not focus on one or two modern composers you really want to champion and find a positive means of expression to promote and excite interest in them?

It comes down to this: there are those who will always look down on others for a relative lack of knowledge. (It doesn't seem to matter if this lack is real or merely perceived or assumed.) And I've certainly encountered it in other areas of my interest where there is - depending on your point of view - extreme expertise / niche knowledge... or plain ol' geekery. Other genres of music; the art world; cinema; SF fandom - no doubt you can think of examples from your own familiar haunts.

I think we're asking the wrong question. Classical music is just going to go on being whatever it is - whatever that is. It's just people. Are people too elitist? Are we? Are you?

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