Saturday, 8 August 2020

Simple pleasures?

This post first appeared on Frances Wilson's excellent blog 'The Cross-Eyed Pianist'. For a variety of features that - alongside a special interest in all aspects of piano playing and listening - focus on wider classical music and cultural issues, please pay the site a visit here.

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The discussion that will not die: elitism in classical music. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve taken part in it, both in conversation and, here and there, in writing. What keeps it grinding on, blocking the through-routes to open-hearted enjoyment and appreciation?

Don’t worry – I can hear your response: people like you keep writing pieces like this! Well, touché. But this time, there are two particular prompts. First of all, pianist/composer Ludovico Einaudi – a genuine phenomenon – has made the news through one of the examination boards adding his work to the syllabus. Einaudi appears to be an almost satanic figure to certain folk in the classical music sphere, inviting levels of dismissiveness and vitriol in line with his sales.

In parallel, we are living through a very specific, unusual period where artists and musicians are suddenly without income and, in many cases, are forced to consider the future viability of their planned projects, even careers. The ‘normal’ to come may not be the ‘normal’ we had before. With that in mind, isn’t it better to consider and examine – rather than dismiss – what could make more classical music more popular? 

Of course, programmers and marketing departments have grappled with this conundrum since the year dot, and concerns about bringing in audiences persist, even in a pre- or post-covid scenario. There is no magic solution. We’ve seen venues try wildly different approaches: adding new or untried pieces to a bill featuring a dead-cert, bums-on-seats, absolute banger; staging concerts or musicals ‘off-season’ to help fund opera; performing short, sharp rush-hour sets to whet commuters’ appetites for more… and so on. The outbreak is driving even more innovation along these lines – English National Opera’s upcoming ‘drive-in opera’ performances at London’s Alexandra Palace, for example.

But it’s up to us – the audiences, the listeners, the teachers, the fans – to grapple with this, too. Our minds need to be as open and welcoming as the doors to our favourite venues. Our conversation, our social media accounts, can spread the word as efficiently as fliers and mailing lists.

Because love of music will always revolve around taste, ‘arguments’ against Einaudi don’t really stick.

  • “Just because it’s successful doesn’t make it good.” No, but it doesn’t make it bad either (leaving aside the obvious problem of who decides whether something is ‘good’ or not). In the same way, a piece is not ‘good’ just because it’s obscure.
  • “It’s so simple, anyone could do it.” But ‘anyone’ didn’t do it. Perhaps they didn’t have the ideas or techniques after all. Or if they had the ideas, they didn’t have the patience, staying power and determination to get it all down and produce it.
  • “It’s just pandering to popular culture / taste.” Well, isn’t that what composers and musicians want to do? If you have an income away from music that allows you to be utterly fearless and experimental in your art, fine: but surely everyone else is striving for the balance between staying true to themselves creatively and putting food on the table.

It’s not really a case of “I’m right and you’re wrong”: there is no right and wrong. If I like Einaudi, why should I care what the ‘establishment’ says about him? On one level, I don’t care one iota.

But widening the picture, it matters to me more, because to dismiss something because it’s too popular, not complex enough – not ‘good’ enough – is a form of gatekeeping, however accidental or unwitting. Whatever surface ‘elitist’ practices in classical music we may eventually conquer – high ticket prices, impenetrable etiquette, imaginary dress codes – a refusal to engage with and even embrace what fires up a wider, casual listenership will always stop us reaching the maximum possible audience.

I always have to remind myself that the dividing line between classical and popular music was only drawn in recent history. To pare one specific cliché down to its essence: “Modern classical music – where are the tunes?” As unfounded as that remark is, it comes from somewhere, and can’t be ignored. Perhaps during the twentieth century, as consumers increasingly got their ‘quick fixes’ from red-hot jazz sides, 3-minute salvos of rock ‘n’ roll and instantly alluring soul numbers, classical music went somewhere else: innovative, exploratory and definitely, even defiantly, more niche. (Otherwise, why would we need the term ‘light classics’ – themselves under fire from time to time – if there wasn’t some serious ‘heaviness’ elsewhere?)

Isn’t it time to bring these worlds together again? Isn’t it already happening? I type this on a Sunday in July. Nicky Spence brought a superb online concert (part of Mary Bevan’s Music at the Tower series) to a close with ‘Nessun Dorma’ to the audience’s utter delight, and no wonder: it’s one of opera’s bona fide entries in the hit parade, thanks to Pavarotti. And the ‘Bitesize Proms’ series posted a performance by counter-tenor Iestyn Davies and lutenist Elizabeth Kenny of… ‘There is a Light that Never Goes Out’, by The Smiths. Other examples spring to mind: Sheku Kanneh-Mason taking Elgar into the Top 10 mainstream album charts; Anna Meredith making electronica albums alongside her classical commissions; Max Richter curating a multi-disc compilation for Rough Trade introducing modern composition to indie/underground record buyers…

Information overload, shorter attention spans, more urgent need to multi-task: our culture and society is not just continually changing, but compressing. Like it or not, more people respond to the immediate, the impactful. For example, as an artist-led listener, I favour the increasingly popular approach of programming discs as though they were ‘albums’ rather than recordings. I willingly accompany certain artists on their creative journeys: the perfectly natural behaviour of a fan, essentially.

As listeners, the more that we can do to bring some of the impact found in other genres into the classical music world, the better. There’s no need to dilute the music itself – but no need to rarify it, either. We need to communicate our enthusiasm and excitement about classical music without embarrassment or inhibition…. And to do that, you have to let people in: not shut them out.

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