We Break Strings available now + SAMPLE CHAPTER: ‘(Non)Classical/(Non)Pop’

It’s been a busy few months, but I’ve got a lot to post on this blog before the new year. Most importantly, our book We Break Strings: The Alternative Classical Scene in London is now available to purchase (get it now from the Nonclassical website, for £20 w/ free CD). We had a great book launch event at Red Gallery in Hoxton, which involved performances from some of the musicians interviewed, as well as an exhibition of Dimitri Djuric‘s beautiful photographs, which make up a large proportion of the book. There was also a panel discussion on classical music outside the concert hall, which featured Gabriel Prokofiev, Igor Toronyi-Lalic, Kerry Andrew, Paul Morley, Tim Rutherford-Johnson and myself (available as a podcast on Sinfini).

photo by Dimitri Djuric

photo by Dimitri Djuric

We Break Strings features interviews with over 30 musicians, composers, promoters and critics from London’s alternative new music scene. As well as an overview and history of the scene’s unique aspects, the interviewees assess the motivations behind their own involvement, and more general discussions are organised thematically, touching on the importance of new spaces and audiences, the role of experimentalism and new composition, political dimensions and questions of funding, the particular characteristics of London as a musical milieu, and the relationship with the classical mainstream. It also includes four new mini-essays: on Nonclassical, on alternative venues, on the figure of the curator, and on ‘post-Fordist musical production’.

photo by Dimitri Djuric

We Break Strings

I’m very happy with how the book looks, feels and reads, and I like to think that it would be of interest to a range of different readers, whether or not they’re acquainted with the scene and musicians in question. At the very least, it’s a beautiful thing to look at – you can check out some of Dimitri’s work here. With Christmas coming up, I thought I’d share the first of the mini-essays here and try to pique some interest:::

photo by Dimitri Djuric

photo by Dimitri Djuric


Given the prominence and longevity of Nonclassical as a presence on London’s alternative classical scene, the question of whether there is a ‘Nonclassical aesthetic’ seems quite a pertinent one. After all, it might seem that this prominence would grant them some influence over a more general musical identity of this scene, and allow them to push a particular stylistic agenda.

Looking at the releases, and some of the programmes, it might just seem that Nonclassical as an organisation are just generally ‘eclectic’, and willing to give things a platform fairly indiscriminately. It might seem that they are defined primarily by a kind of openness: a willingness to engage with and learn from other genres, and place things on an equal aesthetic footing.

However, I actually think that Nonclassical has quite a particular, and actually quite a polemical, aesthetic project in its own way, which has intensified through their recent focus (in the festivals in particular) by a focus on ‘classics’ of mid-century modernism: Berio, Stockhausen, Xenakis, Cage, etc. This also comes across from interviews with the team, in terms of a continued commitment to a certain definition of classical music: notated composition, acoustic instruments, and extended structures.

GABRIEL PROKOFIEV (Nonclassical): I really believe in the classical tradition. There’s a lot more that can be done with it.

YUNG-YEE CHEN (Nonclassical): I think there is a sense that we’re activists here to promote contemporary classical music.

CHRIS MAYO (C3): I think that always from the outset, something that was very different about C3 and Nonclassical was that we were very populist-leaning, and Gabriel seemed much more interested in exposing populist audiences to non-populist music. Not ‘non-classical’ at all, but classical. Giving a non-classical audience their classical roughage for their diet.

Nonclassical have always had a complex relationship to populism. This is clear in the way Gabriel talks about ‘fusion’ music, and his fear of being ‘cheesy’: that palpable proximity to the horrifying world of crossover classical banality. But Nonclassical’s approach is actually, in some ways, the opposite to this. From Gabriel’s music–beginning with his First String Quartet–to the Dogme 95-style house remix rule, the Nonclassical aesthetic is all about displacement.

Gabriel’s music frequently attempts this idea of displacing one style of music into the frame or context of another. The First Quartet began by introducing, into these quintessentially classical forms, rhythms, timbres and textures from electronic dance music and hip hop. The resulting piece was then put through a further series of displacements: the quartet was recorded and released on a dance label, treated with remixes by a mix of pop producers and electroacoustic composers with regulations that maintained a certain modernist austerity in their purism, with the result then played by DJs over a club PA. Pop and classical alike are processed through each other’s channels, warping and distorting each time one doesn’t quite ‘fit’ in the other’s frame. This was taken one step further, when Gabriel and Peter Gregson began to perform the remixes of their recording of their pop-inspired classical work Cello Multitracks in a live set:

GABRIEL PROKOFIEV: I’m playing on the laptop, and I’ve got edits from the remixes: retriggering various sounds from the remixes and using various effects. And Peter has a score of different phrases–the main phrases that are being used in the remix–that he then plays live, around the remix. So we kind of deconstruct the remixes in a way, and sort of show their constituent parts.

In my opinion, the contradictory concept of the ‘live remix’–the feedback circuiting of live and recorded, acoustic and amplified, analogue and digital–is central to understanding Nonclassical’s particular project. Import/Export, the percussion piece, was a kind of live, acoustic staging of the remix rule–itself partially a response to the vertiginous possibilities of digital production–by focusing on a single sound source, while this process is performed in real-time in the Concerto for Turntables and Orchestra:

GABRIEL PROKOFIEV: When I was commissioned to do the Concerto, I had the same fear that I’d had about the remixes. One thing to do would be to use the typical breaks, beats and samples that DJs use in competitions–or generally scratch with–over an orchestra, and it would just sound really contrived. And again, the solution was to just use the sounds from the orchestra for the DJ. The orchestra’s playing something and the DJ’s got the same material and he’s manipulating it and playing it backwards and stopping and starting it. And then, because it’s a concerto, the techniques that the DJ is using start getting imitated in turn by the orchestra.

There is certainly an antagonistic side to this approach, which is lacking from some of the other populist projects. Gabriel’s music makes use of the productive friction that arises from forcing different musical worlds to coexist in the same sonic space, without relinquishing their identities.

photo by Dimitri Djuric

photo by Dimitri Djuric

I get the same impression, in the Nonclassical club nights, that there is a kind of space invasion at work. The frame of the indie rock or electronic gig is kept intact, but the channels are occupied by an alien presence, just as the angular dissonant remixes pumped from the PA seem calculated to unsettle rather than to comfort (the impression was even more extreme on the occasion when they played Luigi Nono’s tape piece Non Consumiamo Marx through the pub sound system). What is important, then, is that this is not a stylistic free-for-all. We preserve our listening practices–our ‘ways of knowing’ music–from the gig or club setting. We are listening to classical music as pop music–replacing reverent detachment with visceral involvement–but what we receive at the other end is still classical music at its rawest. Neither side is compromised. Both sides are affirmed simultaneously, resisting the banality of foreswearing all genre and categorisation. Nonclassical is, more than anything, anti-post-classical:

GABRIEL PROKOFIEV: At one of the first Battle of the Bands, we had a quartet that played Webern’s String Quartet. And it just sounded so funky! I’d never heard it sound like that. The context can reveal new things in a piece.

SAM MACKAY (Nonclassical): It’s about thinking of the whole thing as just a giant experiment, and about what will happen when you put this string quartet in a bar where the crowd is going to behave differently. What will happen? It’s an open-ended thing: seeing what happens when you take this music and re-contextualise it. In so doing, you expose or reveal something of how particular and strange its original context is. Because that’s something that we don’t often do as audience members. They’ll go to concerts and they won’t even begin to question why it is that they feel they’ll be shamed if they clap in the wrong moment or if they move in the wrong bit, or if they get a little bit bored at some point in the 35-minute-long final movement of a symphony. People leave and they don’t even really question how weird it is that that’s literally the normal, conventional way of presenting that music. And by recontextualising it, I guess you sort of reveal something of that.

                And there’ll be moments that are probably frustrating for the performers and even for the audience, but also there’ll be moments that are really thrilling and offer something entirely new. And that’s what’s quite exciting.

                That’s why I find it quite satisfying to put on a lot of post-war music, particularly Darmstadt-associated music, in these venues–in bars and clubs–because I find that a really quite satisfying ‘fuck you’ to what is, after all, the sharp-end, the extreme-end, of the specialisation and rarefied extreme of post-war music: total serialism and late modernism. I definitely think there are moments when I’ve seen pieces–let’s say Berio or Boulez or Xenakis–in one of these venues, and thought: ‘Wow, this really works!’ Isn’t that great that, whatever those institutional circles–and in some cases those composers themselves–might have thought about it, and however they might have been shocked or dismayed by it, actually I think it really works? And whatever the music might lose in terms of our ability to perceive its subtleties, it gains a whole lot in terms of immediacy.

It is not just that there are occasions when this indie or electronic frame ‘suits’ this other music: the spectacular virtuosity of it, the overt materiality of the instruments, its performed immediacy. I would also argue that, in a sense, both pop and classical elements somehow fulfil/redeem each other through this confrontation. Because it’s not just the classical context that is being ‘revealed’ and criticised in this displacement, it’s the pop context too.

On the one hand, there is a sense that this kind of approach rekindles a particular foundational dream of ‘indie’ at its purest: inherited from punk, and the bands of the late ’80s and early ’90s, and long since stripped of integrity in the pop world. It has to do with a ‘humanist’ affirmation of the acoustic and the analogue, the DIY and the community-focused, and a heroic rejection of the rationalised and automated. The virtuoso chamber performance, especially of difficult (and ‘difficult’) music, is the most incredible display of unquantifiable, unrationalisable effort: pure human exertion for its own sake.

It’s a kind of Luddite display that I feel a real affinity for: a rejection of technological alienation, de-skilling, economic rationalities, and the logic of ‘efficiency’ and ‘productivity’. It even extended into the programming of the electronic music festival, which put an emphasis on the material, the tactile, and the ‘live’, at the expense of the digital. Consider John Richards’s Dirty Electronics project that returns electronic music to the workbench, to the ensemble, and to the chamber performance, and Leon Michener’s absurd Klavikon project, taking years to develop a live acoustic system, by which he can perfectly imitate programmed electronic music. 

LEON MICHENER (Klavikon): When people see it happening, it can be a political statement: ‘Humans can play like robots’, ‘Don’t give up on acoustic instruments’, ‘Don’t give up on playing’. There are a couple of slogans that I’m happy to promote. I like the stupidity of it, and the futility of it. Ultimately it’s a pointless thing. I like that theme of doing something that takes a lot of work but then making fun of it. I guess it comes from Cage.

JOHN RICHARDS (composer): I was mainly brought up within an instrumental tradition, and touch is a significant element in music for me. Playing an instrument. Our relationship with objects, essentially. Around the beginning of the millennium, I wanted to reaffirm that kind of approach, which I’d felt I’d lost. I do programme a lot as well, but we’re very much in a period of individualism: making music on your own, in your bedroom, on your computer. And I think a lot of my recent work–certainly in the last decade–has been a bit of a backlash against that. I’m not so bothered with the high-tech approach to it either; just a couple of stones in your hands or some sticks will do. Often, I’m interested in making a statement about the technology, rather than using technology per se. So you might use an item of technology to poke fun at it, or to make a sound that’s humorous. It’s not about necessarily worshipping the technology; it helps me put the technology in context. Because we’re surrounded by technology, and I think incorporating a kind of technological edge in the process, in the music, is all about me trying to understand the technology. It’s not just about electronic sound.

Looking at it from the other direction, this displacement idea also restores something of the latent ‘alternativeness’ of contemporary/classical music itself, by bringing it into the world intact, in all its unworldliness. Closeted away in a university or recital room, there can be a sense that this music is neutralised, always already included in a discourse of sounds and pitches, rather than foregrounding its challenge to the world, and often a fairly explicit criticality, which was never properly realised.

photo by Dimitri Djuric

photo by Dimitri Djuric

Now, more than ever, classical music is an alternative music, and contemporary classical music is an alternative within an alternative. It doesn’t fit easily into the cultural logic of the time–the way our world knows itself to be–and that can be a fantastic thing. But it can also be so easily contained and deactivated, when preserved in its own specialist environment.

For me, the real beauty of Nonclassical is not that it is making this music ‘accessible’, or introducing it to new audiences. By making this music appear in these unexpected spaces, it unsettles both the music and the space, restoring to that music some of its most attractive difficulty. And, for me, that is actually what makes this music (perhaps for the first time) ‘relevant’.

There is a kind of hopeless, quixotic naivety–a utopian sincerity–in Nonclassical’s evangelical promotion of some of the strangest, most opaque musical vocabularies in our culture, to the extent that they genuinely believe in its latent universality. It steers straight for populism on the proviso that it can never get there, and in so doing resists both the institutional and the commercial. For me, this kind of commitment, incredibly rare in our time, has a profoundly ethical dimension.

Purchase We Break Strings from Nonclassical’s Bandcamp store, or from an increasing number of independent/art book dealers in London and around the UK.

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2 Responses to We Break Strings available now + SAMPLE CHAPTER: ‘(Non)Classical/(Non)Pop’

  1. Pingback: On Music Resistance |

  2. Pingback: Boiler Room & ‘Post-Classical’ |

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