Towards a New Classical Music Culture
[in-depth version – for bite-size version, scroll down to end —>]
The premise of this manifesto is to address a much-discussed issue in a new and uncompromising way. This idea that classical music, or art music, has reached ‘crisis point’ is a fairly familiar one to anyone with interest invested in the art-form. The various ‘problems’ (often involving shrinking audience size and demographic) can be listed and debated, and are likely big talking points amongst the major institutions (concert halls, opera houses, orchestras, academies, universities, festivals, etc.), while they will occasionally surface in arts columns in specialist magazines and culture supplements of broadsheet newspapers. The debates are, of course, invariably waged by those who are already part of classical music culture as it presently exists. I’m sure the columns which touch on subjects like discount opera tickets for young people or repertoire choice for the Last Night of the Proms are, likewise, glanced at only by people who already have some idea of the status quo.
This ‘crisis’ in art music, then, is a talking point for the privileged insiders who are not themselves necessarily at risk of exclusion or alienation, being already initiated. Everyone else – the public in general – couldn’t care less. No-one’s really complaining, because there is a lot of music in society and there is a lot of new art, it just so happens that new art music doesn’t really get a look in. And so the solutions that are proposed are small, and every little victory seems proof for many that there is no fundamental problem. Fans of new music, and contemporary composers themselves, have come to accept and even relish the near-insignificant role that their art has been left with in contemporary society. Meanwhile, in more mainstream classical music institutions, the furious rate at which modern culture has progressed, and the way in which culture is made to constantly represent itself in our media-saturated world, has left the initiates holding onto some very strange and often totally irrelevant values, and attempting to uphold them if only to maintain some sense of self-possession.
What seems to be totally lacking is any real aspiration. For many complex reasons, which include classical music’s reliance on institutions, its complicated, learned language, and the mistaken belief that re-performance constitutes revitalisation, the scope of those responsible for classical music’s place in society can be incredibly limited (and limiting). Of course, this is largely due to the way classical music has chosen to relate itself to other musics in society, specifically commercial, industrial pop music (and I use this term in its broadest possible sense). At some point, the classical establishment apparently made the decision to ‘work around’ pop music, to differentiate itself from it, to present itself as an alternative and contrasting presence, and by maintaining a separate identity, avoid being swallowed up by it. However, pop music has expanded since the 1960s into (arguably) the most powerful and prevalent art-form in English-speaking society, and new art music, by continuing its policy of maintaining a distant and alternative stance (and I’m not just talking about what I’d call the ‘substance’ of the music, but also every aspect of its presentation, meaning and purpose), has been pushed into a ridiculously tiny niche and made to represent and protect some very alien values and practices.
And so we have reached a point when, for society as a whole (and what is culture without society?), ‘classical music’ means a very small, specific and limited thing, and that thing just so happens to totally exclude any claim to contemporaneity or newness. It is not just the public in general who wouldn’t be able to name any living composers (besides possibly film composers, and the relegation of new orchestral music to a subsidiary, sub-visual medium is by no means a creative solution, even if some might protest otherwise) but also people who are interested in new art, those who are immersed in the cultural moment in all other art-forms, and even artists themselves in other fields. It is this shameful set of circumstances that concerns the crux of this manifesto.
Art music is no longer a cultural force; in fact, it is all but irrelevant. Most of the reformist agendas in classical music institutions at the moment seem to aim towards universal accessibility, targeting the absolute mainstream. This is not a regenerative solution; it is not particularly creative (it can actually be quite cynical) and it definitely does not favour new music. Classical music is the only art-form (apart from maybe poetry) in which new contemporary work is not the key focus, and the belief amongst the institutions that this fact somehow gives it its own special quality is a dangerous fallacy and will permit its descent into total insignificance.
Bearing this in mind, in the document below I outline a reformist agenda which focuses on an entirely new approach to the production of new art music, with the intention of restoring orchestral/chamber/choral/vocal/electroacoustic music to a position of relevance and power within a culture that is defined and mediated by a cutting edge of mutually-aware artistic trends. I begin by outlining a few specific problems which must be addressed, or in some cases just actually acknowledged. I then list the ultimate aims of a potential new movement, before cataloguing some immediate solutions, first in composition and then in other areas of classical music culture, before concluding by answering some potential criticisms. It should be mentioned that the kind of developments which this movement would entail are already being seen in various instances around the world. Many of the solutions which I posit have been presented by recent composers and musicians. What there doesn’t seem to be is a proper acknowledgement of the need for drastic and widespread reform, some possible reasons for which I will explore further in the concluding section.
As mentioned above, one of the most worrying aspects of art music’s present situation is that it really doesn’t have the kind of presence in the media and in culture as a whole that other art-forms have. Obviously, alongside pop music perhaps, film and television have the greatest presence as new and evolving artistic cultures. There is a huge general awareness of the key people producing films and television dramas today, as well as of the current state of the art-form – recent trends, important works, etc. Most importantly, new works are eagerly anticipated and consumed by society as a whole. But it is not just these mass-distributed art-forms that make art music seem obscure.
Fiction, visual art and theatre place great significance in the production of new works, whilst living novelists, artists and playwrights/directors will often become household names and even familiar faces, their fame accompanied by some awareness of their own particular qualities or style. Advertising for new exhibitions and productions can rely on the promise of contemporaneity, as well as celebrity, to draw in those groups who want to experience culture as it is made. Interviews can even be published in newspapers with a reasonable expectation that anyone with a passing interest in new art might be intrigued enough to read. However, none of this is true of contemporary classical composers. This kind of position has instead been adopted wholesale by pop music, which has grown into a vast and rich culture that includes its own heady heights of erudition. For young people who want to feel culture-savvy, a knowledge of new independent pop music is of tremendous value, up there with a knowledge of independent cinema and new photography and conceptual art trends. Amongst all this, I’d be surprised if many of these people actually knew that new classical music was still being written. The worst problem is that, to a lot of people in classical music, this doesn’t seem to matter – music is still being performed. There might be a bit of publicity in the broadsheets for a ‘legendary’ conductor, or a new opera staging by a famous film director, and then it might seem like classical music does have a place in the media, but this is always comparatively tiny, and besides, new renderings of old scores do not constitute new works.
The plain fact is that people do not consider classical music of any importance in the definition of our contemporary culture, and they would be right because it seems to purposefully shirk any such importance. Institutions are more concerned with getting children inspired by eighteenth-century composers than they are with instilling any sense that art music has the capacity to represent modern society. Where art music was once deeply involved with other parallel artistic movements in the creation of a cultural moment or zeitgeist, there is now very little such connection. This is partly because other artists are probably not aware of what is going on in the obscure world of new music, but also because pop music has easily risen to fill this role. And there are good reasons why pop music, as it exists, is more suited to cross-media collaborations, and to the giving and taking of inspiration: aesthetic, socio-political and semiotic reasons, none of them inherent to pop as a sonic practice but all of them dependent on quite arbitrary cultural dogma on the part of classical music traditions.
Of course, I do not need to go out on a limb to attest that this kind of cultural irrelevance is actually quite new for art music, and yet the idea that we should try to regain such relevance doesn’t seem to interest most musicians. I would argue that this attitude can be traced to classical music’s attempts to represent itself as distinct from pop music which, while attempting an apparent alignment to some fundamental and ostensibly virtuous aesthetic principles, involved carefully alienating itself from pretty much every quality that would go on to ensure artistic potency and relevance in any medium.
A lot has been written on the isolationist, conservative ideals which have been carried over into modern music from Romanticism. These constitute an aesthetic bias towards ‘absoluteness’, or art which transcends society and real life to function on a quasi-spiritual plain – art that is purely of itself. This kind of attitude towards music, which purports to attain universality and timelessness, will only guarantee universal alienation. It is the kind of aesthetic which is utterly in opposition with the art of our time. It is true that, since the end of musical modernism at its most extreme, there have been plenty of moves to undermine these ridiculous value claims. However, while such aesthetic absolutes might now seem problematic to many of the custodians of classical music (though by no means all of them), there is still an absolute wealth of assumptions and values, many of them completely unconscious, which lie half-buried beneath all musicians’ understanding of their own musical tradition. These are ingrained from the moment we see our first clef or play our first key on the piano, they are the assumptions on which the biggest classical music institutions are based, and they are used pitilessly to advertise classical music to the masses. They are all completely arbitrary, many of them in fact paradoxical, and in combination they relentlessly limit the remit of what art music could be, while individually they more often than not present some kind of barrier between the experience of art music and the understanding of uninitiated potential appreciators.
What follows is a list of values, qualities or ideals which are meant to be implicit to art music (or, more specifically, ‘good’ art music) but which are in actuality completely arbitrary in their provenance and have nothing to do with art music’s material substance:
depth +++++ complexity +++++ beauty +++++ subtlety
universality +++++ transcendence +++++ truthfulness +++++ spirituality
erudition +++++ purity +++++ directness +++++ timelessness
‘soul’/‘heart’ +++++ intellect/logic +++++ seriousness
forward-looking +++++ within a tradition +++++ re-performable/non-specific
composed by a single author +++++ composed for a non-specific audience
capable of objective ‘greatness’
While all of these might be viewed as positive aspects of any artwork, they would not be considered necessarily emblematic of an art-form as a whole, or identified as particular benchmarks to which all examples of a given art-form should aspire. However it is part of the experience of being an initiate to classical music that these qualities can be considered particular to the unique process of your own artistic language. They are all traces of the damaging dogma of Romanticism, and yet I would say with some confidence that no-one in the classical music world would be prepared to relinquish particular ownership of all of them. Moreover, they can all be viewed as opposing qualities to pop music, and they all suggest both cultural elitism and, paradoxically, an emphasis on a ‘learned’ culture as well as the smug claim to an inherent ‘intuitive’ effectiveness.
Perhaps the most enduring of these preoccupations amongst composers of new music is a huge emphasis on being ‘progressive’ while at the same time remaining ‘part of a tradition’, on ‘looking back’ at the past while at the same time always ‘looking forward’ to the future. Maintaining a connection to a past tradition and repertory of music is seen as a very positive quality in new composition, since it seems to work towards composers’ obsession with producing enduring pieces that will ‘stay in the repertoire’, by consciously forcing them into some kind of timeline. It is the same obsession, along with a keen sense of the teleological flow of music history, that creates an imperative to be progressive, ironically enough often miring new music at a particular point in high modernism in altercation with the ‘simpler’, less technically ‘developed’ postmodern tendencies of pop music.
New music is largely alone in its proud boasts of concurrent forward and backward vision, since most new art is content to represent the present – to be of the here-and-now. This is, after all, where the actual audience is situated, and it’s where the other artists are too. Once again, though, ‘now’-ness is seen as the domain of pop music, and therefore art music has, of late, decided to avoid it.
It has been much commented on that classical music has become quite overwhelmingly an area of interest for older people, in many cases elderly people. The reasons for this are, of course, multifarious. But the depth of this problem is often understated. It is true that the big venues and ensembles, with their rotation of ‘canonical’ favourites, tend to attract older people. There is a lot of effort going into opening these mainstream classical institutions up to younger audiences, often by addressing certain socio-cultural stereotypes which do link in at some level to the assumed qualities listed above.
Some would probably say that this is the wrong approach, and that mainstream art rooted in tradition will always be the domain of older people, while it is the newer and more experimental areas of the art-form which should be attracting young people. This is all very well, but the problem remains that, within this art-form which has very little real prestige in society, new music has very little prestige within the culture itself. It is almost completely side-lined, possibly because it doesn’t seem to be commercially attractive, possibly because classical music cannot help but target the older audience whose attendance has been proven. It’s a vicious cycle, which repeatedly prevents the possibility of new art music presenting itself as important.
My point is that the focus of any art-form should be its creative presence within contemporary society. Museum wings and history lessons are fine, as long as there is an acknowledgement that this contemporary focus be maintained. What’s more, this creative presence should be primarily the domain of the younger generations. It is short-sighted, cynical and pointless to try and excite young people with old art, at the expense of supporting new music. It seems incredibly lazy on the part of the institutions, but it is another result of those same elitist assumptions that there is something about the status quo that is fundamentally ‘as it should be’.
Young people, especially young artists and people who are interested in art, naturally assume the role of culture-makers. There is little interest in experiencing culture of the past, or culture of the future; such pursuits are arguably illusory anyway. Between the ages of maybe 15 and 40, we are empowered to shape the boundaries of our culture and, especially in the age of the internet, this involves consumption, appreciation and criticism just as much as it involves composition or performance, or any other traditional ‘creative’ process. So the emphasis, throughout traditional and new classical music, throughout all the institutions, and the media and every other aspect of its presentation and representation, on the invented qualities listed above, which deny the importance of the immediate present over past and future, ensure that any semblance of contemporaneity in classical music culture is automatically problematised.
Yet again, this entire outlook seems to have been constructed in opposition to the values of pop music, which are youth-oriented and ephemeral and rooted in the present. This opposition is, at times, so strong that classical culture can seem to take an offensive stance against pop music, and to be quite simply anti-youth. A culture which takes such a stance would seem to be taking pains to kill itself.
The attitude that is doing the most damage to classical music, especially with respect to new music, is also the one that is the deepest-rooted and the most difficult to shift. It comes as a result of the institutionalisation of the whole of art music culture.
It has always been a problem that musical skills cannot really be self-taught, meaning that pretty much everyone involved has at some point to pass through an institution (which could be anything from a school piano teacher to a conservatoire). This needn’t be an issue in theory, but in practice it exposes musicians to a whole host of false, elitist assumptions. Some of these, in abstract form, have been discussed above, but there are others, the most prevalent and dangerous being the idea that it is acceptable that music be for musicians.
Most musicians who harbour this assumption probably wouldn’t realise that they do so; it doesn’t present itself as a problem, since classical music culture has already suffered so much that non-musicians are simply not present for comment. People assume that music can be for musicians because, in many cases, the only people who go to concerts are musicians. Modern composers can build their pieces around complex academic structures which require a knowledge of music theory to appreciate, and they can be safe in the knowledge that only people who can appreciate such structures will actually listen to these pieces. New music is already a secret society, and it therefore seems to those initiates that using secret languages and symbols is acceptable (and enjoyable), because there’s no-one there to complain. Of course, this is a complacent, elitist attitude which is guaranteed to completely alienate any non-musicians who might be interested in new music as a contemporary art-form. But this attitude extends to pretty much everyone professionally or academically involved with art music. They are surrounded by people who speak the same language, and they have very little recourse to contact with any non-speakers because art music no longer has a large enough scope to attempt to engage non-musicians.
For educators and reformists, the solution seems to be to make more people into musicians at an earlier age. Their premise: Music is for musicians, so we can open music up by creating more musicians. But does this not seem like an absurd approach to quite a basic problem? Art is not for artists; galleries are not solely frequented by skillful sculptors and sketchers. You don’t even need a grasp of recent art history to fully appreciate most contemporary exhibitions. Film is most definitely not for film-makers, books aren’t for writers, theatre is not for actors and directors. This all seems natural and obvious. But moreover, most of society appreciates and understands pop music in great depth, without needing any understanding of harmony or rhythm or production techniques, or even cultural theory. So why is it acceptable for classical music to require specialist knowledge? And why is it OK for composers to write pieces ‘about’ music itself, which require analytical listening to interpret? Continuing their quest for ‘absoluteness’, new composers constantly reject an engagement with the society, people and culture of today, to instead write music that engages only with music, with music of the past or with some inherent quality of music itself. Behind it all is a universal belief, hidden much deeper in some than others, that this is what classical music is ‘for’, that this is inherent to the material of classical music as opposed to other musics or art-forms, and therefore that this is what ‘good’ classical music ‘should be’. And while these elitist assumptions – this delight in secret knowledge and comfort taken in an archaic tradition – remain at the back of all musicians’ consciousnesses, there will always be a hesitancy to let non-musicians in, and to be part of a culture that is actually relevant and important to society in general.
Classical music has been in a rut for a lot longer than it would care to acknowledge, and because everyone has gotten used to its new obscure place, there is no longer any real vision to give it any more of a presence than what it currently enjoys. Those who aren’t a part of it are untroubled by it, and those who are initiated enjoy their privileged access. Meanwhile, art music doesn’t serve any of the roles that new art does in other media. Pop music has taken up all these roles, and is doing a splendid job. But is our society now so fundamentally different that these roles cannot be served by orchestras or chamber groups or choirs, but must now be served by guitars or drum machines or synthesisers? Of course not. There are differences between art and pop music, but they are all at material, structural levels. All the rest has been invented out of jealousy or bigotry, and smoothly institutionalised from the moment we first learn to recognise middle C.
2. Overall Aims
Because of the absolute ubiquity of certain damaging attitudes and assumptions within the music institutions, any new musical movement must be rooted and cultivated outside of these institutions. There are far too many general preconceptions about the nature of centralised classical music, and far too much vested interest from the people who currently hold the power, to attempt addressing each issue one by one. The new movement must be totally disconnected from the source of all these unproductive attitudes. It should, in short, attempt to alienate all of those people who rely on centralised classical culture’s traditions and prejudices. This means that the focus will need to be on small-scale, grassroots projects to start with, utilising independent or alternative funding opportunities. Only by completely cutting off the assumed membership of the institutionalised initiates will this culture seem open to non-musicians, just as only a completely removed artistic culture will free composers and musicians from the subconscious expectations of their learned backgrounds. The new movement shouldn’t feel like a break-off or schism from mainstream musical culture, a rebellious faction characterised by opposition (although in practice some opposition will be important), but it should instead feel like its own unique, positive entity.
Just because this movement should be consciously disconnected from the status quo of classical music culture doesn’t mean that it can’t have a solid basis and strong connections from which to take shape. The new art music culture should develop from a genuine and unqualified engagement with, firstly, contemporary culture and society and, secondly, the cutting edge of other artistic disciplines.
The quickest and most fruitful way to grow this new movement as a separatist entity from institutional classical music, and as a movement which aims to specifically redress the alienating, limiting features which have shrunken classical music’s contemporary relevance, is to engage specifically with those aspects of culture and society that art music has traditionally excluded – to be wilfully contrarian and iconoclastic. Therefore, an engagement with youth and popular cultures should be a major focus. By creating effective musical experiences which have nothing to do with, or actively work against, the traditional values assigned to art music, any association with off-putting institutions will be nullified, and from there musical material can be reclaimed which might presently be dismissed for its unattractive connotations.
By concentrating on an engagement with artistic trends in other fields, musicians will be dissuaded from obsessing over ‘their own’ culture and its history, and thereby excluding non-initiates. Furthermore, this approach should help attract interest from appreciators of other art-forms. Classical music has, for a long time, been an isolationist culture in terms of overall aesthetic trends. This isolationism is seen by many as a particular virtue of the art-form, but it has only meant that modern music has not developed with the rest of modern art. It is important that, rather than attempt to establish itself in isolation, this new movement adheres closely to these more developed artistic cultures. This is the only way that new music can hope to attract the attention of art-conscious non-musicians.
There is a specific demographic to which I believe new music should be directly appealing, an audience in the making who have so far remained alienated by utterly irrelevant elitist preoccupations. This is the international, powerful, unified and regenerative culture of young people who closely follow alternative, independent and experimental pop music. These are more often than not the same young people who follow trends in other new art-forms, especially visual art, fashion and film. The factors that stop this group’s interest in experimental music from extending into the spectrum of new art music (and it does come very close) is not anything materially specific to classical music. It is not dissonance, or the sound of a bassoon, or counterpoint. It is not structures that extend for a duration of more than eight minutes. The only things that get in the way are cultural associations, modes of presentation and aesthetic concerns, none of which are fundamental to art music’s actual substance. This is an audience who can feel deeply involved in a musical culture without any specialist technical knowledge. There is nothing that should stop this same audience from feeling involved in a culture of new art music, provided that specialist technical knowledge is not expected of them. By actively opening up new music to them, along with other older musical repertories that can eventually be approached on these new terms, this movement would simultaneously adopt a very culturally-powerful new audience whilst satisfying a burgeoning desire for innovation amongst followers of alternative pop music.
The greatest potential remedy to the self-destructive aesthetic bias of classical music culture would be a completely new attitude to the art-form. A shift towards ‘New Materialism’, promoting qualities of ephemerality, immediacy, disposability, transience, specificity and changeability, would be helpful on at least two distinct levels. Firstly, it would encourage an engagement with the culture and society of the immediate present, of worldly things – whether ‘everyday’, socio-political, or having to do with our immediate cultural zeitgeist – which art music has constantly excused itself from, to its own great detriment. It would involve, as mentioned above, taking inspiration from and finding a place within youth and popular cultures. It would preclude an alienating preoccupation with music’s own place within music history, apart from as a direct commentary on our contemporary milieux, and it would totally inhibit the unhealthy and egotistical drive towards timelessness, universal relevance and ‘canonisation’ which still subconsciously characterises a lot of new work. Using the immediate present as subject and substance will maximise the potential audience, while permitting an easy exchange of ideas between other artistic cultures.
At the same time though, taking a ‘New Materialist’ approach to classical music culture as a whole will encourage a new and up-to-date system of production and consumption which could replace the unrealistic expectations that classical music has of itself. The new movement should cultivate a living and constantly changing music culture centred on new music rather than the regular re-playing of old music. This would only involve a reform along the lines of every other artistic culture in the modern world, reflecting the power of mass media and global online communication. Importantly, it would address classical music’s aversion to value systems which operate on a short-term scale – the domains of fashion and ‘coolness’ – which are no less valid value systems and, while held in suspicion by at least some factions of most artistic cultures, are only properly forbidden by classical music culture. This new approach should involve a wholesale embrace of new media, an acknowledgement of the possibilities of commercialism and, hopefully, a completely new way of judging the ‘essential’ qualities of art music. A living, evolving approach to ‘disposable’ new music should necessitate constant production without the constant need to assess ‘progressiveness’, while, ideally, hierarchical structures from innovation to trendsetting and thence to a receptive mainstream should emerge, which should match other trickle-down models of cultural consumption.
A healthy art-form is an art-form which is defined by its newest buds, which is allowed to constantly replace itself without worrying about the longevity of its composite parts, and which is kept alive by regeneration, not by some process of fossilisation. To achieve such peaks of health, a new art music movement would have to completely cut itself off from the constricting traditions and values of its own establishment, but it does have a lot of other artistic trends and institutions that it can take cues and inspiration from – first and foremost, those of popular music.
3. Compositional Solutions
There are two reasons why art music should be looking to contemporary pop music for inspiration. The first, as I’ve already discussed, is that, in delineating what art music ‘is’ (or ‘should be’) as distinct from pop, its remits have become smaller and smaller while pop’s have grown to fill all the empty space. It has fallen to pop to take on the role of a music that remains in touch with the changing structures, communication and media networks, and socio-political contours of modern society. Therefore, pop effortlessly remains a music that ‘works’ as a modern art-form. What essentially characterises pop music (structures, timbres, tropes etc.) is only a small part of this, and there’s no reason why art music shouldn’t be able to borrow liberally from its systems.
However, art music also needs to go further than this. In order to attract the new audience that potentially await them, composers should be drawing on a universal familiarity with the language of pop music to create inlets into their own musical styles, to ease comprehension and attract attention, and quite simply to state the intention of welcoming non-initiates into their culture. It would be a gesture of humility, but one that is long overdue. Not only has alternative pop music been proven to function as an important and relevant musical avant-garde in our modern society (and one that is actually growing in prevalence, thanks to the power of the internet), but the borders of pop and art musics have also very rarely been so close (thanks in large part to developments in electronic music and minimalism). Inspiration can be taken from pop music at a number of different levels, from very subtle to very open, but I would suggest that, the more blatant the connection, the more effective the gesture will be. The history of art music is absolutely riddled with evidence of composers taking elements directly from contemporary pop music sources, to great effect. Below I have listed a few example ways in which this could be achieved on a musical level:
- Use of borrowed musical material from pop songs (including electronic samples)
- Mimicking familiar pop structures, rhetorical gestures and timbres
- Exploring moods and tones specific to pop music, eg. personal/confessional, sexualised, dance-oriented, etc.
- Mimicking pop production processes, including electronic processes
- Composers writing their own, specific, vernacular ‘lyrics’ which function as part of the original musical work
- Use of non-trained vocalists/non-‘classical’ vocal styles
All of these could easily be worked into traditionally textured, orchestrated and dimensioned classical music, without any real compromise of technical compositional properties. Moreover, any one of these would instantly require enough innovation and creativity in its reconciliation with the language of art music that it would automatically justify its own composition. On top of this, I would advocate a shift, if not towards tonality, then at least towards an increased sense of melodicism. This doesn’t mean lyricism; pop’s qualities of ‘catchiness’ and immediacy are invaluable to any modern art-form, while the genre has expanded the nature of the ‘hook’ to a very broad definition.
I think a lot of recent art music that has ostensibly borrowed from pop has been quite unimaginative about it. I don’t think that the actual use of an electric guitar or turntables and synthesisers is necessarily the best way to engage creatively with the unique ideas and processes of pop music; I think such solutions, while occasionally very effective, can be used to cut corners and present quite a shallow view of what pop music is capable of. I also believe that there isn’t necessarily anything about a standard orchestra, chamber ensemble or choir which renders it unable to represent contemporary culture and society. Composers, who understand the particularities of ‘classical’ instruments and the possibilities of notated harmonic and tonal structures, should be looking for new roles for their particular tools. There is no crisis in the future of guitar music or dance music, it is the classical ensembles which need to be re-assessed.
In addition, composers could expand their palette of influences by looking, not only at industrial pop music as an art-form, but also at other vernacular instances of music in society. This could include video game and film music, the sounds of technology (computers and machinery, PA systems and mobile phones), TV theme-tunes and advertising jingles, sports chants, sirens and ice-cream vans, elevator music, karaoke, etc.
Classical music has long maintained (and enjoyed) a reputation as a conservative, cerebral, ‘spiritual’ art-form. Its dependence on the re-performance of ancient works, along with a desire to preserve them in their original state, has fostered an obsession with universality, timelessness and the pursuit of transcendence. Even in new music, which in practice invariably has a shelf-life much shorter than any pop song, this obsession feeds a focus on academic, scientific or philosophical concern with the material of sound, non-specific meditations on the nature of humanity, and a chronic desire to communicate with the past (as well as a totally unique tolerance for organised religion). These are obsessions which are shared by some factions of most other art-form. However, there are many, many other values and concerns to explore artistically, especially in our age of cultural relativism. That these particular concerns have completely dominated music since modernism has been one of the key reasons why classical music has alienated itself from the progressive trends of other artistic fields. It is likely that old music, obsessed with the same arbitrary values, will always continue to be performed, and re-written, in the big institutions. In order to fill the huge gap which remains, I would advocate a focus on all those concerns and values that composers have largely ignored by rote, many of them the polar opposites of those values listed earlier in this document. These should include:
immediacy +++++ insubstantiality +++++ fashion
comedy/levity +++++ cheapness +++++ shallowness
sex +++++ violence +++++ drugs
specificity (of events, people, places, ideas, zeitgeist) +++++ politics/satire
youth/young people +++++ race/sexuality +++++ subcultures
irony +++++ popular culture/technology +++++ mass-media
the everyday +++++ autobiography +++++ celebrity
coolness/trendiness +++++ music for a specific audience/group/event
modern artistic genres +++++ extremes/shock/sensationalism
Many fans of classical music would protest here that there is music about sex and about politics; they could probably pick out an Italian opera to fit all of these concerns. But however much they might protest, it simply isn’t the same. Restaging a two-hundred-year-old piece about celebrity in a modern production is not the same as a new piece that explicitly engages with real situations in our place and time. It’s just a lazy alternative. One might say that this piece or that piece is ‘clearly all about sex’, but this isn’t the 1890s, and ‘clearly’ nowadays actually means clearly. New music needs to take one big and uncompromising step into real postmodernism if it is even going to begin to catch up with the rest of art. There is no reason that the sound of a guitar band should be essentially more sexual or more youthful than a chamber group. The only fear is of explicitly pursuing values or ideas which are not considered by classical traditions and institutions as the ‘right’ ones for this kind of music.
Accessibility means, primarily, not expecting specialist knowledge from an audience. This includes knowledge of music theory, common classical structures and tropes, having a ‘trained ear’, familiarity with past repertoire, or even an unreasonable knowledge of ancient history or foreign languages. Not only should everything be presented in clear, audible English, but there should be a shift away from formal language, the predilection towards archaic-sounding poetry, the use of Italian or Latin titles, and anything else which is essentially just wilful alienation.
The principle to be adopted here is in not relying upon a departure from an established point in music history – past or even present – when beginning to compose a piece. In order to fully open classical music up to non-musicians, a familiarity with other contemporary or recent composers cannot be expected, nor can a reliance on established classical genre. Music with meaning that relies on such knowledge will never be truly accessible. Instead, accessibility can be aided by departing from a recognised point outside of music history, such as a political event or idea, an artwork in another field, or even a personal experience – what traditional music enthusiasts might consider ‘a programme’. The use of words will always immediately assist potential audiences, because they provide a meaning which is necessarily distinct from the substance of the music itself. Vocals are also a very important part of popular music, and the vocalist as ‘performer-character’ can provide a useful entry-point into a piece.
Pieces should also be on a manageable scale for contemporary art consumption. Independent pop fans will frequently listen to hour-long albums in one sitting, and attend live shows which might last two hours or more. However, they are used to a variety of structural divisions within that space of time, and composers need to learn to value and utilise such small-scale structures, rather than treat them with suspicion. The more classical music’s ‘supporters’ bemoan the short attention spans of younger listeners, the more they deny their music any contemporary value. Composers need to acknowledge the ubiquity of listening modes that have been shaped by pop and technology, and they must make use of these without feeling guilty at somehow betraying the imagined values of their former institutions.
The final point to make in this area is that, in order to properly find its place in a serious artistic culture, classical music has to relinquish its desire to be universal. Composers are concerned with maximising the performance opportunities of any one piece, and they commonly demonstrate this by watering it down so that it will fit as many occasions and audiences as possible. This is, in reality, an efficient way of removing any real relevance or meaning from an artwork. The new musical movement, as I’ve said before, should be targeted at young, culture-savvy people. Classical music should not be family-friendly. If it is written for children then that’s a different matter, but it’s not going to resonate in society if it’s child-oriented. Composers must be comfortable with the idea of writing for adults, and not for potentially squeamish, nostalgic or conservative elderly people either, but for socially-powerful, culture-making, intelligent, artistically-curious (but non-musical), real-life young adults.
I’ve mentioned the importance of a new movement in allowing art music to re-join the other important contemporary art-forms at the cutting edge of culture, and I mean this in terms of shared or mutually-explored philosophical, aesthetic and socio-political currents of thought. The most obvious way to achieve this is simply to communicate with them directly, through an exchange of ideas and practical collaboration. New composers should be using artworks in other media as departure points in their own field. Musical works could attempt to ‘describe’ or ‘represent’ specific artworks, such as paintings or novels, or they could aim to find equivalent gestures, processes and aesthetics within their own language. Composers should be looking to artistic movements, genres and traditions in other fields, which might have materialised since the 1960s, and attempting to find musical equivalents for their key ideas. Just the knowledge of this kind of exchange of inspiration would be enough to open such pieces up to non-musicians familiar with these other artworks or traditions.
Collaboration and multi-media work would also be very important in bringing a new musical movement into line with the rest of art. The addition of theatre to music instantly elucidates several layers of meaning to non-musicians, while permitting the explicit exploration of those contemporary themes and subjects listed above. Musical theatre and opera have always maintained a privileged position within new music, but by separating itself from its archaic and limiting ‘musical’ institutions, rather than the possibilities of its adjacent ‘theatrical’ institutions, opera could immediately become the most accessible and important genre of classical music. New opera should be conscious of every new progression that has happened in theatre in the last hundred years, just as new vocal writing should aspire to engage with the work of living poets, and new poetry, rather than constantly revisiting old writing. Composers should be aware of the state of contemporary dance and write music that engages with it, rather than letting choreographers choose their own music to suit. Composers should be finding ways to ‘use’ film-makers, theatre directors and even video-game technology in the way that these disciplines will readily ‘use’ music. And throughout all this, the music should acknowledge its own importance and it should be prepared to lead these other disciplines and inspire real artistic dialogue.
5. Other Solutions
Classical music should be concerning itself with how to become a functional, media-friendly industry. The art-form has had a complicated and deeply confused relationship with the idea of a ‘music industry’. The funding that the big institutions receive from government and council organisations suggest that, ideally, classical music should be above commercialism. At the same time though, the same institutions, as well as the record labels, will go straight to the lowest-common denominator when it’s time to actually make money, and employ some very cynical and exploitative solutions. There is a kind of double culture at work, in which it is accepted that classical music is above industrialised society while at the same time, needing money, it doesn’t mind selling out in the most extreme ways to fund this illusion of absolute transcendence. This is an approach that needs to be completely overhauled.
As a niche art-form, new music should be looking at other ways in which niche artistic cultures support themselves while maintaining a staunchly uncommercialised, creatively-free identity. It should in particular be looking to non-mainstream pop music which, while by no means pandering to the mainstream or compromising any kind of artistic freedom, does use branding, marketing and the media relentlessly in order to attract its audience. This process is infinitely subtle for alternative pop, and involves conscious image cultivation in every photograph, interview, website design, album inlay and live show. The same kind of image management is important for niche artists, film directors and authors, but it must be recalled that art music is a type of presented performance art and that this renders such considerations all the more important.
Classical composers seem to put quite a lot of effort into giving off the impression of being ‘serious’, by being ‘above’ all popular culture and fashion (thereby protecting their music from any such ‘undesirable’ attachments), while simultaneously detaching themselves from their work enough to make the music seem to stand on its own (thereby achieve the ‘timeless and universal’ properties that could potentially make it ‘great’). All this contributes to is a particularly pointless fallacy, and an attitude which is not only condescending to society at large, but is actually condescending to their own existing audiences. It is meant to suggest a lack of egotism, but is in fact far more egotistical an outlook than that of pop artists, since it stems from a belief that ‘their’ art is essentially higher than any art-form which engages positively with the actualities of contemporary values and society. What’s more, in practice, alternative pop musicians attach no less value to coming across as ‘seriously’ as modern composers do. The only difference is that, in publicity, pop musicians are prepared to represent their music as such, whilst composers are so against reinforcing their music with any personal ‘image’ that they come across as uninterested and irrelevant.
What I would very seriously advocate is the swift formulation of the classical ‘composer-personality’, in which composers take full responsibility of representing their own music: in the way they come across in photos and interviews, in the way they dress, in brand consistency (which could involve collaboration with fellow artists, web designers or film-makers), and in a full-on embrace of the idea of an artistic ‘image’ and media personality. Furthermore, composers should endeavour to take on the role of ‘composer-performer-personality’. The immense appeal of pop music relies heavily on the fact that the music which is being performed or communicated onstage or on recordings is coming directly from the composer themselves. This is what enables such important qualities as specificity and immediacy. If only by conducting their own work, composers should learn not to value the detachment which has always been a possibility of classical music – to no longer be ‘humble’ and ‘let the music speak for itself’. This needn’t entail massive egotism; it is very common for pop acts to take on identities distinct from themselves as people – invented band and artist names have just such a value, while record labels as collectives serve a similar purpose. Whether or not the composer is using themselves personally or a constructed identity, such a focus is totally invaluable in modern culture, and needn’t be in any way in opposition to what classical music ‘essentially’ entails.
As an extension of this, composers should be associating themselves with specific ensembles and retaining a visual presence within these. Thereby, even if they don’t perform themselves, composers could still develop a performing presence which would simultaneously function as part of their brand identity. They should be presenting or compèring concerts and touring with these ensembles, maintaining an absolutely central position onstage. The disconnection between composer and performer, which has previously been valued by classical initiates – simply because, for a long time, that’s just how it’s been – is totally alien to pop music audiences, as well as to many artistic traditions, and there is no real reason why it should be thus. By taking such new structures as foundations for a new art music movement, the culture can be grown up again along very different lines, but not ones that in any way affect the substance of the music itself.
Of course, composers aren’t the only ones who can cultivate media identities and manage personal brands. The last few years have seen a significant number of performers who are (in general, quite unimaginatively) marketed through a brand image, although this has uniformly been to an audience of middle-aged to elderly people (even if that wasn’t the initial intention). Many classical fans would say that such image-conscious performers are covering up a lack of talent, or even that such a visual focus can obscure the more important factor of musical ability. The main problem, I would argue, is that the kind of image normally being marketed is one of bland, non-threatening prettiness, an image which is usually reflected in the narrow choice of repertoire for such ‘cross-over’ artists. It is an image which is cynically aimed at maximising an audience by being as non-committal and unremarkable as possible – shooting for the centre of the mainstream – but unfortunately it is also perceived as the only branding possibility in this double-current of an all-or-nothing (totally uncommercial or total ‘sell-out’) culture.
In independent pop music, an appealing, charismatic, intriguing and original image is typically cultivated in conjunction with remarkable and original talent in the production of meaningful art. Fundamentally, this could just mean performers ‘making an effort’. Even now, it is generally accepted that, in concerts, soloists will endeavour to come across as pleasant-looking, well-dressed, even attractive. Attention to physical appearance is not an alien concern to classical institutions. There is no reason why being physically attractive as a musical performer should be any less a positive quality than as an actor. What musical performers must learn to do is to drop the formality, the prescribed uniforms or dress ‘rules’, and be comfortable with coming across as individuals, even as young or fashionable individuals, whose originality as performers might conceivably be linked to an originality as people, without devaluing it. This might mean coming across as an eccentric ‘character’, or it might mean coming across as a real, everyday person, but either of these is instantly more accessible than that special brand of butlers, duchesses and diplomats that characterises the costume of most classical performers. (And that means not just onstage but in publicity shots, in which the same insanely glamourous headshots, or completely inexplicable and embarrassing poses with instruments, represent a long and misjudged tradition of awkward underselling.)
The contemporary awkwardness of stage uniforms and common publicity poses links into a deeper problem with classical music, which again has a lot to do with the age and background of its institutional leaders and target audience: the representation of gender. It is unfortunate that the biological differences which distinguish women from men are a crucial factor in the composition of a mixed voice choir, as well as the delineation of different operatic voices, because the continuing impact of this has left classical music as one of the most oppressively unenlightened cultures in the western world. The chauvinism of gender-defined formal dress, which is still the most prevalent uniform in the classical world, has locked performers of both genders into very narrow roles. The objectification of women is still very evident in the kind of outfits that soloists, especially singers, choose to wear, when compared to the ‘seriousness’ of male outfits. The lack of female conductors in every area of classical music is totally abhorrent and will instantly alienate a vast proportion of enlightened, artistic society. The constant re-performance of often misogynistic opera plots which almost always rely on gender binaries and stereotypes to support their musical narratives is equally problematic. The sexism inherent in existing classical traditions is just as dangerous as its apparent classism, and no art-form can hope to be truly avant-garde or progressive in our society while maintaining such unquestioned, deeply right-wing values. This is another reason why there needs to be an absolute break from the establishment before the majority of intelligent non-musicians will begin to take the art-form seriously.
Classical music is also distinct from every other art-form in that it maintains an unquestioned alliance with organised religion. The church is one of the institutions’ biggest patrons, and most renowned composers, even atheist ones, are fully prepared to write music for worship, while pretty much all choirs accept that the majority of their repertoire must by necessity be religious in subject. In a society in which religion (especially Christianity) is often viewed with anything between derision, antipathy or utter disinterest by many of its progressive artistic factions (and certainly by the young population at large), it is very dangerous for the classical institutions to put such reliance on the church, and the notion that their art is inheritantly ‘spiritual’. In order for choral music in particular to stay healthy, it needs to learn to function without religious support and to address other issues and audiences. Non-religious composers should not be accepting commissions from churches to write explicitly religious music, because it is lazy and un-creative on their part, and it is selling out in the most real sense of the concept, while seeming to advocate a culture in which such artistic insincerity is totally permissable (or even unavoidable). The inclusion of explicit religious material in a concert programme is very alienating to large areas of society, but it also damages the perception of classical music as a whole, suggesting a reliance once again on archaic, right-wing institutions. While classical music continues to be linked to religion at an institutional level, it will never be allowed to properly re-engage with other cutting-edge artistic cultures.
Currently, there is an idea that one of the distinctions between classical music and pop music is that classical music is ‘essentially’ a live art while pop is ‘essentially’ a recorded art. This is another essentialist assumption which stems from the fact that classical music happens to exist in scores so it can practically be re-performed. It has nothing to do with the music itself, nor how it is consumed in real life; obviously, both live and recorded music are very important in both cultures. However, classical music’s learned reluctance to validate itself as a ‘recorded’ art-form has prevented it from properly making use of the record industry as it currently exists. Therefore, classical music cannot be ‘used’ culturally in any of the multifarious and deeply complex ways that pop music is. Classical composers seem to be more satisfied with having their fruits of labour performed in a one-off, under-publicised and under-attended concert than to be recorded in a ‘definitive’ form which could nevertheless be distributed and mechanically re-performed an infinite number of times.
Along with the idea that music can be connected to a specific personality – its composer – and a specific performing ensemble, there is no reason that this idea of a definitive recorded version cannot be introduced to classical music. In pop, it has hardly stopped music from being re-performed and re-interpreted live, or from being covered by other artists (often in versions far more various, and subject to more extensive creative manipulation, than in the re-performance of notated pieces between similarly-proportioned orchestras). Composers should be embracing the idea of releasing albums; this would instantly make them more comprehensible to modern audiences as brands. The lack of a tangible material output has long been a problem for potential art fans wanting to build up a knowledge of art music. Having accessible, re-playable versions of modern music, which can be explored outside of expensive live occasions, can make potentially ‘difficult’ new music much more manageable. Such albums, marketed properly and given publicity in the right media, could also generate real excitement around live shows performed by composer-personalities and their ensembles, the equivalent of ‘promotional tours’ in pop music. There is a very particular role for tangible, ‘ownable’, material art in popular culture, in an age of individual and group identity creation through artistic appropriation. Any idea that this is somehow a ‘bad’ use of art would be nothing but an elitist prejudice based on the traditional assumptions of the classical institutions.
By producing albums (and singles) which follow exactly the same format as alternative pop music, and can be produced by independent labels which are run in the same way as their pop equivalents (or even shared by existing labels), new art music could fit into a very highly developed, and constantly evolving, pre-existing framework for the successful dissemination of obscure music to audiences worldwide. There is no reason why all the accompanying trappings of pop albums – cover art and catchy titles, press releases, leaked tracks, and calculated media campaigns of feeding and withholding information – should be exempt from the new art music culture. But most excitingly, by letting go of the traditional mistrust of the idea of any kind of ‘definitive’ version, or a genuine recorded music culture, art music could truly open itself up to the creative possibilities of the recording studio: production techniques, transformative electronic processes, and the relinquishing of an arbitrary pursuit of studio ‘realism’ or ‘verisimilitude’ for a genuine interest in innovative sound engineering.
Finally, the acceptance of definitive recorded works and the growth of a commercial album-producing industry might potentially alleviate one of the other big problems which stands in the way of art music, especially new music. This is the reliance that modern composers have on fees for performance rights, which often forces amateur and independent ensembles to play old, public domain works rather than pay for newer music. This system is so ridiculously counterproductive to the spread and significance of new music that any way to somehow replace it would have a revolutionary effect on the way that performing ensembles approach contemporary composition.
I have already talked about the negative political connotations of concert attire, but this problem obviously goes a lot further than sexism. In order for a new musical movement to really welcome a new audience of non-musicians, every extant aspect of concert ritual must be completely replaced. There are very few aspects of ‘traditional’ classical performance that, questioned without bigotry, would be accepted as fundamental to the presentation of art music as it essentially exists. The majority of these are customs which have been adopted through habit or lack of imagination, or the elitist pleasures of shared ritual. Many of them reflect a totally outmoded pretense towards aristocracy or ‘high’ culture. These customs have frequently been identified as a key reason why non-musicians are put off from even attempting to listen to art music.
The first move in the transformation of the classical concert should be to totally de-institutionalise it. This would mean focusing on alternative venues, not necessarily even concert halls but small clubs, bars, pubs, small theatres, halls, anywhere free from traditionalist connotation. Using venues normally used for pop gigs would further constitute a gesture of reconciliation to these alienated audiences, while innovative and unusual venues would encourage site-specific creativity while suggesting boundary-breaking novelty. The scale on which institutional classical music currently functions is quite problematic. The financial reliance on familiar orchestral, large-scale choral, and grand operatic works would seem to require the use of large venues, which then have to be filled. For an art-form in massive decline, it is impossible to continue trying to work on such a scale. There must necessarily be more of a focus on chamber music and vocal music, and music for smaller orchestras, choirs, or utilising electronics. This, in turn, would be less expensive, and require smaller audiences (so less artistic compromise) and cheaper tickets (so a younger, or less ‘upper-class’ demographic).
A smaller-scale music culture, one that can function ‘underground’, could also mark a return to performable small-scale amateur works – the best way to get modern music actually performed in a society where most of the music-making is being done at an educational level. However, while academies and universities will obviously continue to be important in teaching skills to composers and performers, there should also be an attempt to move music away from these places, and take some of the emphasis off ‘academic’ or ‘cerebral’ qualities, which pigeon-hole classical music into a very restrictive mode.
Otherwise, the classical concert should attempt to come into line with the popular concert. This doesn’t mean a rowdy audience making noise throughout; in contrast to the preconceptions of some classical purists, this is by no means what small pop concerts involve. However, there should be a move away from formality for its own sake, including a total ban on traditional formal clothing for performers. There should be a lot more exchange between audience and performers, including introductions by the performers or composers to all the pieces. Amplification of all instruments should become near-standard, depending on the layout of the venue. The idea that the amplification of an ensemble will always impact the sound quality negatively is, of course, a completely ignorant one, motivated only by an aversion to pop music culture. It would allow the audience to relax more, to maybe even stand or move around during the performance, or purchase refreshments, without impacting the enjoyment of other audience members, which is one of its key purposes in pop concerts. With a relaxation of formality, concerts could also be more inventive in their layout, rather than always following a prescribed, published programme.
Another aspect that the classical concert should aim to emulate from the pop concert is the necessity of an awareness of visual and theatrical, not just aural, presentation. Putting some effort into lighting and stage layout (and even set, costume, and projected images or accompanying film) shouldn’t just be a novel extra – it should be a fundamental aspect of presenting a live show. This doesn’t necessarily mean extravagance, it just means an awareness of some non-musical dimension. Theatricality is a fundamental part of performance in pop music, and it should be just as important to classical music, seamlessly and creatively integrated with the substance of the music, not just in so-called ‘music theatre’ but in any kind of performance. There is an idea that such elements in some way ‘distract’ from the music as it should be heard, but the truth is that what really distracts is an absence of theatrical consideration, and that such elements should be used to enhance musical performance as the multi-sensory experience that it necessarily is.
(All this applies equally to opera, of course, which is just as guilty of endearing to arbitrary traditions, often with more damaging results. An opera that is as liberated and creative as modern studio theatre, which can experiment with integrating sung music into everything that intimate theatre is now capable of, should be fighting to escape the often ridiculous confines of the opera house.)
Perhaps the first step for a new classical movement must be to fully embrace the potential of the internet. While most of the big institutions have made (largely unconvincing) nods towards current technological trends, we should be looking to build a culture that is properly based on the internet. Composers and performers need well-designed, attractive and functional websites, but more than that, they need to cultivate a presence online, most importantly through their music. The internet is now the primary way in which new musicians are encountered and explored by fans in independent pop culture, and in addition to having a memorable brand identity, this will only happen for classical artists if they learn to produce definitive versions of their own music which can be distributed in a digital form, downloaded, shared and discussed on web-based music hubs. Once classical musicians come to terms with the idea that their work could potentially exist in recorded form, there is no reason why art music couldn’t develop a very healthy and culturally-relevant online community, which would in turn promote live concert tours internationally.
There are millions of music fans who make it their personal mission to discover and pass on obscure new music on a daily basis. What’s more, there are a number of very powerful music sites whose main purpose is to propel unknown music to new audiences. Such is the power of the blogosphere, and the only reason that classical music isn’t making full use of this is that it has tried so hard to alienate anyone who might be interested in doing so, by proudly staking out its imagined differences. At the same time, most of the ‘traditional’ media is now largely based online anyway; any artist needs to learn how to present themselves online, but this is especially true of those involved in an art-form which can (and should) actually be consumed online. In this way, classical music is actually better placed than fiction or theatre in a web-based society, and it should be doing everything to optimise its use of these tools.
vi. Innovation and creativity
Once musicians properly adopt an optimistic, unprejudiced attitude towards finding a new and relevant place in modern society, there’s no end to the kind of experiments that are possible. They have to begin with actively seeking alternatives to alienating and traditionalist habits, and not settling for compromise. A few examples could easily be discussed just by looking at the kind of developments that have occurred in pop music and challenging art music to find equivalents:
- Music videos – an official promotional collaboration with a film-maker to create a multi-media object from a new composition, which can be viewed and shared on the internet. This would be very effective in opening up new music to non-musicians.
- Covers/remixes – re-composed versions of other classical music, or music from different genres, in original arrangements, or ‘sampled’ and manipulated to create new meanings. Classical pieces could also be remixed by electronic artists or pop musicians, and even made to function as dance music. This symbiotic exchange of musical ideas, especially across genres, could lead to joint concerts, joint releases and guest appearances.
- Support slots – giving composer-performers a slot supporting alternative pop artists, or even the other way around, would instantly expose this music to a new audience in their own context and on their own terms. Equally, if composers were perceived more as personalities, they could use comparable systems of support to expose each other to larger audiences at their own shows.
- Touring – this concept, already occurring in some small areas of classical music culture, could be vastly extended. Composer-performers and their ensembles should aim to produce portable shows which can fit a number of different venues, and use this series of shows to generate interest over time, through reviews in the media and (online) ‘word-of-mouth’.
The long-term goal for this movement should be to establish new systems into which older repertoire can be re-introduced. In that way, older music can reach new audiences without anything getting in the way. However, musicians should only perform what is appropriate, they shouldn’t feel the need to perform a piece because it is objectively ‘great’ or because people ‘should’ appreciate it. The repertoire should be chosen, and adapted, to the new performance circumstances. Above all, the idea that there is a particular way to perform a particular piece should be totally alien to this new way of thinking. Everything should be fluid in this new movement, and pieces should be adapted as necessary to be the most effective that they can be in the immediate circumstances, even if it means making abridgements, cutting parts, re-scoring, adding bits, adding multimedia elements, completely ignoring performance markings, etc. The idea that a piece should be performed with historic authenticity is not a creative artistic outlook, and it separates classical music from the rest of the arts. Taking an absolutely unbiased and original approach to older music should encourage bold creative decisions on the part of performers and help find new contemporary purposes and meanings in what are potentially archaic art-works.
Conclusion: a few closing statements
It also needn’t be cynical. What the classical music community desperately needs is a consensus that, contrary to the beliefs of some, it doesn’t know better than the society for which it is providing. It has been shown time and time again that classical music is no more ‘moral’ than other musics. In fact, if anything, it is less moral, because it rarely shows any kind of social conscience or political interest, and values tradition and religious prescription over contemporary secular ethics or common altruism. Pop music, and a lot of other contemporary art, will commonly take active steps towards the improvement of society, whilst classical music continues in its belief that it is ‘improving’ in its very essence, and need therefore take no further responsibility. But the situation has deteriorated much further than that, and new music has reached a point where it isn’t even attempting to interest most classical music fans, let alone the rest of society. The belief that it is too ‘progressive’ is an essentially problematic one for obvious reasons, but its prevalence goes hand-in-hand with the idea that, if non-musicians like or ‘get’ your music, you’ve somehow moved backwards. The new musical movement should be an uncynical populist movement, and one that believes in people who want to hear their world expressed and interpreted by music. It will need to be optimistic, because so much of classical populism expects the worst in people, and it will have to avoid aiming right for the mainstream.
The best historical model for such a movement would, of course, be the new populist movement that occurred in the 1920s, in Weimar Germany and Paris amongst other places, which was characterised by an engagement with popular music, with explicit left-wing politics, and with everyday society. It aimed to be accessible and intelligible, and to pivot upon the constant production of new relevant works. From our contemporary position, looking back into a musical history obsessed with the ‘endurance’ of pieces and the formation of canons, many of the new operas which were wildly popular in the early decades of the twentieth century, but have not ‘endured’ in our current repertoire, are viewed somehow as ‘failures’. But compare the fate of these to the new works that have appeared very occasionally in recent seasons at the big opera houses and festivals, more often than not doomed to almost instant obscurity. We should be fostering a culture that produces these works, hypes them up to the highest possible level, milks them for everything they’re worth, and then doesn’t care if they’re never performed again after two years or so. We teach people to imagine that such works cannot be ‘great’ because they haven’t been revived a thousand times since their premiere in the 18th century (and that in turn might be because they don’t represent the ‘universal’ themes of misogyny, patriarchy, heteronormativity and sadomasochistic religious fundamentalism) and so people think they’re not worth going to see. If our musical culture was really functioning, no-one would care in thirty years’ time what the ‘great’ works were from our decade because they’d have so many exciting new works to perform. Weimar populism, which was definitely by no means reactionary, is sometimes deemed to have ‘failed’, not just because the German music scene collapsed under the Nazis, but also because many of the key composers, including Krenek and Hindemith, went on to denounce their more populist works, statements and intentions. But this is only because they were just as institutionalised as we are and deep down they couldn’t help but believe that classical music should represent all those assumed values which seem to be at odds with a real populist agenda.
Too often, and very sadly, this is still proved to be the case. As composers get older – perhaps as they become more famous – they feel the egotistical draw of the classical myth and they want to join the pantheon. Even young composers with populist tendencies will very often deny any kind of ‘compromise’ of values; instead they will argue lamely, and ascribe their fascinating and interesting music with false intentions, while masking the real, if ‘unwanted’, qualities that mark them out. And for many, I’m sure, there doesn’t seem to be any other option, because a large proportion of professional musicians are absolutely surrounded by fellow musicians. There is very little contact with any kind of outside world, so any such dialogue invoking non-traditional values would be held in confusion or derision.
There’s so much instant gratification to be had from existing within a small circle of initiates, as well as amongst apparently well-trodden career paths and networks in which to climb. The truth is, though, that this is just a relic of dire necessity. To many musicians, classical music seems contained within a simple, streamlined world. But that’s just because it’s a very small world, and a very unoriginal one.
Older classical fans will often express the belief that they need to ‘protect’ the traditions and repertoires of the classical mainstream, a mission which apparently involves regular performances of canonical pieces ‘the way they should be performed’. Such an attitude is not in danger of disappearing any time soon. It is an enduring feature of human nature to enjoy consistency and repetition, and just as the British monarchy have become too non-threatening and irrelevant an institution to dispose of totally, so too has classical music. The classical canon, as it has been preserved in the height of the age of recording, has little to fear. This is not an advocation to overthrow the classical mainstream so much as it is one to ignore it. Sure, it is important to alienate the kind of people that rely on classical music for these qualities; if a show aiming to target a new audience were overrun by traditionalist musicians or elderly people, the new audience would still feel alienated itself. But the pieces that are popular with this demographic will continue to be popular, and if there are other old pieces that are seemingly being neglected, and there is still an argument that such historical curiosities need to be ‘protected’ through re-performance, I would question whether they were ever at all ‘universal’ or ‘timeless’ in the first place. Any older pieces with genuine contemporary relevance, and which can be put to good use in modern and accessible performances, are of course open to appropriation by the new musical movement.
In the same way, traditional music’s role in pedagogy or as an amateur community activity needn’t be affected, although the teaching of music history could afford to be less prescriptive, especially when it comes to defining genre delineations. But these are only minor functions in what should be a much bigger culture, just as school art lessons and community life-drawing classes could hardly make up for an absence of new original exhibitions. What needs to be protected is not old pieces or traditional practices, but orchestral, chamber, vocal and choral music itself: its very identity as a living, relevant art-form.
It is in such great shape, in fact, that it is perfectly effectively and enthusiastically filling all the gaps in society that classical music has chosen to leave. It continues to move forward with new original steps, while maintaining a large listenership, and it is making use of modern media channels and technologies as they emerge, in a most creative fashion. Pop music does not need to connect with art music, although, in opening up pop musicians to previously barricaded soundworlds, structures and processes, such a connection would no doubt continue to inspire and inform pop music at its most experimental. Art music however does, I believe, need to connect with pop music, and most specifically its audiences, in order to survive. It needn’t become pop music; in fact, it must endeavour not to. Composers should strive to continue to use all the technical effects, ensemble combinations and rhetorical devices that they have developed since music was first written for ‘classical’ instruments. In essence, this is really a challenge to composers to learn to truly use classical music’s materials without resorting to alienating prototypes or obfuscating principles, or arbitrary topics. It is a challenge to produce some truly original new art music, which aspires to purposes that art music has never before aspired to. And yet it is not a difficult challenge, because this new music should be so totally distinct from the accepted models of classical music that its very engagement with these new ideas, problems and principles should automatically require innovative thought.
It should be acknowledged, at this point, that there has been a fair amount of music written recently which aspires to be ‘genre-less’ – neither pop, classical nor, indeed, jazz, but (usually) somewhere in between. This kind of approach, an attempt to cut off all associations and start from a completely new position, would in theory seem to be a positive one. For some, it may indeed be a solution to many of the problems outlined at the beginning of this document. However, there are often issues with music that declares itself ‘genre-less’, or even ‘beyond’ or ‘above’ genre. Firstly, it is necessarily non-committal. By presenting itself as unique, it exempts itself from responsibility in the kind of agenda that I’m putting forward here, and might even deny the existence of problems within particular cultures, instead situating itself at a point outside of any tradition or culture. In calling itself unique and unclassifiable, it also cannot attempt to aim at any existing audience or fulfill any existing function. It cannot present itself as a possible compositional direction for students of either pop or classical traditions, even if it is perceived as such.
Moreover, though, the desire to come across as ‘genre-less’ often demonstrates a kind of absolutism that is built on an aversion to the idea of genre-as-socio-political-connotation. Most of this ‘genre-less’ music essentially uses the materials of pop music, often a small step away from prog- or post-rock, but aspires to the kind of absolute, unworldly values that classical music claims – a kind of ‘high’ pop. It covets many of those arbitrary connotations of art music which I have extensively criticised, and this often leads to a pop music with a distinct lack of ‘edge’, maintaining its structures and instrumentation but relinquishing its pointedness. A pop music that aspires to ‘classicism’ is necessarily very different to a classical music that aspires to populism. In order to truly experiment with the capabilities of classical ensembles, composers should avoid falling into ‘genre-free’ holes which mask their own narrow assumptions of the moods, themes and subjects which classical music can ‘naturally’ express.
Such an artistic reform must eventually be both extreme and absolute. What it mainly requires is long-term vision and optimism. Art music could be so much more than it is (it has been before, and I don’t really believe that many musicians would hesitate to agree). It could also quite happily continue in the form that it has currently taken, and continue to serve a very small purpose in society. For most people who are already musicians (and are equipped to make the necessary changes), this would seem to be the safest, most comfortable path. In my opinion, it is also an irresponsible one, both for society as a whole, and for the future of the music itself.
Initially, new developments may have to come from within the institutions. As I have mentioned before, many of the ideas that I have listed are not original – they may have been implemented on their own or together in a few cases by a few artists, to varying effect (a lot could be learned, for example, from Iceland’s Bedroom Community label, New York’s New Amsterdam Records and London’s Nonclassical amongst others). There is a danger, however, that apparent steps towards inclusion and populism may seem far greater than they really are, just as – in such a staunchly conservative musical culture – small creative decisions can be received as ‘ground-breaking’ or ‘incendiary’.
Eventually, in order to really achieve its goals, this movement will need to believe in the power and possibility of real independence from institutional support. It will have to start out small, but by following pre-existent structures in other artistic domains, especially pop music, it could quite quickly grow into a real cultural trend and, by provoking interest and demonstrating possibilities, it shouldn’t be hard to empower independent individuals or groups of musicians to attempt their own projects. With enough determination, such a trend could go on to inspire the musical institutions with enough confidence and specific guidance to effect similar changes themselves. There’s no harm in idealism where art is concerned. But it is up to the musicians to take the first steps.
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towards a new classical music culture
- Classical music has allowed itself to occupy a smaller and smaller space in contemporary culture, to the extent that nowadays most people – even those interested in other cutting-edge art-forms – don’t know or care to know anything about it.
- i. lack of presence and relevance as a living art-form – Pop music has filled pretty much all the roles that classical music used to aspire to in functioning as a musical art-form that reflects and comments upon modern society and engages with the contemporary cultural moment.
- ii. aesthetic preoccupations – Classical musicians have come to regard their own art as necessarily and ‘essentially’ aspiring to, and capable of, a number of arbitrarily-assigned aesthetics and value systems which are both anachronistic and dangerously limiting.
- iii. alienation of the young – Thanks largely to these value systems, and the archaic models that have become normalised as ‘the way classical music functions’, the entire artistic tradition has (often purposefully) constructed itself in opposition to the kind of values and aesthetic emphases that appeal to younger people. One of the key problems here is its massive, shameless emphasis on the reperformance of old works at the expense of new creation.
- iv. music for musicians – One of the most dangerously enduring myths, which has long ago penetrated to the heart of every musical institution, is that it’s OK to write, present or market music largely to other people with a specialist practical understanding of music, and that the only way to interest a potential audience in classical music is to turn them into musicians.
- Classical music has for a long time sought to distinguish itself from pop music, not just in terms of musical structures but in terms of socio-cultural connotations, modes of dissemination, aesthetic trends, etc. Since pop music quite naturally evolves with the changing contours of modern society, this has meant that classical music has ended up purposefully distinguishing itself from modern society and culture.
2. overall aims
- i. separatism – In order to fully shed the assumptions and connotations deeply ingrained in classical music culture, a new musical movement should be based entirely outside of the big institutions.
- ii. new alignments – In order to quickly bring itself into line with other more socially and culturally engaged art-forms, new classical music should align itself to, collaborate with and take inspiration from other cutting-edge artistic traditions, more general modern artistic trends, and youth and popular cultures – especially that of pop music.
- iii. new audience – New classical music has its most immediate potential audience in the fans of niche independent pop music, hungry for new sounds, impervious to experimental complexity and dissonance, but as yet alienated by irrelevant connotations and rituals.
- iv. new materialism – In order to quickly counteract the damage caused by the narrowing of classical music’s aesthetic horizons, composers and musicians should embrace a ‘New Materialism’, looking to construct a self-replacing, constantly renewing culture of music for the present, rather than a fixation with the past (or, in fact, the future) and the chimeras of ‘timelessness’ and ‘universality’.
3. compositional solutions
- i. engagement with pop music – Bearing in mind how few the essential differences actually are between classical and pop music (structural development, timbral combinations, recognisable tropes, harmonic gestures etc.), composers can afford to try and recreate some of the particular moods and effects of pop, as well as its processes, devices and presentational structures, which are in no way inaccessible to classical ensembles, just deemed ‘inappropriate’ by its previous value systems. Composers should take on the challenge of maintaining the instrumental/vocal forces standardised throughout the 20th century, and working with the kinds of harmonic and textural languages developed, but using these to new ends in order to access new, culturally-contemporary aesthetics and concerns.
- ii. contemporary values and concerns – For a new musical movement to have its most powerful effect, these should be in stark contrast to the kind of values and concerns deemed ‘essential’ to traditional classical music. Examples include ‘immediacy’, ‘specificity’, ‘disposability’ and ‘fashionableness’.
- iii. intelligibility and accessibility – It is impermissible for a work to be wilfully unintelligible. Music should make an effort towards accessibility, including the use of vernacular language and reasonable durations, and by avoiding any required familiarity with technical rules, jargon, musical history or other specialist knowledge in order to appreciate a piece.
- iv. cross-disciplinary inspiration and collaboration – The combination of different media can create very useful entry points to new audiences, while allowing more developed parallel art-forms to provide a launching point for musical works, drawing on their own audiences and meanings.
- i. the composer-personality – Rather than fetishising the distance between composer and music, a ‘composer-performer-personality’ should become standard, along with the development of a media image and the ability to tour with a personal ensemble, instantly making their music more marketable.
- ii. politics and religion – Classical music will always be held back unless it sheds the many standardised presentational ‘rituals’ and stock concerns which carry with them implicit sexist, racist and classist meanings. Moreover, the ties between classical music (especially choral music) and the church, mainly through its unsubstantiated claims on inherent ‘spirituality’, will always automatically separate it from other cutting-edge artistic movements and audiences.
- iii. a new approach to recording – The classical recording industry must be brought into line with the pop industry, by composers learning to feel comfortable with producing a ‘definitive’ recorded version of a piece which can then be endorsed and used to promote and represent them. This is the only way that classical music can make use of the incredibly powerful, criminally untapped resource of internet promotion.
- iv. a new live format – Pretty much every aspect of the concert hall ‘ritual’ has been arbitrarily assigned over time, and the swift relocation of performances into alternative venues (especially ones associated with pop performance) should nullify all of their alienating connotations. This move should be reflected in the composition of new music, appropriate for small venues, amateur ensembles, new programme formats and amplification.
- v. online presence – Classical music has to start taking the internet seriously, not just for concert promotion and artist homepages, but as a means to disseminate music and access a disparate but actively inquisitive audience. By being less obsessive about copyright, new composers will actually free up their music to getting heard and thereby performed, which should end up benefiting both them and their prospective listeners.
a few closing statements
- i. populism needn’t be reactionary – It also needn’t be cynical.
- ii. mainstream classical music doesn’t need protecting – There will always be enough die-hard traditionalists, and endless recordings, for this part of the culture to remain safe. Something much more fundamental is at stake.
- iii. pop music itself is in great shape – A new populist music movement shouldn’t aim to become pop music, nor should it strive for some genreless in-between world, but instead look to creatively and uncompromisingly return orchestral/chamber/vocal/choral music to some relevance within contemporary society and the cultural moment.
- iv. music is not for musicians – This is an absolutely fundamental tenet of pop music, but in reality almost alien to classical music. A new independent classical revolution must not be afraid to be idealistic and have vision; the status quo of classical music culture is so small and cliquey that it is finally now probably totally sustainable, but it could be so much more.
[confused? intrigued? scroll back up to the in-depth version for more detail]