The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

Amazing (disheartening) to realise that it’s been over half a year since i last posted. What happened? It’s hard to say really. It was winter and a bleak one at that. I have been busy – seeming to get ever busier – at work and also at play. I also found myself intimidated by my own expectations – blogging had gone from being fun to an obligation.


I decided i’d get through the winter via live music and i certainly kept my promise. I’ve lost count of how many gigs and concerts i’ve been to over the past months but they include some that were truly outstanding, beginning only a few days after my last post with the tenth anniversary celebration of Gilad Atzmon & the Orient House Ensemble up at the Arts Depot in Finchley. Three sets ranging from their early Arabic and Latin influenced stuff through to a Charlie Parker tribute with acerbic strings and then a full throttle hard bop set that i had to leave part way through or else i’d have been marooned in North London all night.

THE free jazz rhythm section, William Parker and Hamid Drake followed at the Vortex in early December, playing with with Norwegian saxophonist Frode Gjerstad. Had to leave that one early because of the snow. Remember the snow? The memory seems almost unreal after this bright, beautiful spring.

Charles Gayle, blowing his horn like a hurricane at Cafe Oto back in January was another great gig as were: Thomas Adès conducting the London Sinfonietta in February, Indian diva Asha Bhosle and Israeli bassist Avishai Cohen (both in March) and the Steve Reich festival i attended this last weekend. This last event was fantastic both in the quality (not to mention quantity) of the music and the atmosphere. It felt like the Steve Reich Proms.

The problem with writing about concerts though is that ultimately, unless the event was recorded, you were either there or you weren’t. It’s a different thing from exhibitions where you can at least post a photo or two of some of the works on show. Not only that but it always seems harder to evoke sound in words. And finally, atmosphere, that most intangible of substances, is so much more important at a concert which is – even when you’re in a room full of strangers – a collective experience in a way that an exhibition isn’t.

Music listened to alone is such a different experience. What you lose in immediacy you gain in privacy – in the chance to open up fully and individually. Listening to a recording over and over again you unpeel the layers of details that make up what seemed initially to be an indissoluble whole. You understand more.

Still, there is something you don’t understand until you hear music live and that’s is its capacity for coming to life. A recording is one manifestation of a piece, one life. Each time the music is played it takes on another life. It comes into being afresh for the performers and the audience present.

On Sunday morning Theatre of Voices performed Steve Reich’s Proverb and David Lang’s Little Match Girl Passion, both of which i’ve (now) got as recordings to and have been listening to (obsessively). The recordings are magnificent; yet on Sunday Theatre of Voices took Proverb to another level again. Radiant was the word the festival director used to describe their performance. It was. And then some.

This is one of the great ironies for me: that i love live music above all art forms and yet i loathe crowds – and my definition of a ‘crowd’ is six people. As the old saying goes, i’m caught between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea!

And who knows which is which…?

Why don’t people like Classical Music?

A month or two ago i read a history of the London Symphony Orchestra. A revelation, not least finding out how “Rock’n’Roll” some of its musicians have been – off-stage, if not on. It certainly made me want to hear more of their music and more Classical Music generally. It seems i’m one of a dwindling band however: one of the themes that dominates the latter part of the book is the idea that Classical Music is in crisis: its audiences are growing older while its repertoire remains dominated by music that was mostly written in the 18th and 19th centuries. The author also suggests that audiences are becoming less educated about the music they’re listening to.

Assuming this is true – and it sounds broadly correct to me – why should it be so? Classical Music is supposed to be one of the great achievements of Western culture so why should it struggle in this way?

Yesterday i read a blog which suggested that one of the genre’s biggest problems is its failure to engage with the popular music of the 20th Century. Earlier composers may have been happy to invoke the feel of folk music but most of their modern descendants seem to try to avoid acknowledging that Rock, Reggae, Electronica and so on exist.  Even more remarkable is the blind spot many demonstrate in relation to Jazz and to non-Western Music. Indeed composers and musicians often talk of “music” as though Classical Music was the only form in existence*.

This is a conceit which is almost guaranteed to irritate fans of other kinds of music. It also has another effect: in separating Classical Music so decisively from any other musical genre its would-be guardians actually make it harder for newcomers to connect with it. They don’t just keep its enemies at bay, they do the same to possible allies. If you don’t speak the language, know the references, accept the absolute aesthetic superiority of this musical form then you’re liable to be made to feel like an interloper: as though your opinions aren’t valid and your concert hall etiquette leaves something to be desired.

The blogger mentioned above also points out that the refusal to engage with popular music means that Classical Music lacks the sounds which make up most younger people’s sound worlds. How important is this? I think it doesn’t help matters – especially the lack of a strong rhythmic pulse. This is more of a problem in later music rather than earlier, which means ironically enough that many younger listeners find Bach more accessible than Beethoven – and definitely more accessible than Boulez.

Equally important i think is the way that Classical Music has identified itself (or allowed itself to be identified) so strongly with the old white/European/upper class cultural elite of the western world. It has fallen victim to a  rejection of that elite’s claims to hegemony. This has wider implications: whereas the refusal of a folk musician to embrace electronic sounds may be perceived as a mark of authenticity, the same attitude in Classical Music is seen as evidence that it’s out of touch, anachronistic, etc.

And then there’s the fact that Classical Music is harmonically complex and often extremely abstract. Its works – concertos, sonatas, symphonies and so on – are structured in very distinct (and to an outsider very perplexing) ways. Worse still the titles of these works provide little sense of what they are about or what they might offer us: 5th Symphony, Opus 28. Any added musical information (“Andante”, “Allegro”) is usually  in Italian! Audiences are increasingly unwilling to make the effort to do the work needed to be able to penetrate this mystery. As many people have said we live in an age of instant gratification. Mind you, we also live in an age of information overload and ever-increasing work pressures: tired, stressed people aren’t in the best place for studying music. And the same pressure on the school system means that there are often fewer chances to learn an instrument or learn about music generally than there were in previous decades.

Still… still… still… i listen to a Bach cantata or Beethoven piano concerto or even one of Rautavaara’s works and i can’t believe that people wouldn’t enjoy them if they gave them a go.

* Although this is changing slowly (too slowly?)