Quiet seems rarer than ever before. Televisions blare, phones make these tinny squeals, car engines moan, people chat over the humming and grunting of omni-present technology; and others are inconsiderate of the fact that, when listening to music, many of us do not wish to be disturbed. Music is an activity in itself, and not a supplement to one’s daily activities. If anything, daily life seems hostile to classical music.
I’m starting to think modern society has, knowingly or not, designed itself in sharp opposition to classical music. The topic came to mind when I was listening to a work — a concerto — on my iPhone the other day, and it was described as a song. I hadn’t noticed this before. When I scrolled through my library, every track was in fact described as a song. Songs make up the bulk of popular music but are probably a minority of classical music.
This is a trivial example, but it gets the ball rolling. There is a clear divide between classical and popular music, and the latter has dominance. Popular culture has prioritised music that makes you move over music that makes you feel. The focused, intense and active listening experience is fought against at every turn. The listener is expected to do no work except to let their body react in whichever rude way it wants. Any music without explicit, pulsing metres and immediate accessibility is a big no, then.
The ‘loudness war’ is a side effect of this, whereby the dynamics of all modern recorded music is squashed and raised in order to produce the most bombastic physical effect possible. The dynamic range of classical music is a rude shock to many. It just isn’t as dense and loud enough to block out surrounding noises.
What should be a rude shock to many, but is instead the vulgar norm, is the importance of sexuality in popular music. Even in the most awful Peter Sellars operas, you won’t see a nearly-nude model twerking frenetically. This is so bad that it’s become a novelty in popular culture to see an not-so-attractive person sing well (Adele at the very beginning; at the extreme end, Susan Boyle). Classical performers are not only less sexual, but much of the genre itself is not at all visual either.
The emphasis on performers has denigrated the role of the composer. The era of singer-songwriters (despite the fact many don’t actually write their own songs) means that few understand and appreciate how a classical work is delivered — i.e. how musicians interpret the composer’s work and why that’s important. The worst of this is when someone thinks that classical musicians are dinosaurs, rigidly sticking to a score without any individuality and expressiveness. No, I lie: the worst is when ill-informed people don’t even distinguish between composer and performer.
Perhaps I’m being too much of a miserabilist. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time. I must admit I was left hopeful a month or so back when seeing the Aurora Orchestra perform in the streets of Norwich. They are quite an exciting young orchestra who abide by two popular conventions: they play standing up, and they play from memory. A portable orchestra, as it were.
Playing in the gardens, a shopping mall and outside the imposing Millennium Library, they attracted a large interested audience who sat through the entire performance of the outer movements of Beethoven 5. The orchestra did not seem too out of place, and the public clearly enjoyed it. It was Beethoven, so the sounds of cars (although less of a problem in a city like Norwich) and pedestrian traffic had stiff competition. I was close up, so it was doubtless better for me. But still, with the noticeable background noise I didn’t enjoy the music as much as I had when listening to recordings at home.
What I did enjoy, however, was other people enjoying the music. A woman behind me was humming away to the fourth movement; I couldn’t tell if she knew it already or had simply picked up the melody. I yielded to temptation and joined in. I heard another woman, upon the performance ending, say to her friend, ‘luvly jubbly!’
As wonderful as this all is, many people were interested by the performance, I suspect, because it was a novelty. Towns and cities are not spaces conducive to classical music, with many lacking a dedicated concert hall. I enjoyed the event so much because such events are odd in modern life, because classical music is odd in modern life.
I remember walking back, and past the gardens at which the orchestra had earlier played. There now was a ghastly rock band attracting a much larger crowd. And gone was my flirtation with hope.