Whither Classical Music Fans? (Part I)

Part I: How I Came to Love Classical Music

[Update April 2017: Egh, I’m not sure about this piece. It’s more interesting as a demonstration into how humans organise chaotic thought-processes into neat half-true stories than it is as a piece about music.]

I hated classical music. It sounded florid and pompous. It seemed archaic. It had no relevance for me. I’m pretty sure this is the same reaction most people have to classical music; indeed, it’s the default position of our culture. Yet somehow I changed. This is one of two posts where I try to detail that process. My hope is that the posts will give some insight into how we can make sure future generations inherit this incredible art form, given its unpopularity in our time.

Charles Ives

What started my interest, I think, was a simple question. When I was about 17 and doing music A Level, we had this wonderful chief examiner chap come in. He was a thin older man, about 70, with a full white beard and a fantastic personality. For some reason, he played me the last movement of Charles Ives’ Second Symphony, the one that builds up festively with ‘Columbia, the gem of the ocean’ until ending on a sharp violent chord. The question that he asked rhetorically, and has bothered me for three years now, is why did that chord contain every note of the chromatic scale but one?

I had barely listened to classical music before, and for about a year and a half after I didn’t explore it any further. But that one question — little more than an aside — I always came back to, and never forgot the name Charles Ives. This was the seed that had lodged itself in the pavement cracks. I guess the question fascinated me as it has so many implications. What are the aesthetic reasons for assembling notes a certain way? What kind of person would end a symphony — a form of music I knew nothing of, except to know it was important — on a probable joke? Was classical music really the stultified archaic art form I thought it was?

The best thing you can do to make someone interested is ask the right questions. Don’t wax lyrical about your favourite music, but provoke with good questions. Instead of playing La Mer and saying, This is Debussy’s musical representation of the sea, ask the person, How do you imagine the sea sounds? Think of the slow work of nature, of waves, of the wind, of the expanse, of the imagery and mood — how do these sound? Then play La Mer. Introduce Charles Ives’ Fourth of July by asking the fun question: what kind of racket is produced when two marching bands walk into each other? When people told me about classical music I couldn’t be more put off. You have to want to explore it, and you have to be made curious to do that.

Let’s rewind. Before this I was a rock and metal fan. My tastes from about 5 to my late teens went from Buddy Holly to Alice Cooper to King Crimson to Blut Aus Nord and more. Generally by about 15 my tastes became more pretentious, with phases where I was a Yes fan and an extreme metal fan and so on. Underlying all this was, I think, an urge to find better music. I hit a block at about 16. I didn’t really discover any new music, and I was completely unsatisfied listening to what was in my library.

Music up to this point had been the primary focus of my life. I was a guitarist above all else, and had played in bands since starting secondary school. I was arrogantly amateur, refusing to learn music theory for years, then only doing so under the strong encouragement of my uncle. I rejected all forms of music but the ones I liked (thus very hostile to classical music), having what some might call a ‘progressive’ vision where all that mattered was the music of the future, which I perceived to be forms of rock and metal. This attitude, as you might imagine, trapped me completely. I wanted something from music that I could not get from within the narrow confines I had stubbornly made for myself.

An example of the kind of things I listened to during this period of my life (by no means was all of it extreme metal, though). It was a dead end.

At about 17 or 18 I all but gave up. Although I had a few moments that had influenced me, notably the above Ives question and a very tentative interest in minimalists like Arvo Part and Steve Reich (every pretentious rock musician seems to have had a minimalist phase), these moments weren’t relevant until later. My experiences with music at school were also abysmal, with our main music teacher turning out to be a con man, running off without explanation. Our results were not good, as you can imagine.

I went to university and tried to shift my focus to other things: my experience with music began to seem like a pointless flirtation. When you have spend much of your life dedicated to music of some kind or another, that’s a pretty horrible realisation.

So what happened? It wasn’t until the summer of last year when I was 19 that it all changed. It was the oddest thing. I was having a conversation with dad, one of those long post-dinner ones with drink. Now, he is a music enthusiast but exclusively with rock and its variants. Somehow, the topic of the impossibility of getting into classical music cropped up. I agreed with his points, that the many works were too formidable, that the culture seems too distant, that it just doesn’t grab you like rock does.

But then I said to him that I’ve been intrigued by this Ives guy a bit, and I was. The odd thing is, I think this was the first time I’d discussed how to enjoy and understand classical music — ever. In the popular music world, one just doesn’t discuss how to listen to music — it’s taken as self-evident. I started, to my own surprise, to talk vaguely about Ives’ eccentricity, and then for some reason began to talk about him as if I were intimately familiar with his work (quite the opposite was true). It was as if there were this heavy boulder at the top of a hill that I’d been pushing at for years, and all of a sudden it began to roll uncontrollably. Those questions began to nag me again: what was that chord at the end of the symphony? Why was Ives such a maverick? Why was he described to me as a controversial figure?

For weeks after, I obsessed over Ives’ work. Within a month I’d heard 90% of what he’d written. I didn’t understand much of it, that’s for sure. But there were bits that seemed as if they were written in plain English, and were so wonderful, nothing like the abstract language of most classical music (so I perceived it). He recreated sounds — memories — and distorted and tinkered with them, creating an incredible soundworld that somehow managed to transcend itself and speak to the universal condition. It took time, but I got that much. When I first heard the choir come in at the end of Thanksgiving and Forefathers’ Day it felt as if I had entered heaven. It took reading about his music and others’ to understand the other 80% of what was going on, but my foot was in the door and I was damn well sure I wanted in.

Ives’ Holidays Symphony was the work above all others that totally convinced me of the worth of classical music.

I’m still not sure exactly why or how the interest was triggered, but I did know it the epiphany was long overdue. I had for years developed a great interest in music, searching for meaning and asking myself many questions. It’s just unfortunate that I’d found myself trapped in a musical culture that is so unfulfilling. I knew deep down that I was playing and listening to kitsch, to crap. The trouble is, I never really knew what I wanted to hear.

I apologise if that was all too biographical. My next post will be a sort of letter to my younger self, trying to work out how it is that we can convert any young person to classical music (not that I consider myself at all representative of the average young person). When it comes to classical music I’m pretty much an egalitarian, and get so annoyed when people think classical music isn’t for people like them (something almost no one who likes classical music actually believes). It’s for all of us — it’s a common cultural inheritance. I don’t see any good reason why any young person — or any person — can’t enjoy classical music.

I’ll leave you with a piece of juvenilia. When I was about 18, and had retreated into myself musically, failing to discover any new music that felt meaningful, I started recording a lot of music. It was largely rubbish, and I thank God I found classical music a couple of years after. But here it is anyway for you to, erm, enjoy…