The Fire of Life

Grandad was an inexhaustibly genial man who knew how to live well. There are those of us who live our lives anxiously, who have lost so many days fretting over tomorrow. We may even be grateful for what we have, but we certainly aren’t content. Grandad would let ‘the morrow take thought for the things of itself’. He filled his time with painting, music, poetry, nature, scribbling, conversation and, perhaps most of all, family.

Just before Christmas his health deteriorated rapidly and a week ago he passed away. Fortunately, he was able to die in his home (which is becoming something of a rarity). The final days were mercifully free of pain and contained many wonderful moments. His smile and gleaming eyes, his cheeky winks and comic frowns — essentially, his good nature — survived exhaustion and delusion.

He was born in Birmingham in 1923. His memories of this time reveal an almost foreign country. People went to see silent black-and-white films in cinemas staffed with commissionaires who wore peaked hats and resplendent brown and gold uniforms. At the end of the film, the audience would stand as ‘God Save the King’ played. Grandad cycled three miles to school every day; one could also traverse the city by tram. Children innocently played with knives. Parents might spank their children. Dads assembled home-made radio sets and would tune into the one station available, the BBC (though the static would have made much of it inaudible). People listened to fragile — though heavy — ’78s’ on crackling monophonic gramophones.

In 1933 Grandad’s family moved to London. For some reason he did not take to his new school. By his own admission he became a less than perfect student. In 1939 his form master signed him up for art college, telling him ‘you are not much use at anything else, Watson!’

The Second World War interrupted his studies. It broke out two days before his sixteenth birthday, and by 1941 he was old enough to serve. He signed up for the aircrew in the RAF but failed the rather strict examination (possibly because of his hearing). He was, however, retained by the RAF and eventually called up in 1942. For a while he was a ‘wireless operator’ in a training base, and later he was shipped off to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) where he served as photographer until the end of the war.

He never stopped painting and eventually got a job as a ‘technical illustrator’. Come the last several years of his life, poor eyesight and arthritis meant he found it very difficult to draw. But by then he had a vast body of work to look back upon, with most of the family owning a ‘D. T. Watson’ painting. Still, despite his old age he would sketch things from time to time — birds, plants, people. As Nan said to him (and I’m paraphrasing slightly), ‘Monet was blind and painted those beautiful flowers — so what’s your excuse?”

Grandad was equally enthusiastic about music. He could often be found listening to his favourite Sinatra tunes and singing along merrily. (Up until the last weeks he had a splendid voice, even in his 90s.) He had been musical from an early age. In grammar school he was second fiddle in the orchestra. And while at art college he was a drummer in a ‘semi-pro’ dance and jazz band (though not, he would readily admit, a good one).

Remarkably, he had kept the violin for all these decades, but it was damaged so badly in the war that it became unplayable. A couple of years ago we decided to get it restored. He got to play it for the first time in 80 years. With some success he set about learning Offenbach’s ‘Barcarolle’ and the melody from the second movement of Dvorak’s New World Symphony.

In the last week of his life he asked me to play the violin to him. Despite a weak voice and questionable grip on reality, he gave a perceptive critique of my playing. After the first thing I played — a major scale, I think — he told me I could do better. And so I tried, but with a cheeky smile he said I was about the same as last time. Frankly he was being generous: I haven’t the foggiest idea how to play the violin. When I instead played it pizzicato — like a guitar, my native instrument — he told me off for cheating.

I was not there when he died, so I decided to go see the body. I had never seen a dead body before and was ill-prepared. He was lying on a bed dressed in a clean set of pyjamas. A thin white sheet came up to his chest. He did not look at rest — it was something more eery than that. His body was emaciated, so much so that there was something grotesquely biological about it. He used to sleep with his eyes half-open and his mouth gaping; it was unnerving to see both his eyes and mouth shut. But what really frightened me was that I was convinced he was breathing. It bordered on hallucination: I swear to you I could see his chest rise and fall at regular intervals. Nevertheless, there was no doubt in my mind that I was staring at a corpse. All his apparent breathing did was inspire fear, not false hope. I feared that something had taken possession of him. A lifeless body has a demonic look to it. I knew that someone had become something. And whatever that something is, it continues to haunt me. It was empty and soulless — I saw how evil is the absence of good. Myths of zombies and vampires suddenly made complete sense. I seriously entertained the possibility that the body might get up and strangle me. Nothing could possibly be that still. It must have been deception. I never looked away, not for a second.

I knew that his soul, his being, or whatever you wish to call it, was gone — either extinguished or elsewhere. I may have already known that intellectually, but it wasn’t until seeing the body that I knew it viscerally.

When we were searching through his files and wodges of paper, we came across copious notes, stories, lyrics, poems, drawing, cuttings and so on. One poem had written beside it, ‘to be read at my funeral’. The poem is the ‘Dying Speech of an Old Philosopher’ by Walter Savage Landor. It’s the perfect choice:

I strove with none, for none was worth my strife:
Nature I loved, and, next to Nature, Art:
I warm’d both hands before the fire of Life;
It sinks; and I am ready to depart.


Black is the night

The darkness is encroaching into the day as the clocks move back and winter comes. To celebrate this unfortunate fact, we end the month of October with bands of children in absurd costumes who set out to frighten nice suburban residents.

So what better time to talk about black metal?

Black metal is a proudly grotesque form of music. The black metal fan enjoys highly-distorted, poorly-produced music that is simple and repetitive and over which one band member screams demonically. None of this is in fact an insult; many black metal fans would embrace this description wholly.

The traditional black metal performer dresses something like this:


Newer bands, and those who belong to strange sub-genres, often forgo the traditional attire, or at least tone it down. The chap pictured above, nicknamed Ghaal, is somewhat old school — now heading into his middle-age. (Does that explain his slight stoop in the picture?) There is sort of ‘early music movement’, as it were, within black metal. It consists of those even more ‘traditional’ than Ghaal. They like the themes to be unabashedly satanic and Norse-inspired, the recording quality to be primitive, the music to be at best skeletal — as it was in the early days of black metal.

It would be a mistake to think that these ridiculous chaps in their satanic garbs are all mere poseurs. Some were genuinely violent, even murderous. The dozens of church burnings in Norway were no small matter. Ghaal tortured a man and was later imprisoned. Varg Vikenes, one of the earliest and most influential performers, murdered the guitarist of a rival band, aided in several church burnings and kept explosives in his home. For all this, the lenient Norweigian system gave him only twenty-one years in prison. And still he was released six years early. He now spends much of his time making National Socialist YouTube videos for his nearly 150,000 subscribers.

This is all very sensational and grimly fascinating, but what about the music? Let’s listen to some, ‘Transilvanian Hunger’ by Darkthrone, recorded in 1994 (and no, it’s not YouTube’s fault: the music is supposed to sound that tinny):

This seems to me to be self-evidently bad music. But its problems aren’t actually unique to the genre. Like most rock and metal, the emphasis is on (and this is not an exhaustive list):

  • extra-musical qualities (theatre, image etc.)
  • an interest in sound as much as music (the ‘sound’ that characterises not only the genre but each band, and the use of non-musical — some might say anti-musical — sound effects, e.g. the low-fi production)
  • a very limited use of harmony
  • a repetition of simple riffs
  • escalating the volume and thus limiting the dynamic range

What’s worse is that black metal is even simpler and more primitive than most metal. In its original form, it was basically punk music but slower and more miserable. And like punk, the fashion mattered far more than the music.

Nevertheless, these dank underbellies of the metal world often do attract some good musicians. Many of them have ignored the proscription against complexity, disavow some of the nastiness, but like the dark, lonely feel — the emphasis on ‘atmosphere’ and the like.

Okay, here is where this embarrassed blogger fesses up: I was once a black metal fan — well, ‘fan’ might be a bit strong. I never, ever dressed like that pillock above, to start with! But there were a few bands I was obsessed with. One was a French band with a German name, Blut Aus Nord. It only really consists of one chap who goes by the name Vindsval. He never performs live and never has revealed his real name. So I assume he continues this project out of a love of music, not vanity and image. It’s been a few years, so I wondered, given my radical musical transformation towards classical music, what I make of it now. First, a listen:

It does have a certain perverse majesty. Still, listening again I find many problems with this music that I would have missed a few years ago. Melodies that seldom last longer than two bars — and when they do, it is far from seamless. Ideas that are never really developed. Repetition ad nauseam. The piece consists of a succession of ideas, the kind of thing most young aspiring composers do when they start out: they have so many ideas that they put them all down one after another, rather than extracting from each idea all that they can.

But Vindsval obviously does take care to craft these ideas. They don’t follow standard rock/metal chord progression; he experiments with metres, modality, modulations, chromaticism. This leads to some jerky transitions, but also some genuinely interesting music.

A bit over two years ago I released a black metal EP. It’s still available online, for free, and as I’ve long since forgotten both my username and password it will doubtless remain there. The music was not traditional black metal. It belonged to a tiny subgenre, namely ‘industrial black metal’. I made a whopping $2 from it (before tax…) and amazingly got two reviews. Rock and metal reviews are invariably silly, and extreme metal reviews are among the most amusing. My little EP was given this flattering description:

The force of the pounding beats is enough to convert skyscrapers into craters and the discordant guitar excretions, grinding bass tones, and surrounding shroud of distortion are eerie enough to suggest an alien presence behind the decimation.

Here it is:

I have mixed feelings about that whole period. But anyway, soon after that EP I found classical music and it’s been nothing but sunlit uplands since then. To cleanse both palate and mind, here’s some genuinely good, though nonetheless frightening music, Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8:


Is Romanticising Musical Illiteracy Anything New?

There’s been a great and reassuring backlash to Charlotte E. Gill’s piffle suggesting, essentially, that to help students learn music we much teach them less, and to a lower standard. The dissenting letter warns that ‘Gill’s position could serve to make literate musical education even more exclusive through being marginalised yet further in state schools.’ I get the impression, however, that this revolution Gill advocates has been underway for some time.

In the UK, children have weekly music lessons for the first three ‘key stages’ (years 5-14). Somewhat understandably, it isn’t a compulsory subject in key stage 4 (14-16) — though quite useless subjects like computing and citizenship are. But neither is music, as often taught in schools, a particularly useful subject. The lessons I had (this is little over half a decade ago) were a great example of the aimless and undisciplined cacophony that comes with profound musical illiteracy. It was rare that students would even get to the stage of bashing out a few notes on a xylophone or flimsy keyboard. Idle chit chat would be interspersed with what resembled a kind of very childish playtime: fiddling with all the amusing sounds on the keyboard, ones that sounded vaguely pornographic or others that were just absurd, such as one key which when pressed would produce an exclamation of ‘dictionary!’. It is a struggle to come up with something we learnt in three years of music lessons (from 11-14).  Being generous, there were a couple of decent lessons on ragas (so much for Gill’s assertion about the hegemony of classical music).

So my experience runs counter to Gill’s impression that ‘for a creative subject, music has always been taught in a far too academic way, meaning that theoretical knowledge is the main route to advancement.’ And in my school at least, I and many other progressed just fine with very limited theoretical knowledge, a fact that I don’t celebrate. GCSE curriculum is very accommodating for non-classical music, and except for the Bach chorales, you could get away with very minimal music theory. A Level music can be a lot tougher. You have to have a solid understanding of Western Classical Music and be able to identify styles and periods and instruments by ear, as well as being able to notate musical extracts by ear, and in many cases you have to study — gasp! — entire orchestral works. Now, I just think, So what? But I do remember back when I was sixteen and without any knowledge of classical music that this was indeed a very daunting task. It was, and no doubt still is, quite a jump to that even basic analytical standard. If the idea of musical literacy were better introduced into the key stage 3 lessons in many schools, the numbers doing music later on would grow from their pitiful levels now, and indeed the diversity of music students, as Gill is concerned about, would increase.

However, even at A Level, there are ways to bypass musical literacy. You can study popular music, modern musical theatre or jazz in place of the Western tradition. And again, this betrays the Gill’s ignorance in thinking music education isn’t diverse enough — indeed, it may well be too diverse. I’m not sure, either, that those who actually study classical music at A Level show any great level of understanding — or at least, they are not taught or encouraged to think about music except in lifeless analytical or dubious programmatic terms. Here’s what I mean, in an apparently ‘exemplar’ A Level music essay on ‘How did Baroque composers convey the meaning of the text in their music?’:

Composers often used tonality and harmony to convey the meaning of the text. For
example, in choruses such as Handel’s Hallelujah and Glory to God, both of which are in the oratorio the Messiah, the tonality is D major and although this immediately evokes an emotion of joy because it is major, since they were in D major, the baroque trumpets were able to play and be prominent which is vital for movements with such celebratory libretto such as ‘Lord God omnipotent’ and ‘good will to men’. In fact, the entire of Monteverdi’s Versiculus Responsorium, the first movement of his Vespers is played and sung on a D major chord following the opening chant.

I remember this style of essay well: the regurgitation of ‘analysis’ which was spoon-fed to us and unsurprisingly meant we all wrote pretty much the same thing, unthinkingly. (This is, however, hardly unique to the one subject.) And how one can confidently talk of antiphonal writing or counterpoint, say, in an essay while having little idea what they mean.

Anyway, I’ve not experienced this great tyranny of music theory in schools that Gill describes. But one man’s meat is another man’s poison, and I rather wish Gill’s description of an ‘elitist’ music education were closer to the reality. Surely the best schools are the ones with orchestras and high levels of music theory and an ambitious and disciplined approach to music education?

I also wrote an immediate response to the article a few days ago, but it wasn’t especially interesting, which is why I felt compelled to write another.

Reflections on Learning Classical Guitar

Why the guitar? It’s a quiet, harmonically-limited, high-maintenance instrument compared to the piano, its chief polyphonic rival. The guitar has to be retuned daily, if not hourly, and restrung every month or two. It can play only four or, at a push, five notes simultaneously, whereas the piano can play up to ten. However, the guitar is by far my preferred instrument to play and to listen to.

In my more cynical moments, the piano seems a poor emotionless substitute for a full orchestra. It is far too mechanised. Most of the time, a guitarist needs two fingers to play one note, and the sound produced will be almost totally dependent on how the guitarist does this. The guitar therefore has a much greater variety of sounds, even if it lacks the orchestral scope of the piano. The piano, on the other hand, has just one attack, the hammer, variable only very slightly, and is incapable of glissandi, most harmonics, vibrato, and so on.

There is in fact a rich history of piano-bashing, particularly back when the modern piano was perceived as a great vulgariser. One shouldn’t take this too seriously, but Berlioz, a guitarist himself, in his excellent Memoirs goes on an enjoyable little rant about the great corrupting effect the piano was having on orchestral writing. Concluding, he writes that ‘the piano, for the orchestral writer, is a guillotine that severs the head of noble and of churl with the same impartial indifference’!

Perhaps it is a blessing of sorts, then, that the guitar isn’t quite manipulable enough to emulate full orchestral scores. It makes it a humbler and more intimate instrument, and one which the player has to exercise a much greater degree of control over. This is why it takes more learning than the piano to play tolerably.

The lute was once preferred over the keyboard, until at some point in the Baroque period. The instrument perhaps reached its peak in the first half of the seventeenth century, or there about — certainly the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were when it was most prominent — and then its use rapidly declined. It was possibly its own doing, becoming an impossibly high maintenance instrument, with over a dozen courses (double strings) becoming commonplace. It faced extinction in the Classical era, but thankfully it was revived as part of the 20th century Early Music revival, and now you may well have better chance finding a lute recital in London than a guitar recital.

It’s a common mistake, however, to think the guitar is a child of the lute. The guitar is more a descendant of the vihuela, a Spanish instrument contemporary to the lute. It died out quicker than the lute but was superseded by the Baroque guitar, though it was more of a continuo instrument than a solo polyphonic instrument. Here are two Fantasias by Mudarra played on a Vihuela.

The guitar today owes a lot to Fernando Sor’s innovations during the Classical era. His compositions are not especially interesting musically but their pedagogical use has survived centuries. (His contemporary, Mauro Giuliani, is also worth exploring. I find his work more fun too, particularly his guitar concertos.) Julian Arcas, Francisco Tarrega and then Heitor Villa Lobos kept it alive during the Romantic era and into the 20th century. The guitar became a more common instrument, however, when gut strings were — forgive me for this — gutted, and the instrument actually held its tuning thanks to nylon strings. Segovia had popularised the guitar before then and continued to after, but in many ways his death liberated players from his dictatorial and sometimes incorrect pedagogy. The other twentieth century guitarist probably most worth mentioning, especially from a British perspective, is Julian Bream, for whom much of modern guitar music was written. Probably the most famous of which (and justly so) is the Nocturnal after John Dowland by Benjamin Britten, which is based on a song by English lutenist John Dowland, Come Heavy Sleep. The song melody emerges sublimely at the end. Here’s Bream playing the second half of the work:

I imagine a lot of this is as new to many readers as it was to me. From about 10-18 years old (that is, a few years ago) I was an electric guitarist. In that time I did Grade 8 electric guitar and much more importantly Grade 8 theory. Following a few years of not playing, having become terrifically unsatisfied and upset about music, I picked up the classical guitar after having almost miraculously discovered classical music. There were many factors influencing this, but having developed a love for classical music on my own, the internet was my primary means of discovery, and I would be amiss if I didn’t mention the importance of one blog, The Music Salon, whose author’s biography I found very encouraging. He made the transition from electric guitar to classical guitar at around 20, a similar age to me, albeit some decades ago, and became a very accomplished professional guitarist. I’m not sure I aspire for, or am capable of, the latter, but when considering whether to take up the classical guitar I had many doubts, as ridiculous as they may sound, about being too old to be any good at it.

Anyway, what I wanted to note is that the electric guitar does not in fact share the traditions of the classical guitar. You may be able to trace it back to the vihuela, but the electric guitar’s more obvious predecessors are the 19th century steel-string folk guitar and the banjo. It is something of a historical coincidence that the electric guitar seemed to be developed and popularised at the same time as the modern classical guitar, during the early-mid twentieth century.

So transitioning from electric to classical not only presents technical difficulties but also even greater cultural difficulties. You are inheriting a different tradition, such that the feel of the music, the performance practises, the nature of the score and improvisation, and the role of the guitar (the electric guitar is always part of a band, for instance) differ profoundly. Nevertheless, going from electric guitar or acoustic guitar to classical, despite the necessity of much unlearning, is still beneficial. You already have an interest in playing music in an era where that urge has withered. Why bother learning to play music when a five-inch slab of plastic can play all the music you’d ever want for you? In some ways, I’m grateful to have begun learning before the birth of Spotify, when music was not as omnipresent and music libraries not nearly as voluminous.

The thing about the electric guitar, also, is that it tends to attract talent, as its repertoire and style is often much more challenging and accomplished than other popular instruments. A metal guitarist in particular will know their phrygian mode from their lydian, can play scales and arpeggios with rapid precision, have a grasp of some degree of rhythmic complexity, and will be very capable improvisers. (With the popularity of this instrument and considering the sizeable minority of its players who are genuinely skilled and disciplined, a mass exodus to classical guitar is not an altogether impossible dream…)

All that said, the chasm between electric and classical is still great. Just to begin with, the classical guitar neck is like grabbing an elephant’s leg — so different to the narrow, slender neck of an electric. Your fingers don’t know quite where to go. All those habits from electric guitar playing — the left thumb hooked around the neck, the long left-hand stretches, the flexible postures, the devious ability to cloak mistakes with distortion — just get in the way. This is not even to mention the disconcerting switch from plectrum to fingers and the switch from single-voice to multiple-voice playing.

This is all such that, though I was a quite good electric guitar player, I’m a more clumsy, amateur classical one. Several wrong notes on electric guitar and it can still be a great performance. Several wrong notes while playing a Scarlatti sonata, say, and you’ve buggered up bigly. Classical instruments are naked things whose colour and dignity and beauty depend on who dresses them. With an electric guitar, the amplifier does most of that for you, and can easily cover up the blemishes. Though to my ear now, the lack of a human touch is painfully obvious.

The most useful classical guitar exercises I’ve found are those that deal with tone and balance. Scales and arpeggios are absolutely essential to make one an accurate player, but accuracy cannot make dull playing enchanting. For one exercise I just sit and play a B minor chord, for instance — B F# B D — and each time I try to accent a different note. This is much harder than you would think. But particular stuff like this is vital to learning the guitar: we may not have the sheer number of notes available and complexity that a piano has, but ours is by far a more expressive instrument.

The other problem is reading scores. Pieces for electric guitar grades will generally have two staves: the top one in musical notation, the bottom one in tablature. For me, this meant I read the tabs for the notes and the score for the rhythm. As anyone switching from rock to classical guitar will likely find that their playing will be much faster than their ability to read scores. Nevertheless, it’s worth the struggle. That sense of accomplishment when you learn a great piece is unlike any other. And in an era of low-attention spans, one where I included struggle to read books without very quickly and regularly distracting myself, it is strange and marvellous that I’m able to spend hours with the guitar without even the fear of distraction.

The final thing I want to do is recommend some resources and works for newcomers to the guitar, particularly those migrating from another instrument. The stuff that comes to mind:

  • The two books most helpful to me were Scott Tennant’s Pumping Nylon and Charles Duncan’s The Art of Classical Guitar Playing. Study those and you’ll have a solid foundation of guitar technique. (If anyone has other recommendations, please do say.)
  • Concerning repertoire, Fernando Sor’s studies are excellent, as everyone will tell you. Starting out, something like Luys Milan’s Pavanas are quite good. (However, the tempos are much faster than one initially thinks. In mensural notation the lowest value was the semifusa, the semiquaver or sixteenth note. So although a pavana is not a fast dance, I play the pieces as if the notes were half the value, otherwise it’s like a bloody dirge.) A lot of John Dowland’s work is manageable for someone of modest ability (though, of course, some of it really isn’t). One of the first pieces I learnt was Flow My Tears, which is the song version of his famous Lachrimae.
  • Some general tips are to explore the entire guitar, play ponticello (at the bridge) not just under or around the soundhole, play with a footstall or leg rest as much as possible and resist the temptation to slouch on the sofa with the guitar in hand, keep a contained and controlled right-hand and left-hand position (unlike the wild leaps of electric guitar), practise loads of finger-independence exercises, and don’t abandon your ‘a’ (ring) finger.
  • Read about music as much as possible. Even if it doesn’t seem relevant, reading people like Charles Rosen, say, will make one a better musician.
  • Also eat loads of jelly cubes and for goodness sake don’t use emery boards for filing your nails! (I use a glass file and P1200 sandpaper).

The last piece I learnt was John Dowland’s Frog Galliard, quite a popular piece for guitar. It’s probably of about intermediate skill. The fast runs are easier than they might initially seem (though that doesn’t mean I don’t frequently muck them up). The story goes that there was a ugly and petite dancer in Elizabeth I’s court with a face ruined by pox and an oversized nose. But boy was he a good dancer, favoured by Elizabeth for a time, and she referred to him as her ‘frog’. A galliard, by the way, was a dance in six beats popular in the Renaissance, appropriately characterised by a lot of leaping and jumping. Here’s a video:

Whither Classical Music Fans? (Part II)

Part I: How I Came to Love Classical Music

Part II: Converting People to Classical Music

There’s that old Charles Rosen line about the death of classical music being its oldest tradition. Well, that’s one tradition I could do without. The perception that it was a dinosaur, whose modern variations are unlistenable, put me off completely. Those of us who grew up without classical music struggle to see any relevance in it. And ‘relevance’ is what matters above all else to my generation.

Contrary to what many seem to expect, Bach and Mozart, say, are not automatically appreciated. To someone unfamiliar with classical music, they sound blandly similar — one’s just a bit more sombre than the other. For me, it took works with a very unique and striking language to persuade me of classical music’s worth. Hence Charles Ives. And Rite of Spring. And Bartok’s String Quartets. Then I could go back and piece things together. I heard Brahms and Tchaikovsky and Dvorak in Ives, so I could then enter that world.

There was really no greater barrier for me than this idea that classical music is dead, and that the future is popular forms (rock, metal etc.). Even when I’d finally gotten into classical music, I was for a long time under the frightening assumption that the best had long past, that I’d come late to the party. Early modernists, though they had a more familiar style, were still a century old.

The canon may be a problem. Note that I say this with great reluctance, given my natural deference to tradition and antiquity. But just because the canon is popular with existing audiences doesn’t mean it will be with newcomers. From my perspective, it was much easy to enjoy the music of Thomas Ades than that of Bach, say. (The one exception, though this may just be me, is Beethoven, who has a certain muscle, whose Seventh Symphony is so dance-like, that his work immediately appeals.)

Thomas Ades’ In Seven Days was the first of his works to grab me. It starts with a clear pulse, has a recognisable chord sequence — it sounds almost pop-like at first. Some critics didn’t like this: ‘Unfortunately, all I heard was one banal idea morphing into the next, vague references to symphonic rock or to movie soundtracks, endless, rippling motion up and down unimaginative scale progressions.’ That last criticism could be made of Beethoven for goodness sake. And is there intrinsically something wrong with ‘vague references to symphonic rock or to movie soundtracks’? I wish classical composers would look at why people like pop more, and use it to inform future works (this is very much distinct from simply borrowing from the language of popular music). It is not that the audience or the ‘consumer’ is always right — most certainly not. But neither is the composer always right (nor the music critic). And sometimes a bit of populism can be a grand thing, as with Aaron Copland. Anyway, here’s Ades’ In Seven Days:

Late 20th century and 21st century music is excellent because it’s largely abandoned total atonality, isn’t embarrassed to be speedy and comprehensible, but is no less adventurous because of it. The era of incomprehensible music seems to be over, the clouds lingering from the Second World War finally giving way to the sun. Quite popular new works like Hans Abrahmsen’s song cycle Let Me Tell You, for example.

Or for something more festive, Anna Clyne’s Masquerade, which opened 2013’s Last Night of the Proms:

Despite my progressive tone, I’m not arguing for classical music to take its sensibilities from the modern world. Concert etiquette, the reverence for silence, is a wonderful thing, and for many of us that meditative intensity is a chief appeal. Nor do I think that performers in jeans and T-shirts or Yuja Wang-esque dresses is going to persuade anyone but the culture writers at the Guardian. My focus is wholly aesthetic, as it should be. What do people in the 21st century like about music, and how can classical music respond to these desires.

And what they do like can in fact be anti-modern. During a pre-concert talk I was at, it was said that younger listeners are particularly attracted to sacred music. I cannot say with any certainty whether this is true for others, but it’s certainly true for me. The beauty, the use of silence, the spiritual versus the material, all feed a desire that is in our society on the brink of starvation. Probably the most popular contemporary composers — as in the ones who are most popular outside the classical music world as well as within — are Arvo Part and, to a lesser extent, John Tavener and Gorecki. Tabula Rasa, Spiegel Im Spiegel, Song for Athene, The Protecting Veil, Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, so on. Sure, John Adams is popular, but his reach is limited. Steve Reich and Philip Glass are the only others, but as someone who went through the typical prog-rock phase of liking minimalism, I can assure you very few make it through all 50 minutes of Music for 18 Musicians, or even the first 10 minutes. But with Arvo Part, you can’t stop. Here’s his 2009 work Adam’s Lament:

If classical music is going to appeal, it needs to find it its place in society, its niche, something contemporary society has abandoned but people still long for. But that niche isn’t complexity, it isn’t challenging the listener per se — it’s beauty. This doesn’t mean ‘easy’ or ‘light’ music. It doesn’t mean ‘pretty’ music, either. The most popular music of the 20th century among the general public (though you can of course dispute me on this) are likely works like Holst’s Planets, Rodrigo’s Guitar Concerto, Copland’s Appalachian Springs, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Sure, some of these are perhaps ‘populist’ works — largely tonal, metrically intelligible — but if you want to attract people who live and breath popular music, dodecaphony is not the way to start. (As if hinting something, my spell checker wants to replace ‘dodecaphony’ with ‘cacophony’.)

You can engage new listeners with more challenging music, but it probably has to be packaged in something digestible. Gerald Barry’s spectacularly funny opera version of Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest is a good place to start:

A difficulty, though, is actually getting someone to sit down and listen to an entire work. Even a 10 minute work seems too long for many. Short of buying a concert ticket for them and transporting them there, I’m not sure how to counter this. (Even then, a friend has memorably conveyed to me his incredulity that I enjoy sitting down for a couple hours in motionless silence just listening to music. People act like like it’s some solemn pilgrimage that requires inhuman levels of discipline and self restraint.)

Admittedly, I do suffer from this kind of agitation myself in other regards. I struggle with cinemas, unable to simply sit back and enjoy a film, always instead wanting to look things up, check my phone. I watch television often as background entertainment, something I have on while I read the news or cook or do mundane tasks. I almost never sit down and just watch a TV show. I can’t say I read books without distraction, either.

For some reason it’s different with music. I don’t exactly know why — I wish I did. I imagine it’s that I have an vague idea about what I’m listening to: I can understand the syntax if not the exact words; I can hear the architecture of the music, its basic structure; I can hear intervals vertically and horizontally; I can identify themes, motifs, fragments. When I first listened to classical music I heard notes — pretty notes, radiant notes, jarring notes, so on — but they seemed to come and go like stones dragged in and out by the waves. And so it all just washed over me.

My saving grace was some basic music education I’d had, which helped me to understand the music though with no small effort on my part. I knew my scales and modes, could read music in a basic sense, knew my supertonic from my subdominant and all that, but couldn’t compose a listenable piece of music, nor sight read, nor perform at all well, and only just scraped my theory exams. I realise nowadays this might be considered a bit more than amateur — few amateur musicians (non-classical) seem even to know what the harmonic minor scale is — but it was enough. I don’t think it is too much for children to learn these basic things in school, as opposed to the awful music lessons I had in which, if it was a particularly productive lesson, we would spend an hour trying to play the melody of My Heart Will Go On on the keyboard (not from a score of course).

Another problem is fandom. Is there really such a thing as a classical music ‘fan’, despite the title of this post? You can be a fan of One Direction or an Arsenal fan. But there isn’t the same kind of tribalism in classical music.  Fans of popular music acts hold them up as idols, are obsessed with their personalities and their image. They want to know everything about their idol’s biography. They enjoy the celebrity. But they don’t really want to know about the music. They don’t make aesthetic judgements, they don’t judge a new song by its artistic worth (nor would they be able to).

Classical music ‘fans’ invariably know more about a composer’s works than a composer’s biography. The work exists beyond the composer, too, and can be judged as a separate object, one that is interpreted by its performers (quite often to the irritation of its author, it must be said). This distinction between classical music composers and performers — as opposed to the hermaphroditic composer-performer setup in popular music — is surprisingly unclear to most young people.

Moreover, we all in popular culture are impatient listeners, people who hear foreign sounds and when we don’t like it we put it down to taste, and when we hear sections with no clear pulse and no repetitive loudness we feel totally lost. It’s difficult to instil the idea in people, and this was true for me, that just because you don’t at first like these new sounds, doesn’t mean you can’t learn to like them. The idea of a kind of musical literacy is derided as irrelevant, even snobbish. There’s that famous drawing (on the right) from a punk magazine informing you of all the musical language you need to know to form a band. Okay, it’s half-joking, but nonetheless accurate. The entirety of punk can be reduced to three chords; the entirety of pop to four. The music theory of popular music is so impoverished in comparison to classical music, and the huge gap in between can be pretty forbidding.

There’s also a gap between generations. It is disconcerting when you go to classical concerts and see how old the audience often is, whereas rock concerts tend to be very multi-generational. Pop culture is the culture that everyone in every social class passes on to their children. No one seems to have the confidence to stand up for classical music and to say that it is sheer abuse to rob so many of great music because of the culture they’re born into.

And yet opportunities are much greater now than ever. As someone under 25, I can get the most expensive tickets in the Barbican, say, for £5 usually. There are plenty of other similar deals. As a student, I get concessions of at least 50% in most venues. At other venues you can get ‘secret seats’ quite cheaply (£20 to see the ENO, for example). There’s no dress code, and etiquette is very simple. There’s really no barrier, and a hell of a lot of incentives. Rock concerts, sports matches — they’re the ones that are prohibitively expensive. There really is a lot of effort to make it easier for poorer people, or for struggling students like my humble self, to access live classical music. And on top of all that, there’s YouTube and Spotify and Apple Music. But so few want to listen.

I’m not sure what I’m suggesting should be done — but hopefully these ramblings are useful to someone nonetheless, limited and biographical as they are. Let’s end with John Dowland’s Flow My Tears for no particular reason other than it’s a fantastic song that everyone should love: