This morning I lay in bed swiping through news on my phone when I came across Paul Morley’s article in the Observer: ‘Pop belongs to the last century. Classical music is more relevant to the future’. In any other context I would’ve let this pass me by – an opinion piece as valid as any other, even if I don’t entirely agree with it. However, the curious structure Morley employs, which sees an about-turn of rhetoric (but not message) somewhere near the middle, is the kind of thing I imagined would trip people up. Immediately I plunged into the comments section expecting waves of vitriol. I was not disappointed! Social media started bristling with responses and outbursts, too. Before long this relatively innocent opinion piece had become a battleground on which views and ideologies were contested.
I shared links with friends and my own social media networks, receiving all kinds of responses. The fuss seems to have died down a bit now and I suspect the whole thing will be quickly forgotten (unless, of course, someone writes a riposte in this week’s papers). However, the whole episode has, in my mind, raised a point far more important to the future of music than any point Morley made.
Before I get to that I should summarise the article (although I recommend reading the whole thing to get a proper feel of it). Morley basically states that, after years of seeing pop and rock as the cutting edge of music, he now sees classical music as being more pertinent and more challenging. There are a few important phrases he deploys:
However far out I went as a listener […] classical music seemed connected to a dreary sense of uninspiring worthiness that was fixed inside an ideologically suspect status quo, lacking the exhilarating suggestion of new beginnings, a pulsating sense of an exciting, mind-expanding tomorrow. There was something monstrous about it, as if in its world there were lumbering dinosaurs and toothless dragons, refusing to accept they were extinct.
I now listen to much more classical music than I do pop or rock and on the surface that might seem like a classic, cliched, late-life move into a conservative, grown-up and increasingly remote world. For me, though, it has been more a move to where the provocative, thrilling and transformative ideas are, mainly because modern pop and rock has become the status quo.
Once you make it through the formalities of classical music, those intimidating barriers of entry, there is the underestimated raw power of its acoustic sound and an endless supply of glorious, revolutionary music, all easily accessed as if it is happening now. Now that all music is about the past, and about a curation of taste into playlists, now that fashions and musical progress have collapsed, discernment wiped out, classical music takes a new place in time, not old or defunct, but part of the current choice. It is as relevant as any music, now that music is one big gathering of sound perpetually streaming into the world. If you are interested in music that helps us adapt to new ideas, to fundamental change, which broadcasts different, special ways of thinking and warns us about those who loathe forms of thinking that are not the same as theirs, classical is for you.
In these paragraphs Morley has both opened a can of worms and shot himself in the foot. My own immediate reaction to the article was basically ‘whatever, mate… good for you’. I saw problems with his argument, but I also saw a man rejoicing in a field of music new to him, which is a wonderful thing. The other responses I’ve seen – and I’m not going to single people out because I want to avoid the volleys of attacks and counter-attacks – split broadly into a few identifiable categories:
- People who’ve had largely the same experience as Morley and advocate the same thing. Some of these people share his ideology (more on this shortly) and some don’t.
- People who reject Morley’s premise on the grounds that his reading of pop and rock is outdated. Some of these people – some but by no means all – seem to think classical music is outdated as well, which gives them extra ammunition to fire.
- People who decry Morley’s failure to cite any recent examples of classical music. Perhaps unsurprisingly lots of these people are composers, performers and others with a vested interest in contemporary classical music (in many cases you can read this as: people fed-up with battling a gargantuan wave of sentimentality for the Romantic era).
- People who quickly identify an ideological problem and dismiss Morley’s entire standpoint (rightly or wrongly).
The whole furore has become far more interesting than any of the major points Morley makes. Some have called him an ‘old fart’, some criticise him for only really engaging with music from 50 years ago or earlier, while others cut him down for relying on pantheons – on institutional adulation. Such points are all as valid as the ones defending classical music, the opinions of the people who say that, as a thing in itself, the noises of classical music are as potentially relevant as any other noises. All very true.
Ultimately, we’ve ended-up with binaries – progressive versus traditional, classical versus pop, post-structuralist ideology versus structuralist ideology, sentimentality versus logic, art versus commercialism, etc. – and everyone’s keen to pick their side. I’m not keen on binaries, especially not this type. People occasionally accuse me of sitting on the fence, but I refuse to take sides when I don’t see the value in a binary division in the first place.
Art is a great thing. There’s a beauty in it (sometimes an anti-beauty) that’s hard or impossible to express in other areas of life. The experience of art is unique to every person and being able to take ownership of that is phenomenally empowering. And art can be provocative. All too often we forget this last fact, favouring instead provocations based on secondary divisions. It’s not unlike the mentality of football thugs who’ll go out and fight other football thugs purely on the basis that they support another team. The spirit of the sport or the activity of any one match is irrelevant next to deeply ingrained territorial spats – territories existing only in people’s minds.
Music, like football loyalty, is something that gives people a sense of ownership and a sense of belonging. It’s powerful stuff. Unlike football teams, different kinds of music, different artists and different genres are not (by and large) locked in a perpetual battle for supremacy. That is unless you define leadership by some other means. Commercial success, critical acclaim, historical importance and popular opinion are all secondary to the music they claim to grade. Here Morley made a huge mistake. He relied on exactly these methods of classification to justify his own change of taste. But then so have lots of his critics.
Two things came out of all this for me. The first was further proof that the institutions of music (in their many and varied forms) are more often damaging than they are helpful. Here we saw a man telling the world about his change of taste, a man who inadvertently shot himself down while inviting further bullets from his critics, all because people are so willing to establish ‘right’ ways of thinking – supposed conventional wisdom – which promotes division, righteousness and conflict. The second thing I took was a deepening feeling that experimental music I work with should separate itself from the establishment of classical music (at least where ties currently exist). What Morley claims to want is a challenge, the bracing force of the new and the unexpected. Discovering a new genre of music will always do this because, to you at least, it’s fresh. In general terms, the only music that can truly claim to do the same thing is whatever’s cutting edge and experimental at any given time. The classical industry really does fetishise the past, which is completely at odds with experimentalism and the new. The best the classical establishment can hope for is new interpretations of old models – wolves in sheep’s clothing.
Don’t get me wrong, there are lots of reasons to enjoy old music. It can sound great! The institutions that support it, the ideologies of those institutions or the ideologies behind the music itself might be at odds with your own, but to dismiss the sounds on those terms is not to dismiss the sounds at all. I know lots of ‘new-music’ people who turn their backs on traditional classical music. Some do it because the music genuinely bores them. Fair enough. Most do it out of defiance – a reactionary standpoint that does more to bolster the establishment than it does to challenge it.
So what do I think? I like lots of music and I love discovering new things – new things that hail from any point in time, genre or part of the world. If I haven’t heard it then it’s new and potentially of mind shattering importance! Most things aren’t of course, but learning to take things on their own terms is, I think, one of the most important skills anyone engaging with art can learn. This should really have been Paul Morley’s point. People seem to have forgotten how crucial it is. I don’t deny the importance of subjectivity or the fact that interpretation is always a motivated affair. I accept all of this as crucial to the dynamic nature of artistic activity. But I really do wish that we – we as a society – would drop the pretence of righteousness and put all these unhelpful divisions to bed.
Sadly I don’t see that happening, especially not in the classical industry. It’s one of the reasons I love experimental music – it’s fantastically independent, challenging and rewarding. Nevertheless, despite its independence, we tend to make connections with established genres. We see labels like experimental jazz, experimental electronica and so on. Accepting these labels for anything more than their convenience threatens the future with the burdens of the past. Whatever happens to the older parent will affect the adopted child. This is particularly potent where long, revered histories are concerned. Forward thinking practitioners of classical music (and allied experimental music) routinely complain they feel held back or dragged down. It’s not the past that does the dragging here – the past is innocent – it’s the institutions who glorify that past, using it to justify their existence and their authority. These are Morley’s dinosaurs and barriers to entry. The key to experimentalism – the essence of its success and its elixir-like artistic power – is, unsurprisingly, its experimental nature. We can drop additional classifications in most cases. If I go to an experimental performance I generally don’t care about the jazz, classical, electronic, rock or folk element – hell, I often don’t care that it’s labelled as music. Experimentalism is the cutting edge of art and we shouldn’t burden it with yesterday’s baggage.
I’m not advocating dismissal of older, more established genres. On the contrary, I’d say acknowledging their baggage shows a high level of engagement and respect. I’m just saying, hey, if there’s a printed score and a violin on stage it ain’t necessarily classical!
As Michael van der Aa reacted: “stop categorising, that’s so old school”. Quite, Michael.