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Listen Carefully

Listen Carefully

Classical music is suddenly fashionable. But how do we decide which composers are worthy of buzz?

Illustration by Jeff Kulak.

In a grotty basement bar in Camden Lock, London, the Callino Quartet open for Montreal's Bell Orchestre. Despite the bad acoustics and dingy backdrop, the string quartet hold the audience of hip young things in rapt attention. They hurtle through some Bartók and are met with solemn applause. A couple of years earlier, one of the finest string quartets in the world (the Belcea Quartet) opened a Bartók residency at one of the finest chamber music venues in the world (Wigmore Hall). Tickets cost less than those for the Bell Orchestre show, but there wasn't a face under thirty in sight.

In classical-music circles we have endless conversations about the overwhelmingly grey-haired and upper-class nature of our audiences. (As an opera critic in my twenties, I have a certain amount at stake in these debates.) Money is often lazily brandished as the primary divisive factor, but, as the Bell Orchestre example proves, it's not that simple; world-class outfits such as the London Philharmonic and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment sell tickets for less than half the price of seeing a movie in central London. Many pop gigs cost triple that or more.

The problem is image, which is much trickier to tackle. Orchestras and opera companies agonize over arts-council grants that order them to cater to mainstream youth, but schemes aimed at the hip and young tend to put off their target demographic. A recent Royal Opera House effort was a woefully-misjudged project called OperaShots—apparently, young people like funny spelling—in which "artists from non-operatic fields," like electronica and film scoring, wrote pieces about soccer and pregnancy tests. Had the commissioners investigated legitimate talent in "non-operatic fields" the results could have been interesting; as it was, they were middling and made the ROH look more out of touch than if it had never tried.

So why the success of string quartets opening for art-rock bands? I start to find my answer in the trendiest stretch of London. Broadway Market is all kitschy bike bells and serious coffee and romanticized decrepitude; it's a Prenzlauer Berg, a Williamsburg, a St. Viateur Street. In one bookshop largely devoted to photo albums of brutalist architecture and Japanese haircuts, the same display has been propped up for the past few months: Alex Ross' The Rest Is Noise, next to an autographed photo of Dolly Parton in one window and a complete set of Tintin in the other. The Rest Is Noise was released a few years ago; Ross' latest book, Listen to This, came out this fall, which prompts me to ask why the older one is still on display. Because, the shop owner tells me, classical music is "right in vogue at the moment."

Those words would usually be textbook oxymoron, so this explanation intrigued me. In The Rest Is Noise, Ross writes accessibly and stylishly about a subject (twentieth-century classical music) whose reputation is neither; in Listen to This, he connects Mozart and Brahms to Dylan and Cobain. He tells cute anecdotes about histrionic composers and doesn't get too precious about them being geniuses or their pieces being masterworks. That much is refreshing. Ross runs into problems, too: how to choose the pieces that make it into his canon, and whose narrative should thread together which trajectory of artistic evolution. So far, so familiar—what's bemusing is the novel image Ross has honed for himself with material that, in essence, isn't anything new. Countless tomes have been written about twentieth-century music, and many have been more illuminating, more searching, more radical than Ross'. None have become as trendy. Ross wins awards from the non-classical world. He is heralded as the fresh face of a stuffy art form, lauded for rescuing classical music from the dusty museum shelf.

But the fashionableness of classical music doesn't include the mainstream so courted by granting bodies. Broadway Market listeners—and Bell Orchestre fans—aren't interested in the mainstream; they're conspicuously uninterested, prizing instead the brand of obscurity that looks good sharing the mantelpiece with architecture books. They're not particularly in need of any outreach, either; they are conscientious types who take sleeve notes seriously, who arrange and rearrange their vinyl collections according to some secret devotee logic, who like to know recording dates and mixing-board models and previous collaborations and future rereleases.

Which means that the sudden currency of classical music only bridges one rarefied fan base to another. Ross' new book makes that bridge explicit; alongside essays on Esa-Pekka Salonen lie musings on safe art-pop heroes such as Sonic Youth and Björk. Some classical composers seem to make the transition from historic to hip more readily than others, and Ross' usual suspects involve, predictably, those about whom he can tell a good tale: Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Britten, Schoenberg. Many key figures have been left out, still waiting on the shelf. Maybe their bios aren't as glitzy, their music less overtly avant-garde. But the true history of music is cumulative and holistic. Take Stravinsky, for example: his twisting, layering and cheeky rejigging all depend on existing musical convention. His music is exciting regardless of whether you know that, of course, or whether you're familiar with what came before, but the informed Broadway Market listener surely deserves the full story here, too.

Trendiness is nebulous. This isn't about cheap hipster bashing; it's about making sure chic isn't attached solely to a certain musical canon. I'm concerned that The Rite of Spring has become desirable not because of how it sounds, but because it is couched in a web of alluring associations. A girl wearing a floral onesie sips her Saturday morning latte and puts the needle to Peter Grimes. But will she start going to the opera house? I haven't seen her there yet. This disconnect should peeve any self-respecting music lover.

There are some who doggedly transcend the great divide between classical and contemporary, with varying degrees of success. The American composer Nico Muhly packages his nominally classical product in just the right aesthetic—see the coloured-pencil graphics and folksy prose on his website—to sell it to just the right crowd. After working with everyone from Grizzly Bear to Philip Glass, his first opera will debut in 2011. Muhly has ridden the coattails of classical music's recent ascendance and, rather than subverting the division he straddles, he cashes in on his status as Richard Strauss for the Pitchfork set. When Rufus Wainwright premiered his own opera, Prima Donna, in Manchester in 2009, he was denigrated for trying (and failing) to tick the classical box. It was a shame; Wainwright makes decent pop music and shouldn't feel he has to prove anything, not least by aspiring to some prescribed notion of high-art legitimacy.

The French economist Jacques Attali decided that "outside of a ritual context or a spectacle, the musical object has no value in itself." We love the process of listening as much as we do the music itself, and thank God; it's what keeps live music viable. But this is a touchy subject. As much as we're supposed to want all arts to be egalitarian, classical aficionados, like fans of other genres, guard their musical patronage as an identity marker. Perhaps they're more coy about it—classical lacks the blaring dress codes that go with punk or metal or (dare I say it) indie rock—but the act of entering the opera house is still imbued with the unspoken confidence of class and education.

Attali's polemic should be a call to arms: if our perception of musical value is indeed dependent on context, then we ourselves can alter said perception. The impetus is there already, manifest in the Broadway Market window displays and the grunge-bar Bartók. But these examples are still venue-specific. The real test will be whether we can actually mingle—whether we can show interest in the true breadth of our mutual musical histories, not just the Stravinskys and Sonic Youths. Let's try. The rest is noise, but it doesn't have to be.

See the rest of Issue 38 (Winter 2010).

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