Music Features

An Immodest Introduction (to non-post-indie-alterna-tronica)

An Immodest Introduction to a few things non-post-alterna-indie-tronic. In the course of indulging in some illegal file-sharing I've noticed that people like Satie and Stravinsky are still getting filed under 'classical' or 'serious' - as if that notion of pedigree automatically bestowed a kind of gravitas distinguishing it from the other genres. Obviously, you can't call either's music 'drum and bass' or 'indie', but it's equally misleading to describe it as either 'classical' (which really only applies to a handful of composers working around the mid-eighteenth century like Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn, but which has come increasingly loosely to mean music that has 'stood the test of time' - that has been adopted into the current notion of the cultural pantheon) or 'serious' (as if, say, GYBE or Rachel's weren't; and in any case Satie's musical sensibility was the precursor to the Surrealist and Dadaist notions of the subversive art-joke undermining that very notion of academic seriousness). On the other hand, you can't avoid the fact that there's this whole area of music which is regarded as somehow 'better' as well as 'other' - that belongs in the Albert Hall rather than the Hammersmith Odeon, or in Carnegie Hall rather than the Beacon Theatre - that can only be properly appreciated by a cultural élite which has absorbed the refined atmosphere of the concert hall and all the accoutrements of the orchestral tradition, and by people who know the difference between a mordent and a turn. (Only five people in the auditorium of any given concert at any given time think they know the difference between a mordent and a turn, by the way: three of those are wrong, one of them is close but still wrong, and the fourth wrote the Grove Dictionary definition and still has to look it up to make sure.)

In December last year a rather extraordinary artistic event occurred in New York when the choreographer Merce Cunningham, who, together with Martha Graham, was one of the founders of the Modern Dance movement some fifty years ago, introduced his latest work - Split Sides - to a spellbound auditorium at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and Dance. Amazingly, both Radiohead and Sigur Ros had been persuaded to contribute a live accompaniment to this piece, to the huge delight of both audiences - those who were there for the dance, and those who were there for the music. However, since neither band was prepared to commit to more than the premiere, all subsequent performances were accompanied by a session band which, somehow, tried to play what they had composed. Therein, I think, lies quite a telling example of the way the high cultural model of music-making has managed to strand itself up a creek of its own making with neither paddle nor canoe. No devotee of either group would give a moment's credence to the notion that the experience of the second and all subsequent performances of the music accompanying this piece - with their music being played by this hapless session band - could be anything but a travesty of the original performance. 'Tribute' bands aside (an interesting, but marginal aspect of recent musical history), the idea of a concert where one group performs, not their own stuff, but the work of half-a-dozen others, seems very strange. Imagine, say, a Yo La Tengo gig where the playlist consisted only of covers - not only of Velvet Underground, Dylan, and The Kinks, but of Calexico, Pavement, and The Jesus and Mary Chain - performed straight, with no improvised embellishment, just as the originals. And yet this is just what happens as a matter of course in the straight concert hall: a (usually) dead composer's musical ideas, existing only as notation on a rather large orchestral score, are interpreted by a group of musicians who have no say as to how they interpret - their individual interpretative skills are entirely subordinate to the conductor, the maestro, who is endowed, supposedly, with the singular ability to understand what the dead composer intended and the capacity to interpret it for the benefit of the rapt public. The only person who is the equal of the conductor is the instrumental soloist - the pianist, the violinist, the cellist - in the piano, violin, or cello concerto, etc. Obviously, there's a residue of this notion of 'interpretation' in covers and remixes, but there's a world of difference between the limited nuances of interpretation applied to the collection of notes that represent, say, 'Beethoven's Fifth Symphony' (which, in the final analysis - assuming an equally skilled orchestral ensemble - actually extends to little more than a conductor's decisions about dynamics - namely tempo and volume) and the way someone like DJ Shadow fashions his own music by cut n pasting that of others.

There's a consequent fog of socio-political issues to have to penetrate - a fog largely to do with the tenacious residue of associations between the supposed good taste of the ruling classes (historically, together with the church, music's primary bankrolling source) and its 'classical' musical manifestations - in order to bring to the experience of hearing and listening to this music an attention unaffected by the buzz of élitism that surrounds it. There are simple demographic and commercial issues at play here, too. It's no coincidence, for example, that the commonest theme of popular music is the pain of love, whereas your average wiseass symphonic composition deals with nothing less than the fear of God and the anguish of mortality.

Also, there's the notion of the non-amplified performance to get used to. Sheer volume-freaks (Mogwai? Who said Mogwai?) are never going to be able to hear live chamber music: it's a tinnitus thang, guys - sorry. However, for those not yet more than 50% hearing-compromised, first contact with a full-size orchestra going into the red on the Berlioz Requiem or Bruckner's Ninth in an acoustically-engineered concert hall is quite awesome. But it's not really about volume: the quality of the acoustic instrumental experience is fundamentally different from the sound that comes from speakers - obvious enough, but, appositely, there's a whole sub-genre of pop - from McCartney's Blackbird to The Deftones' Be Quiet and Drive that tacitly acknowledges the enduring lyrical potency of the simple accompanied voice in direct descent from the pre-technological concert experience. Why else is there an Acoustic Tent at every decent festival?

For all that, the fog remains, but the effort to penetrate it will always be repaid, I think, by anyone interested in music that's not just circumscribed by variations of girl/boybands or (equally pernicious) NME's definitions of what's cool. I doubt if there's a serious musician alive who, having discovered him, isn't in awe of Mozart. Unfortunately, exposure to the kind of music I'm talking about is limited: it is, by definition, unpopular, and therefore has to be actively sought out. Equally unfortunately, in every Mozart enthusiast there seems to lurk a zealous evangelist, intent on converts, toe-curlingly unaware of how alienating the missionary position is, and, more often than not, making the Mozart experience sound about as appealing as Sunday School in Welsh. Ultimately, the only way to discover it is by trial and error, but, without guidance, where do you begin?

For many, an initial introduction is through film soundtracks. Platoon did for Barber's Adagio for Strings what 2001 did for the two Strausses - Johann (The Blue Danube Waltz) and Richard (Thus Spake Zarathustra) for an earlier generation. And everyone has some more or less tacky association with some piece of out-of-copyright music that has had the composer squirming in his grave ever since (think of any commercial that has benefited from a cheap hit of musical kudos-by-association - from cars to chocs to beer to mobile phones). This kind of pot luck does have its downside, though - as anyone who went out and bought Zarathustra and tried to listen to the rest of that dreadful piece of shite (after one of the most famous introductory phrases in history) has discovered. (Don't give yourself a bad time over this - no-one has ever listened to that record twice.) The more serious downside is that there's an increasing catalogue of sublime music that's been plundered by the meejah in one form or another, making it nigh-impossible to dissociate certain musical phrases from the brands they've been embedded in. Poor old Vivaldi, for instance, has been totally wrung of substance in the name of countless toilet products and/or picturesque Tuscan landscape audio-visual moments that have gained an instant breath of Spring from The Four Seasons. Shit happens.

There follows a little starter list, one almost entirely unaffected by concerns for balance or chronology or fair representation - just a compilation playlist, drawn quite arbitrarily from a reservoir of happy memories. It has to be personal - there's no objectivity around matters of taste and opinion - and each one of these twenty pieces means something to me beyond what it means intrinsically, either because my own first hearing coincided with some particular personal apotheosis, or because it stimulated such an apotheosis, or because, like any good piece of music, it simply lodged itself in my heart like a tiny fragment of divine love, and continues to grow and glow there, and nourish me.

None of which resolves the original question of what to file it under. The classification of music didn't actually begin with mp3 tagging, duh: there's whole libraries to be referred to that will help assign any given piece of music to its proper place in the archive. However, an interim suggestion is to open a folder called simply 'composers', and sub-divide that into countries. It sounds arbitrary, but it works for me, and can prove useful in unexpected ways. I, for instance, have a particular love for early twentieth-century French music - Debussy, Satie, Ravel, Ibert, (and the Paris-dwelling Russian émigrés - Rachmaninov, Stravinsky) - that may or may not have something to do with my enthusiasm for the gems of the current French scene - M83, Ez3kiel, Berg Sans Nipple, Air, Stereolab. Even though Messrs Godin and Dunckel of Air might be unaware of it, they are ineluctably steeped in a tradition of French music that characterises their work as distinctively as if it wore a beret and carried a stick of onions on a bicyclette. Conversely, it's impossible for Shane Aspegren, the American half of the duo Berg Sans Nipple, not to have been affected somehow, in however small a degree, by the composers in his own motherland - Ives, Copeland, Barber, Gershwin - as well as by the more obvious jazz influences . And this, too, helps inform the discovery of their work. Whatever. The classification doesn't really matter. It's music. Damn fine music. Pass the headphones.

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A Different Kind of Playlist - 20 Suggestions:

* J S Bach - "Cello Suite No.1 in G major"

* Béla Bartók - "Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta"

* Ludwig van Beethoven - "String Quartet No.7 in F, Op.59 No.1 (Rasumovsky No.1)"

* Benjamin Britten - "War Requiem"

* Claude Debussy - "La Mer"

* Paul Hindemith - "Mathis Der Mahler"

*Leos Janácek - "Glagolitic Mass"

* Bohuslav Martinu - "Double Concerto"

* Olivier Messiaen - "Turangalîla Symphony"

* Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - "Overture - The Magic Flute"

* Palestrina - "Miserere"

* Astor Piazzolla - "Libertango"

* Sergei Rachmaninov - "The Isle of the Dead"

* Maurice Ravel - "Pavane Pour Une Enfante Défunte"

* Eric Satie - "Trois Gymnopédies"

* Arnold Schoenberg - "Verklärte Nacht"

* Jean Sibelius - "Finlandia"

* Johann Strauss - "The Blue Danube Waltz"

* Igor Stravinsky - "The Rite of Spring"

* Ralph Vaughan Williams - "Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis"

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