Thursday 12 November 2009

Why doesn’t listening to modern classical music matter any more?

A talk given at, 'A cultured ear: why does listening to music matter?', at the Battle of Ideas, London, Saturday 31 October 2009

I’ve spent an awful lot of this year singing. Not because I’ve got pretensions to anything professional – and for this the world should thank me – but because I had a baby in January. Despite the fact that like every other obnoxious middle class parent I’ve played him Bach, he’s no prodigy, so at nine months we’re still in the pre-speech stage of his existence. And music feels like a natural form of communication – using it I can make him laugh, teach him basic patterns, and on the odd blissful occasion settle him down to sleep.

But the singing is not necessary. Feeding him, changing his nappy, keeping him clean – these are all needed for the basic, animal process of keeping him alive, but music is not. Yet it feels like a very fundamental way of reaching out to him – instinctively it feels like the first way I am teaching him to be human. But how and why is, on the surface, unquantifiable.

In his book Musicophilia Oliver Sacks attempts to measure the importance of classical music in people’s lives by mapping its neurological impact. He tells the story of Tony Cicoria, an orthopedic surgeon who is struck by lightning while he is talking on a payphone. Previously only interested in rock music, a few weeks after his near-death experience, he starts to crave classical music, especially piano music by Chopin. His round-the-clock obsession with listening to this music, and composing his own doesn’t affect his job, but his marriage disintegrates.

We’re still at a point where neurological explanations seem to tell as much about what we don’t understand about the brain as what we do, but Sacks has an interesting theory. He has encountered other patients who have developed a greater sympathy for classical music in one case following the administration of drugs for brain seizures, and in another case following the diagnosis of a brain tumour. What links these cases, he believes, is a heightened connection between the perceptual part of the brain known as the temporal lobes, and the emotional part known as the limbic system.

So can it be boiled down to this? That those of us who like classical music today have a hotline between our emotional and perceptual equipment that those who like Dizzee Rascal don’t? Could it, perhaps, even be argued that an evolutionary change has occurred slowing the connection between the temporal lobes and the limbic system. And that’s why Chopin is out and Chipmunk is in?

Such biological reductivism is of course absurd. Sacks’ analysis contributes a piece of the jigsaw, but far from all of it. A more significant part is looking at the way we listen to classical music today. At the start of Alex Ross’s fantastic The Rest Is Noise, he talks about the premier of Richard Strauss’ Salome which caused a scandal because of its perceived combination of immorality and cacophony. Normally it would have been performed in Vienna, but this was deemed too controversial, so when it was performed on May 16 1906 it had been transplanted to Graz. In anticipation of the scandal, several members of Europe’s royal families were in attendance. It was, in other words, a news story, an international event, which ended happily for Strauss when it received a ten minute standing ovation. There are many similar moments in classical music’s history when key political figures were in attendance for the opening performance of a new work by a composer. It’s impossible to listen to a Shostakovich symphony without imagining Stalin sitting there – though there were moments like the performance of Symphony 8, where instead of celebrating the Russian progress in war, he emphasised war’s misery – where he too risked causing an international scandal.

Why doesn’t classical music speak for society like this any more? Maybe there are still modern composers, like Philip’s collaborator Thomas Ades, whose new compositions feel like events, but for better or for much much worse it’s not perceived to be of the same level as national interest as a Robbie Williams comeback.  Personally I think two things are responsible for classical music’s sidelining on the national stage. The first is electricity, which – more than anything else has revolutionised the way we listen to music.

When the Russian cosmonaut Gagarin became the first person to orbit the earth in 1961, he famously whistled Shostakovich’s song ‘The Motherland Hears, The Motherland Knows’. Radio had already made Shostakovich a composer of international importance, and now television was showing him to be a composer of interplanetary importance. There’s no small irony in the fact that the song was composed in 1951, the same year in which a white Cleveland disc-jockey Alan Freed started broadcasting black music to teenagers in a programme which he decided to call ‘Moondog Rock’n’Roll party, thereby naming a phenomenon which would soon eventually upstage classical music on both radio and television. Radio and television ripped formality from the listening experience – it allowed music to be listened to in the bar and the bedroom as much as in the concert hall. And rock music has undoubtedly benefited - most recent listening figures have shown that in the last quarter Radio 1 attracted 11.07 million listeners per week, while Radio 3 attracted 1.99 million. Even Classic FM, described by some as a rock’n’roll channel for classical music, only reaches 5 and a half million listeners per week. Add to this the statistics of iPod downloads, and listening to classical music increasingly seems like as niche a pursuit as collecting teabag covers.

Electricity has also allowed the kind of amplification that sends bolts through the body that even an orchestra playing Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ symphony cannot muster. I’ve tries to convert some people to classical music by taking them to the Proms – and yes, the Royal Albert Hall has dodgy acoustics, but one of the problems has clearly been that they don’t get the kind of Class A hit from the vibrations of a Mozart piano concerto that they do from The Killers. It’s a cliché to say we’re bombarded with sensual stimulation these days, but one result is that – though the emotional and perceptual systems in the brain have not evolved to become more disconnected, as I joked – our ears have been taught that they do need not to work so hard at decoding the emotions in a piece of music. Why listen carefully when sub-sonic technology means that not just your ears, but your whole body will end up vibrating to a song - and is this really a bad thing? Why seek out the sensuality in Messiaen, when you can have your bones well and truly rattled by Led Zeppelin?

I am going to shut up in a second, but before I do, to give my second reason about why modern classical music has been sidelined, I’m going to come full circle and go back to why I sing to my son. The things that bring us comfort early in life go on to become very potent devices later on – such as the story, as countless novelists and politicians have demonstrated, and the game of let’s pretend, as the theatre and film industries can attest. Oliver Sacks declares that ‘We may go to a play to learn about jealousy, betrayal, vengeance, love – but music, instrumental music, can tell us nothing of these.’ But he’s wrong. From those songs sung to us when we’re babies we learn that music plays a fundamental part in the narrative of our lives – and we use it again and again in those central narratives, when we’re falling in love, when we’re unhappy in love, when we’re celebrating, when we’re grieving, when we’re trying to rev ourselves up and when we’re trying to calm down. Yet if we’re falling in love to classical music – and I’m happy to be challenged on this – most of us reach back to another century, maybe to Liszt, possibly to a bit of sex and Chopin.

I believe that most modern composers, by waving goodbye to tonality, may be producing more intellectually stimulating output, but they have unplugged themselves from the songs and harmonies that make us respond most basically, and therefore most powerfully to music. True I feel a shiver go down my spine when I listen to Ligeti, but I’ll never fall in love to him. I’ll applaud Judith Weir’s harmonic experimentalism, but I’ll never have her music played at a loved one’s funeral.  This might sound banal, but it’s felt on a national level too. When the Berlin Wall came down twenty years ago, what was played at the most significant concert held in celebration? Not work by Stockhausen, though he was arguably the country’s most significant contemporary composer at the time, but Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

This debate asks ‘Why Does Listening to Music Matter?’ – and I’m aware that I’ve changed it to ‘Why Doesn’t Listening to Modern Classical Music Matter any more?’ I believe that like every art form, music should continue to provoke and explore different ways of getting under our skin, but though I would hate to have a world without dissonance, I believe that rock music stole classical music’s thunder when it took over the role of providing society’s songs and dances, not least by absorbing the power of electricity to provide the level of energy that an increasingly sex and technology obsessed society needed. For me asking ‘Why Does Listening to Music Matter?’, is another way of asking ‘Why Does Music Make Us Human?’ Personally no-one would cheer louder than I would if modern classical music started to provide that answer again, but until it does, I’m continuing to make my arguments for the richness of classical music with Schubert and Beethoven, and top up my twenty first century requirements with a little bit of Radiohead on the side.

The above was presented by Rachel Halliburton at the Battle of Ideas in London on 31 October 2009, at a debate on A cultured ear: why does listening to music matter?

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