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Opinion: Is classical music irrelevant? | reviews, news & interviews

Opinion: Is classical music irrelevant?

Opinion: Is classical music irrelevant?

Cambridge Union debate revisits an old chestnut. Can't they just let it drop?

Stephen Fry says you can't dance to Beethoven - is this argument relevant?

Cambridge University, cradle of Newton, Keynes and Wittgenstein, of Wordsworth, Turing and Tennyson, has produced 15 prime ministers and more Nobel Prize-winners than most nations. In its 200-year history, the university’s debating society has hosted princes, politicians and leaders in every field: the Dalai Lama, Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela, and last week a 25-year-old east-London DJ, Kissy Sell Out. But lest pacemakers should stutter or tweed be set atremble at the presence of mixing decks and a speaker in baseball cap and wife-beater, the Union also invited Stephen Fry along – Britain’s very own cultural Mary Poppins – to help the modern medicine go down.

The occasion? Cambridge Union’s first live-streamed debate, “This house believes classical music is irrelevant to today’s youth”, a provocatively titled motion pitting Kissy Sell Out and Juilliard’s Greg Sandow against Fry and Telegraph critic Ivan Hewett in a fight that put not only the honour but the very life of classical music on trial.

Framed in the wood and leather of the Cambridge Union debating chamber, a space whose coyly white walls belie the colourful, history-shaping scenes they've witnessed, it was hard not to see the dice as loaded. Tradition sprawls comfortably in the armchairs here, puts its feet up on the dais and lights a cigar; cutting-edge science and popular culture might get invited in, but only if they dress appropriately and keep their exuberant ideas from knocking over the furniture or pawing the guests. All the live streaming and live mixing in the world can’t erase 200 years of tradition, as was soon evident when private recording, digital photography and even tweeting was sternly banned during the event.

debate3I should confess at this stage to something of a bias; the last time I was in Cambridge was during my Master's degree, a year spent singing, arguing about New Musicology, thinking a lot about Benjamin Britten and discussing the proposition “Opera is dead” (turns out it wasn’t). So to return to find this oldest and wrinkliest of fallen-behind-a-radiator chestnuts still being served as fresh – and in Cambridge, home of contemporary composers, forward-thinking musicology and some of the best youth music ensembles in the world – was as frustrating as it was predictable. But willing, wanting to be convinced, I took my seat along with almost 500 others, prophetically most of them under 25, to see the debate play out.

Known among his colleagues as “that guy who will play a load of electro records and then drop Vivaldi halfway through a set”, DJ Kissy Sell Out (pictured above right) has been outspoken in his love of classical music. Incorporating classical instruments as well as extracts from classical works, his electronic dance music presses all the right youthful, fusion-driven, Radio 1 buttons; it doesn’t get much more “relevant” than this, the press materials all but bellowed.

At his most persuasive when mixing live (and at his funniest when remixing the Queen’s Speech and giving a game Stephen Fry a lesson in the art), the DJ, however, seemed determined to undermine his own reluctantly stated arguments, almost as though engaging with the practices and processes of a Cambridge debate might be a surrender to the very history-bound elitism he was trying to debunk. Shuffling from side to side, muttering asides into his designer stubble, he lobbed a depressingly pat and lazy collection of ideological rocks at music’s classical façade.

Elitism – retreat of the wilfully uninformed, the closed-minded and those afflicted with the worst cases of reverse cultural snobbery – was to be the unanswerable buzzword. “Classical music is elitist and always has been,” he claimed. Never mind that it has soundtracked quite as many revolutions as royalist jamborees, or that it continues to voice a struggle against the system in countries such as China, it is the preserve of rich people, of ruling classes - popular wisdom teaches us as much.

Yet with tickets to the opera cheaper than for many football matches (and with all the youth offers around sometimes even cheaper than a London cinema ticket) the them-and-us financial argument simply doesn’t stack up. And these days there are more people sporting Ugg boots than Ungaro in the Royal Opera House's Floral Hall, so moaning about restrictive dress codes doesn’t cut it either.

To cut melodic flesh from a quartet or a symphony and overlay it with an electro beat is to neuter it, to strip it of its meaning along with its context

Gripes about classical music’s impenetrable language were better grounded; BWV numbers aren’t the most welcoming or user-friendly of titles, but arguing that the use of the very term “classical music” is itself exclusionary and wrong seems pretty rich coming from the world of popular music in which new and niche designations – dubstep, electro, grime, jungle, trance – are springing up every day. Ideally, yes, we must move beyond even the progressive pluralism of “musics” to a new and all-embracing “music”, but for the sake of record store layouts and Amazon suggestions, mightn’t it be practical to hang on to our sub-genres for just a little while longer?

Yet of all Kissy’s arguments, it was his defence of classical music, both in the debate itself and his article in The Independent, that was most troubling. In the latter he explained that while he loves classical music he only ever uses it as a “motif” in his works, “weaving it in” to the electro fabric of his tracks. That word “motif” here calls to mind Hector’s abhorred "gobbets" in The History Boys, those bite-sized, gift-wrapped nuggets of knowledge substituted for real understanding. To cut melodic flesh from a quartet or a symphony and overlay it with an electro beat is to neuter it, to strip it of its meaning along with its context. It’s an approach that makes sense of Kissy’s fondness for Boccherini, the ultimate melody-driven miniaturist, whose charmingly disposable works are to Bach and Beethoven as the authors of those sappy rhymes in Clinton Cards are to the metaphysical poets.

debate1While Ivan Hewett offered a humane and humorous aesthetics lesson by way of response (finally unpacking the charged and misleading emphasis of the term “relevant”) and Greg Sandow presented a spirited attack on the lazy pretensions endemic to the classical community, it was Stephen Fry who inevitably dominated proceedings.

Celebrating cultural pluralism – “the idea that you can love two different things at once and not explode or be a hypocrite” – he scratched where Hewett and their fellow student debater had only tickled, speaking of the “failure of imagination” and “snobbery” of those who think themselves too good, too cool, too young for classical music. (A category presumably including Lord Eatwell, whose summation on the “mausoleum” of classical music was no less absurd for being tongue-in-cheek.)

Yet even Fry, gifted and attractive orator though he is, seemed to get tangled up in the prostitutes and Frenchwomen of his own metaphor-laden arguments. I can’t be alone in finding his oft-repeated distinction between dance music and classical music (“You can’t dance to Beethoven”) unworkable. While not intended literally, the contrast assumes an opposition between a popular music that we use and consume – dancing to it, seducing to it, driving to it – and an art music which is “difficult” and requires us to be passive and concentrate. It’s a distinction that does classical music a disservice, restricting it to the airy-fairy realm of abstraction, divorced from life and the society that creates it and immured in an ivory tower of its own construction. To dance to Beethoven is to dance without social intent, to set the self aside and aspire to something beyond, an action that the emphatically participatory, singalong aesthetic of popular music stubbornly refuses to attempt.

After the grandstanding, dead-ending, unsatisfying excesses of the debate, it was left to Suzi Digby (pictured below) – founder of the magnificent Voices Foundation and perhaps the single most effective champion of classical music in this country (Gareth Malone alone excepted) – to get us back on track. Cutting classical music free of its social, political and historical anchors, it was she who finally spoke of its transcendent beauty and power, not because this was something new and point-scoring, but because it was inexplicably, unfashionably, awkwardly true. While the hummingbird wings of the debate might result in the odd low-level earthquake in the broadsheets, specialist circles and Radio 4, Digby’s new charitable foundation Vocal Futures – the impetus behind the debate – promises to yield aftershocks for years to come.

Relevance is for scientific data, for exam answers, for politicians; it surely has no place in matters of art and creativity

debate8Focusing on the neglected generation, the 16 to 22-year-olds who are too often lost to classical music, Vocal Futures will be working to offer young people a way in to the concert hall. Incorporating education and genuinely innovative performance, it’s a scheme whose lofty goals – no less than instilling a lifelong love of classical music in its participants – are rooted firmly in the practical.

The question of whether classical music is “relevant” or not was ultimately exposed as neither useful nor terribly interesting. Relevance is for scientific data, for exam answers, for politicians; it surely has no place in matters of art and creativity. Ivan Hewett described beauty as “the quintessence of irrelevance”, finally leading us to the crucial notion buried under the debate's oratorical rubble, that beauty transcends concerns of fashion, renders them incidental and obsolete. In our age of disposable culture, the old question of “But is it art?” has all but been replaced by “But is it relevant?” – an anxiety that speaks tellingly of our rather displaced priorities of the now.

Yet classical music lives on, in concert halls, festivals, digital downloads and music colleges across Britain. Audiences for the Proms beat their records year on year, listeners to Classic FM and Radio 3 likewise, and last week the motion that “Classical music is irrelevant to young people today” was defeated by 365 to 57. If these are indeed the death-throes of classical music then they’ve been scored by Wagner. Long may they endure.

Watch DJ Kissy Sell Out's "This Kiss"

DJ Kissy Sell Out lobbed a depressingly pat and lazy collection of ideological rocks at music’s classical façade

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Comments

Well expounded. I can well imagine shrieking out 'stuff and nonsense' at 'you can't dance to Beethoven'. Your link makes one point, but in any case play the finale of the Seventh Symphony to under-tens and unless they're already stuck with the 'it's uncool to like this' cliche, they'll be leaping around the room. As for the application to Mozart, remember - much as you may not want to - Mike Batt's 'Minuetto Allegretto' ('womble to your partners, young wombles were told') to the third movement of the Jupiter Symphony? I blush to say that was the first time I ever heard it.

1) The 'it costs less than a football match' get-out is trite. Pricing has nothing to do with the debate about elitism and classical music, and I'd suggest that you are the one who is wilfully uinformed in this respect. It's about the cultural position it now occupies, who it's perceived to be by and for, the assumption that it just *is* the 'best,' and so on. It's a complex issue, and while some of the perceptions about elitism may be false, you ought to be asking why they have come about and unpicking them, not just brushing them aside and creating a straw man out of ticket prices and dress codes instead. 2) Your attitude to Kissy Sell Out is unbelievably condescending. Incredibly, what you find most troubling is that he's sincerely tried to engage with classical music and failed to cultivate a "real understaning" of it. Maybe journalists like yourself should try and develop that understanding by demonstrating how classical music can be appreciated by, and matter to anyone? I suspect you know full well that the issue of "impenetrable language" is more than just one of track-titles and the term "Classical Music" itself. 3) Listing dubstep, electro, grime, jungle and trance as if they are fiddly, baffling pop sub-genres doesn't show a lot of understanding on your part, either. The're pretty distinct, and none of them have sprung up in the last few days! 4) You praise Suzi Digby for "cutting classical music free of its social, political and historical anchors." Yet, earlier in the article, you defend classical music for soundtracking "as many revolutions as royalist jamborees" and criticise Fry for divorcing "it from life and the society that creates it." That, surely, is because it's absurd to try and divorce music from social, political and historical context, to make out this is just baggage rather than essential to its production, reception and importance. Beauty is not something that just floats free from these so-called 'anchors,' either. 5) "In our age of disposable culture, the old question of “But is it art?” has all but been replaced by “But is it relevant?” – an anxiety that speaks tellingly of our rather displaced priorities of the now." What does this even mean? Can you explain this further?

I speak here as very biased commentator: I was the first speaker in the debate, and one of the two who your saw fit to not mention. It is slightly ironic that you should exclude the two youthful members of the debate about the exclusion of the young. I agree with your point about the crudeness of the 'you can't dance to Beethoven' line. Much Classical music is dance music, or in other ways the type of 'functional' music that Stephen Fry seemed scornful of. And, on the other hand, much 'popular' music is not dance music at all, but intended to be listened to with great care. I have always found it curious that this site divides its music sections into 'New Music' and 'Classical Music' - as if the two were mutually exclusive. It is that attitude that my speech discussed, and its prevalence is why I was so grateful to have a soapbox from which to rant.

Alexandra Coghlan is too kind in describing my remark that 'beauty is the quintessence of relevance' as 'an appealing concept'. I find it completely nonsensical. Fortunately I never said it. What I actually said was that 'beauty is the quintessence of IRRelevance', which makes a lot more sense. I think the Cambridge Union needs to take a look at its PA, system, as my remark wasn't the only one which was misheard.

So sorry to have misheard your crucial quote Ivan - as you say, the sound system was horrible and we missed vast tracts of what was being said up in the gallery. I thought i'd worked it out correctly from the context (apparently the argument can work both ways round) but clearly not.

What was most striking about this debate was the reticence of the audience. If I had been there, I would have felt honour bound to say something against a motion which is not only idiotic but also insulting to 'today's youth'. A room full of students at one of the world's great seats of leaning with nothing to say for themselves. Shame.

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