Pop vs. Classical

6 Music Prom

Last night I went to the 6Music Prom at the Albert Hall. 6Music, famous for playing “out there” pop, and Radio 3, famous for playing “out there” classical. Radio 3’s Tom Service and 6Music’s Steve “Lammo” Lamacq cavorted around onstage, and with a 6Music audience in tow, things got lively (for a Prom). All credit has to go to Tom for dealing with a heckler in the very first link who yelled “get on with it” responding: “The point I’m getting to is that the thing that connects great music is not what genre it is, not what you’re wearing, or where you’re hearing it – it’s a spirit of adventure that goes straight to your guts, to your body, to your brains and to your soul!” Followed by huge uproar of approval from the crowd. I’m not sure any other Radio 3 presenter could – or would – have answered that heckle with such truth.  But Tom has been ingratiating himself with 6Music all last week, appearing on the ever open Lammo show with a daily classical music recommendation. Sadly they had to compress the shit out of everything to make it 6Music friendly, but nevertheless 6Music opened its doors to plenty of classical music on the air – and I don’t mean slathers of made-famous-by-advertising cliché, but proper, challenging, thought and feeling provoking music.

Back to the hall, and the Stranglers kicked –off with No More Heroes, with London Sinfonietta backing with orchestration by Anna Meredith. I’m not sure the Stranglers should be orchestrated. Mostly it was over-complicated, a bit of a mess, with not-quite-in-place quirky flute insanity, lots of drums being hit at different times, and overall the ensemble was about as tight as this simile.

I was sitting next to my brother, who seemed pleased at the stranglers in that way that raising the corners of one’s mouth seems to indicate.  Next:  Varese and a piece for 13 percussion instruments. Unlike the Stranglers, no regular beat, no strong groove, no riff, but a soundscape – a haunting, almost dystopian sonic forbodation.  I absolutely loved this, much better, I thought, than some aging rockers playing out of time with an orchestra. I turned to my brother who didn’t agree: “What was that? It didn’t do anything.”

And this brings me to the title of this post. (Just to quickly say of the rest of the Prom:  the arrangement of Golden Brown was a bit better [and more together] and the programme was eclectic and bought out the best of Radio 3 and 6Music: there was no “let them in gently with some Mozart”, but instead a concentration on the less common, challenging, edgy – if not cornery – avant-garde, Welsh medieval folk from Cerys Matthews, jazz-classical Martland and eastern-modality-peppered folk with Laura Marling.)

Now then (poor turn of phrase these days). My brother and I were bought up on more or less the same stuff – the pop/rock canon from the 60s to the 90s, but we are now in a position where I can appreciate Varese, whereas he can’t. Scores of books have been written about “pop – classical” and I had a good old stab at it during university. In the end I decided that they were unhelpful terms and I should just abandon them, but I’ve since come up with another idea. I was always concentrating on looking at the differences from compositional, instrumental and performance viewpoints. But now I’m thinking that maybe it’s to do with how we listen. (From this point on, most of what I write will, of course, be a generalisation and riddled with exceptions, and with that disclaimer in place, game on!)

I had lunch with a friend today and tried to go through analogies with listening to music. They were mostly unsuccessful. I love, for example, this track 

in the same way that I love throwing myself off a snow covered hill wearing some skis. It communicates physically, and awakens an uninhibited, playful, and somewhat destructive side – the adrenalin-fuelled AAAAHHHHHHHH! rush, the feeling of being immortal and inconsequential at the same time….

BUT! But, I also like stopping at the top of the mountain, looking at the view and doing… nothing. Existing without thought, in a meditation… doing nothing.  I think this is what my brother meant. This is the Varese in this case – the awareness of space, the gaps between the notes, the silences within the music. But in rock, pop, dance, whatever else, there is a different emphasis of movement and noise, and so you listen to it differently. One is not better than the other, they are just different. Some might think that witnessing the infinity and majesty of the sun skimming along snow-covered hill-top is superior to the short-lived thrill of bolting it down a ski slope. Others would say that of course hitting the slopes is better, because standing up at the top and looking at a view is “not doing anything”. In my opinion, they are equally as valid, but are just different. Hurtling down the ski slope is great – love it – but you couldn’t do it for an hour straight (for one you’d need a massive mountain), whereas you could get lost in the eternal moment of a beautiful landscape and not realise where the time has gone.

This may be appropriately analogous with the length of pop and classical pieces. You couldn’t hear an hour of one riff which doesn’t really evolve, but four minutes will do quite nicely. Now of course we’re stepping into prog rock  territory – long pieces of music which seem to have this soundscape quality and use of space, as with one of my favourites from Pink Floyd:

But remember, I’m having a go at looking through barriers here, not putting them up!

This thought of how we listen to music made me appreciate that if I can’t get my head (or heart) around a certain genre of music, I can accept that I just don’t get how to listen to it, and move on. Victoriana orchestral and choral music, Armenian folk, country and western… the list of genres I can’t hear is long. Long like a Wagner opera.  I used to think (but not say) that these are just bad musics. But I don’t think there is bad music, just different ways of listening. And it’s this shift of emphasis from performer and composer to listener that has struck me the most. For, if a Mahler symphony cycle is performed in the woods and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

What I would advise music lovers from either side (if such “sides” exist), is if you spend all the time at the top of the slope, breathing in the mountain air, have a go at pelting it down the slope for a few minutes and going AAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!! If, on the other hand, you keep getting back in the ski-lift yelling “again, again, again!”, the next time you get to the top: stop. Take a look around and witness beauty and space.  Then go and listen to a symphony or two.

Author: Phil

Film composer, concert composer, sound designer, choral composer, arranger, song writer, musician.

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