Music

Abolish binary ideas about classical vs contemporary music and everybody wins

Think classical music is all bushy eyebrows and fusty period dramas? Jazz Monroe reveals the rock and pop crossovers that open up a whole new musical landscape

Classical music tends to strike those radicalised by rock and pop as a bizarre, state-subsidised cult. To sceptics it brings to mind bushy eyebrows and fusty period dramas, the stale scent of a headmaster’s office during a telling-off. The classical world, in turn, has a nasty habit of repelling the working class like a foghorn. Even progressive institutions like the English National Opera offer few concessions for young or low-income visitors. Exceptions exist, but who will seek them out? Resentment of classical music comes so naturally that it’s easy to believe you were born with it.

While pop shares little ground with its rarefied ancestor, a handful of artists have made homes in the netherworld in-between. On March 29, Beth Gibbons returns with her first album since Portishead’s Third in 2008, singing Henryk Górecki’s Symphony Number 3 (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs) with the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra. Recorded live in 2014 and released on indie label Domino, the album is a reminder of how extravagant strings, regal brass and soul-stirring vocals can fill you with a sense of triumph over improbable forces, even if they’re forces of repulsion towards classical music itself.

On the spring release schedule, Gibbons rubs shoulders with the Cinematic Orchestra, whose first album in 12 years, To Believe, enters a tasteful pop-classical realm explored and expanded by the Bedroom Community and Erased Tapes labels. Alongside Max Richter, these composers have helped modernise the form with found sounds and electronics, straddling ancient and modern sounds. On the opposite fringe are cantankerous hybrids like These New Puritans. After they enlisted composer Michel Van Der Aa for the austere Field of Reeds, their new record Inside the Rose weaves echoes of Steve Reich and Depeche Mode into an electronic odyssey, fusing lofty ideas with the band’s Essex everyman roots.

Alongside Max Richter, these composers have helped modernise the form with found sounds and electronics, straddling ancient and modern sounds

The classical avant-garde, insofar as it has bled into rock and pop, tends to serve as an escape hatch from “retromania”, the term journalist Simon Reynolds coined for modern music’s hankering for nostalgia. Since developments like Schoenberg’s 12-tone technique, contemporary classical has existed far outside of the rock continuum, sometimes alienating casual listeners, sometimes deliberately. The job of outré pop artists like TNP’s Jack Barnett is to create space for these radical ideas, which require patience, in compact songs that have little time to waste.

Of course, classical mergers with cooler music usually make both worse. Onetime iconoclasts get sterile tributes at the Royal Albert Hall; legacy bands fill cash-in albums with orchestras instead of ideas; curators try to upcycle dance classics with piano recitals. For this reason certain taboos have never lifted. Saying aloud the phrase “prog rock” may be the only way to make a room full of British music journalists stop talking. And so the cycle of mutual resentment goes on: highbrow institutions patronise pop music, and everyone else over-compensates by rejecting anything deemed snobby.

Still, the allure of the stage to critical darlings has rarely been stronger. In 2012, Radiohead guitarist-turned-composer Jonny Greenwood collaborated with avant-garde icon Krzysztof Penderecki, who also conducts the Beth Gibbons record. Today, you might find Greenwood’s scores for films like There Will Be Blood on a bill shared by The National’s Bryce Dessner, whose rich, cascading compositions are a Royal Festival Hall staple. Thom Yorke, meanwhile, will premiere his first classical work at the Paris Philharmonie in April, before bringing the piece to London’s Barbican.

When Max Richter‘s Woolf Works ballet came to the Royal Opera House in 2017, I was grateful to see, for a change, that other under-40s without Etonian diction had ventured out too. Many high/low boundaries are defined by setting and audience as much as innate musical qualities. Recent productions by vanguard artists Arca and Klein, for instance, blur the lines between club music and contemporary dance, and ought to infiltrate spaces reserved for the conservatory-trained elite.

For the most effortless of crossovers, look to composer Mica Levi, who sometimes records indie pop as Micachu and the Shapes. Despite being Oscar-nominated, Levi remains an underdog, probably because she’s in a class of her own. Her queasy, mesmerising Jackie and Under the Skin soundtracks are destined to be maligned in best-of-the-decade lists next winter, not to mention her ensemble pieces premiered (but unreleased) in recent years. If the borders between classical and pop genres continue to soften, history will celebrate the likes of Levi without reservation. Abolishing this kind of binary means both sides win.

Jazz Monroe is freelance music writer and editor for titles including Pitchfork, Q, The Guardian and The Independent; @jazz_monroe

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