Saturday, July 28, 2007

Middle-class wankers in dinner suits ...


Today's Guardian reports - "In the late-80s, when Factory Records launched its classical off-shoot, Tony Wilson vowed to wrestle classical music away from "middle-class wankers in dinner suits". Twenty years on, despite Factory and numerous embarrassing attempts to sell classical to the yoof and ageing rock stars dabbling in everything from opera to light chamber music, classical remains a dusty, dying art form. You can put William Orbit's orchestral work on at the Manchester International Festival or let Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood write for the BBC Concert Orchestra, but you can't make anyone under 40 care.

Gabriel Prokofiev is aware of this, but refuses to concede defeat. The man behind Nonclassical, a label and London club night, he is bucking the downward trend by returning classical music to its populist roots. Which means moody sleeve designs instead of laborious liner notes and live events where you can get pissed and talk over the crap bits, trading ideas - as Mozart once borrowed from folk - with dance music.

From anyone else, this - programming string quartets with electronica DJs and such - might look contrived, but Prokofiev is a uniquely credible broker. The grandson of Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev, he studied classical music to post-grad level before, frustrated with the insular world of contemporary classical music, chucking it all in to pursue various underground dance music projects. Under his patronymic Gabriel Olegavich, he heads-up the mighty disco-punk outfit Spektrum, records off-beam electro as Caspa Codina and has produced leftfield tracks for Lady Sovereign and Manchester MC Envy.

Well versed in the similar politics of classical music - "if you said anything was 'crossover' you'd be stoned to death" - and cutting-edge electro, Gabriel is determined not to produce a "patronising" hybrid of the two.

The first section of the latest Nonclassical CD contains four stark, challenging movements, written by Prokofiev and performed by the Elysian Quartet, which contain echoes of the excitable, repetitive patterns of techno. Those same tracks are remixed by Hot Chip, Conboy and US grime producer Starkey, who improvise hiccuping grooves from plucked strings and such. It's interesting, abrasive and, particularly UK hip-hop head EarlyMan's remix, outright joyous.

Currently working on Concerto for Turntables & Orchestra, a collaboration with the Heritage Orchestra and turntablist DJ Yoda, Prokofiev argues that only by engaging with popular culture can classical music attain a new common vitality.

"I'm not on a mission for classical music per se," Gabriel swerves, unconvincingly, "but it is an amazing tradition. There are things about it which are really special: the incredible instruments that have evolved, the performers who train like maniacs. Dancing to a mechanical beat is thrilling, but so is a really sensitive classical performance. Plus, so many clubs and radio stations play the same stuff, but the general public can handle complicated music."


Report from Guardian, Gabriiel Prokofiev's String Quartet No. 1 on YouTube here, listen to remixes of his String Quartet No. 2 here, and for Prokofiev for middle-class wankers in dinner suits follow this path.
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2 comments:

Henry Holland said...

Oh gawd, *another* of those OMG! OMG! Classical music is dying articles. Zzzzzzzz.

You can put William Orbit's orchestral work on at the Manchester International Festival or let Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood write for the BBC Concert Orchestra, but you can't make anyone under 40 care.

Then bloody well stop trying! Here's a radical idea: market classical music to people OVER 40, in a "Now that you're not struggling to finish school and raise young children, you have more time and money on your hands. How about trying some [insert whatever composer you care to]" way.

Oh no, that won't do, will it? That has no pop culture buzz about it, it doesn't get you mentioned on the morning chat shows or anything does it?

The man behind Nonclassical, a label and London club night, he is bucking the downward trend by returning classical music to its populist roots

Ah, The Big Lie. Populist in that context makes zero sense --it's a political position-- but even if they meant "popular" what on earth do they mean by "populist roots"? Opera was born in the courts of Florence, orchestral music was court entertainment. A brief blip where opera singers showed up on TV variety shows in the 1950's/early 60's (when they'd literally take anything to fill up the air time) or the fact that opera was popular in Italy with the working classes once upon a time, among the usual things trotted out to support that thesis, are just that: blips. Classical music has been and always will be a primarily self-selected small niche of the popular landscape. And there's nothing wrong with that.

Which means moody sleeve designs instead of laborious liner notes

Mere marketing rubbish. Yes, heaven forfend that you actually *learn* something about the music at hand.

live events where you can get pissed and talk over the crap bits

That might be the best description of what hell is like that I've read in ages. What the heck is *wrong* with people? I don't want drunken louts yelling in my ear at the occasional death metal concerts I go to, why on earth would that be considered a good thing at an event that requires silence and concentration on the part of the audience to get the full impact?

trading ideas - as Mozart once borrowed from folk - with dance music

Wow, *that's* never been tried, taking the great tunes and harmonies and complex forms of classical music and dumbing them down in to pop songs or adding a beat behind them! Oh, wait.....

So, I went to the Elysian Quartet's site and listened to an excerpt of Mr. Prokofiev's piece and a remix. The excerpt is pretty unremarkable in my view --Bartok in a minimalist framework-- but the remix, if that's some harbinger of what Mr. Prokofiev is trying to do, is really sad. Taking some of the quartet, adding shitty sounding snare and bass drum parts to it and remixing it is.......so Dr. Dre ca. early 1990's or Timbaland whenever. I can't possibly conceive how that would send Young Mr. Techno Fan scurrying to download the complete Bartok quartets; ever since the advent of affordable sampling in the 1990's, all music is fair game to be used as the bedrock of a track, why that's considered in any way new at this point is beyond me.

"if you said anything was 'crossover' you'd be stoned to death"

Well, hanging's too good for the likes of the purveyors of Russell Watson et al. but there's a reason for that, Mr. Prokofiev: 99.5% of what comes out of crossover is utter crap, neither musically good enough or rigorous for the classical crowd or too stiff and unidiomatic for the pop crowd. I'll never get over the horror of hearing Jose Carreras singing Bernestein's terrific West Side Story.

Gabriel is determined not to produce a "patronising" hybrid of the two

All the determination in the world won't prevent that from happening, Mr. Prokofiev, because the very idea itself is patronising. And insulting. And offensive.

Techno doesn't need the gloss of "class" that putting violins over a 4/4 throb is supposed to give it (note: I'm a huge fan of Goa Trance, Orbital, The Orb etc. and hated William Orbits "classical" album) and classical music only suffers by being dumbed down as it trains people to expect something that in fact doesn't exist when they encounter the real thing.

Prokofiev argues that only by engaging with popular culture can classical music attain a new common vitality

Rubbish, total rubbish. As far as I'm concerned, it's one way traffic: popular culture gains everything in that transaction. What Balirite spinmeister came up with the phrase "new common vitality"? Yikes, what does that even *mean*? I suspect he means "shows up in the usual hipster outlets of magazines, blogs and video sharing services, treated ironically so as to distance themselves from the ghastly specter of people sitting still and in silence so that they can hear all the nuances of an orchestra playing ppp in a large hall or a pianist playing softly in a recital hall".

Dancing to a mechanical beat is thrilling, but so is a really sensitive classical performance?

So how is that "really sensitive classical performance" going to take place when the writer's utopia, a common trope of these kinds of articles, of drunks getting up and leaving during the "crap bits" going to take place? How will they even know when the crap bits are ending and when to come back? It's a vexatious question, that's for sure!

the general public can handle complicated music

I can only conclude from that sentence that Gabriel Prokofiev ingests massive amounts of drugs every day because a look at the singles and album charts since they came in to being in, what? the 1920's? proves that's a total fantasty. The overwhelming majority of people, no matter if they're rock fans, classical fans, jazz fans, whatever genre, want pleasant music with hummable tunes, not "complicated music"; there's nothing wrong with chart pop, I certainly dip my toes in that area (one of my very favorite songs ever is Whitney Houston's I Will Always Love You, for example) but considering how many times I've seen "complicated music" in different genres empty out concert halls/clubs, the statement is absurd on the face of it. Dedicated musical explorers of whatever genre will always be a fringe element of the music consuming public and that's OK. I'm simply baffled by the whole "classical music has to become part of pop culture" meme.

Thanks for the hilarious article, Pliable, it almost could be used as a template for all those appalling "We're out to save classical music (though it's holding steady, or in the case of opera, actually increasing, in terms of audiences in most studies)" that you post regularly.

Hope you and yours are safe from the weather in England; it looks like East Anglia has been spared the worst of it.

Pliable said...

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