Classical music must stop reacting and start 'just sitting'

Classical music’s big new ideas of alternative venues, etiquette-free concerts, informal dress, straight-talking websites and burgeoning portable media are now joined by pocket symphonies. On Feb 22 Deutsche Grammophon releases Sven Helbig’s Pocket Symphonies which, to quote the DG website, are “Short, catchy and yet with the immensity and depth of the great classic symphonies, they draw on centuries of power and glory. These pieces can of course be listened to on the journey between underground stations, as they provide an outstandingly high-quality soundtrack for everyday life”.

Sven Helbig’s pedigree includes studying at the former Dresden Conservatory, and collaborating with the Pet Shop Boys, rapper Sido and German industrial metal band Rammstein. He has appeared at the digerati’s hot gig TEDx, and on this new album works with Kristjan Järvi, the MDR Symphony Orchestra and Fauré Quartett. Promotional material from Helbig’s management laments how 'classical music has a repertoire problem' because ’new music’ has distanced itself consistently from its audience’ and explains that with Pocket Symphonies he has taken on the task of reversing this trend; while elsewhere the composer explains that “As soon as one writes a beautiful melody which also reflects what one experiences as a contemporary artist, then an association with film is created. Many composers would be totally unnerved if their music were compared with film music. I, on the other hand, find that wonderful, because these pieces are little walks through life”.

Focussing on the music itself rather than on alternative venues and etiquette-free concerts is definitely a step in the right direction. But, for me, there are two problems with the Pocket Symphonies project and the first is the music itself. Pocket Symphonies belongs to the nebulous alt.classical genre and, for a composer who has collaborated with an industrial metal band, the music is decidedly unadventurous - in fact ‘film music’ is a good description as can be heard on this sample. Is going backward really the way for music to go forward?

Pocket Symphonies plays as I write. It is good that someone influential is focussing on the music itself, and Sven Helbig’s management has been wonderfully co-operative, which is something I admire as they must be well aware of my trenchant position on populism in general and Universal Music in particular. Some tracks such as the high-energy Urban Perfume do the business, but others such as Sing for the Moment are no more than derivative kitsch. So sorry folks, but overall I find Pocket Symphoniesto quote Denis Raisin Dadre in context – insipid. Which is not necessarily a deal breaker, because that is the personal opinion of a prejudiced commentator who committed the cardinal sin of sitting at Pierre Boulez’s feet in the Roundhouse in the 1970s.

Which brings me to the second problem with Pocket Symphonies - the fundamental error of thinking that big new ideas are the best way for classical music to reach new audiences. Of course we need change, but that will come from many small corrections, not from a few big ideas. In fact those small corrections are happening – for instance informal dress is becoming the norm on and off the concert platform. But at the heart of these big new ideas is the dogma that classical music must reinvent itself as entertainment, and that dogma is wrong.

Classical music is not entertainment. It is, and always will be, a performing art that shares some of its defining characteristics with one of the great knowledge traditions, Zen Buddhism. Within Zen the Sōtō sect seeks enlightenment by ‘just sitting’ in silent meditation, while the Rinzai sect seeks enlightenment by grappling with impenetrable riddles known as koans. Zen master Shunryū Suzuki taught that we find our treasure by watching and waiting, and enlightenment in classical music comes not from big new ideas, but from ‘just sitting’ in the concert hall and grappling with the initially impenetrable koans of music from Arne to Xenakis. In his recent eloquent tribute to James DePreist, Grammy winning conductor John McLaughlin Williams tells of how at his first hearing of Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony “though I thought the music very long, I remember being mesmerized by what seemed endless paragraphs of sound”. In other words John McLaughlin Williams cracked the koan of a notoriously impenetrable composer by ‘just sitting’. And as Zen enlightenment cannot be speeded by shortening the time spent sitting in meditation or by making koans easier to solve, so appreciating classical music cannot be speeded by moving the ‘just sitting’ to alternative venues or making the musical koans easier to solve by programming ‘short and catchy’ pieces.

Art or entertainment? is one way of expressing classical music’s dilemma. But a more accurate one is Instant gratification or delayed gratification? We live in an age of instant gratification; but classical music cannot deliver instant gratification and any attempt to make it do so destroys its very essence. Research into delayed gratification such as Walter Mischel's celebrated Stanford marshmallow experiment links delayed gratification to age and connects its practice to positive factors such as physical and psychological health, academic achievement and social competence. Actualising those research findings will have far more impact on the future of classical music than applause between movements or short and catchy new music.

Doom mongers such as Max Hole – Deutsche Grammophon’s ultimate boss – delight in portraying classical music as moribund. Which is nonsense: I wrote recently about the Academy of Ancient Music delighting a diverse audience in a new and welcoming concert hall in the provinces, and similar affirmative experiences happen every day around the globe. Classical music is a living and vibrant art; it has evolved over the centuries and will continue to change in the future, and Pocket Symphonies is a valid contribution to that narrative of change. But the bottom line is that instantaneous musical enlightenment is an unachievable goal, so classical music must stop reacting to misguided pressure from the instant gratification lobby and instead focus more on 'just sitting'.

Pocket Symphonies was supplied as a requested review sample and thanks go to Mascha Litterscheid at Artist-ahead for her co-operation. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Also on Facebook and Twitter.


Philip Amos said…
"I've never heard such corny lyrics, such simpering sentimentality, such repetious, uninspired melody. Man, we've got a hit on our hands!"
Mike said…
Out of interest, how is alt.classical more nebulous than classical?

There is a lot of classical music which I think of as not much more than film music with a longer history. (Much accompaniment for dance or a play counts here IMHO).

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