Does classical music need to be more relevant?

Opinions differ as to whether classical music needs to be more relevant to appeal to a wider audience. Relevance is too often interpreted by the classical industry as chronological relevance; as in the forthcoming surfeit of Beethoven to mark the 250th anniversary of his birth. It can be argued that too much emphasis is placed on composer anniversaries, and that relevance beyond the introverted classical world is more important if the art form really wants to reach new listeners. One example of a wider relevance is this year's 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. To its credit the BBC exploited this relevance in a Prom last week. But the execution was predictably uninspired, consisting of light orchestral versions of 1969 chart hits and movie soundtracks; an aberration described by the Telegraph reviewer as "a marketing brainstorm that should have been left on the back of an envelope".

More relevant, less contrived, and infinitely more inspired is the newly remastered reelase of Brian Eno's music written for Al Reinhert's 1989 documentary film of the Apollo missions For All Mankind. The soundtrack was a collaboration between ambient pioneer Eno, his brother Roger and producer/composer Daniel Lanois. Brian Eno's music lived on beyond Al Reinhert's celebrated film and was used by Danny Boyle in his 1996 movie Trainspotting and again by him in the extravagant opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics.

Including this album in an article about whether classical music needs to be relevant raises two important questions. The first is does ambient electonica count as classical music? The second question is does the Apollo space programme have anything other than historic significance in 2019? Let's start by dealing with the question of what is classical music? An earlier post tried, somewhat unsuccessfully I fear, to answer the koan of what is classical music? So today I am suggesting the postmodern, existential answer that classical music is simply what we, individually, believe it to be. Pre-modern, absolutist definitions have been rendered redundant by cultural fluidity, as have the politically correct definitions of contemporary 'experts'. Your classical music is not necessarily my classical music, and my classical music definitely extends far beyond established definitions. As novelist Turkish author Elif Şafak tells us "No two people are alike. No two hearts beat to the same rhythm". And the listeners are constantly changing, which means the definition of classical music is also constantly changing.

Classical music desperately wants a new wider audience, and accepting this fluid definition may well be the key to reaching that elusive cohort. Brian Eno's remastered Apollo has received extensive coverage in influential media such as Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, and FactMag. Despite its undoubted merit, Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla's new album of Weinberg's symphonies did not receive similar coverage. Just think about that for a minute in the context of classical music's search for a new audience and the debate about the need for more relevance.

The second question of does the Apollo space programme have anything other than historic significance is equally difficult to answer. Is space travel now no more than a way for multi-billionaires to escape the gravitational pull of fiscal responsibility? There is a strong argument that this is not the case. In his newly published Apollo's Legacy: Perspectives on the Moon Landings former NASA chief historian and associate director at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum Roger Launius provides an erudite analysis of the Apollo legacy. In a chapter titled Apollo and the Religion of Spaceflight he makes a compelling case for transcendental significance. This is the quote he cites in support of his thesis, it is Ray Bradbury talking about his dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451:

“Too many of us have lost the passion and emotion of the remarkable things we’ve done in space. Let us not tear up the future, but rather again heed the creative metaphors that render space travel a religious experience. When the blast of a rocket launch slams you against the wall and all the rust is shaken off your body, you will hear the great shout of the universe and the joyful crying of people who have been changed by what they’ve seen.” No one leaves a Space Shuttle—or any other launch for that matter—unchanged. The experience is thrilling and transforming.
Brain Eno's classic and classical Apollo music powerfully evokes the transforming experience of space travel. The newly remastered album, which sells for the price of a single CD, comes with a second disc of new compositions. These come from the same trio of Eno, Eno and Lanois and are inspired by the original music. Sadly these new compositions do not lift-off in the same way, and too often rocket music lapses into elevator music. Brian Eno expresses himself as powerfully in words as in music, and in the new sleeve note for Apollo he shifts his attention from spaceflight to the ecological crisis. He lambasts the massive philanthropic support for the rebuilding of man-made Notre-Dame when the far more important task of rebuilding the natural environment is assiduously ignored by the same powerful bodies. His writing on this subject is angry, compelling and very relevant. Let's hope he channels some of that passion into his next recording project instead of recycling very well-deserved but past successes.

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Pliable said…
The case for relevance beyond the introverted classical world is highlighted by, as I write, the consistent appearance of my 2006 post 'Neil Armstrong finally reveals his moon music' among On An Overgrown Path's most widely read articles; check the right hand side-bar for the list of popular posts -
I've been amazed by the audience response to our small town community orchestra's renditions of what people in large metropolitan areas might consider over-played works. I can't help suspecting there's a reason some works make it into the repertoire and others don't. "Wider audience" might mean one thing in large metropolitan areas and something different everywhere else. It's also interesting there were always other composers around the time of the famous ones, who were played as often, but are now mere footnotes. Part of "relevance" seems to be the music having an alchemical effect on the listener, and live performance amplifies that effect. As much as I love Eno and Lanois, recording music dampens that effect for me, at least on repeated listenings.
Pliable said…
Totally agree Lyle; there will always be a key role for the mainstream masterpieces in reaching a wider audience. But what depresses me is the total lack of imagination in curating 'relevant' concerts with either mainstream or marginal music - that lamentable BBC Prom with its light orchestral arrangement of 'Here Comes the Sun' is a case in point.

1969 could have been celebrated with the mainstream masterpiece of Also sprach Zarathustra in the second half. The first half could have recreated Ravi Shankar's Woodstock set of Ragas and tabla solo with Indian musicians. That would not have blown the concert budget as excellent sitar, tamboura and tabla players would jump at the opportunity to play a Prom without demanding celebrity fees.

If given BBC TV airtime that creatively relevant Prom could have introduced 2001 fans to Indian music. It might even have introduced sitar nerds to Richard Strauss!
John said…
Dear Pliable
Your post about the moon landing and music brought to mind this short film by Larissa Sansour, a Palestinian artist. It's called "A space exodus" (or "the first Palestinian on the moon"): I came across it recently at the excellent Moon exhibition at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. There are some tunes there that I am sure I recognise but can't quite put my finger on it.
Best, John

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