During the 1970s and 80s, I mostly listened to pop and rock music, when even the likes of Captain Beefheart, Henry Cow and Popul Vuh were filed under pop. However far out I went as a listener, though, classical music seemed connected to a dreary sense of uninspiring worthiness that was fixed inside an ideologically suspect status quo, lacking the exhilarating suggestion of new beginnings, a pulsating sense of an exciting, mind-expanding tomorrow. There was something monstrous about it, as if in its world there were lumbering dinosaurs and toothless dragons, refusing to accept they were extinct. Next to Iggy and the Stooges and the Velvets, it sounded frail; next to Buzzcocks and Public Image, it sounded pompous. While I wrote for the NME between 1976 and 1984, interviewing stars from Lou Reed and John Lydon to Sting and Mick Jagger, I didn’t think about classical music – it was from the past, back when the past stayed where it was and wasn’t as easy to access as it is now.
I owned hundreds of albums and thousands of singles by the early 1980s, and then replaced them with thousands of CDs, many of them the same rock albums. Now I am rebuilding once more as compact discs become as anachronistic as 78s. I have a rapidly expanding virtual library – in my head as much as inside the cage of Google – that might date as much as the vinyl and CD libraries did, or might last me for ever.
I now listen to much more classical music than I do pop or rock and on the surface that might seem like a classic, cliched, late-life move into a conservative, grown-up and increasingly remote world. For me, though, it has been more a move to where the provocative, thrilling and transformative ideas are, mainly because modern pop and rock has become the status quo.
If you are going to go back to the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s to find music that still sounds new and challenging – because then it was an actual risk to look and sound a certain way, whereas now it is the norm – you might as well go even further back in time, to the beginning of the 20th century, to the 17th, 18th, 19th centuries. Now, with all music available instantly, and pop more a nostalgic, preservative practice rather than one anticipating and demanding change, classical music comes to fresh, forward-looking life.
The alluring, addictive sound of pop does still evolve, but what is sung about remains more or less the same; the poses, controversies and costumes repetitive and derivative. It is machines that are now the new pop stars, the performers and singers like travelling sales workers whose ultimate job is to market phones, tablets, consoles, films, brands and safely maintain the illusion that the world is just as it was when there was vinyl and the constant, frantic turnover of talent, genre and style. There is today a tremendous amount of sentimentality in making it seem as though things are as they once were, a desperate future-fearing rearrangement of components that were hip 40 years ago. But pop and rock belongs at the end of the 20th century, in a structured, ordered world that has now fallen apart.
For me, pop music is now a form of skilfully engineered product design, the performers little but entertainment goods, and that is how they should be reviewed and categorised. The current pop singers are geniuses of self-promotion, but not, as such, musicians expressing glamorous ideas.
Most rock is now best termed trad. I like a bit of product design, even the odd slab of trad, and have not turned my back completely on entertainment goods, but when it comes to music and working out what music is for, when it comes to thinking about music as a metaphor for life itself, what tends to be described as classical music seems more relevant to the future.
Once you make it through the formalities of classical music, those intimidating barriers of entry, there is the underestimated raw power of its acoustic sound and an endless supply of glorious, revolutionary music, all easily accessed as if it is happening now. Now that all music is about the past, and about a curation of taste into playlists, now that fashions and musical progress have collapsed, discernment wiped out, classical music takes a new place in time, not old or defunct, but part of the current choice. It is as relevant as any music, now that music is one big gathering of sound perpetually streaming into the world. If you are interested in music that helps us adapt to new ideas, to fundamental change, which broadcasts different, special ways of thinking and warns us about those who loathe forms of thinking that are not the same as theirs, classical is for you.
If you are thinking of making a move – perhaps that Mercury prize list coming around like a Yo! Sushi conveyor belt, or that fifth Maximo Park album driving you over the edge – here are six ways of beginning, six different doors into what it’s best you think of as mind-bending outer space, rather than the end of your pop-loving youth.
Until recently, the “classical” music that interested me was there in the ragged, undefined borders close to where experimental and conceptual rock music drifted, mingling with avant-garde techniques. There didn’t seem too much of a leap between the noise and structures of Stockhausen and Faust, Reich and Eno, Varèse and Zappa. The big, marbled names such as Mozart, Brahms and Beethoven seemed far away from urgent, modern life and were all about death, dying and mourning. They were also co-opted and corrupted by an establishment coldly buying up culture to protect their narrow values, as though beauty could be owned and radicalism neutralised.
But because it is now technologically possible to get to music that once seemed the other side of the universe, and gain unfiltered understanding, I can enjoy Mozart in much the same way as I enjoy Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman – as a great, powerfully active mind moving across the uncanny, insanely absurd vastness of the cosmos, revealing and inventing itself and, therefore, reality around it, through the uncompromising, ongoing strangeness of music. Once you appreciate that the transcendent, freakish otherness of Mozart makes him as modern and subversive as any artist, as startling as any surrealist, you could spend all of your time patrolling his compositions and finding new places to start. To find a sense of brand newness, I started with some of the less overexposed and starry comfort pieces, such as the austerely lovely, low and deliberately slow K477, and the supernaturally solemn Masonic Funeral Music written in 1785, I dug deep into Gregorian chant and an unspecified, subtly twisted future mood. From there, you can head in a thousand different Mozart directions, and a million other directions that are as likely to lead you to Alice Coltrane and Nina Simone as Iannis Xenakis and John Luther Adams.
The great thing about the way we can now access music is how quickly you can move from one time and place to another, which really suits the hundreds of years of classical music and the way it moves in all directions at once: all those composers, conductors, orchestras, ensembles, versions, repertories, programmes, voices and connections can now be held more or less in one place and, astonishingly, inside your phone. You can call Schubert, Stravinsky, Bartok, Lutoslawski and they get right back to you. If you find one piece of classical music you like, you can very quickly move out and about into a world that once seemed hermetically sealed off and controlled by mean, dismal and/or arcane forces. You can make your own way into a world that is new because it is new to you; a collection of responsive, connected and mutinous individuals in their own amazing world; a vital representation of spontaneous thought.
The Mozart piece mentioned above randomly turns up in numerous settings, including compilations dedicated to the “dark side” of classical music that take you to Verdi, Holst, Messiaen, Górecki, Glass – and there it is on a Decca compilation of more than 30 hours of Benjamin Britten as performer and conductor. Among this entire personal history of music that flows from Purcell and Byrd to Vaughan Williams and Michael Tippett, psychedelically whispering and fabulously blasting inside one man’s immense turbulent imagination,there is Debussy’s unearthly, defiantly beautiful, end-of-life Sonata for Cello and Piano. Concentrated into 12 intensely powerful, subtly volatile minutes, once heard it will haunt you forever. It was written in 1915, but still sounds like it is just being thought of, as if it’s post-jazz and post-Cage, simultaneously coalescing and disintegrating.
Classical music is not all big, mighty orchestras and epic, overpowering, bloody-minded symphonies, or tarted-up operatic fussiness; it is also filled with ravishing intimacy, the small, constantly varied combinations of instruments and exquisite, ever-surprising solo recitals. You can follow a truly fantastic trail of mental solo cello from Bach and Britten’s Suites to Sofia Gubaidulina’s 1974 Preludes that is, for me, the most radiant, breathtaking and poetic of all music; the purest sound of what it is to be human on the edge of something beyond at this weird moment in time.
3. Berio: Sequenza V (1966)
One solo trail will always lead to another. You can quickly discover new stars operating as rebels interested in making the world a freer, fairer, wonderfully odder world, discover the very different things that make them tick, and their own ways of ordering and reordering the universe. Luciano Berio’s Sequenzas were 14 exploratory pieces written for solo instruments of voices between 1958 and 2002 – while all that pop and rock fuss was going on in a very different kitchen. Think of them as a kind of box set, a mysterious, untamed, ancient and modern world to explore, like a great novel or HBO series. My favourite at the moment is V, for solo trombone and, even more madly, for clown (it is a tribute to Grock, whom Berio called “one of the great clowns”)correct, and also for “vivacious” and a little “vicious”. It was written in 1966, the same year as Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde and Cecil Taylor’s Unit Structures, and I’m happy to slip this gem on to that playlist – classical history freshly released into the new world refreshes jazz and rock history and vice versa. These minds were all at play at the same time, thinking the same way from differently stoned points of view.
I have lately developed a crush on Shostakovich. Such music tends to be presented as though it is too aloof to be of interest or too static and uninvolving. I first found Shostakovich through his Second String Quartet, because I had fallen deeply for the idea of the string quartet, in the same way I once became addicted to power trios in rock and quartets and quintets in jazz. After hearing Schoenberg’s dramatic String Quartet No 2, I decided to hear as many second quartets as I could find. I was devouring every quartet composition I could track down. This would have been impossible to do before the cloud. For £10 a month, you can now travel anywhere you want to go – and limiting yourself to pop and rock, which is all over reality TV, compilations and ads anyway, seems a complete waste of this unlikely, unexpected resource.
There are histories within histories inside classical music, unfolding over complicated centuries, as one composer takes over from another, accepting and rejecting what happened previously, looking for new ways to preserve and extend a certain form, exploring how four instruments can do the same thing so differently, so that Haydn and Mozart lead to Cage and Ligeti, and it is as exciting to see how that happens as it is to note how Elizabeth Cotten became Beyoncé or Thelonius Monk became Autechre.
Once I had got to Shostakovich’s string quartets, I then moved to his symphonies, and experienced how he moved from his first as a teenager in the mid-1920s, to his final one, his 15th, before he died in 1971, so that a whole life of learning, perceiving and reaction to his Stalin-soaked time and place is contained within this one collection of works. In his earth-shattering 10th, fully immersed in life and chaos, making most of the history of prog rock sound pretty quaint, it sounds like he believes he is immortal.
Shostakovich’s complete symphonies alone run for more than 13 hours. A compilation of Anton Webern’s complete works lasts about six hours; a collection of intense, delirious and spooky short stories more than a run of immense, sweeping novels. What took him 40 years to complete can now be taken almost as a whole, listened to in one sitting, although the number of ideas and thinking compressed into this brief musical output is hallucinatory. Experience, delight, fear and apprehension are distilled with dazzling precision and severity into smaller and smaller moments of contemplation, beginning in a time shared by the Debussy of the Cello Sonata and ending in a time shared with Charlie Parker and Edgard Varèse. Langsamer Satz (“Slow Movement”), written in 1905 when he was in his early 20s, was an unusual early fragment of an unfinished string quartet, romanticism lusciously blistering into the mind-altering atonality to come, a shrunken symphony, the sound of a new world opening up, and even now, 100 years later, still the sound of a new world opening up, of the imagination creating its own reality.
Earle Brown’s exploration of form and formlessness, time and timelessness, sound and silent, old and new, works brilliantly in this new world of listening to music as though it is streamed directly from one mind to another with no barriers or mediation in-between. You look for it, you find it, you work out its meaning according to your own taste. Brown was part of the so-called New York school with John Cage, Morton Feldman and Christian Wolff, and the famous postwar avant garde including Boulez and Stockhausen, and his fractured, tender Times Five from 1963 is wilder than anything that has happened since, conceptually if not in aggression and volume. For those looking for the missing link between Mozart and Madlib, it’s abstract (classical) music for a phantom, post-real space age that is yet to happen, but seems scheduled to happen soon, and where most pop and rock will seem very dull and dated.