In the opening chapter of his new book, Listen to This, Alex Ross declares that he “hates” ‘classical music’ – “not the thing, but the name”. He argues that it “traps a tenaciously living art in the theme park of the past. It cancels out the possibility that music in the spirit of Beethoven could still be created today. It banishes into limbo the work of thousands of active composers who have to explain to otherwise well-informed people what it is they do for a living….”

So what else can we call it?

“Serious music” seems inappropriate, since there is a good deal of ‘classical music’ which is humorous, comical and witty.

“Intellectual music” smacks of elitism – and aren’t we supposed to be trying to dispel the elitist image of classical music?

“Great music”? By doing that, we exclude the greats of the jazz, rock and pop genres – and not forgetting World music…..

“Art music”? But some of the songs of Kate Bush, the Cocteau Twins or Goldfrapp (who I heard last night) could be considered “art music”.

And some suggestions from Radio 3 listeners:

“the People’s Music” (since “so many people can participate in it”). Sounds a bit communist to me!

“Ephemeral music”

As Ross says, all these terms are useful, but are not its defining characteristics. Classical music can also be crazy, confused, stupid and vulgar.

Readers: can we find a new name for classical music?

Your thoughts, please – clever, witty, humorous, vulgar or just plain stupid!


Alex Ross

In the tapas bar before the concert, there was much discussion amongst fellow diners as to what time She would be on. “I thought She was on at eight”, said my companion. “Oh no, She’s definitely on at nine – ’til eleven” said someone at the next table. This was confirmed by another couple. So we ordered more drinks and tapas, knowing that arriving at the venue too early would mean jostling for a place at the overcrowded bar or listening to a mediocre support band.

Inside the venue, the foyer was heaving with concert-goers, and upstairs in the circle bar, it was positively throbbing. We drank our drinks out of plastic cups and enjoyed half an hour of people-watching. More used to refined surroundings of the front bar at the Wigmore, and its largely superannuated clientele, I was fascinated by the demographic. Yet, there were similarities with the classical music crowd: we were all there to enjoy the music, and the shared experience of music-making.

She emerged, through smoke, from an Anish Kapoor-style soft sculpture, which bore more than a passing resemblance to the female anatomy, and pranced to the front of the stage, all sequins and spangles and feathers: in her shiny cape, tight leggings and platform shoes She looked like a rare, exotic bird. As the raw opening beats of the first song began, the crowd cheered and whooped in recognition of the song. Of her. The heavily amplified music vibrated in my chest and the pit of my stomach; my ears hurt. I was loving it.

Formed in 1999, a duo between singer Alison Goldfrapp and composer Will Gregory, Goldfrapp specialises in electronic music, but they are more than that because with the release of each new album (and there are five – I have them all), they have always cunningly reinvented themselves, while retaining their distinctive style and sound. Seventh Tree, the-last-but-one album (2007-8), is folksy, down-tempo and ambient, with a greater use of acoustic guitars than on previous albums. The latest release, Head First, is a nod back to the synthpop of the 1980s, while Black Cherry, their second album, shows the influence of glam rock.

Throughout the concert, I was struck by the many musical influences Alison Goldfrapp draws on, and, like the music of Schubert or Messiaen, her music ranges from a whisper to a scream. It’s redolent of early Pink Floyd, T-Rex, Donna Summer, Kate Bush, Portishead and the Cocteau Twins. Wider influences include Polish disco, and the cabaret music of Weimar Germany, and indeed Alison Goldfrapp’s on-stage presence owes much to burlesque and cabaret. Her music is dreamy, erotic (especially in the use of the Theremin), surreal, raunchy, hypnotic, quirky, while her lyrics are inspired by films, her childhood, her sexual fantasies. Most impressive is her voice, which croons one moment, growls the next, then switches to a high-pitched aria of almost heart-stopping beauty.  Around her, the band look like throwbacks to Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust era, in their shiny catsuits and platform boots, and, as they play, she stomps and struts, prances and pirouettes, like Marc Bolan or Mick Jagger, her amazing costumes creating weird and wonderful shadows on the walls.

This article, an interview with pianist James Rhodes, which appeared in The Independent today, was flagged up on Radio 3’s Breakfast programme this morning: the lovely Sarah Mohr-Pietsch invited listeners to comment on whether or not they felt concert soloists were “stuffy” people. I texted the following: “It’s not so much the stuffiness of the soloists as the stuffiness of the venue and audience. Classical music presented in more informal settings (such as the Red Hedgehog in Highgate) makes for a far more relaxed, shared experience for everyone.” It chimes with an ongoing discussion thread which has been exercising myself and fellow Musbook users: “Is classical music elitist?”.

Many people, who are not “in the know” – and even some who are! – regard classical music as elitist and its practitioners as either stuffy fuddy-duddies, or pretentious so-and-so’s who have set themselves up as demi-gods, garnering praise and adulation wherever they go, and never stooping to acknowledge their adoring public who queue patiently at the green rooms of the concert halls of the world to meet them. Classical music has, until recently, not helped its cause: many of the “traditional” venues are frequented by mostly elderly, mostly uber-middle class people, who exude pomposity, who sit through the performance in hushed reverential silence, and who tut and purse their lips if anyone dares to applaud in the wrong place (harumph! Such ignorance!). Being surrounded by such people can be very off-putting for the classical music ingenue. Then there is the venue itself: the Wigmore is all Edwardian gilded curlicues and red-velvet plushness, with its Constance Spry flower displays and that gold rail along the edge of the stage which serves to set the performers apart from the audience and further promotes the “us and them” attitude.

In reality, most professional musicians are fairly ordinary people who, admittedly, can do extraordinary things with a mechanical contraption of wood and wires, scrape beautifully on a stringed wooden box, or blow down a metal pipe with valves, and create magical and wonderful sounds. We tend to forget that these people are just doing their job: the difference is they do not spend hours at a desk in an office. Instead, they spend hours and hours and hours, often entirely alone, with only dead composers for companions, honing their art (and I have blogged previously about the life of the musician: the low pay, the unsociable working hours, the travelling). I have been fortunate to meet a few professional musicians in my time: the pianist Peter Donohoe was a neighbour of the mother of a friend of mine (who famously and amusingly said once, “he can’t be that good if he has to practice so much!). My friend, not musical, a quantum physicist by training, often used to go down the pub with Peter, and reported that he was a perfectly ordinary bloke – who played the piano, extremely well. He did not live in an ivory tower, nor some silent cloister, but in a normal house on an estate outside Birmingham. Many professional musicians have families, just like the rest of us, they live in ordinary homes, in ordinary streets. Some may have a special room set aside for their activity, but many do not. (My teacher, who is a busy concert pianist, has her piano in the family sitting room, surrounded by books and prints, mementos from family holidays, magazines and DVDs.)

Meet the soloist in the green room after the performance, and you generally find someone who is pleased to share your experience of the concert, and who would prefer the adoring public to be a little less awestruck. Many people, going backstage to meet the performer, often say silly, nervous, or irrelevant things; or their anxiety about meeting the performer makes them tongue-tied (not so, when I met Ian Bostridge – two glasses of Sauvignon had loosened my tongue considerably!). Sometimes people ask, with a weird, admiring light in their eyes, what it is like, being a concert soloist. Most performers will reply truthfully, downplaying the pleasures of a musical career, while emphasising the less glamorous aspects of the job. But more often than not, people coming to the green room are fresh, honest and spontaneous, and, for the performer, it must be gratifying to have one’s efforts measured against people’s responses.

Many performers are making conscious efforts to break down the barriers, real or imagined, that exist between performer and audience. The traditional concert attire of white tie and tails for the men is seen less often now (though the women are still expected to turn out in sparkly dresses) as many, understandably, prefer comfort over formality. Quite a few performers like to introduce the music they are playing in advance of the performance, explaining its provenance and its meaning, or its special or personal connection to them. This can be very engaging, arousing the audience’s interest before a single note is heard, and reminding us that this is to be a shared experience. At smaller venues I have attended, the performers often come to mingle with the audience afterwards, sharing a glass of wine and conversation.

While I am not wholly convinced by James Rhodes’ entirely casual approach (though his attitude to his music is by no means “casual”: he is committed and diligent), I do think he is doing good things to further reduce the stuffiness that surrounds classical music. If dressing like a student, in jeans and Converse trainers, gets students, more used to “moshing” at a rock concert, into the classical concert hall, then I am all for it. However, playing with an iPad propped up on the music rack strikes me as pure, crowd-pleasing gimmickry, and has no place at the piano, as far as I am concerned. I am posting a video clip of James Rhodes performing at this year’s Cheltenham Festival to allow readers to form their own opinions on this:

B flat is a hauntingly melancholic key, and this collaborative music/spoken word project demonstrates this point exquisitely. A collection of video clips of people playing different instruments and sound-producing devices, it doesn’t matter when you start a clip, or in what order, you end up with beautiful ensemble piece which is different every time.

Go on – try it!

PS for fellow synaesthetes, for me the key of B flat is sea-green.

synergy syn·er·gy (sĭn’ər-jē)
The interaction of two or more agents or forces so that their combined effect is greater than the sum of their individual effects.

“those three minutes of perfection – when time stands still and the music just washes over you….”

This was Bruce ‘The Boss’ Springsteen, talking on Radio 4 on Saturday morning about playing and performing, in an interview broadcast to coincide with the release of his book and a new album ‘Promise’, and the re-release of his album ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’.

Those of who play and listen to music regularly known what The Boss is talking about: that moment when one is ‘transported’, taken out of oneself; where the experience transcends the norm and seems to take one to another plane of consciousness. I felt it on Monday evening at the Wigmore, while listening to Messiaen’s transcendental ‘Quartet for the End of Time’.  Such moments can be rare, and so they must be cherished because they can be fleeting and soon forgotten.

When one is playing music, it is even harder. In order to achieve such a state, one must work hard, for one must know the music intimately – and such intimacy only comes from repetitive work and thoroughly immersing oneself in the music. One must also possess purpose and focus, trust in one’s musical self, have a highly-developed ability to concentrate, blanking out all other distractions, and be able to stand back from oneself and the music.

I used to find it hard to concentrate on my practising; my piano is in the conservatory and I was regularly disturbed by birdsong (the famous Bushy Park parakeets usually start their daily squawking at about 4pm), a dog barking, a road drill, my neighbour mowing his lawn. Gradually, I trained myself to ignore these sounds; they merged into the background, becoming a foil for the music instead of competing with it. Sometimes the sounds of nature are helpful: working on Debussy’s ‘Voiles’ in the summer, with the French windows flung open, I listened to the wind in the bamboos in my garden, and drew inspiration from that sound.

Some days, when I’m practising something for technique alone, a passage of Chopin, for example, which is just fingerwork, purely mechanical playing, before the shaping and finessing begin, I can let me mind wander, but not too far because there needs to be a degree of engagement to ensure the fingers land in the right place each time. This kind of practising acts as an exercise, to strengthen the fingers and to train the muscular memory to achieve accuracy. As Vladimir Horowitz said “From the moment one feels that the finger must sing, it becomes strong”: it is at this point that one stops playing mechnically and starts to play musically. Pianists, who draw so much information from the tips of the fingers, transmitting it to the brain and back to the fingertips again – almost as if one has “eyes in the fingertips” as my teacher put it once – can feel when that moment is achieved. Rather like a runner or cyclist being “in the zone”, reaching that point of perfect synergy between body and mind, when all limbs, lungs and heart seem to be working properly and the action becomes fluid, comfortable, beautiful.

When one plays in this state, it seems as if everything has fallen into place. Sometimes, it even feels easy! I have the sensation of observing myself, standing back from the music, and myself, watching myself playing. There is a sense of having “let go” – and yet, it is at this point that one is concentrating most furiously. One has also done all the groundwork: learnt all those notes, assimilated and acted upon those dynamic, articulation, tempo or stylistic markings, understood the composer’s intentions. At this point, one feels one has created exactly the right balance between spontaneity and structure, technique and inspiration

In his excellent book ‘The Inner Game of Music’, Barry Green (a professional double-bassist) talks about us having two Selfs: Self 1 is critical, cautious, doubting, sensible, interfering. It gets in the way, telling us what we should and should not be doing; it predicts successes and failures, and talks of “if only”. Self 1 can also be extremely distracting. Self 2 is intuitive, tapping into the vast resource of our nervous system and drawing information from non-verbal cues, and our vast memory-bank of past musical experiences: everything we have heard, learned from others, or experienced ourselves. Self 2 is more creative, and is connected to an earlier, childhood state – that wide-open, receptiveness that exists in children until they are about eight years old, ready to absorb whatever comes before us. As we grow up, subtle changes occur as we begin to collect information, ideas, attitudes, and form our own conclusions. We also become more cautious, more risk-averse, more fearful of the consequences of our actions, and the gap between our “critical” self (Self 1) and our “creative” self (Self 2) widens. The ability to spontaneously tap into our intuitive resources of Self 2 disappears, as Self 1 takes over. It is possible to train oneself to let Self 2 back in, to master what Barry Green calls “the inner game” (a technique borrowed from tennis coaching), and to reduce mental interference which can inhibit the full expression of one’s musical (or sporting) capabilities.

Choosing to ignore Self 1’s commands, its “what ifs” and “if onlys” is an important process in learning good concentration skills and teaching us to trust our musical selves. It is also crucial in helping to overcome performance anxiety: as I say to my adult students (who are currently in a collective paroxysm of fear about performing in my forthcoming Christmas concert), “What’s the worse thing that can happen?”. I assure them that no one will boo, nor slow hand-clap, nor heckle. Indeed, most people in the audience are full of admiration of anyone who can get up on a stage and perform. It is no surprise that most of the children I teach, especially the younger ones (8 – 10 year olds), are eager to perform and love showing off what they can do. They don’t worry about making mistakes or stopping mid-performance; they just get on with it, demonstrating that their Self 2 is more powerful than Self 1 at this point in their lives.

So, those “three minutes of perfection”, which Bruce Springsteen talked about, that moment of perfect synergy, are a true product of one allowing Self 2 to take over, driving out the doubts and fears of Self 1, letting one’s true musical self play, and permitting one’s fingers, hands and body to make the decisions.



Green, Barry: The Inner Game of Music. Pan Books. London, 1987

—————- The Mastery of Music. Macmillan. London, 2003

Rink, John: Musical Performance: A Guide to Understanding. Cambridge University Press, 2002

Westney, William: The Perfect Wrong Note: Learning to Trust Your Musical Self. Amadeus Press, 2006

Bernstein, Seymour: With Your Own Two Hands: Self-Discovery Through Music. 1981

To the Wigmore Hall last night for my first concert of the autumn season, and what promised to be a marvellous evening, part of clarinettist Michael Collins’s residency at the Wig.

Arriving super early – there was very little traffic on the way in – my friend and I had time to enjoy a leisurely glass of champagne in the front bar where we surreptitiously surveyed the other concert-goers, quite a mixed bunch, as one would expect from the programme. We observed, not for the first time, that some people were very scruffily turned out for the evening. Whenever I go to a concert, whether it is popular music (rare for me) or classical, I make an effort to get “dressed up”. It’s an occasion, after all, and if the performer/performers have gone to all that trouble to learn all that music and turn out to perform, I feel one should make a similar effort with one’s dress. Of course, these days, many performers, particularly men, are opting out of the traditional virtuoso “uniform” of white tie and tails, favouring instead Nehru jackets and collarless shirts, presumably because this attire is more comfortable. Given that performing the Rach Three is akin to shovelling several tons of coal in terms of its physical effort, it might be more comfortable for some performers to appear in a vest and shorts! But while male performers are dressing down, there is a general outcry if the women are not in sparkly evening dresses……but this is material for another blog post.

The first half was all Mozart: the Clarinet Trio K498, the “Kegelstatt” was undemanding and pleasant to the ear, while the Quintet in A K581, the one with all the recognisable “laahvely melodies”, was intelligently and sensitively played, Michael Collins displaying some fine virtuoso playing, especially in the arpeggiated passages in the last movement. This piece is very familiar to me: my father, who was a fine amateur clarinettist, played it many times as I was growing up –  with his chamber group, with me at the piano in a reduced version, and with Music Minus One. I am sure, had he come to the concert (I did invite him), he would have thoroughly enjoyed Michael Collins’s superb, precise playing.

As the final movement of the Quintet drew to a close, I had the sense of the performers clearing the way for what was to come in the second half: Olivier Messiaen’s ‘Quartet for the End of Time’.

Messiaen is one of those composers (and there are many!) whose music nudges at the edges of my musical conscious; that is to say, I am aware of his music, but I have not had the opportunity to explore it in depth. At the piano course I attended in the spring, one of the students played one of the Vingts Regards sur l’Enfant Jesus, and I found it utterly captivating. I keep meaning to look up this music and learn one or two of the movements, but as usual, there is just too much repertoire and never enough time!

The Quartet for the End of Time was famously composed during a period when Messiaen was a prisoner of war in Silesia, yet it remains a work of religious meditation rather than political protest: as the composer said “this quartet was written for the end of time, not as a play on words about the time of captivity, but for the ending of concepts of past and future……..for the beginning of eternity”. I have heard excerpts from it on the radio – the more melodic, contemplative sections – but I have never heard the work in its entirety, performed live. Imprisoned with the composer, were a cellist (Etienne Pasquier), and clarinettist (Henri Akoka), and Messiaen wrote for them “an unpretentious little trio”, which they played to him in the latrines. This became the creative impulse for the remaining seven movements, and the complete work was first performed in the prison camp. The Quartet was directly inspired by a quotation from the Book of Revelation, and retains a sense of the Apocalypse throughout, even in the most quiet, meditative movements.

But one really doesn’t need to know all this: from the outset, it is obvious that this is a work of immense scale and emotional range, born out of incredibly straitened circumstances. The instruments clang, shriek and scrape; they sing and cry plaintively. There are fragments of birdsong (and I wondered whether these were the sounds the composer desired to hear while in captivity, or whether they were the only pleasant sounds he could hear), distant celestial trumpets, sirens, hammers falling on anvils, angelic choirs…. In one movement, Abime des oiseaux, the clarinet plays long sustained notes, from ppp to fff, and one can only marvel at the  technical control required to achieve this sound, while feeling one is staring right into the abyss.

The overall effect was searing, painful, extraordinarily beautiful. I told myself I would not cry, yet at the close, the tears poured down my cheeks, staining a path through my make up. There was a full two minutes of silence at the end as the audience continued to absorb what they had just heard, before rapturous, sustained applause. To adapt the composer’s own quotation at the first performance of his work, never before have I listened with such consideration and understanding. The elegant Wigmore Hall seemed altogether too refined a place for such a performance: it seemed as if we should be gathered on a rocky, windblown outcrop, the musicians playing while the churning sea below pounded the rocks to eternity…..