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Classical favourite: Beyoncé and Arcade Fire

Andrew Mellor

Why are pop musicians so reluctant to acknowledge the existence of classical music?

8:00, 7th November 2017

A thought-provoking article published by Music News Australia in September (bit.ly/2xzw4D9) asked ‘Why are classical musicians so reluctant to talk about pop music?’ I say ‘thought provoking’, because it had me thinking precisely the opposite. For better or for worse, it is becoming a cultural and social no-no for anyone involved in the arts to state a disinterest in popular and commercial culture. Conversely, I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I’ve heard a pop musician express an opinion on classical music outside the specialist press.

As negative and defensive as that comment might sound, it is surely a good thing that we, in the classical music world in particular, have come down off our pedestal. It’s good for participation, it’s good for communication and it’s good for creativity in general. In the field of composing – the advancing of our musical language and therefore the most important aspect of musical culture, at any time in any place – the dialogue between popular music and ‘art music’ has never been stronger or more multifaceted. It is yielding some beautiful, fascinating and fertile fruits.

But wasn’t it ever thus? In his article for Music News Australia, Graham Strahle refers to composers in the 1990s ‘breaking new ground’ by incorporating elements of popular music into their works. But haven’t composers from Dowland, Dvořák and Ravel right through to Adams, Turnage and Davies being doing so from the start?

Perhaps Strahle was focusing on the classical music scene in Australia. But from a UK and broader European perspective, far from failing to engage and talk about popular music, I see classical musicians doing the opposite on an almost daily basis and would be mystified if that weren’t the case down-under too. There can hardly be a member of a professional orchestra in the UK who has not played symphonic Abba, backed a Sinatra-style crooner at Christmas or participated in collaborations with broadminded rock bands. Musicians up and down the land are up to that sort of thing week-in, week-out.

In almost every incarnation of the Guardian’s ‘Facing the Music’ column, we hear about a classical musician’s fondness for Beyoncé or Arcade Fire. It doesn’t surprise me one bit that Stephen Hough can admit he has a certain fondness for The Carpenters, as it obviously does Strahle. Wouldn’t it, in fact, be pretty odd for a musician of any discipline to have found nothing to admire in what has been, for 60 years or more, the prevailing soundtrack to life in the west?

On the flipside, when British universities are apparently happy to dole out a degree in music to students who have received minimal or no instruction on scored music pre-1960, I think it’s rather more pressing that we encourage a dialogue in the other direction to complement the situation. There might be increasing numbers of popular musicians experimenting with techniques that could be considered ‘classical’ (for want of a better word) and working with orchestras and opera companies. But the blunt reality is that the wider world of commercial popular music is becoming increasingly estranged from its classical bedfellows because, to be frank, it has become more interested in profiteering than creativity. It has also become, in certain corners, crushingly repetitive, inane and dull. But then, haven’t some corners of our own industry, too?

There are thousands of pop musicians who display the same sort of creative vision, technical excellence and linguistic originality that we expect of respected composers of art music. So why are these pop musicians so reluctant to talk about classical music? Sometimes, it’s because they don’t know anything about it; after a series of educational failings, they don’t feel they have the necessary reference points to discuss it even if and when they want to.

Sometimes, they don’t feel they can admit they like it because of the curious conditions created by the mainstream UK media, which paints the classical music industry as a plaything of the upper classes that is only interested in preserving certain bizarre rituals (sometimes, you can’t blame them). And perhaps, if ‘normal’ musicians talked about classical music a little more, we wouldn’t be in that position.

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