Monday, May 16, 2011

"This house believes WHAT?"

The other day the Cambridge Union played host to a superstar debate on the topic "This house believes that classical music is irrelevant to the youth of today". It was a glorified launch for a new charity, but with Stephen Fry speaking against a DJ named Kissy Sell Out, it drew plenty of attention. I sent along my special Cambridge correspondent to report for JDCMB. Being young, she's much better placed than I am to comment in any case. Please welcome, fresh from her third-year studies at Peterhouse, HANNAH BOHM-DUCHEN.

“This House Believes That Classical Music Is Irrelevant To Today’s Youth”

This debate, held at the Cambridge Union on 12 May to a full house, marked the launch of a new charity called Vocal Futures, the brainchild of Suzi Digby (Lady Eatwell) OBE; and has been streamed online, a first for the Cambridge Union Society. Stephen Fry, Ivan Hewett, chief music critic for the Daily Telegraph, and Hugo Hickson, third year philosophy student at Gonville & Caius College, opposed the motion. Supporting the motion we heard BBC Radio One DJ Kissy Sell Out, Greg Sandow, composer, critic and artist-in-residence at University of Maryland School of Music and Joe Bates, classical music editor of The Tab, and music student at Gonville & Caius College.

“Stephen Fry, what a boring name compared to Kissy Sell Out”, commented the presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Today Show on the morning prior to the event at the Cambridge Union. The comment exemplified one of the principal arguments running through the debate: the relative accessibility of popular as opposed to classical music. Kissy Sell Out: it’s a catchy name and clearly part of a marketing ploy. Again and again, the immediate gratification and sense of collective fun engendered by popular music was pitted against classical music as seemingly inaccessible, less spontaneous, and divorced from a collective, youthful culture.

Joe Bates, the student speaker proposing the motion, emphasized the exclusivity of classical music throughout history, arguing that listening to classical music today gives preference to the products of a historical élite over the products of contemporary culture. The next student speaker, Hugo Hickson, arguing for the opposition, stated that great classical music has eternal relevance and stands outside time, as does any great work of art, for example Shakespeare’s plays or the Greek Tragedies.

Kissy Sell Out, for the proposition, demanded that music be instantly accessible and asserted that the very names given to classical music illustrate their divorce from popular culture, revealing his own prejudices when he joked about a name of a classical work: “Number … of Number …. of Hogwarts … ” The lack of interactivity in classical music, he suggested, could be illustrated by the contrast between the responses of audiences at concerts of classical music, and concerts of popular music. Kissy also stressed the importance of musical genres in fostering a sense of belonging , and here, once again, classical music was presented as an élitist art form.

Ivan Hewett, for the opposition, finally addressed the problematic nature of the term ‘irrelevant’. Unfortunately, such crucial questioning was put to one side and not pushed further than initial speculation. Hewett also cast doubt on whether ‘today’s youth’ could easily be distinguished from ‘yesterday’s youth’; proposed that beauty was, necessarily, the quintessence of the irrelevant; and highlighted the universality of the themes evoked by classical music.

Greg Sandow drew on his experience of teaching at the Juilliard School to support the motion. He stated that there was a reduced interest in classical music courses, and that the strict regulations inherent in the forms of classical music could suppress potential creativity, and run counter to our impulse to do as we wish. Sandow suggested that the potential irrelevance of classical music was not limited solely to ‘today’s youth’, but was also associated with racial, ethnic, and cultural divides. Again, it was stated that the greatest obstacle to an appreciation of classical music was its association with entitlement and privilege.

Lady Gaga went to the Juilliard School, and Stephen Fry was quick to point this out, countering the claim that a classical training could restrict an impulse to “do as we wish”. Fry was also keen to make clear that a hierarchical approach to music was unnecessary. Real snobbery, Fry suggested, comes from fans of those genres of music that have been deemed “cool”. Further, the fustiness of the world of classical music was called into question: Beethoven and Mozart, after all, were far from being members of an élite.

It was sad, Fry mooted, that people are not taught how to listen. Listening requires time, and there is a general avoidance of anything that is “beguilingly complicated”. A concerto, he pointed out, was an argument between an individual instrument and an orchestra: a dynamic interchange between the individual and the state, and the highest calling, embodying love, hope, triumph and magnificence. Fry claimed that it was pure lack of imagination and artistic creativity that could keep one from enjoying classical music, and that “if you don’t have the imagination to blow the dust off the wigs then you don’t deserve any music”.

Lord Eatwell summed up for the proposition. Tongue-in-cheek, he claimed that modern classical music has borne little fruit, and that recycling remnants of past compositions points towards the conclusion that an art that doesn’t grow is dead.

Suzi Digby’s closing words for the opposition stressed that pop music is relevant because one can easily see oneself in it, and argued that since the appeal of classical music is beyond logic, and “speaks to the soul”, everyone should be able to relate and interact with such music. Further, Digby was adamant that it is the stuffy pretentiousness of the performance of most classical music that made it irrelevant to today’s youth, and that this was what has to change.

The opposition won the debate by a wide margin. There were 365 ‘Noes’, 57 ‘Ayes’, and 88 abstentions.

Somewhere with another type of demographic, the result could undoubtedly have been rather different. Since one can only decide whether something is irrelevant if one has engaged with it, this genre surely has to become more accessible if young people are to have the opportunity to decide for themselves whether or not the classical genre “speaks to their souls”. Classical music requires patience, and touches complex emotions. Although one should beware of generalizing about “today’s youth”, patience and sensitivity to complex emotional experiences are not generally central to the lives of young people – but they should be. Perhaps the Haydn String Quartet No.1 in B Flat Major, played on the Today Show, should be relabelled, echoing the title of Kissy Sell Out’s new track: ‘Eternal’.

It is of course also simplistic to generalize about all classical music: some classical works are of course much more accessible than others. The radio station Classic FM, for example, blatantly selects pieces that are easy on the ear. Yet it is surely the very complexity of classical music which provides its interest. The ongoing relevance of any music depends on the quality and inventiveness of that music: we still listen to music by the Beatles or by John Coltrane. Classical music, moreover, sometimes spills over into popular culture. Hovis and Néscafé adverts have graced us with Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite, and one would be hard pressed to find a ‘youth of today’ for whom these items did not brighten their ‘morning mood’. If Hovis and Néscafé reckon that classical music is relevant, so should we.
Hannah Bohm-Duchen