Knowing what we like: What makes a pop classic? Robert Cowan, the broadcaster who tipped Gorecki, ponders the elusive mix

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The Independent Culture
It is dusk and the city is already half empty. An old man sits by a lonely, back-street doorway, quietly singing about his faith in Jesus. Gradually, as if out of nowhere, a string quartet offers him comforting harmonic support. The song is repeated, again and again, the accompaniment intensifies, and so a touching fragment of life is given universal import through the consolatory power of music. The piece is called Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet, and although the old man - recorded 'on location' - is merely 'one of us', the composition of this slowly evolving, 74-minute aural panorama is by a long-term stalwart of the contemporary music scene. His name is Gavin Bryars, and Jesus' Blood (Point/Philips) is well on the way to becoming the next big 'classical' hit after Gorecki's Third Symphony.

But why Gavin Bryars rather than Alfred Schnittke, James Dillon, Robin Holloway, or even the more recent Gorecki? What is the magical property that allows a full-scale concert work to achieve tenancy in the hearts of people who wouldn't normally listen to Beethoven, let alone Birtwistle? Perhaps it's the human element: Gorecki setting a tragic inscription on a prison wall, Bryars colouring the voice of a vulnerable drifter, or the street-wise Kennedy playing the elements and returning Vivaldi to the realms of spontaneous improvisation. These are people making music for people; they tell a story, appeal to the senses as well as to the imagination. But more important still, their work is relevant to current sensibilities and events - to Bosnia, to homelessness, or to pop culture and the environment.

So if we want to bring music to a wider audience, perhaps we should be marrying it with specific images of life and love. And if that's the way forward, then whole vistas of biographical potential suggest themselves: Shostakovich under Soviet oppression, Berg dwelling on the loss of a beloved young girl, Mahler confronting repeated blows from fate, Beethoven raging within the isolation of his deafness - so many stories, cameos from the great soap called history. But we know from the past that even the most gruelling biography is no guarantee of musical popularity. Shostakovich's Eighth Symphony might have been forged in pain and fear, but the percentage of British people who actually know it is infinitesimally small, while Berg's Violin Concerto is a hurdle that most wouldn't even approach, let alone cross. Mahler has barely ventured beyond Visconti and Dirk Bogarde - and as for late Beethoven, even Artur Rubinstein admitted to snoozing during the 'late' quartets.

In this respect, composers themselves hardly seem any wiser than we are, and when wide-scale popularity does greet them, they're invariably either bemused, confused or downright angry. The works that mean most to them are usually the ones that keep their secrets best hidden. So, while crowds clamoured to hear Rachmaninov strike his tolling C sharp minor Prelude for the umpteenth time, his lesser-known piano masterpieces lay largely unperformed; and while 'Land of Hope and Glory' swelled the chests of patriotic Edwardians, Elgar's beloved Second Symphony met with precious little in the way of perceptive appraisal. The punters took what was palatable, tuneful, concise - short enough to memorise, or hum complete, or fit on to one side of a 78 rpm record. And when Walt Disney and Leopold Stokowski collaborated for Fantasia, it wasn't The Rite of Spring that visited people's homes, but the 'Dance of the Hours' and The Sorcerer's Apprentice and the Nutcracker Suite - easy tunes, simple rhythms and vivid orchestral colours.

But Fantasia's 'hits' wouldn't chart nowadays. They're too wedded to the past, too redolent of what classical music 'used' to be. Our own tastes are strongly influenced by music touted via the visual media. And even that's nothing new. Many of yesterday's best-loved classics infiltrated the work of film composers from the Thirties and Forties: Max Steiner, Wolfgang Korngold, Franz Waxman, Alfred Newman, all of them chock- full of Liszt, Wagner, Johann Strauss, even Bruckner. Today, aside from industrious renegades like John Williams, pulse is as vital as melody, mood as alluring as swashbuckling action. Countless films and TV series unveil themselves to a hypnotic sound-track score; think of Twin Peaks, Inspector Morse, or the various screen ventures that Philip Glass has composed for. Even the standard classics selected for use in recent films tend to reflect, in their very different ways, this cultist obsession with rhythmic hypnosis: think of Barber's Adagio, Wagner's 'Ride of the Valkyries', Ravel's Bolero and - of course - Gorecki's Third Symphony.

Passive audiences tethered to the visual image are unwitting victims of subliminal musical indoctrination: we fly to the ethereal chanting of Delibes' 'Flower Duet', and when Dawn Upshaw soars through the centre of Gorecki's Third Symphony, there's an unmistakable element of sensual suggestion. Admit it or not, those particular segments of the symphony exhibit, if played out of context, a fragrance that lives quite independently of the work's profound core. Maybe that's what has taken the wider public's fancy: an ambrosial smoothness, easy to assimilate and a balmy backdrop for whatever fantasy we choose to evoke. It is, in short, the stuff that images and fantasies are made of. And therein, perhaps, lies the motivating force behind the so-called 'classical music boom': the idea of sound-track, a seductive ally of the video, the TV and the idealised self-image; an off- shoot of Sixties culture and the will to escape. If you can't live it, then imagine it to some suggestive score; 'classical' music as the soundtrack either to our un-lived lives, or to a world fictionalised on the screen.

Now, cynical as this sounds, it is actually a logical progression from the creative attitudes of previous generations. Music's basic physiological effects are common to all cultures and periods, and its near-narcotic properties have been eloquently articulated by commentators reaching back as far as Plato and Aristotle. The trend that sees this century into the next also accompanied its earliest years, when Alexander Scriabin matched colours and aromas to sounds; his fantasies culminated in a work (never completed) called Mysterium, an epic vision with music to match. But his was a grandiloquent escape route, whereas ours is both simplified and rationalised, as befits children of the post-Freudian era, traumatised by Auschwitz, by images of mass starvation, and by the agonising re-birth pangs of Eastern Europe. We have lost the innocence that made Romanticism possible, and the implied heroism of the great Romantic composers continues both to defy truly great performance and to exert an indulgent fascination.

So, here we are with an edifying, easily assimilated minimalism, reached through the coolness of Ravel and Debussy, the ascetic economy of Webern and Satie, the rhythmic and harmonic properties of Asian and African music and the immediacy of jazz and quality rock. On 18 August at the Royal Festival Hall, the musical century comes full circle as the ghost of Scriabin greets the joint talents of Steve Reich and Beryl Korot for the British premiere of The Cave, 'a new form of documentary music video theatre.' Reich will be prominent again a little later this year when Elektra- Nonesuch issues his Three Movements and a re-recording of Tehillim, the latter with Reinbert de Leeuw conducting the Schoenberg Ensemble. And what a paradox that is, to have Schoenberg's name appended to music that kicks sand in the face of so- called atonalism. The same group have also recorded a stark, static masterpiece by the Dutch composer Louis Andriessen; it's called De Tijd, or 'Time' (Elektra-Nonesuch) - a monolithic study in chords and sonorities. Might that make iron ore fashionable where others played safe with flesh? Or maybe Tehillim, or the jazzy, madcap Player-Piano Studies of Conlon Nancarrow (RCA) - newly painted in instrumental colours by Yvar Mikhashoff - or Ronald Stevenson's epic, multi-cultural Second Piano Concerto (Olympia)? Then, shortly to hit the shelves, are the Estonian Arvo Part's 'latest', the beautiful Te Deum (ECM), and James MacMillan's Veni, Veni, Emmanuel, an effectual platform for Evelyn Glennie and a first release in RCA's aptly named Catalyst series. All have the potential to touch a raw nerve or echo some reverberating emotion peculiar to the moment.

Will the broadcasters and record promoters have the wit to give any of these works the necessary exposure? I like to think they might. The exciting thing about musical fashion is its very unpredictability, but its precise complexion depends on our position in a changing constellation of circumstances - and whether we respond to a particular work is as much a matter of chance as whether the composer will be inspired to write it.

Mark Pappenheim on Reich, page 22

(Photograph omitted)