Put your Brahms in the air

Frustrated that classical music has too long been confined to stuffy concert halls, a group of young composers and musicians decided to bring the genre up to date and into their favourite bars. Elisa Bray reports on London's growing band of classical clubbers
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The Independent Culture

To see an east London venue full of young hipsters is a typical spectacle on a Thursday night, but that they are listening to classical music is certainly unexpected. Instead of the revered silence that accompanies classical concerts, here a crowd of people are dancing, some are clapping to the rhythm, while others stand by and watch. Throughout the performances the bar is serving drinks, just like at a rock gig. An evening like this, which merges live classical performances with modern experimental music is fast becoming an established scene in London's club land.

Rock and popstars often flirt with classical music, sampling or remixing the odd original piece, and an album dedicated to this was released this summer. Cortical Songs, four pieces of classical music composed by John Matthias and Nick Ryan and remixed into electronica by stars including Thom Yorke, The Pogues's Jem Finer and Simon Tong from Gorillaz, is an example of the growing popularity that has seen club nights spring up over the capital.

In the Macbeth Pub in Hoxton, east London, Gabriel Prokofiev, grandson of the great composer Sergei holds the monthly night Nonclassical, while a newer addition to the scene, Blank Canvas, is now a regular event at 93 Feet East since last autumn. They are just two examples of events aiming to give young contemporary composers and musicians a platform to get their music heard via interesting new ways and to bring classical music to a younger crowd.

Most professionals begin their musical career while still in nappies, but for Will Dutta, the 25-year-old graduate from Trinity Music College who set up Blank Canvas, starting classical piano well into his teens was the driving force behind his club night as it forced him to see classical music from the perspective of a fashion-conscious teenager. "Since I'd started later, I was aware of how classical music was perceived. It carried a lot of prejudices among my mates. I wanted to put it in a place where my mates would feel comfortable with it. It was never the music that put people off, it was the presentation, and I wanted to present it in a way I thought was chilled out. At Blank Canvas, it's a typical Brick Lane crowd – those into something a bit different. It's far removed from the concert hall model. There's that element of the silver fox at classical concerts. It's always been that age to a certain extent, but it doesn't have to be."

Typically, Blank Canvas will start with a string quartet's rendition of a piece by the 19th century Czech composer Janacek, followed by something more experimental and improvisational in which Dutta plays piano against electronica and acoustic instrumentation, and ends with a contemporary classical piece. Blank Canvas is not about remixing previous works by established composers – instead it provides a platform for up-and-coming classical composers and new artists to perform at each event. Dominic Murcott and Sean O'Hagan are two of the new composers whose work has been showcased. For Dutta's first one-off event at the Scala, he commissioned Gabriel Prokofiev's piece "Concerto for Turntables". "You don't need to patronise an audience," Dutta says. "Gabriel's piece is hard to listen to. On first hearing, a lot is going on and it doesn't go where you'd expect – it's not always obvious." Since the event became regular, numbers have kept rising.

Bartok in Chalk Farm, north London, was one of the first venues to hold a classical music night. The growing regularity of the nights and the increasing number of events is building momentum for the scene, while raising the quality of what's on offer. "In a way, it definitely has its own circuit. What's been interesting is there's always been one or two of these things happening. It's self-perpetuating. It raises everyone's game," says Dutta.

Prokofiev, who has a background in many genres including playing in bands, DJing, producing hip-hop, and classical music, started the monthly Nonclassical night at The Macbeth after growing frustrated by the staid presentation of classical concerts. When he had put on a composed piece for the string quartet the Elysian Quartet at Blackheath Halls in south-east London he had drawn numbers, but not the mixed crowds hoped for. "It was the classic thing: 70 per cent of the audience had grey hair. After this I thought, 'hang on'. I'd always felt frustrated about classical music not communicating to a younger crowd. I wanted to put it on in a way that my generation are used to seeing. They're not used to sitting silently, not clapping except between movements." So in 2003 he launched his first club night under the name of his record label Nonclassical, at Cargo in Brick Lane, for people to have a drink, relax and enjoy the music. He attracted a pioneering new crowd of curious music fans to the night.

"The first audience in Cargo had never seen a string quartet before and were really surprised and amazed," Prokofiev recalls. "It was like another world. Every time people come down they tend to go away really enthused by it. I've got friends who come and aren't involved in music at all."

In place of the classical concert interval, Prokofiev sets up the club ambience by DJing between acts. In his set, you're as likely to hear an avant-garde piece followed by Igor Stravinsky's "Ebony Concerto" as you would a classical piece remixed into electronica juxtaposed with Tchaikovsky. Karlheinz Stockhausen's "Kontakte" (one of the first ever techno pieces, he says), mixes brilliantly with a classical modern percussion piece by the German producer Errorsmith. "It gets people's ears into a different space and for people who have never heard classical music, the barriers have been pulled down. All you ever have in bars is hip-hop and pop. It's refreshing to hear the classical stuff. It's important to have live performances. Everytime I play the new remix of 'Turntables' people come up to me and ask what it is. There's a post-punk funk remix of a string quartet that's really in your face and people react well to that. It's about creating a different sonic space that's more challenging." Nonclassical has even seen Björk and the contemporary composer Thomas Ades attend.

Showcasing classical music in the same environment as a rock gig does leave the performance exposed to noisy punters and a lack of interest, but it's something that Prokofiev thinks is positive. "Classical concerts are all very polite, but here the performers haven't got a guaranteed quiet space. There's been self-indulgent music that's so academic and intellectualised. Contemporary classical music can be overwhelming and off-putting because it's very formal, but music's got to really communicate to the audience. It needs to happen more in the contemporary classical world."

And with plans for Nonclassical to hold its first night in Brighton in the new year, and to debut at next year's SXSW Festival in Texas, classical clubbing looks certain to keep spreading.

Nonclassical is at the Macbeth, Hoxton, London, on 5 November and as part of the Southbank Centre's 'Klang: A Tribute to Karlheiz Stockhausen' on 6 November. Nonclassical Battle of the Bands is at the Mabceth on 3 December. Blank Canvas is at 93 Feet East, Brick Lane, East London, on 6 November