Is classical music dead? Or merely unwell? It’s not a new question: as the pianist and music writer Charles Rosen put it, “The death of classical music is perhaps its oldest continuing tradition.” Whether the art form itself has left the building or not, we shouldn’t be calling it that any more. Or so says the new principal of the Birmingham Conservatoire.
Julian Lloyd Webber will be overseeing the construction of a new campus costing £46m, but he thinks we should consign “classical music” to the retirement home for clapped-out phrases. It is, he says, “almost irrelevant” when it comes to contemporary work.
“We’re talking about 500 or 600 years of music, all in different styles,” he said. “How can you compare Purcell with Philip Glass and everything in between? There is good music and bad music. The music that is being written today by people who would be called classical composers is taking in different influences, such as world music.”
I can see what he means – it’s almost a cliché of interviews with musicians of all stripes, soulfully resisting being pigeon-holed by label-hungry journalists. “It’s just music, man,” goes the heartfelt cry, and Lloyd Webber wants to see his new charges “working with different kinds of musicians, rather than just practising your Beethoven sonatas… They need to think outside the box and push boundaries, to work cross-genre with rock or jazz musicians, or be experimental.”
Classical music has always absorbed influences: Mozart had a Turkish phase; Vaughan Williams, Janacek and Grainger, among many others, drew on folk music. Gershwin brought the Jazz Age to the classical concert hall, and Mark-Anthony Turnage has channelled Miles Davis.
That all sounds splendid – cross-fertilisation creating rich hybrids of styles and approaches. The Kronos Quartet are only the highest-profile example of those artists seeking to trample down artistic fences as they make classical music that bristles with the energy of modern times.
And think of all the hybrids in popular music: folk-rock, country-rock, raga-rock, jazz-rock, jazz-metal, country-folk, punk-mariachi (oh yes)… Bastard offspring all, but beautiful nonetheless. And what was rock’n’roll itself if not a fusion of blues, gospel, jazz, country, folk, R&B, swing and boogie-woogie?
Can classical music reinvigorate itself in the same way? In January, Mark Vanhoenacker, writing for Slate, was clear about its fate: “The fat lady hasn’t just sung. Brünnhilde has packed her bags and moved to Boca Raton.” He blamed “the fingernail grip of old music in a culture that venerates the new” and quotes legendary retro grump Kingsley Amis, who wrote that contemporary classical “has about as much chance of public acceptance as paedophilia”. To which, Lloyd Webber might retort, then let’s infuse the traditional with the modern and give both a new lease of life. And Turnage and others could point out that that’s precisely what they’re doing.
But in this fusion-obsessed world, sometimes it feels that genres are combined in order to mask a lack of inspiration, a lack of confidence in the power of a genre. When I hear world music hybrids they often sound samey. Mix lots of different paint colours together and the result is a murky purply-brown, and so it can be with music.
Fusion is a useful compositional tool, and I can appreciate that musicians don’t want to be pigeon-holed; Lloyd Webber is right to want to expand his students’ musical consciousness. But he should also tell them that if they want to go away and write a sonata or a fugue then that’s what they should do, and forget about the modern world and all its plugged-in, networked-up, user-friendly demands.