I’m a classical music fan and proud – but should I be?

There is sometimes a strange sense of smugness in these concerts of ‘out there’ classical music; an unsaid boast for having peeled yourself away from a night spent with Game of Thrones in favour of something ‘cultured’, or even ‘experimental’. The last time I had such an experience was at a Harrison Birtwistle concert in 2014 where I recall speaking to a woman who was proudly fanatic about the composer’s unfamiliar (and intimidating to many) sound world.

This time it was at the Steven Osborne’s concert of piano music by George Crumb and Morton Feldman, ‘The Music of Silence’. This similar mood may have had something to do with how both of these concerts were preceded by a Q&A session with the Guardian classical music Tom Service. As a contemporary music warrior, Service enjoys bringing the audience, composer and performer together to present a united front against the masses that refuse to understand the music that is about to be performed (or at least, would rather be at home watching TV). Osborne was a willing participant, too, who during the session asked outright for the audience not to applaud between movements. This was a concert in which the music had to be listened to. If an audience member felt compelled to clap, cough, or even shuffle their feet, then they may as well have stayed at home with Game of Thrones instead.

But of course, only those willing to adhere to these rules would have bought tickets in the first place to a concert that purports to be more about silence than the music. Audiences attending classical music concerts normally expect a piece that will take them on a journey, with various points of anticipation, climax and resolution. But Crumb and Feldman are not concerned with creating such a narrative in their music. It is what you hear in each individual moment that is important, not what has gone on before or what will happen next. Their music is concerned with the sonority of sound, not only with how the notes sound as they are played, but how the sound continues afterwards and gradually dies down to silence.

Osborne’s demand that the audience should be as silent was therefore something of a relief, given this was a concert where the softest of sounds were an integral part of the music. Crumb’s A Little Suite for Christmas, AD1979, for instance, is an exceptionally quiet work, inspired by the ‘childlike, innocent style’ of Giotto’s frescoes in the Arena Chapel in Padua. At Osborne’s concert, what made this piece so extraordinary was how as you strained to hear each note, all sounds became magnified. You not only heard the soft mechanical sound of the piano’s dampener lifting, but also the person in the row in front of you scratching their nose, and the quiet breathes of the person next to you. These human sounds were not a distraction, but instead created an incredible intimacy normally impossible with strangers.

Moreover, Osborne’s performance of Crumb’s Processional showed it as a thing of beauty. Crumb’s sonorities are luscious and how Osborne returned to the pulsating chords in the middle register after moments of randomness was wonderful. I was less convinced by Feldman, however. Piano Pieces 1952 constitutes single notes played one after another as the same pace seemingly randomly throughout. The idea of the piece is to erase memory and expectation so that we listen to each note as an individual entity. This worked for the first few minutes, but the novelty soon wore off.

Feldman’s Palais de Mari also had a promising start. Feldman instructs for the pedal to be used constantly, which produced a gorgeous, shimmering sound. This had an exquisite effect during quiet moments when you could still hear the remnants of previous chords from some time ago. But the problem with Palais de Mari is that without any sense of narrative, it is difficult to remain engaged. Although I tried to listen to each of the individual sonorities, it is hard to pay attention to every single moment in a piece that is 25 minutes long – the longest work on the evening’s programme.

Crumb and Feldman’s compositional methods, though curious, are not faultless. As Palais de Mari illustrated, without any sense of forward progression there is a limit to how long they can be before listener’s stop paying attention. So is the smugness surrounding attending such concerts deserved, given that the music was not always engaging?

I would mostly argue yes. The 50 or so people in the audience had just shared an experience that no one outside of the concert hall will ever have, so we certainly had something to feel smug about. But this smugness has less to do with the actual music being performed than our attitude towards the music. The reason we felt smug after Osborne’s concert is because we gave Crumb and Feldman’s music our full attention and in return received a rather special experience.

This smugness can be perceived as snobby a boast that I can understand this music when others cannot. But I do not believe that it makes classical music off-putting. Quite the reverse in fact, as this smugness is a wonderful and empowering feeling. Sadly, such occasions, when the audience comes together and is determined to listen, are rare. So all I can do is ask that for the next concert you attend that you really try to listen, and I mean really. Listen to every single moment for what it is, because you will not be able to experience it again. It’s not easy, but for that satisfying feeling of smugness, it’s certainly worth it.




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