And shake the foundations from this guy

When something smacks at first glance of out-and-out snobbery, I tend to want to believe there’s something in it. So often genuinely useful suggestions—when did singling out the élite suddenly become a liability, for example?—are dismissed as the opinions of some sort of snobocrat, supporting a self-serving hegemony, because once someone’s made themselves sound snooty then it’s already easier to play the man than the ball.

So I desperately want to agree with Philip Hensher on pop-classical crossovers. There’s clearly a struggling germ of an idea in there ,about mediocrity and its amplification in certain genres. But the whole article is so utterly confused and, bizarrely, given its assertions, populist (albeit a popularization of certain received notions about rejecting populism).

Near the start he slights Sting’s recent rendering of Dowland’s songs, which suggests Hensher considers to be classical that which is arguably not at all, was indeed quite populist in its time. But, because it’s both old and good, in it goes, with “classical” as the Hensher-universe compliment that Dowland might well deserve (this idiosyncratic definition at least explains the false dichotomies that plague the rest of the article). And then he bangs on about the complexity of orchestral arrangement as if that were the be-all and end-all of classical music: Arvo Pärt might have something to say about that.

Hensher has clearly never listened to the orchestration of such acts as The Divine Comedy or The Beach Boys: although he mentions the former’s Joby Talbot he can’t find anything bad to say and so glosses over him instead. You get the feeling that Hensher would tolerate camp in an opera, might even have a good word to say for Wagner which other snitmeisters might dismiss as just wind and noise, but he’s casually and rather predictably dismissive of the fantastically bombastic Barcelona by Monserrat Caballé and Freddie Mercury. You can bet he’s never listened to either of Queen’s landmark albums A Day At The Races or A Night At The Opera. He’ll have been too busy spending nights at the opera himself to do that; and when he’s hasn’t, he’ll have been too busy passing judgments on the stuff to actually listen to it.

And this is before we tackle his actual assertion, that somehow pop can’t produce the proportion of tradition-respecting yet revolutionary geniuses that the classical world can. He seems to think that, whereas the practitioners of classical composition consist solely of the canon, surrounded by its non-composing adulators, pop has too many composers who aren’t so great, or weren’t classically trained. This is sort of like saying that poetry produces a better class of genius than prose, because published poets are on average better. It seems to ignore the fact that there’s just less money in the more rarefied genres, so less of the crap can afford to be noticed. That doesn’t mean the crap isn’t still there.

Intellectuals all too often spend their time trying to redraw the battle lines between highbrow and lowbrow, and we’re all the poorer for it. Hensher might be better off spending his time tackling what makes the work good or bad than assuming it’s the type of musicians involved and arguing outwards from there. He could then provide a less opinionated and better researched critique of how different levels of experience and instinct interact, which would be far more interesting to read than this glance down his nose at a whole industry. Such research would, at any rate, almost certainly make him less of a snob.

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4 Responses to And shake the foundations from this guy

  1. Janet says:

    I wonder if part of the germ of an idea that you’re (generously) seeing in Hensher’s article is that a pop star who decides that it would be good/interesting/lucrative to write “a classical piece” is more likely to produce something substandard than somebody who has “something to say” and whose chosen idiom happens to tend more towards the classical than the popular. (There may be only an inch between that and “basically unclassifiable”/”if anyone likes it, it’s a bonus”, but it’s the inch in which some good music probably lives.) Crossovers between musical genres surely have the potential to be enormously fertile, combining the strengths of their components; but if you’re doing the musical equivalent of grafting a dog onto a toaster for the sake of the publicity, you’re probably going to end up with a barren, mercifully-unique freak.

    >> there’s just less money in the more rarefied
    >> genres, so less of the crap can afford to be
    >> noticed

    A related point is that the entry level for pop is far, far lower than that for (what most people think of as) ‘classical’; it’s not hard for Sandi Thom to bang her bongos in her bedroom and put the result on the internet, but it’d be pretty difficult for a band to stage a full-scale symphony in the basement. (NB: if you make classical music in your bedroom with your laptop, it’s called electronica or IDM, and doesn’t count.)

    I’m tempted to try to generalise this point to poetry versus prose…

  2. sbalb says:

    I think the useful gramme buried in Hensher’s kilos of nonsense is that learning theory (which is one of the nonjudgmental differences between the classically trained and the pop kids) will at least provide you with the tools to be coherently creative in the classical genre. Although that isn’t sufficient to produce good art then it just means you avoid falling flat on your face, in part because you’re able to spot situations where what you’re producing actually is rubbish. Music theory as a tool for self-criticism.

    I dunno. Mostly I just wish he had shut up after the Asian Dub Foundation story. He was funny up until that bit.

  3. Pingback: Small Beds and Large Bears » Blog Archive » Dowland art a devourer of links

  4. Pingback: Small Beds and Large Bears » Blog Archive » The cheek of it

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