Is classical music better than popular music?
Bach’s cello suites were almost forgotten when the teenage Pablo Casals found the score in a second hand music shop in the 1880s. I heard them as a teenager, when my father played a recording: I could not bear to listen to them. The repeating patterns put me into confused boredom. I begged him to turn it off, and he refused: he inculcated in me the idea that high culture might not be immediately accessible, but was worth the effort of engaging, and because of his effort I enjoy the Bartok string quartets. Who could not, after similar effort to understand their ways of communicating? Their range of emotion and animal energy is mesmerising.
It took a genius to recognise and communicate the wonder of those cello suites, and now millions know them. Here is Yo Yo Ma at the Proms- I paused the concert to write this post. Learning the Sonata in C Minor (Pathétique) was worth the time, more than a month, that it took me, and playing it in my teens helped me access emotional states I could access no other way. I cannot play it now.
This is a class issue. I am cultured and educated, and I like Opera, Greek tragedy, and classical music. I met a woman in the railway station waiting room who was going to the Duran Duran reunion concert. She had been to the opera, and enjoyed it, but felt more comfortable with Duran Duran. I loved the City of London Chamber Orchestra concert, it was in no sense me doing the conventional thing, and I needed to pay attention. It involved effort.
The only full set I heard at Greenbelt was Kiran Ahluwalia. The programme reinforces that this is Culture: rooted in Sufi mysticism, transcending her training in traditional ghazal. What I saw was a glorious stage presence supported by technically skilled yet mostly self-effacing musicians. She was utterly girly-feminine singing of ankle-bells- you must walk with modesty, or you will get envious glances and condemning remarks- dancing round the stage, communicating her delight instantly to me. There was a long Tabla solo, which I am sure connoisseurs would appreciate, though I only noticed it was fast. I loved her.
For so long I have held myself apart, and one of the ways we as a family held ourselves apart was a strong active disapproval of popular music, which has reduced my enjoyment and inhibited my communicating with other people. Better to see the value in it. Like this:
That was the song which showed me that a pop song could be made around one brilliant line- who is she, what is her situation? Does she delude herself?- and a great deal of padding. Now, I could expatiate on the contrast between the rigid structure of the beat, simple harmony, bubble-gum pop vocal style, and the yearning in it. Very British to have emotion so held. Yet I do not need much, this week, to move me to tears.