Music appreciation

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.

Bouguereau, the Birth of Venus


Once more round the Spiral…

Jesus said, Whoever is not with me is against me. Whoever does not gather with me, scatters. He also said, Whoever is not against you is for you.

These two sayings, taken together, are one of the koans of the Bible: for how can they both be true? The world-view of Holy Willie:

Oh Thou who in the Heavens dost dwell
Who, as it pleases best Thysel’
Sends ane to Heaven and ten to Hell
A’ for Thy Glory

does not fit reality. People do our best under difficult circumstances. There is no obvious line between the Remnant and the Damned, and those who think of themselves as the Remnant generally do harm. They have too much need to Convert others. And there are good unbelievers, and poor believers.

From that, I decided that Morality is addressed to me, and me alone.  Compton Mackenzie had a character who read the Bible assiduously to learn her rights and others’ duties. My view was the opposite: I had no right to consider the morality of others’ being or doing, only my own. Judge not, that ye be not judged.

So, this put me on the way to accepting the World as it is. Unfortunately, having little self-respect, I did not do the work of self-acceptance. I had to be other than I am. I had to make a man of myself. I had to be rational, intellectual, thinking things through. Even changing from presenting male to expressing myself female did not let me accept myself, or what I want, or accept what makes me happy. That is the work I do now. That is what I need to do to survive in this world. I am a good person, not for what I do but for who I am, under the shell, under the masks, my authentic self.


I am so politically correct, that I am a wheen chary of the phrase “her heart’s in the right place” in case anyone is dextrocardiac. Political correctness which is worth anything at all is respect and courtesy. Any infelicity of language can be improved: “fire person”? No, “fire officer”. “Non-sexist language” becomes “inclusive language”, more obviously an improvement.  

 This is excellent practice for a writer, and also for any human being seeking to use language to understand the World. Of course language cannot let us understand the world, but it can take us to those jumping-off points beyond language; and it can continually push the boundaries of understanding.

So, why talk of being “vulnerable”? That sounds frightening and dangerous. Talk instead of being “authentic” or “real”, which sounds liberating and empowering. Talk not of being undefended, but of ceasing to be defensive. I have my defences if needed, but they are needed surprisingly rarely.