Why Not?

Ahead of the premiere of his orchestral arrangement of ‘Signal‘, RPS/Classic FM composer Jack Pepper discusses the pigeon-holing of music and the dangers of labelling.

We are too concerned with labels. Let’s not feel guilty about what we listen to: music is music.

Music has never confined itself to a single label. But it has always been plagued by the debate of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art. Whilst, for example, 20th-century music was varied and flexible enough to include neo-classicism, twelve-tone writing, Harlem Stride and Grime, it was also rigidly dogmatic enough to have individuals like Pierre Boulez famously claiming: “Any musician who has not experienced – I do not say understood, but truly experienced – the necessity of dodecaphonic music is USELESS. For his whole work is irrelevant to the needs of his epoch.” Should we really be so discriminating in the comparative ‘value’ of different strands of music? Can it really be claimed that each epoch has certain “needs”?

Arguably, no. Every era has featured a panoply of styles; such coexistence of tastes can be seen in 1885 England, where Gilbert and Sullivan completed The Mikado, whilst Dvorak introduced his Sixth Symphony to the London public. This indicates that, despite numerous warnings from traditionalists that classical music is in danger of ‘dumbing down’ (whether through the inclusion of film music in radio shows, or of broader programmes in BBC Proms concerts), music has always been diverse. No one epoch has ever had a certain musical need.

It is therefore ridiculous to suggest that music must be pigeon-holed into various genres when the very richness of music derives from its variety. Far from Boulez’s implicit suggestion that each epoch has certain requirements, surely each era can be defined by its breadth of taste, its breadth of consumption, its breadth of understanding? As a popular songwriter as well as classical composer, I find the labelling of music both alarming and dangerous, for I gain most pleasure when I can jump between composing a wind quintet and writing a pop song. For me, the principal attraction of music is as a liberating force, and what could be more liberating than the ability to enjoy both Haydn string quartets and Gary Barlow, both Art Tatum and Carlo Gesualdo?

I am wary of over-stressing the Boulez debate. Boulez was an incredible musician who was, himself, immensely broad in his skills, equally at home composing dodecaphonic music or conducting Mahler or Debussy. Let me also draw your attention to the crucial sub-clause in the above quotation, for Boulez seems not to be arguing for every composer to write dodecaphonic music, but instead merely insisting that 20th-century musicians must acknowledge its importance. There is, however, an undeniably authoritarian streak to the statement that makes it more than a little unnerving. Music should be liberating, not dictatorial.

We must be wary of categorising music into binary opposites; music is not as simple as ‘either/or’. It cannot be ‘high’ or ‘low’, ‘relevant’ or ‘irrelevant’, or even ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Instead, music operates in degrees, in gradations, in “more this”, “less that”. Think of “and”, not “or”. Music cannot be defined by a single label, as this undermines the very breadth of meaning and value that gives music its potency.

It is imperative that we see different genres of music working together instead of against one another; we should view jazz, classical and popular music as strands in a unified whole – a glorious melting pot of music – where each can influence the other. Gershwin expertly evidences this combination of popular, jazz and classical styles; the composer of such popular songs as Embraceable You also hung an autographed photo of Alban Berg in his apartment. Similarly, the Beatles displayed classical influences with the string quartet in Yesterday. The ability to write and embrace numerous styles is a blessing, not a curse, and we must praise – not condemn – musicians who welcome musical plurality.

This musical inclusiveness is fast becoming a way of life. Thanks to streaming websites and the digitalisation of music, we live in an era of increasing accessibility to a range of musical styles; it is paradoxical to close our minds to such variety at a time when technology is making it most open.

In a period of immense political and social division, it is necessary to remind ourselves that music is beautiful because it can unite, not oppose; music should not become a mere extension of humanity’s divisive political minefield. Music is rich because it is diverse and inclusive. Don’t rob yourself of one of life’s greatest pleasures by insisting music is a battleground.

Jack Pepper was one of seven composers commissioned by the RPS and Classic FM to mark the station’s 25th birthday. His fanfare “Signal” was premiered at ABRSM’s music education event, ‘Shine‘ in July at the Barbican and will receive a repeat performance as an orchestral arrangement on  5 October with the RLPO.

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