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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Young People Need Classical Music

Ahead of the premiere of his RPS/Classic FM commission at ABRSM’s event Shine, Jack Pepper writes how important it is that young people are able to access and explore classical music.

The music world is too often concerned with debates about elitism, snobbery and archaism. The problem is that too often this debate is being conducted by adults.

In the Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music from 1906, Ferruccio Busoni spoke of the “unawakened capacities” of music. Whether it be an undiscovered or underperformed composer like André Mathieu, or a recently discovered piece, classical music is a realm of discovery. What makes it so fascinating is its ability to reveal something new to everyone, be they a seasoned concertgoer or an open-minded newcomer.

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RPS/Classic FM Young Composer: Jack Pepper

I recently had the pleasure of taking a friend to the Royal Ballet to celebrate his eighteenth birthday, the first time he had had the opportunity to visit the Opera House; here was a young man who, despite having never visited Covent Garden, was eager and excited to embrace classical music. Here was someone who was genuinely thrilled at the prospect of live classical music. Here was someone who, admirably open-minded and inquisitive, embraced the chance to enjoy the genre when the opportunity arose. Sitting rows behind a live orchestra, the vitality of classical music was overwhelming. Equally, my ten-year-old piano pupil has been entranced by Holst’s The Planets ever since her primary school teacher introduced her to the composer; her face lights up when we discuss the way Holst generates a terrifying atmosphere in Mars through col legno strings and that insistent ostinato. These examples demonstrate both the “unawakened capacities” of classical music to stir the excitement of more young people, as well as the “unawakened” interests of so many of today’s youth, who simply have not been given the opportunity to embrace the genre. The undeniable fact is that there is a huge market for classical music waiting on Spotify, on YouTube, in schools and on social media; young people are receptive, and classical music must be receptive to them.

Classic FM’s recent RAJAR statistics highlight this exceptional willingness to embrace classical music on the part of young people; 934,000 people below the age of 35 now listen to the station every week, an increase both year-on-year and quarter-on-quarter. Indeed, over half of the station’s 1.4 million followers on Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram are under 35. It is evident that there is a growing appetite for classical music amongst young people, provided we can find the best ways of getting this music to reach them in the first place. Neither my friend nor my piano pupil would have listened to the music they now so enjoy if they hadn’t have been introduced to it by others. This is where superb schemes like the BBC Ten Pieces programme are vital, for in exposing young people to a broad and representative selection of classical pieces, the genre is immediately made more open and accessible for the adventurous beginner.

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BBC Radio 3’s ‘The Listening Service‘ with Tom Service presents a journey of imagination and insight, exploring how music works.

Classical music is too often labelled elitist, archaic and unexciting, yet the Ten Pieces project – along with such fantastic radio programmes as Catherine Bott’s Everything You Ever Wanted to Know… and Tom Service’s The Listening Service – challenge this unfounded stereotype by making the genre open to all, modern and alive. Too many of my contemporaries think classical music ‘finished’ when Beethoven allegedly shook his fist at the Heavens before passing away in 1827, and this image of classical music as a conservative – hence ‘safe’ (which equals unexciting) – art form must be challenged. Yet this might not be as difficult as you think. Young people love exploring, love discoveries, love exciting possibilities. As Alan Davey rightly argued in a recent article for the Guardian: “young people are not afraid of things that need to be worked through.” Mendelssohn composed his Octet aged sixteen.

And how important it is that young people do explore. In embracing classical music, we can better grasp the world around us, as well as the destination we’ve travelled from and seem to be travelling to; music is a fundamental part of world culture, and in the same way studying Harlem Renaissance Jazz teaches us about racial attitudes in 20th century America, so the study of JS Bach’s chorales reveals something about the nature of Lutheran religion in 18th century Germany. In this way, the study of classical music opens up numerous other studies, be it contemporary dance or Romantic poetry. For young people, music can be an instruction in a thousand more disciplines than music alone.

Nor is there reason to avoid this wealth of culture, for it is available at our fingertips; as of March 2017, Spotify had 50 million paying subscribers worldwide, whilst YouTube has over 1 billion users. Classical music is more accessible than ever; indeed, the very notion of musical genres dissolves when, on the same playlist, I can enjoy John Mayer followed by John Dowland. Music is more wide-ranging than ever because it is more wide-reaching, yet classical music must continue to harness such technology to further open itself up for exploration. The “unawakened capacities” of technology can bring out the “unawakened” enthusiasm of countless more people for this exciting genre.

RPS/Classic FM Young Composers: The seven young composers chosen to write a new piece of classical music each to celebrate the station’s 25th birthday.

This opportunity for exploration is exactly what the RPS/ Classic FM commission is doing for young composers today. The commission is a valuable chance for us to develop our own compositional voices, whilst working with professional musicians and exploring the fascinating world of both broadcasting and formal commissions. What could be more exciting for a young composer than an invitation to the RPS Music Awards, attended by such names as Stephen Hough CBE and Dame Felicity Lott? This is proof that classical music is an open and accessible world for young people, and that classical music is for youth as well as for any other age. Yet this commission is also a sensational opportunity to open the genre to an even broader, younger audience; by identifying classical music with young people, the genre suddenly becomes one associated with greater inclusion, excitement and possibility. This desire to introduce more young people to the genre influenced my inclusion of references to some of the best-known classical pieces in my commission; I hope that this will engage listeners to multiple pieces by listening to only one. The RPS is a model of the variety and possibilities offered by classical music, giving valuable chances to young performers and composers; Classic FM is doing the same for young listeners. Now we must make this known; we must reach young people in new and exciting ways, making music embrace them as much as the other way round.

The music world is too often concerned with debates about elitism, snobbery and archaism. The problem is that too often this debate is being conducted by adults. This is a blog written by a 17-year-old, who loves classical music passionately and wants other young people to share the same incredible experiences the genre has given me. There are numerous articles about the importance of classical music, debating whether or not the genre faces a crisis or a new dawn, but all too often this is a debate about youth, conducted only between adults. We need classical music to be visible, accessible and exciting for young people. The best way to do this is to have young people associated with the genre. Some will forever harbour “unawakened capacities” to enjoy classical music, simply because they were never given the chance to embrace it. Let us breathe life into the “unawakened capacities” of classical music to energise today’s young people. It has done so much for me.

Written by Jack Pepper

Jack Pepper was one of seven composers commissioned by the RPS and Classic FM to mark the station’s 25th birthday. His fanfare “Signal” will be premiered at ABRSM’s music education event, ‘Shine‘. on Friday 7 July, 11am at the Barbican

Imogen Hancock: Reflections on Oslo

Trumpeter Imogen Hancock recounts her two months spent studying in Oslo on her RPS Julius Isserlis Scholarship.

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One month after returning from Oslo, I thought I’d take some time to reflect on my trip. The first night that I arrived in early January, I sat in my apartment looking at the calendar on my phone and saw that it was day 1/49. I was excited to finally be in Oslo, but 7 weeks was already starting to feel like a very long time… In reality, the weeks absolutely flew by!

I was out there to study privately with a number of different teachers – primarily soloist Tine Thing Helseth, Brynjar Kolsbergsrud (Oslo Philharmonic) and Roeland Henkens (Den Norske Opera/Ballet). During my 7 week stay, I had a total of 17 trumpet lessons and found each one inspiring.

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I was given much food for thought about my future. One lesson I had was with American trumpeter and composer Tony Plog. Tony’s advice is to “follow your bliss” – to do what really inspires you and what makes you happy… “a career will usually follow!” As a new freelancer, I am enjoying taking on all sorts of opportunities, as I never know what they’ll lead to or who I’ll meet. However Tony’s motto has also made me more conscious of where I want to invest my energy.

There was a lot to process from the many lessons and discussions I had and I found that I loved the independence and freedom of living in my own apartment. It was about 10 minutes by bus from the centre of  Oslo and I enjoyed hosting friends for dinner and exploring many parts of the city. I was fortunate enough to be given access to Oslo’s English Church (St Edmund’s) where I practised every day and also played in a couple of their services.

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A recent United Nations report shows Norway as officially being the happiest place on Earth… and I can totally believe it. Oslo is the most beautiful place I’ve ever been to and I didn’t come across one unfriendly Norwegian person during my entire trip. The sunrises and sunsets were picture perfect and the snowy scenes and cityscapes could have been from postcards. I didn’t learn much of the language in the end (since almost everyone there speaks impeccable English) but, being blonde, I was very often spoken to in Norwegian!

I’m so grateful to the Royal Philharmonic Society for supporting me and my trip – both financially and personally. I originally received the Julius Isserlis Award towards studies in Germany but I ended up taking a different route and was supported by the RPS throughout. It’s been a perfect example of one door closing and a better one opening, and I couldn’t imagine a more wonderful experience than my trip to Oslo.

by Imogen Hancock – 2015 RPS Julius Isserlis Scholar

www.imogenhancock.com