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Counterpoint

What pop can teach classical music

Crowds at Glastonbury

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The two musical styles seem a world apart – but players who cross the divide can learn from what they have in common, writes Clemency Burton-Hill.

Classical and pop music often seem so alien to each other that it can be easy to forget they share identical DNA. But music is music, and everything – at least, everything we hear in the western tradition, from Bach to Bieber – is built from twelve identical building blocks: the notes of the standard chromatic scale.

While a modern pop listener may not be aware of the sonic echoes that resonate across the centuries, pop music has always acknowledged a great harmonic and melodic debt to its older, sometimes stuffier-seeming relation. Without Bach’s musical architecture there would be no jazz and therefore no soul, funk or hip-hop, let alone The Prodigy; Schubert’s knack for nailing the three-minute, verse-chorus pop gives any Lennon, McCartney or Adele a run for their money; and Beethoven was an early model for the trope of the tortured creative genius: his music expressed an inner turmoil just as much as, say, Kurt Cobain’s.

Then there’s Mozart, the original pop star, who had a preternatural gift for instantly catchy melodies that kept audiences coming back again and again, and whose preferred chord progressions have formed the basis of pretty much every great pop song ever since. So whether you prefer a certain type of music to another comes down to taste: there is nothing inherently different about what goes into an operatic aria or a pop song. Like two sculptors working with the same clay, it’s all in the execution.

Yet, for all the common genetic material, when it comes to market share and revenues, classical music now looks like pop’s weak and impoverished relation. Some apologists for classical music would be appalled at the suggestion it might have something to learn from its younger, cooler cousin: they tend to view ‘pop’ as a dirty word and any attempt to find commonalities as ‘dumbing down’. Witness recently the storm over Nicola Benedetti, one of the most outstanding British violinists of her generation, because she is young and beautiful and chooses to wear glamorous dresses when she performs. Many in the classical world bemoan that she is ‘forced’ to do this to sell records. While it is legitimate to say no performer of any stripe should be compelled to do or wear anything, I suspect this actually masks a deeper prejudice of anything that sniffs of ‘commercial’ or ‘populist’ intentions. God forbid people should actually buy records and come to gigs…

Only connect

I was considering this as I watched Arctic Monkeys headlining Glastonbury on Friday night, backed by a terrific string section. Most of the players on stage were classically trained, sometimes for more than 20years, and many attended elite conservatoires like the Royal Academy of Music. Now they play in some of the UK’s leading classical chamber ensembles, regularly tackling some of the most fiendish music in the repertoire.

The tunes they were called upon to play at Glastonbury probably felt technically unchallenging in comparison. But when the fixer calls to book these musicians for a pop gig, they invariably jump at the chance. That’s partly because of the financial realities: pop recording sessions, as well as live gigs, typically pay more than classical, and there is also the chance for making extra money at the back end. The players receive royalties every time the song is played on the radio.

But there is another reason why these elite musicians relish pop work, unlikely as it sounds. “Playing with a band like Arctic Monkeys or Radiohead, the level of musicianship is so high,” points out classical cellist Chris Worsey, who tells me it was “fantastic and exciting” to be up on Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage with the Monkeys on Friday night. “It can be just as creative, inspirational and satisfying as classical work.”

Classical training understandably leads to a very narrow focus – students at elite conservatories are like Olympic hopefuls with a single goal in sight. It is undeniably an art form that requires formidable levels of practice, expert technique and dedication. But making music – any music – is ultimately about connecting and communicating with an audience, and classical musicians forget that at their peril. The mud and cheers of Glastonbury may be a far cry from the polished halls and polite applause of the classical realm, but as Worsey suggests, a gig like that can be a salutary reminder of what makes music special in the first place.

“A pop gig generally feels more ‘obviously’ vibrant and upbeat than a classical concert,” agrees classical violinist Gillon Cameron, who has played on a dizzying number of pop albums, with artists including Radiohead, The Divine Comedy, Gorillaz and Florence and the Machine. “Audiences are encouraged to get more involved, and in a very basic way, it can feel more immediately exciting. As a player as well as an audience member you can’t help but pick up on that vibe.”

‘No gimmicks’

If the audience benefits, so do those bands that choose to employ world-class live instrumentalists in the studio or on stage, rather than rely on synthetic strings. “The production values are so high in pop,” Cameron points out. “You have to be a good player, able to sight-read pretty much anything on the day, and sensitive to the structure of the record to immediately understand the sound the band wants. Rhythmic accuracy and quality of sound are vital, and, with recording studio costs so high, there is pressure to get it right swiftly.”

London has an international reputation of boasting some of the finest session musicians in the world. Not only are British players comparatively cheap, they are known to be superb sight-readers, fastidious and reliable. That’s one of the reasons why many Hollywood blockbusters come to the UK to use classical musicians when recording their scores and why an artist like Stevie Wonder was in London last week to lay down his new album – with a large ensemble of fine classically-trained musicians, including Worsey and Cameron. Talking to a handful of the musicians after the session, I heard the refrain that it was artistry like Wonder’s that inspired them to be musicians in the first place.

When I ask Cameron if he thinks the classical world might even take a leaf out of pop’s book when it comes to connecting with an audience, he concurs. “Not in a gimmicky way, but by naturalising the whole process. That could be, for example, in the way we dress, or by having the conductor come on stage and talk to the audience,” he says. “As long as it doesn’t detract from the art, I would much prefer an audience to really feel engaged in what we’re doing.”

Classical and pop music may sound different, feel different, and even be driven by different objectives. But at the heart of it, their concerns are identical: to transport and affect people through beauty and joy; to open their hearts and minds; and to entertain them. Like human beings, all music boils down to the same essence, and we should celebrate that commonality and harmony, not enforce the dissonance.

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