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2 February, 2005

Classical: the new rock'n'roll

Writing an opinion piece in the Guardian, Martin Kettle argues that modernism removed new classical (orchestral/operatic) music from public awareness, becoming primarily restricted to academics.  He suggests that this decline coincides with the growth of rock'n'roll and 'pop' music, though I don't think he's making a causal link; even if he is, I'm sceptical.

He further suggests that there may be an imminent resurgence in more populist new classical music (note the distinction: we're talking about new music, not the 'back catalogue' of established greats), though this may be unproven optimism; it's notable that he doesn't cite any such new composers/compositions.  Classical music may regain a place of significance in contemporary culture, but it doesn't follow that it will.

Tim, at, focuses on Kettles statement that:

Classical music's second coming, if it is to have one, could hardly be better timed. The popular music that once filled the place it vacated seems in turn to have largely burned itself out. Here, too, creativity is at its lowest ebb since the early 50s.
As a rock fan, I find I have to reluctantly agree with that paragraph; Rock no longer seems to be doing anything new, and is reduced to endlessly cannibalising it's own past. While a lot of good music is still being released, it's no longer evolving or progressing; I haven't heard anything much in the past few years that could not have been released two decades earlier. The British scene in particular has become extremely hidebound and conservative, a complete contrast to the heady days of the 70s and 80s.
That last line is the revealing one, for me. It's very true that if one looks at the particularly creative bands of that period, namely prog/art rock and neo-prog, they are extremely stale now - that's the very reason I dislike them. However, that only means it's the wrong place to look for creativity, not that such creativity is absent everywhere.

Contemporary 'rock' music is evolving and progressing, but one has to step away from the tired rehashing of 'classic' and neo-prog - I'm not sure Tim meant to say so, but I agree that that branch is dead.
One genuinely creative band springs to mind immediately: Sigur Rós. Godspeed You Black Emperor and Explosions In The Sky would be others. The fusion of metal and prog typified by Opeth and, to an extent, Porcupine Tree, is taking rock forwards, too.

Some might argue that this is the incestuous or cannibalistic fusion of existing genres rather than being startlingly brand new, uninfluenced by anything ever written before, but what is? Direct repetition of the same old formula is arguably to be condemned (hey, I'd argue that!), but there's nothing wrong with combining earlier influences into something fresh and vital.

That's something of a response to Tim, but back in the context of Kettle's article, it may be worth acknowledging that the almost entirely instrumental music of the first three bands I mentioned are rather closer to orchestral, slightly modernist compositions than 'traditional', populist song-based rock'n'roll. Conceptual convergence, anyone?


I wasn't so much thinking of the neo-prog bands, most of whom don't try to pretend that they're doing anything new, and have just as much right to exist as trad jazz or rockabilly.

I was thinking more of the indie-rock which has effectively become what passes for mainstream rock, which I think has become very boring. So much of this is locked into the four-chord verse-chorus-verse-chorus format with an occasional strummy middle eight that doesn't quite have the guts to be a proper solo. This might be acceptable if they could come up with some memorable melodies, but many of them are pretty tuneless as well.

I keep meaning to check out Sigur Ros, but when it comes to Porcupine Tree I'm afraid have trouble seeing what all the fuss is about :(

Posted by Tim Hall at February 2, 2005 06:53 PM

Yes. Since writing the main entry, I realised you were probably talking more about the mainstream than the cutting edge, which certainly isn't populist ;)
To quote Ian Anderson, "... we will be geared towards the average rather than the exceptional...".
GYBE is as likely to capture mass-market attention as Stockhausen, reflecting Kettle's point.

Personally, I doubt there was ever a 'golden age' of pop or rock. For every Bowie there's always been a dozen Joe Dolces; most 1960s Merseybeat songs and even bands were interchangeable.
Decades later we gladly forget the dross and remember the highlights, which can't be fairly compared to the very average contemporary majority; that's not like-for-like.

I wouldn't be surprised if we could have been having the same discussion in the Eighteenth Century ;)
I suspect the majority of chamber music, probably totally forgotten by 2005, never mind performed, was even more formulaic than today's indie-rock. We're only aware of the extraordinary examples.

Posted by NRT at February 2, 2005 08:51 PM

...a dozen Joe Dolces.

A terrifying thought :) Good points though. But why let a few facts get in the way of a good rant?

Posted by Tim Hall at February 2, 2005 10:19 PM
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