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This weekend I’ll mostly be listening to… classical music… June 13, 2009

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, This Weekend I'll Mostly Be Listening to....

A guest post by D.J.P. O’Kane.

This post differs from other, similar, posts on a musical theme by containing references to classical music. Those of a nervous disposition should read no further. I don’t listen to classical music exclusively – I’ve been listening to Neko Case’s alt-country-indie pop crossover stuff a lot these days – but more often than not I’d put the likes of Maxim Vengerov playing Mozart on, rather whatever desperate faraggo has caught the popular imagination this week.

Here’s Neko Case with her song ‘This Tornado Loves You’:

And here’s Maxim Vengerov playing Mozart.

The reason I’m typing this is because WorldByStorm challenged me to write something about classical music in the style of his ‘this weekend I’m listening to. . . ‘ posts. In the comments section of one of those posts, I challenged him on the grounds that since he was even older than me (and I see new grey hairs every time I look in the mirror in the morning) it was a bit peculiar that he should be listening to musical genres that were identified in the deepest darkest depths of the twentieth century with ‘the young’ that motley crew united only by their shared membership in a chronological category.

I write this not only in a spirit of ‘hey, you kids, get off my lawn’, though I admit that that plays some part in my thinking. I’m writing this because I found that apart from nostalgia there is (for me) no real reason to listen to sounds that are (in my subjective opinion) incapable of dealing with complex and serious adult themes, or of connecting with the reality of our times in the way that classical, folk, jazz, or other genres can.

So one reason – though not the only reason for listening to classical music (or to Jazz, or Folk, or what have you) is that it provides a particular way of getting access to a broader view of the world than you’d get with the stuff ‘the kids’ listen to. Compare Joy Division’s flirtation with fascist imagery (and I’m not too sure about their name implying identification with the victims) with Oliver Messaien’s Quartet for the End of Time.

First off here’s Joy Division on UK television in the late 1970s:

Now here’s a contemporary rendering of the Quartet for the End of Time:

Messaien composed his piece while interned in a concentration camp in occupied Europe. I’ll admit that I don’t listen to this sort of thing very often, but I do think that it’s a more effective reflection in musical art of the reality of the twentieth century than you’d get with Joy Division. The fact that the musicians doing Messaien’s piece can actually play their instruments to a very high level of skill helps as well.

In conclusion, here’s my all time favourite classical piece, Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances, from the opera Prince Igor.


1. Eamonn Cork - June 13, 2009

Very entertaining. Anyone who’s interested in getting into 20th century classical music should get The Rest Is Noise by Alex Ross, the New Yorker’s classical music critic, which is a brilliant history of the music and also of the political and historical context in which it was created. A masterpiece of popular exposition (he says, sounding like a back cover blurb).
The appeal of alt-country escapes me to be honest. I’d prefer the George Jones/Merle Haggard/Waylon Jennings side of things when I’d listen to country.
Oh and the Kronos Quartet, probably the best modern classical ensemble of all, are at the Galway Arts Festival next month. Well worth a trip.


2. yourcousin - June 13, 2009

I’ll second that thought on country music.


3. Tim Buktu - June 13, 2009

I think Sandy Harsch’s Country Time on RTÉ Radio 1 is the best introduction for those who don’t have a natural instinct for country music. (Far better than Paschal Mooney’s programmes ever were. Funny how dodgy politics betrays itself in dodgy music.)

I do like the Borodin piece (and now want to get the full item — thanks for the tip) but was a tad uh-oh when I saw it is from an opera. I do enjoy choral music but opera has never lit my fire. In fact, I particularly hate it when the diva (in whatever opera) goes for the highest of high notes: I get a sore throat when she does that as my own body tries to pretend it is following her (even with my mouth firmly closed and no noise emanating from my throat). My current regularly played piece at the moment is Karl Jenkins’s Requiem (although, from a political perspective, I wasn’t happy to learn it had been used in a very sexist Lynx advert; you can hear that item — sans near-naked women running to a man — here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7RirEqehfsg).


4. Dr. X - June 13, 2009

Whoever this ‘D.J.P. O’Kane’ character is, he writes like a loon. I bet he types in a green font as well.


5. gabbagabbahey - June 13, 2009

I’m reading that Alex Ross book at the moment, just went through the chapter dealing with Messaien recently too. I find it – and him, and his music to a degree – interesting, but if you put him up against Joy Division I’m going to have to side with the latter. the “flirting with fascist imagery” is more by way of irony and maybe a sort of political nihilism, but the advantage of Joy Division and most of the rest of alternative popular music is that there are lyrics to express the ideas that Ross reads into the 20th century highlights through their composition. e.g., from the first song ‘Transmission’:

“Well I could call out when the going gets tough
The things that we’ve learned are no longer enough
No language, just sound, is all we need know
To synchronize love to the beat of the show
And we could dance

Dance, dance, dance, dance, dance, to the radio…”

by comparing Messaien’s experience in a POW camp, and generally Europe at war, with Ian Curtis’s post-punk battles with depression in late 1970s England, it’s sort of mixing the political with the social and the personal. not sure which best reflects “the reality of the twentieth century” or rather, I think they all do.


6. sonofstan - June 13, 2009

Well, I’m older than either you or WBS, and a few years back i went through an Adorno inspired rebellion against pop music, but, now, as i approach 50, i find I’m over being over pop.

That said, modern music doesn’t do much for me no more – it’s so badly recorded for a start, what with insane compression tailored for MP3 consumption. But there’s a wealth of old vinyl waiting to be explored – thousands of great soul records I haven’t heard yet, hundreds of Honky-Tonk records, a treasure trove of psych and prog nonsense.

And I don’t really buy the classical is more grown up argument either: maybe I’m shallow or something, but Bobby Bland singing St. James Infirmary, Merle H. doing Little Ol’ Wine Drinker Me, Johnny Holiday’s The Turning Point, Howard Tate’s Ain’t Nobody Home The Ethiopians Times are Getting from Bad to Worse and a thousand others are not less emotionally complex than Kindertotenleider or Ives’ Fourth, even if musically simpler.

I find I’m less attracted to chin-stroking Wire approved dissonance these days: I don’t really buy the modernist imperative anymore. What I think I like might be summarised as ‘ordinary music’ – stuff recorded by professional musicians, trying to make the best records they can with the best singing they can – nothing annoys me more than indie affected amateurism: the notion that it is somehow more emotionally affecting because it’s not done right. Sixties and early seventies southern soul, which, if you told me i could only listen to one kind of music from now on, would be it, is the sound of – generally -working class people overcoming -through hard work – the limits placed on them socially, racially and politically and producing art of transcendent loveliness and power. I’m afraid the Adornian idea that beauty represents a false reconciliation with an unlivable world doesn’t stop me wanting to melt in Ann Peebles lovely, passionate restraint or Freddie Scott’s Bel Canto purity.


7. splinteredsunrise - June 13, 2009

Devo did a good twangy country version of Jocko Homo once…

I’ve long had a soft spot for Wagner, which is maybe not what you want to admit to when you’ve also got Mishima and d’Annunzio on your bookshelf. But I still think you can’t go far wrong with Varese.


8. WorldbyStorm - June 14, 2009

It’s tricky. I understand the skill argument to some degree. But complexity seems to me to be a more difficult argument to make.

Passionate writing about music, any form, is the key.

The compression thing drives me wild. It’s amazing how ‘flat’ music can sound these days when compared to music from before the late 1990s.

Devo did indeed.


9. yourcousin - June 15, 2009

does this mean that you’re accepting guest postings for “this weekend I’ll be listening to…”?


10. ejh - June 15, 2009


it’s singing. On stage.


11. Bartholomew - June 15, 2009


it’s talking. On stage.


12. WorldbyStorm - June 15, 2009

yourcousin, yeah surely. If people have something they want to spread the news about, why not?


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