Of course, we all know that big-C Classical was a period from 16whatever to 17whatever.
But the term which noone seems to be able to provide a satisfactory definition for is little-c classical.
Apparently, I’m a ‘classical musician’. I’m trained in a ‘classical’ tradition, at a ‘classical’ establishment, on an instrument that’s predominantly known for its ‘classical’ repertoire.
Yet if you take Wikipedia’s definition of ‘classical music’, which is lifted directly from the Oxford and Concise Dictionary of Music, classical music is ‘the art music produced in, or rooted in, the traditions of Western liturgical and secular music, encompassing a broad period from roughly the 11th century to present times’.
In today’s world, I just look at that and think: what a load of anachronistic rubbish.
Personally speaking, such a definition just doesn’t reflect the breadth and depth of what a ‘classical’ upbringing means to me as a ‘classical musician’. For me, the ‘classical-ness’ is with me regardless of whether I’m playing something that conforms to a classical tradition or not.
In one recent week’s work, I part-improvised a live event featuring the music of Josef Haydn, extemporized on themes by Philip Glass for a brand consultancy, academically deconstructed an entire piece by Mozart, performed Welsh folk music in an outdoor festival, and taught a 10 year old violinist to play a rock song by MUD.
So far as I am concerned, every one of these experiences was 100% classical, in that they brought to bear all my ‘classical’ training and knowledge and experience to create a compelling experience. But not one of them fit the traditional definition of what ‘classical’ is.
This is a problem that so many performers are having to deal with right now, and I think it’s time to reverse the thinking on this. I’ve been trying to find alternative ways of describing what I do over and above the accepted idea of ‘classical’, I think it’s time to just admit that the existing definitions of ‘classical’ are out of date, and no longer applicable.
What we need to do instead, is to accept that ‘classical’ is not some kind of elitist, specialist genre. It’s just a way of thinking that takes into account an exceptionally high level of order and structure within a particular endeavour.
For the athlete, it is the thrill of crossing the line first; an adrenaline intensity so strong, that a decade of training is justified in just one moment.
For the artist, it is something more intimate; a moment of apparent truthfulness, where mind, body and soul come together in such a compelling way, that you cannot help but say, "yes, that was beautiful".
Those who don't experience the moment see the pursuit as sheer folly.
For those that do, it encapsulates a lifetime's meaning. One taste can be enough to propel the seeker through an infinite sea of incompetence and failure.
Anyone can do it, in any field. Sport, and the arts, just happen to be especially shareable.
I felt the adrenaline begin to pulse through my body as the subway train reached the final stop. The doors slid open, and I leapt out, pushing my way through the turnstiles and up to the street. The city was manically busy but I barely noticed the noise: my mind was still and alert, poised in anticipation. I felt a small sense of trepidation — not a lack of confidence, but certainly a sliver of fear for the unknown.
I strode purposefully into the park, waving off the offers of chess games from the chess players on the corner, and focusing on the music I was going to play, almost blocking from my mind the thought of setting down, finding a space, and building an audience. I knew the theory – what marked out busking from a true performance – but I had never actually dared to create a performance in a public space before; to wrest control of a space and turn it to my advantage, to expand it and draw people inside, to sustain interest and to take them on a journey that made it worthwhile to stay and listen.
I knew it could be done, but I didn't know if I could do it successfully. There are so many factors that you can't control; the weather, the mood of passers by, street musicians' existing pitches and politics, and the technicalities of bylaws. My heart was in my mouth.
As I got to the centre of the park square, which was teaming with perhaps a hundred people, I saw the space underneath the arch. People were walking through, but it was otherwise empty. A perfect place to stand. I looked up at the sky; the tall towers around the park glinted in the late Autumn sun; not a cloud to be seen. Maybe luck was on my side.
Forcing myself to move fast, not allowing myself time to think or to rationalize the risks, I set my violin case down under the arch, and took out the violin. And predictably, nobody took any notice whatsoever!
But when the realization hits that nobody cares, your attitude changes: What's the worst that can happen? I felt a rush of freedom, and became conscious of my breathing, which immediately began to slow.
I admit, this was also partly my choice: I've always found that the best way to handle a critical moment is to focus on breathing. It's the most reliable way of restoring natural order to the body; freedom of every joint, every muscle, and of course the mind.
And then I drew together my nerves. "Ladies and Gentlemen!", I shouted.
A handful of people turned to look. Most didn't.
"My name is Simon and I am The Violin Player."
A couple more heads turned, but didn't seem very interested.
I said a few more words of introduction, and launched into a Paganini Caprice.
For sure, nobody cared.
But by now, I was free. I had control of my own attention, my own body, the small space around me where my violin case was. I didn't need an audience for now. I just needed to create something.
Halfway through the Paganini, I became aware of a man nearby, standing and watching. And to his right, another face. As I ended the piece, I could see a third person double back, and return to take a second look.
Not wanting to lose any momentum, I launched straight into a rendition of a traditional folk tune. The faces were still there. I made eye contact. A performance was erupting.
A piece of Bach really engaged people. It's astonishing what a piece of great music performed well can do, even in the most unexpected of contexts. But I felt a closeness was missing.
"I have a very short, very beautiful piece to play to you now, but first I need to ask you a favour."
I told the growing crowd that the following piece was an intimate gift (and it is. It's a very personal piece to me and to people I've played it to. If you know my work well you can probably guess which one it was). I needed them to come closer, and assemble in the space just in front of me, so I could share it with them.
And they did!
And so far as I can tell, they liked it very much.
I concluded – for this was an ultra-short set – with a piece of folk music that filled everyone again with rhythm. Clapping, foot-stamping, and really getting becoming engaged with as many senses as possible. I explained that my performance was an experiment, and invited people to show their appreciation with a small donation.
To perform in a public place is a strange thing. There is something mesmerizingly raw about it, because it plays on the purest forms of interaction — especially if you are interacting with a complete group of strangers.
Unlike in an established venue where there are pre-conditioned expectations, here there are absolutely no rules whatsoever. Your performance lives or dies by the second. You have to engage constantly; you can't let your guard drop.
There's perhaps a risk that details can be lost in the pursuit of such enagagement, or that structural decisions or musical subtleties – both crucial aspects of Classical music – can become secondary to phrase-by-phrase interest. For that reason, Classical-rooted music is perhaps better suited to a more formal listening environment.
But it still works.
For the record, I made $29.95 exactly. Not bad for a little under 15 minutes! It seems crude to measure music by money, but as far as you're going to do that, there's no more accurate crucible for it than a street performance, where you're only as good as your last note…
I was thinking hard about the difference between busking and street performing, for reasons you will see in my next post!
I have always been wary of busking, as to me it sometimes seems little more than begging. Other times, it doesn't.
On trains – literally on trains – busking can be an incredible nuisance. It's an intrusion into other peoples' space that is usually not welcome.
Approved busking in stations is a different matter; it's approved, it's legal, I don't have a problem with it. It can make peoples' journeys pass in an altogether more pleasant way. Even if it's not an especially nice place to work.
But let's address it from a musical viewpoint.
The problem with busking is that the audience is a transient one. Especially on a transport network, the audience does not have the choice to stay or to go. It has to go.
That's the opposite of the problem with on-train buskers, who take their audiences captive; they don't have a chance to escape!
To truly engage an audience, you have to have them choose to give you their attention for a period of time. In a concert hall that can be up to 2 hours, and you're guaranteed to have everyone present there during that time, whether or not you succeed in keeping them engaged for every second of every minute.
If your audience is transient, then you only have their attention for a few seconds. That completely changes the nature of the interaction, and therefore the nature of the art.
I remember Nigel Kennedy saying that when he busked in NYC as a Juilliard student, he would test which pieces worked the best, and gradually narrow down his public space performances to a few select pieces of music (such as the Bach Inventions). More than that, he would narrow down the individual phrases that were most likely to create an emotional response in a listener within 30 seconds… because that was the time it took to convince someone to take a coin from their pocket!
Drew Balch was the first person to articulate this concept to me, and we tested it some months back by going – completely on a whim – to perform under a bridge on the River Thames, where we played one of the pieces that we'll be filming next year. We positioned ourselves in the centre of a small pedestrian tunnel that took about a minute to walk through.
The work we played is a dramatic and explosive piece, and it was therefore no suprise that we managed to connect with and retain several people by focusing on the exciting, fast-moving sections of the music and playing them over and over again!
But… it was still busking.
I think Street Performance is fundamentally different if, and only if, you can take control of the space around you, and allow a crowd to congregate.
Then, you can create an entire show rather than just a continuous set. You can build on the audience development throughout your performance.
The funny thing with street performance that's done this way is that it's halfway between busking and a formal concert, because you have to develop a structural cohesion in the same way that you would for a concert, yet maintain the busker's mentality of note-to-note engagement, which may be more short-term orientated than the music itself would ideally demand.
It's kind of an unsatisfactory set of compromises, but to achieve enough of those compromises to make the whole show lift and succeed, is perhaps an art in itself.
At least, that's the theory. I guess all I need to do is prove it!
To Be Continued…
[second picture from this post that I just came across on a google search - entrepreneur talking about the nature of the street performer vs sidewalk musician, and street performer as entrepreneur]
Is it wrong to consider older (for instance Baroque) music from a contemporary perspective?
Of course not. Everything that's alive has to be reinterpreted for its time, otherwise it's just a museum-piece. Therefore it's wrong to fetishize aspects of period performance, or Historically Informed Performance as it now seems to be known. I've played Elgar unconvincingly senza vibrato under Sir Roger Norrington and for me it's a good example of a slavish obsession with authenticity that doesn't reflect either scholarly balance or realist necessity.
In the next few years we could see an increasing number of mash-ups, and reinventions of various types of Classical music, in ways that will completely redefine how we view and reinterpret the historical styles of our musical past. And these reinventions could be far more dramatic than playing Elgar with no vibrato.
Is it wrong to consider older (for instance Baroque) music from a purely contemporary perspective?
No-one can say it's wrong, but I'd argue it's dangerous. The worry is that any reinterpretation that fundamentally alters musical structure or form, or indeed any other element that is fundamental to the identity of a piece of music, might be made with a very limited understanding of what has gone before. Making those kinds of changes without fully understanding what you're meddling with can often damage the effectiveness of a piece irreparably. Ignorance may be bliss, but it's hell if you're a victim of it!
Look at some of the amateur cover song & video mashups on youtube, and you'll often find a remarkable combination of poor technique and limited knowledge about the subject. Yet some of these are still quite effective, because of a convincing overall musical or artistic idea.
But to reach the highest levels of interpretation as we reintegrate the 'Classical' tradition into a mainstream digital culture, there needs to be some type of historical integrity in order to avoid creating endless streams of mindless fluff!
You need to know the rules in order to be able to break them.
It is crucial to consider older works from a historical perspective in order to fully understand their full context in a way that modern perspectives alone cannot supply.
A great way to do this is by studying the discoveries of the period performance movement. That's why 'authentic/historical' performances and musicology projects are necessary and desirable initiatives.
I believe they will never be more than a minority interest. But as our musical tradition becomes more and more fragmented, they will become ever more important as sources of inspiration for other musicians working with 'older' material – regardless of how contemporary and removed from the source material those musicians' ultimate reinventions are.
If we don't do that, we really do risk a 'dumbing down' of music. But if we do, then our musical possibilities become even more exciting than before.
I did a couple of outreach concerts for Live Music Now recently that were sponsored by the Musicians Benevolent Fund. We were sent to play for former professional musicians who were seriously ill and no longer able to function properly. Many of those musicians were suffering from dementia.
You might think that's somewhere between a busman's holiday and chinese torture for a former pro, but that could not be more wrong! When you're deprived of many of your faculties, music can often reach places that many other forms of communication can't, and if you're losing your personality and the sense of who you are, it can be one of the only ways of connecting meaningfully with other people.
Actor Simon Callow is just one of the people who has experienced this first hand, and he tells the story of his relationship with his terminally ill mother in this article in the Daily Mail. As you can see, live music makes a profound difference.
Live Music Now and the Musicians Benevolent Fund have launched an 'adopt a musician' scheme in response to the positive effect that music has on such sufferers. I hope you'll consider becoming a patron of their work – it's a great cause and one that I'm happy to be part of.
Remember, it comes to us all…