Between rock and a hard piece

Music and Art

Will Upton discusses classical music performed in squats, caves, and subways.

My most exciting musical memory is of a concert in a squat in a disused care home of one of Manchester’s notorious suburbs. The largely destitute audience came for soup and stayed for music. A twitchy skinhead trying to bum a joint was hushed by those around him, and settled down in rapt attention to Berio’s Les Mots sont allés, a post-modern work normally restricted to the classical music connoisseur. It was dark, humid, smoky, and it smelt, but it was a visceral reminder that classical music can be a part of the real world outside the concert hall, as opposed to the sometimes-artificial one within.

I relish the concert-going ritual: the reverence, the hushed anticipation and the adulation, and have enjoyed playing in symphony orchestras in Bridgewater Hall and elsewhere. Others find the chorus of coughing and dithering between movements and the innumerable bows a turn off. Publicity photos of well to do Glyndebourne audiences picking at strawberries don’t advance our cause.

If classical music is to gain a happy new life in its traditional homes it must embrace alternative venues as more than a gimmick. I have enjoyed concerts in railway stations, an empty swimming pool, and in a cave with water dripping from the roof, and each time I have gone back to the concert hall with fresher ears. If we make auditoria the sole domain of classical music then, far from being its home, they become its prison; people forget too easily how to listen to it elsewhere as anything but mood music.

Renowned violinist Joshua Bell was famously ignored as he busked in a Washington subway, days after people paid hundreds of dollars to hear him at Boston’s Symphony Hall. Was it because without the PR hype Bell lacked the charisma to communicate, or because passers by could not recognise his brilliance in an unfamiliar context? Neither. It was a symptom that classical music had become trapped in its own home, so inflexible that people were no longer willing to engage with it without the props of an usher, some plush velvet seats, and a brightly lit stage.

Will Recommends…

Having dispelled some of the myths surrounding contemporary music with MacMillan’s Kiss on Wood, Dutilleux’s Ainsi la nuit probably reaffirmed them for you. It certainly doesn’t have a melody you would be inclined to sing, but the joy of this piece is in the alien sound worlds between which it shifts, and the transfiguration of motifs through timbre – the way Dutilleux can make bow on string sound like whispered words. This week’s recommendation has a visual component: Ligeti’s humorous Mysteries of the Macabre for voice and chamber orchestra performed by the incredible Barbara Hannigan.


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