Here we are again – another Friday rolls around and I try to make my sense of too much week.
Last week I read this article about Berlin underground managers trying to get rid of homeless people by playing classical music around their stations. Its headline is 'Art Shouldn't Be Weaponised'. Wrong. Art is, always has been, and always will be weaponised, if we accept that 'weaponise' is now an acceptable word.
In the narrow sense of course, the piece's horror at what was happening is entirely correct. Homeless people shouldn't be treated as inconveniences to be moved on out of sight, though you can understand the S-Bahn's sense that they can't deal with a wider social problem on their own. Nor should classical music be treated as kryptonite. It's happened in this country: every so often a news story appears explaining that a shopping centre or transit hub has started playing classical music to drive away the kids. In a variant example, high-pitched noises were played, audible only to children whose hearing hasn't yet deteriorated. Some of my students adopted these noises as their ring-tones so they could use their phones in class, which seemed fair.
So I'm annoyed in two ways: annoyed that children and the homeless are seen as a problem to be solved rather than as citizens who deserve fair treatment. But I'm also annoyed that classical music is assumed to be either so unpleasant or so bland that people will flee rather than endure it. I'm fully aware that classical music is seen as irrelevant to most people: I quite often try to introduce some when relevant to my classes, and it rarely evokes any interest at all. I mostly blame advertising and Classic FM, who between them have conspired to define 'classical' as 'nice bits to underscore a car ad'. It's spread to Radio 3 too, which is stuffed with very self-satisfied Tristrams, though at least Late Junction still exists.
I listen to a lot of music – indie, folk, bits of hiphop, the occasional metal album, some laptronica, a lot of twee and mathrock, and loads of music from the spectrum of 'classical' music – I like very early stuff, Bach, not a lot of baroque, some Classical, virtually no Romantics, modernism, serialism, minimalism and all the interesting stuff that's emerged in the twentieth century. There's a fair amount of music that's nice to have in the background after a tough day, but on the whole I'm thoroughly sick of the assumption that music of any sort, and classical in particular, is meant to be relaxing. Anything that relaxes us is conservative, lulling us into inaction. No wonder the worst regimes like the most hummable tunes. Or as Yes Prime Minister put it in 'The Ministerial Broadcast', 'Bach for new ideas', Stravinsky for 'no change' (around 19 minutes in). At least A Clockwork Orange paired horrendous antisocial violence – not just Alex's – with 'Ludwig van': ('he did no harm to anyone', says Alex as the state use his hero's music in a course of intensive aversion therapy):
Classical music addresses the tensions, excitements, horrors and social changes of existence, and therefore a lot of it isn't nice, relaxing or soothing for the savage breast etc.. At least the S-Bahn's goons understood that (atonal) music still has some emotional and intellectual power. One of the things I used to do in class was play whatever my students said was innovative, socially-challenging, heavy or rebellious music, and then introduce them to some of the more challenging pieces from the classical canon. Amongst them:
and of course these two notorious examples
(Yes, Stockhausen's Helicopter Quartet involves a quartet playing in separate helicopters. What of it?).
I don't hold any brief for the classical world and frequently find myself infuriated by its sexism, insularity and conservatism, but I do think that it includes a lot of thrilling, edgy work that attempts in a serious way to process or reflect the world we live in rather than provide muzak (the Penderecki above attempts to translate the moment of the Hiroshima bombing into music, for example), and I'm pretty sure that shorn of all its social paradigms, classical music by recent and living composers can reach new audiences. There is of course a counter-argument: that the more abstruse and deliberately jarring experimental music is, the more it becomes a closed shop for elite aesthetes who look down on the common herd as incapable of appreciating 'difficult' work. It's the same argument found in discussions of TS Eliot's poetry, and there's something in it – certainly Reich, Glass and some of the other minimalists reacted against serialism by returning to tonality, rock and jazz. However: if the lids are capable of listening to death metal, gabba, and the enormous range of EDM, they're more than capable of genuinely appreciating and enjoying Milton Babbitt, Stockhausen and George Crumb. But using the stuff to drive away young or poor people is no way to go about it, unless – and I may be grasping at straws here – the victims start to associate classical music with resistance and develop an underground anarchism-and-violas revolutionary movement.
Anyway, enough of this nonsense. This week's books: not many because I've been struggling with module guides and timetables (I lost). I finished Muriel Spark's Territorial Rights and wondered why I bothered. Some neat characterisation and witty observations but a hopelessly confused and pointless plot which went nowhere and didn't do justice to any of the weightier ideas thrown into the mixer. I also read another of the new slew of rural eve-of-fascism novels, following on from All Among The Barley. This one was Cressida Connolly's After The Party. Once again, the writing is very fine, the mode is simple realism and the structure is a retrospective narration designed to gradually reveal to the reader what the protagonist has got herself into. If you know much about posh British dabbling with fascism in the 1930s, you get the hang of it within the opening pages; if you don't, it takes a few chapters. After The Party concentrates on an upper-middle-class woman newly returned to Britain with her family, all of whom get sucked into the British Union of Fascism because 'something needs to be done' and it offers them a sense of community and purpose. You get a really good sense of the social milieu of genteel fascism as rural Tories' children abandon their social responsibilities and look (mystifyingly) for millenarian ways to prop up their ever-more-impossible way of life.
What doesn't work about it is Connolly's strategy of gradual revelation. The narrator tells us a lot about all the fun to be had at New Party/British Union of Fascists camps, so we assume that this is what hooks her. However, she also tells us that she's attending discussion groups, training sessions and all sorts of other events which would have been full of Mosley's specific, hard-edged attitudes and policies, such as anti-semitism and the abolition of democracy. The narrator doesn't try to downplay all this as a form of denial, it's just not present in any substantial way, which means that the problem is with the author, not the character. I'm not quite sure what I think about this but it feels like there's a degree of evasion, as though British fascists could be excused for their naivety within a febrile atmosphere, whereas an awful lot of them (see Richard Griffiths's Fellow Travellers of the Right) were under no illusions about what fascism meant at all. Yes, they probably did think that they'd still have drawing rooms and staff, but they also enthusiastically embraced Jew-hatred, feudalism and dictatorship on their own terms, not as by-products of putting themselves into the hands of the right chaps.
I also went to a fencing competition last week. Despite being old, fat and cack-handed, I came 5th and still bear the bruises to prove it. Only a couple of mistakes here and there stopped me getting even further too - annoying but better than being thoroughly trounced.
Enjoy your weekend.