With classical music forced out of the concert hall, one of the few positives of this year has been rediscovering it in the wild
This year, I’ve watched my entire industry collapse. In the absence of live communal playing, musicians and groups have desperately tried to find ways to communicate across the screen, but here’s my terrible confession: outside of my work, I’ve hardly interacted with any of it. This is not because of its quality or intention, but because I haven’t felt like it.
This terrible and surreal year has changed my relationship with classical music entirely, but not only in bad ways. Normally I’d go to a couple of concerts a week, for both work and pleasure. I’d play in an amateur concert every couple of months, with occasional chamber music and irregular boot camp of scales and studies to keep in shape. This year I’ve barely picked up my violin.
Here’s another terrible confession: I don’t feel like I miss either experience. For my own sake, this is alarming because the violin and going to concerts are at the core of my identity. More importantly, if it’s this easy for me to be without live classical music, what does the future hold for those of us who work in this world? What if people let go and don’t come back?
‘The only way to resolve the cognitive dissonance of not having what one loves is not to feel anything’
There is an alternative interpretation, of course. When passions run deep, sometimes the only way to deal with loss is to go into a form of denial. The only way to resolve the cognitive dissonance of not having what one loves is not to feel anything. I have adapted and when the time comes, I expect to be full of joy again – maybe even more so.
There have been positives to this adaptation. Banned from concert halls, I’ve taken it outdoors. On my frequent Hampstead Heath walks, accompanied by my iPhone and Apple Music subscription, I binge sets of symphonies. These have mainly been standard composers (Sibelius, Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Mahler, Brahms) but it’s been revelatory and liberating.
‘If a deranged-looking woman dances to Mahler in a forest and no one sees her, is she really dancing?’
Listening to classical music has become a full-body experience. Walking through nature, alone, unnoticed, focused only on sound and surroundings, rather than watching musicians or the conductor, I connect directly with the music and nature. Released from the constraints of sitting in an audience, or even in an orchestra, where too much movement is annoying for others, I walk in time to the music, wave my arms around wildly and air paint the themes with my hands. If I seem crazy, I don’t care. If a deranged-looking woman dances to Mahler in a forest and no one sees her, is she really dancing?
Sheila Nelson, my first violin teacher, died recently, and among the memories this sparked, were of the many games she played with us in which we walked and moved to the rhythm. This was her way of hard-wiring a sense of pulse into our very beings. I know from experience that not all musicians have this and it’s one of the many things she taught for which I’m grateful.
‘Moving to classical music outdoors is exhilarating, but it also expresses something of the physical and spiritual sides of classical music that often get lost in the concert hall’
Walking through the woods, marching, waltzing or quickstepping to the great composers is a grown-up version of the games we played back in Sheila’s drawing room. Moving to classical music outdoors is exhilarating, but it also expresses something of the physical and spiritual sides of classical music that often get lost in the concert hall. Classical music is more primitive than we like to think, and maybe if we tapped into that, more people would fall under its spell. I would love to hear a symphony performed under a canopy of trees on the Heath (and it could easily be Covid-compliant). I only worry about how I will sit still when I do go back to a concert hall.
At one with nature
Another aspect of this physical connection I’ve experienced with classical music on my walks is how well these great works suit wild landscapes. We know that composers such as Beethoven, Mahler and Brahms were inspired by nature, so it makes total sense to listen to them in that context.
‘Being outdoors as the wind and rain buffet, trees loom, lakes glisten and birds fly past is all the narrative you need to understand Sibelius’
As a classical music journalist and marketer, I’ve often described the stories of music, but there’s a lot to be said for saying nothing. Being outdoors as the wind and rain buffet, trees loom, lakes glisten and birds fly past is all the narrative you need to understand Sibelius. In this context, music becomes intrinsically wrapped up with nature, with the composer and with a wider perspective of humanity.
Music streaming is life-changing This is not a popular opinion, but my Apple Music subscription has changed my life. Undoubtedly, musicians have been shafted by streaming services and the financial equation is horribly unfair. I resisted subscribing for a long time because of this, and because of the cost (yes, I’m full of contradictions). When I finally signed up, it took me a while to understand the full import, but this year I have fully embraced the infinite and exciting possibilities.
‘If I want to walk briskly, I find a disco playlist and suddenly I’m sashaying along the pavement like John Travolta’
When I’m walking, I can decide en route to listen to the complete symphonies of Vaughan Williams and within three clicks, I am hearing my chosen conductor. From deep in a forest I can text a friend for a recommendation and 30 seconds later I hear it. If I want to walk briskly, I find a disco playlist and suddenly I’m sashaying along the pavement like John Travolta. The freedom and possibilities are staggering.
Of course, there needs to be a just renumeration for the artists, and there has been some progress in addressing this issue in the UK parliament, thanks to the Keep Music Alive campaign, and more needs to be done. But we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water.
We also have to find some way of getting these services to represent classical music better within their algorithms. For all the classical music I listen to on Apple, it always recommends pop and rock music and I imagine that’s worse for people who don’t listen to classical music. But just imagine if it came up higher – how many people would accidentally hear and like classical music?
Amid all the death, loss, fear, loneliness, lack of governmental support and existential crisis, I try to find positives for 2021. This virus has caused a massive breach in all our usual habits, but maybe a fallow year can ultimately pave the way for abundant new, creative, genre-defying, category-busting, inclusive ideas.
There is already evidence of this happening – I wrote about the young musicians such as Nicola Benedetti and Sheku Kanneh-Mason, who have made massive impact with their education initiatives, and about how performers can use this time to create unique content, which has ramped up this year. I also wrote about how much more visionary the business could be if it used the progressive Doughnut Economics model. Change has been slow and it has often felt as if there is a lack of leadership, but I want to believe good things will ultimately come out of this year – after all, what choice do we have?