Roll over, Beethoven

Life's no bowl of cherries for today's classical composer, Tom Service writes

Classical composers are in the firing line but those taking aim are in danger of missing the mark. Brickbats seem mainly to be hurled for the following five reasons:

It all sounds like a squeaky gate

There are two sides to this. First, there's the simple fact that much of the music being written now by composers for choirs, opera houses and orchestras has as many, and sometimes more, tunes than anything by Beethoven or Mozart. For sensuous, harmonious reverie, listen to recent music by John Tavener or Arvo Part; for sheer, abundant tune-smithery, look no further than those masters of choral, regal and festive vocality, Paul Mealor, Eric Whitacre and John Rutter.

But none of this is what the "squeaky gate" critics mean. They are thinking of the sort of music that the conductor Thomas Beecham once said he "trod in": the avant-garde of Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, Luigi Nono or Brian Ferneyhough.

One of the best answers to this sort of attack comes from "unherd" on my classical music blog: "Nasty squeaky gate can actually be amazing to experience if you're not afraid of it." You're right, unherd. As ever, fear, or preconceptions, lead to the dark side.

First, one of the signal, culture-changing achievements of contemporary music is that it opens your mind and ears to re-hear the world, to realise the beauty that's around us in sounds we would otherwise call noises. That's part of the genius of John Cage or Helmut Lachenmann. But there's something else – the visceral impact of music such as Iannis Xenakis's Jonchaies, Stockhausen's Gruppen for three orchestral groups or Luciano Berio's Coro is like nothing else music has done before. 


It's inaccessible

Balderdash. Have a look at the menagerie of cultural icons on the cover of the Beatles' Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Who's that chappie on the back row? Why, it's the furthest-out composer of any of the out-there '60s avant-garde, Stockhausen. Coincidental Beatlemania? Not a bit of it. Without Stockhausen's electronic dreams and experiments the decade before, the Beatles would be mired in musical pre-history, and Lennon and McCartney's imaginations – and yours – would be infinitely the poorer.

Spooling on through pop culture, in the '70s and '80s, bands "discovered" tape loops, phases and rhythmic complexity. But that's only because Steve Reich, Philip Glass and the minimalists had got there at least a decade before.

Sampling? Again, it's the avant- garde you've got to thank, everyone from the pioneers of tape-based musique concrete to Alvin Lucier and beyond. Coming bang(ish) up to date: who is Bjork's favourite composer? Stockhausen again. Brian Eno would be nowhere without Erik Satie and Cornelius Cardew. And don't get me started on Jonny Greenwood's love affair with Krzysztof Penderecki.

You need to have a beard and wear a black polo-neck jumper to appreciate it

This is one of the things that puts many listeners off, the idea that to be able to understand Harrison Birtwistle or Judith Weir, Pauline Oliveros or Howard Skempton, you need to have a working knowledge, and preferably a PhD, in music history and/or you need to be part of a club of contemporary music groupies. Neither, I promise you, is true. There's a story told by Gillian Moore, who set up the education work of the London Sinfonietta in the early '80s. One of its first projects introduced a program of Ravel and early 20th-century noise-fiend Edgard Varese to groups of schoolchildren.

For many, Ravel's music is sensual, beguiling, "easy", whereas Varese's sirens, percussion and atavistic modernism make his music dissonant and "difficult". What happened was just the reverse: the kids loved Varese and couldn't get on with Ravel. But that makes perfect sense. So much of the great, radical music of the past 100 years bypasses the world of convention and intellect to go straight to the guts of sonic power, and to shake up your solar plexus.

It's irrelevant

A simple formulation that sums up an unfortunate commonplace: the sense that this music has nothing to say to today's world.

There is sometimes an impression that composers who write music that pushes musicians to their extremes are doing nothing more than fiddling around in a solipsistic, self-indulgent reverie. Well, there's nothing wrong with beauty, and the extreme, hard-won beauty of hearing a group of great musicians or an orchestra at the limits of what they can do. But contemporary music has things to say, if we have ears to hear it.

Haven't heard of Cornelius Cardew? Check him out. All his music was composed with social and political consciousness at its heart. And in different ways, that's still happening. John Adams can't resist today's big subjects – politics, terrorism and religious extremism.

It's written for classical musicians so it must be "old"

Here's the rub. For some, the very sight of, say, an orchestra, a string quartet or the idea of an opera house automatically gives an illusion of "heritage" rather than "contemporary culture". The implication is that those institutions can't have anything to contribute to musical thinking, that the musical ideas composers in the past have dreamed of in their orchestral works, quartets and operas, have filled the repertoire, and our imaginations.

Try telling that to Jonathan Harvey, whose expansion of the orchestra into the realms of electronics makes music that is definitively contemporary and immeasurably timeless, or to Thomas Ades, whose writing creates visions of musical possibility that are new for today, or for any time. A piece Ades composed in 1999 symbolises the meanings large-scale music can have. America: A Prophecy is a vision and a warning about the ends of empire. Ades's music could not speak more fervently or fearlessly about the essential truth of the way historical patterns repeat themselves, and how we ignore the warnings of ancient civilisations at our peril.

Don't let the veneer of the opera house or the concert hall put you off. This music is speaking to us now: all you need is an open mind and open ears.

The Guardian