Why are You Scared of Classical Music?

Who’s afraid of Christian Wolff?

More precisely: why are you scared of contemporary classical music? I’m not referring to Mozart and Haydn (after all, who could be scared of them?), but the likes of Xenakis, Feldman, Schnittke and Stockhausen. And if these names are alien to you, then my argument is already taking shape.

Too often we slap the generic label of “it’s just noise” onto modern, avant-garde and experimental classical music without properly listening to it or giving it any consideration or appraisal. This is something that, as a great lover of contemporary music, irks me. What really gets to me though is that many people just don’t give it a chance. Even many of my fellow music students will simply not open their ears and give due time and perseverance to a music that doesn’t initially offer something to them; they just seem to have no patience. To quote a student in a recent lecture on free jazz and improvisation: “it makes me feel sick”.

As in any area of the arts, there is the interesting and less interesting, the good and not so good. I will never deny that there is modern classical music out there that is boring and un-interesting. Too many works have no identity and are full of contemporary rhetorical waffle. I was dismayed to find that this was the case in much of this year’s slightly dull BBC Proms programme. A (not so) fine example being Julian Anderson’s Fantasias, which to all intents and purposes did everything wrong in trying to convince the public of the merits of contemporary classical music. What we must realise is that you can’t necessarily listen to a piece of music by Iannis Xenakis in the same way that you can listen to The Killers, Radiohead, Beethoven or Debussy. It is a different type of music. In fact, those who say it’s not music may have a point, because in many ways it is a form of art.

This brings me to my main contention: most people will quite happily go to a gallery and be educated about art, in order to appreciate and to get something out of it, but when it comes to music we will do no such thing. If you were to visit an exhibition it would be commonplace to buy a guidebook or hire an audio guide and learn about background, history and methods – otherwise you would get little from the experience. However, if the tables were turned and you were invited to a contemporary sound installation – how many people would look for the background or detail before or at the event? Many dislike contemporary art with a passion, but will have at least investigated it in some small way. We seem to be socially conditioned not to bother with music and people are scared of it, unwilling to listen. Perhaps it boils down to what music is and what it does to us. Conceivably, it’s just a more readily accessible aesthetic experience than art. You can close your eyes, but not your ears.

So far, I’ve actually done little to convince you of the merits of contemporary classical music – I’ve just complained about you not listening. Let’s start with one of the moments I properly “got” contemporary music: Evryali by Iannis Xenakis. Amongst the aggressive hammer blows of the piano, hidden within the explosions of noise and swells of commotion, there is sheer beauty of craftsmanship, virtuosity and emotion. There may not be a catchy tune, there may not be a Vaughn-Williams-esque folk melody but there is complexity, interest and sheer genius. It’s fair to say that I would never put this on at a party or relax to it in the bath and I would probably skip it on my iPod, but week after week I can sit down and listen to it from start to finish with no distraction, just wishing I could play the piano like that.

You may at this point be thinking that it’s just taste – some people like heavy metal, some like dub reggae, others like Bach and a few odd people like contemporary classical. However, I would reiterate the points that firstly, we must initially approach contemporary music as an art and secondly, I will have no complaints if after due perseverance and listening you decide it’s not for you. As an example of how appreciating contemporary classical music requires a gradual submersion in the field, I often re-live a childhood experience: when I was young, my Dad urged me to listen to Captain Beefheart (definitely not contemporary classical music, but weird all the same). I rejected it in favour of Travis as they had catchy tunes and sang about rain. A few years later, however, after a diet of increasingly complex rock music and jazz, I returned to the legendary “Trout Mask Replica” and suddenly it clicked. The same progression happened as I listened to contemporary classical music.

The problem is that not everyone has the time and motivation to listen to a hundred classical CDs and attend pre-concert talks. Also, to many, an instinct has developed – if they don’t like the sound of it on first listening, it ends there. There is, though, a more serious problem than my personal exasperation and lack of friends to go to concerts with. The unthinkable – that contemporary classical music might die – is suddenly being thought about. In the past fifty years it has sharply declined in popularity and cultural authority. The music still has its advocates, some more eloquent than others, but more people need to stand up and do more about it. We have to clear the air of old prejudices. To some extent, we must stop separating classical music from popular culture in a way that makes it an esoteric art form appreciated by the few who don’t want to make room for the many. A real dilemma is that this fear of contemporary classical music and the label “it’s just noise”, are making many people miss out on its more accessible forms that can and do offer so much.

So what is the solution and how can you overcome this fear? You must at first approach it as an art, not pop music or easy-listening Classic FM fodder. Read a bit about why the composers composed what they did, which is often highly motivated by political, social and artistic circumstances. Like other forms of art, it’s not necessarily instant. Your entry to the genre is likely to be step-by-step, piece-by-piece, with a few wrong turns on the way. But above all, please just give it a chance.

Here’s my rough guide to contemporary classical music:

Background listening



Advanced level

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