My earliest serious attempts at some kind of engagement with the many-headed behemoth that is classical music probably date back to my late twenties and around the turn of the millennium. By this point in time I had refined my interests in music enough to have begun following several threads back from my starting point of contemporary experimental composition to past music that had inspired some of what I was listening to. As I had started around this time to obsessively absorb music by the likes of Luigi Nono, Helmut Lachenmann, John Cage and Morton Feldman so my reading and research naturally took me to serialism, Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg. My tendency to just buy CDs blind on my weekly trips into London to attend concerts or hit the record shops that still existed back then however meant that there was little co-ordination to my research, and I would probably fail to connect with as much of this strange old music as I managed to enjoy.
It was just a few years later though that my intense enjoyment of the work of Nono lead me to a DVD named A Trail on the Water, a EuroArts documentary by Bettina Ehrhardt that focused on the Italian composer’s friendship with the conductor Claudio Abbado and the pianist Maurizio Pollini. This DVD threw up a new connection as it detailed the trio’s shared love of the work of Gustav Mahler, and sparked an interest in the Austrian composer that has lingered with me for decades before just recently blossoming into a new obsession. I picked up a disc of Abbado’s performance of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony with the Berlin Symphonic Orchestra back then not expecting very much but instead finding its luscious romantic colours overwhelmingly enticing. Given that my musical tastes of the time often lent themselves to extremely minimal, near silent works of severe austerity, my connection to Mahler’s last completely finished symphony was a real surprise, and one I struggled to explain.
Although I do remember testing the waters with one or two other Mahler Symphonies back then, it was the Ninth that seemed to really hold my attention, and I actually even attended a performance of the work, my first live experience of orchestral music. I remember driving to the somewhat unremarkable English town of Basingstoke to catch the concert by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under Esa-Pekka Salonen, a combination of venue, symphony, orchestra and conductor I would actually manage to experience again more than a decade later. That early concert had a significant impact upon me though, and not an entirely positive one. Whilst the music had been electrifying, an experience unlike which I had ever been through before, everything else about the evening left something of an unsavoury taste. In particular the feeling of not belonging socially to an audience of older, and clearly more affluent people made an impact on me as something of an idealistic socialist. I was used to attending tiny concerts put together by friends in small rooms above pubs where the musicians would mingle with the audience, entrance fees were minimal and interval drinks only really happened if someone brought a bottle along. To suddenly find myself feeling like the youngest person in the building, sat in a vast hall while the public school accented man beside me seemed to be offended that I had turned up wearing jeans was all a bit of a shock to the system, and it was some years before I attended a classical music concert again.
All throughout the time I was deeply engaged with experimental music I would often find friends that like myself would listen to bits and pieces of classical music, and a select few would try and encourage me to write more about it alongside the swathes of copy I would churn out about more avant garde interests. Interestingly it was often the experimental musicians themselves though that would listen to older composition rather than the work of their peers and would often point me in the direction of classical works I was less familiar with. One particular influence of note was the veteran improviser/composer Keith Rowe who became (and remains) a good friend as I got to know him down the years. On one weekend in 2006, having quit my day job a week or so earlier I boarded a sleeper train at London to head to Aberdeen in the north of Scotland, intending to catch a solo performance by Keith somewhere in the Granite City. Having been surprised by his appearance at the station when I disembarked the train in Aberdeen, Rowe then invited me along to his soundcheck, where I sat as the only audience member a few rows back from the stage in a small provincial arts centre. After just a few minutes checking that everything was working as it should, Keith suddenly pressed play on an old Mp3 player he had running through his electroacoustic set up and the opening bars of Shostakovich’s Fifteenth String Quartet filled the hall. We sat in silence, in the middle of the afternoon while the first movement played to its conclusion. Although his music is thoroughly abstract and completely non-idiomatic, Keith Rowe has always been something of a classicist, and his playing of that piece of music that afternoon was his way of showing me there is music of far more value than that which I was routinely listening to, and indeed than his own. Keith went on to teach me many more valuable messages about music, but without speaking a word that one moment taught me more than any number of books I have read.
The recording that Rowe played me that afternoon in Aberdeen was taken from the second cycle of Shostakovich’s quartets recorded by the Borodin Quartet, a set I immediately went away and purchased before devouring it steadily over the following months. It remains a big favourite of mine today and will hopefully form part of my writing here. Whilst my interests in classical music have become quite diverse and take in a wide breadth of the most obvious names, Shostakovich sits alongside Mahler amongst the handful of composers that have a significant impact on my life every week, if in fact not daily. The others in this category include Beethoven (naturally) and Schubert, and my interest in these came organically as my listening and research progressed. In the case of Franz Schubert, there is an additional point of interest as alongside a love of his piano music I have found my fascination for his song cycles to fly in the face of a longstanding dislike for vocal music of any kind that I have held since my late teens.
My progression into classical music then was a slow one, taking up more than a decade until my gradual disenchantment with experimental music, and the huge sense of freedom that came with giving up my commitments to it somehow gave me permission to dive headfirst into this rich, baffling complex history of music. Then, having committed myself to my new explorations I took advantage of the abundance of cut-price second hand CDs available as people digitise their collections and bought up shelf after shelf of classical releases that now sit across a wall of bowing shelves waiting to be listened to. Couple this carefully selected library with the ability of streaming services to reach a multitude of further music at a few strokes of the keyboard and the only restriction on my immediate explorations is time. Gradually though, I am listening my way backwards, and hopefully this journal will capture some of my experiences along the way.