Study Music History Backwards

Contortionist, posed in studio
Contortionist, posed in studio, by Thiele’s Photographic Rooms, ca. 1880
via, George Eastman House Collection

Music history is a vast topic. Even confining yourself to popular music post 1952 leaves large vistas to navigate. If you include classical music you have 1,500 years of territory to cover and folk music is as old as people or possibly even older.

Standard practice has been to start at the beginning and work forward from there. The problem with this is it seldom works in fostering engagement. Convincing young people that Buddy Holly and The Crickets were challenging and revolutionary is not an easy sell. Convincing them that Orlande de Lassus is something to care about is vanishingly difficult.

Geoffrey Himes, writing for Smithsonian.com, looks at studying popular music backwards. He traces a path backwards from Sam Smith to Mary J. Blige, and onwards to Aretha Franklin and, ultimately, Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Working this way people are gradually acclimatised to increasingly alien music like boiling the proverbial frog. He’s right, and not just regarding popular music.

I put a great deal of energy and time into studying the history of classical music, but my beginnings were ungainly stumbles largely due to clumsy presentation.

Like many people I sat through compulsory music classes where some poor teacher tried to interest us in classical music. This involved drawing timelines on the blackboard and then playing us records (this was several decades ago). When we didn’t respond positively to Haydn’s London Symphony we were made to feel stupid and ignorant. Suggestions were offered to pretend the music was a soundtrack and to try to imagine what images would go with the music. This didn’t help me. The music bored me so the only images I could conjure were boring too.

I was lucky. I already was interested in a fairly broad selection of music. In particular I had discovered jazz, which was unusual in my peer group, and I was trying to figure out how to play it. The teacher who ran the jazz ensemble at my school suggested listening to some more ambitious music. The school had a few records of more contemporary music and I set to listening.

What I discovered first was the music of Edgard Varèse. This was as exciting as the first time I heard John Coltrane. The record began with Ionisation. Even the description of the ensemble was exciting, 13 percussionists and one piano. Then as the dust crackles gave way to the music a siren started up. This was a whole different world to the beautifully crafted common practice harmonies of Haydn. I was engaged immediately. I could have imagined whole vistas of images to go with this, but I didn’t want to. I just wanted to listen to the music.

This was not music I had heard before, and even though it was written in 1933 it felt a hell of a lot more relevant to me than the records I had been played in my music class. I was living in New York at the time so perhaps I was in the perfect environment to appreciate modernism.

I listened to the whole album several times and then tried to find out more about Varèse. He had lived in New York too. In Greenwich Village no less. Only about half a mile from where I was listening to his music 50 years or so later. There was a proximal relation as well as an aesthetic one. This was exciting. This had something I could grasp on to, I wanted to listen to it and more than that I wanted more.

I talked to my teacher about Varèse and was told that Stravinsky influenced him and I might like The Rite of Spring. This was a bit more work to digest but even on first listening there were sections such as Danse de la terre and Cercles mystérieux des adolescentes that captured my interest and gave me impetus to work through the chewier sections.

Now I was hooked. I had figured out that classical music wasn’t just something to like because I was told to. The emperor had an extensive wardrobe and some of the outfits were really quite natty.

From this initial epiphany a whole world opened up to me. I could follow the veins of musical ore forward and backward in time discovering Beethoven, John Dowland, George Crumb and John Cage. I also learned I could skip over things that didn’t excite me (sorry Tchaikovsky). Classical music was a big world. I didn’t have to love all of it.

This is the key point in trying to introduce people to classical music. It is a vast culture yet so often we start with the same old warhorses. Tired old works with little connection to people living now. Varèse and Stravinsky worked for me. It might be different for a young person living near me in the UK today, but surely it would be better to start them off with something with a connection to them; Peter Maxwell Davies, Gavin Bryars or Mark-Anthony Turnage might be a good start.

Musical culture is not a fossil. What is happening today, in popular and classical traditions, changes the whole, shining light on some areas and casting shadows that bring out relief in others. If we fix the idea of what this culture is we kill it dead. It isn’t hard to help people to find a way into this world. It only takes a little flexibility and imagination.

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Ruben Kenig

I used to play punk, then jazz. Somehow I went to music school to study composition. I wrote music and made sound design for theatre and studied film music. In the interstitial spaces of this I made websites as a content manager and project manager. I sometimes publish articles at rubken.net.