BY Paul Teasdale in Opinion | 19 MAR 12
Featured in
Issue 146

Classical Music Outside the ‘Imaginary Museum’ of the Concert Hall

How can the genre attract a younger audience that might not have any engagement with the deeply furrowed traditions ingrained in its production, performance and reception?

BY Paul Teasdale in Opinion | 19 MAR 12

Aisha Orazbayeva performing Steve Reich's Violin Phas for Violin and Tape (1967) and a Nonclassical night at Cargo, London. Courtesy Nonclassical, London, and Stuart Meldrum / Chris Ransom

Classical music faces a dilemma. It’s not a particularly new one but it’s one that composer Gabriel Prokofiev knows well. As he tells me: ‘It’s an ongoing problem.’ He is in New York a few nights after premiering his Concerto for Bass Drum (2011), with percussionist Joby Burgess and the Princeton Symphony Orchestra, which will later travel to Chicago before returning for its first UK performance with the London Contemporary Orchestra as part of Reverb, a five-day classical music festival at the Roundhouse. The problem that Prokofiev is referring to was memorably raised by New Yorker music critic Alex Ross in ‘Hold Your Applause: Inventing and Reinventing the Classical Concert’, a lecture he delivered to London’s Royal Philharmonic Society in 2010. How does classical music attract a younger audience that might not have, and might not care to have, any engagement with the deeply furrowed traditions ingrained in its production, performance and reception of the concert hall?

Starting with the concert audience convention of ‘no-applause’ between movements, Ross expands on the wider impediments to classical music’s appeal. Some of these – like the equally annoying ‘shush reflex’ that inevitably follows someone breaking the ‘no-applause rule’ – are largely of the classical world’s own making. Ross covers the history of this particular issue well, but this is only the tip of the iceberg. As he put it: ‘The question of concert etiquette is only part, and perhaps a rather small part, of the complicated social dilemma in which classical music finds itself – as a largely acoustic art in an electronic culture, as a mainly long-form art in a short-attention-span age.’

Prokofiev knows better than most the solemn weight of classical music’s history. The grandson of the Russian composer and pianist Sergei Prokofiev, he founded Nonclassical in 2004 as a club night and classical music label. The aim was to take classical music outside of what philosophy professor Lydia Goehr has called the ‘imaginary museum’ of the concert hall, and to give young musicians and composers like himself the platform to engage with an audience put off by the unwritten rules that buttress the concert hall tradition.

Of course, Prokofiev is not the first to do so. It is 25 years since composers Michael Gordon, David Lang and Julia Wolfe formed Bang on a Can, the musical collective who put on their first event, a 12-hour music marathon, at Exit Art gallery in SoHo, New York. A decade before that, the likes of Laurie Anderson, Ornette Coleman, Tony Conrad, Philip Glass, Meredith Monk, Steve Reich and Arthur Russell were part of a scene vividly evoked by Will Hermes in his recent book Love Goes to Buildings on Fire (2011), a bird’s-eye view of downtown Manhattan from 1973–77, characterized by a vibrant network of small, experimental venues and artist-run loft spaces. The experimentation practiced in the smaller venues was often not well received in the concert hall. Hermes recounts what happened when Reich presented Four Organs (1970) at Carnegie Hall. The audience became restless. ‘When the piece ended, there was a moment of silence, then a tidal wave of boos and catcalls. The musicians bowed, and walked offstage with as much composure as they could muster.’

As a student, Prokofiev experienced a similar dissatisfaction with the concert hall. ‘I had a break from classical music because I was so frustrated by how detached it was from the real world. It didn’t seem to have any relevant energy.’ While studying composition at York University in the mid-1990s he – along with four other composers, calling themselves nerve8 – put on off-campus electro-acoustic nights: ‘I became aware that, despite all the young musicians and young people composing classical music, it didn’t seem like they were engaging much with their peer group. I knew that people like Reich and Monk had been doing concerts in galleries so that got going the idea of putting on classical music in different venues.’ After a hiatus from the classical music world, playing in disco-punk band Spektrum, producing electro under the name Caspa Codina and starting the Nonstop record label, Prokofiev returned to the classical fold with the premiere of his 2003 String Quartet No. 1 written for the Elysian Quartet and first performed at the Blackheath Music Halls, London. Just one friend showed up. ‘That’s what led me to start the club. I thought: I’ve got to find a way to put my music on in a space where my generation will actually go.’ The first Nonclassical night he put on was at Cargo in London’s Shoreditch. ‘I had played a few times at Cargo as part of Spektrum, and I knew the people who ran it, so it was quite easy to book that venue. Instantly, the concert was full of a totally different crowd – much younger, 20-somethings, teenagers even, and the quartet felt much better playing there; the music felt much better there.’

Earlier this year, I went to the Shoreditch venue XOYO for one of his Nonclassical nights. Held in a club more commonly used for hosting music of a more electronic nature, the event was themed around the Minimalist music tradition birthed in the downtown scene that Hermes documents so minutely. It seemed to be the right place for the music. Impeccably played, attentively watched and appreciatively received by a crowd that looked no different to any of the other nights put on at XOYO, the programme – Reich’s Violin Phase for Violin and Tape (1967), Music for Pieces of Wood (1973) and New York Counterpoint (1985), John Adams’s Chamber Symphony (1992), Workers Union by Louis Andriessen (1975) – nodded to the period’s defining anti-institutionalization as well as to its ongoing influence on the dance music more common to this setting. A night based on early computer music is planned next, Prokofiev told me afterwards.

Genre-flirting cross-fertilization has been the yawning quotidian in popular music for some time and the traffic from concert hall to club venue is far from one way – best selling pop musicians such as Björk and Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead have been battling in the opposite direction, arguably motivated by the institutional affirmation that the concert hall provides. The move, however, for young composers such as Prokofiev seems an instinctive one for a generation brought up on the historical precedents of movements such as the ’70s downtown scene and exposed to the democratizing nature of the club venue. It’s a necessary and overdue reaction to the fustiness that sadly still haunts classical music’s ties to the concert hall. But, of course, convention and history are not one and the same. Lest we forget, John Cage would have been 100 this year. And no-one’s shushing him.

Paul Teasdale is editor of He is based in London.