Revisiting Labels

Kate Molleson’s Gramophone article has been doing the rounds on social media over the past few days, endorsed by practitioners, programmers, and commentators. Deservedly so, too. It’s a cracking read.

Classical music’s blurred boundaries revisits the thorny issue of labels in the music industry, and specifically the impact the term ‘classical’ has on audiences.

‘Classical’ and ‘contemporary’ are old-school binary. They are market-driven categorisations that have become less and less applicable since musique concrète, since the AACM, since the cassette tape, since the internet, since globalisation.

Now is the age of cross-pollination. Maybe now is the age of no terms at all. If you want a term, try for something that encompasses alt-classical, indie-classical, neo-classical, folk-classical, experimental-classical, creative music, sound art, noise art, performance art, electronica, ambient, improvisation.

‘Classical’ is simultaneously too precise and too vague, and misleadingly backward-looking.

What makes Kate’s thought-provoking article an invigorating read is the way it provides a bigger picture on the sector. If there are erroneous or unhelpful perceptions made about it, then widening the landscape to encompass more in its ‘definition’ might help change the assumed narrative, even amongst practitioners, programmers, and audiences.

Put another way, if we weren’t so narrow in our definitions, and so ready to compartmentalize genres then we’d stand a better chance of changing audience perception.

Inevitably, change isn’t easy.

… for all the hipness of a leaky car park, a finely tuned concert hall is still the best place to hear a symphony orchestra. Traditional structures – the orchestra, the shoebox concert hall – still deliver heights of experience that must never be lost. Rather than abolishing those structures, how to make the infrastructural boundaries around them more porous?

What excites me about the piece is that I, as an audience member, feel catered for. There is, I’m sure, a subset of the audience for whom some programmes feel a little tired and familiar. That there’s a growing movement to develop innovative concert programmes that combine music from the past 300 years with something fresh and new, is reassuring. Now we just have to find a way of making it the norm.

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