The pernicious rise of “indie-classical”

If you think classical music is snobbish, just take a look at indie culture.

Last weekend Andrew Mellor wrote an emotive piece about concert hall snobbery and class positioning in classical music for the New Statesman’s Cultural Capital blog. His observations on the particular obsessions of opera and concert programmes, “stuffed full with adverts for private schools”, were spot on. I have already blogged about the distressing cult of the concert hall, and how a new generation of musicians are looking for ways past this via a radical recontextualisation of classical music. Having been a part of this myself, I would say that this movement is mostly motivated by a more utopian desire to build a better musical culture for classical music’s new age, rather than solely as an angry reaction to the outmoded performance practices of past generations. Only a day before Mellor’s piece, I joined over 100 musicians in a performance of John Adams’s epic orchestral poem Harmonielehre in Peckham Rye Car Park. 

But I do disagree with Mellor’s focus on how the exercise of superior knowledge is something peculiar to classical music. Mellor writes: “At so many concerts and operas in the UK, if you don’t look and sound like you know what you’re talking about you may well be stared at, judged and made to feel uncomfortable by someone who thinks they do”. But this kind of behaviour is far from the sole preserve of the “arrogant dinosaurs” of the classical music world.
 
Hipsterdom, rooted in the contempt for consumerism of Nineties indie culture, has created an aesthetic predicated on the perfection and superiority of taste. Hipsters have recently displayed a knack for picking up on all kinds of “retromania” trends – from lo-fi photography to collecting vintage typewriters. In his damning critique of indie music for the literary magazine n+1, Richard Beck examined how hipsterdom has produced a pastoral culture – exemplified by the wild carousel music of experimental indie band Animal Collective. Much of this pushed at a kind of cultural decadence: “So long as they practiced effective management of the hype cycle, they were given a free pass by their listeners to lionize childhood, imitate their predecessors, and respond to the Iraq war with dancing”. 
 
In fact it’s worth looking at how classical music has the potential to become yet another site for hipster posturing. One way of exploring this is to examine the spate of recent articles hyping the idea of the “indie-classical” genre.
 
Earlier this year Jayson Greene wrote an article on "The Emergence of Indie Classical" for the music website Pitchfork, the hipster publication and indie music kingmaker par excellence. In his “examination of the ever-melding worlds of indie and classical music”, Greene’s enthusiastic rhetoric was turned up full-blast: “indie-classical has grown past the point where it’s some miraculous new fruit on pop culture’s Big Tree,” he gushed. Complete with recognised labels and names, including Nico Muhly, Hauschka and Owen Pallett, “indie-classical” is a “high-functioning cottage industry now”. 
 
“The new generation is pouring in: eager, collaborative, as invested in indie rock as they are in the nuts-and-bolts arcana of composition,” Greene exclaimed. “Lately, it’s become hard to even tell an indie rock musician and a composer apart.” This kind of self-congratulatory literary excess, obsessed with naming musical influences, is singular to the publication – Pitchfork above all others knows how to work cultural capital and its whole signature style is geared towards investment.
 
Of course this may just illustrate a pseudo-scientific propensity among music journalists to come up with spurious names for pop genres and trends. Recently I’ve encountered “hypnagogic pop”, “digital maximalism” and “witch-house”. I’m still not sure what any of these really mean, and certainly you’d be hard-pressed to find any musicians who would willingly describe themselves as part of these “scenes”. Nevertheless the sentiment behind these terms is clear – they form a significant part of a music critic’s cachet. The composer Nico Muhly has blogged  about this: “I did a show in London that I thought was pretty great, and then online it was all indie-classical this and indie-classical that and I was like, do you know? Forget that. Nothing is gained by that description”.
 
So the term “indie-classical” may not mean much, but the very desire to coin such a term is interesting. I am concerned that the prevalence of the “indie-classical” branding comes as part of a more problematic attempt to subject classical music to the shallow posturing and exclusionary logics of indie scenes, where Pitchfork has built a culturally anxious readership. While, in part, this is just an inevitable side-effect of broadening audiences, classical music already offers a tempting heritage, social ritual and professionalised elite performance. It has even cultivated the idea that it is somehow an “underdog” compared to today’s popular music trends – it could not be a more perfect hipster’s wet dream. Watch out for the new snobbery.
The new snobbery: Pitchfork Music Festival (Photo: Getty)

En Liang Khong is an arts writer and cellist.

Follow on twitter @en_khong

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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times