The sound of one hand clapping

It's fitting, but frustrating, that the annual Gramophone Awards were announced quietly in a Hawksmoor church in North London.

In an age of greatest hits, best evers and one-and-onlys, classical music has become a lone voice of moderation in a clamour of superlatives. As an industry we’re modest to a fault, ruthlessly chopping down our tall poppies with chastening reviews and damnings with faint praise, subjecting our artists to the kind of demanding scrutiny that only comes from love and just a little bit of obsession. So while the Grammy Awards are a technicolour extravaganza (only outdone by the MTV Awards) and even the edgy Mercury Prize sprawls over front pages and column inches, it’s fitting that the annual Gramophone Awards were announced quietly last night in a Hawksmoor church in North London.

Fitting, but also frustrating. Taking place within weeks of the Classic BRIT Awards – the commercial face of classical music – the Gramophone Awards risk being obliterated by their louder rival. Voted for by critics rather than by the public (as is the case for the BBC Music Magazine Awards) or industry members (the Grammys, Classic BRITs), the Gramophone Awards are easy target for those already inclined to see classical music as a whispered conversation among the ivory-towered elite.

But while democracy in music has given us One Direction, meritocracy has given us Domingo, Monserrat Caballe, Menuhin and Glenn Gould. Classical music doesn’t need to shout, but that’s no reason why it shouldn’t.

A major change this year saw Gramophone’s individual category winners announced in advance, saving only the public-voted Artist of the Year award and the Record of the Year for the ceremony itself. This gave us several weeks to pore over the eleven winners – Jonas Kaufmann at his peak in Wagner, a vividly quirky Trittico from Antonio Pappano and the Royal Opera, the baroque glories of the Gabrieli Consort’s Venetian Coronation, bold, generous performances all – before they were obscured by the big winner. It’s a shift to a savvier, more commercially-minded approach and not before time. Only through exposure, through champions, highlights and yes, even short-cuts, can classical music reach audiences in the current digital babel.

When the Gramophone Awards were launched in the 1970s the recording industry was a simpler and smaller affair. Each week saw a fraction of the new releases we have now, with radio the only real alternative to buying records. Now, with the amount of digital content available online doubling year-on-year, and a bewildering amount of amateur as well as professional music available to us all digitally, is the very notion of expert-driven awards outmoded?

Quite the contrary. Over-exposed as we are, ears dulled by the constant demands of music in shops, restaurants, on the radio and on the internet, this is the time when we are most in need of curated listening, as Gramophone editor James Jolly explains. “It’s wonderful to live in this age of spectacular excess but every so often you just want someone who knows their stuff to choose and play you the best music.” Far from excluding new listeners, awards like these invite them to cut straight to the good stuff, to defer the learning curve until after they’ve seen what lies at the top of it.

Setting the curve in 2013 with a winning Record of the Year was Moldovan violinistPatricia Kopatchinskaja performing concertos by Bartók, Eötvös and Ligeti. It’s a wonderful result, in large part for being so unexpected. Smart money might have been on vocal winner Jonas Kaufmann, nominee Joyce DiDonato or even Gramophone’s most-awarded artist John Eliot Gardiner. A victory for Kopatchinskaja and three 20th and 21st-century concertos is a victory for grit over polish, for challenge over comfort. This young artist is not one to mince her musical words. Sacrificing beauty for emotional engagement she risks much, and to reward this daring with a win at such an early stage in her career sends a vital message to an industry of retouchers and studio edits that truth is more valuable than the loveliest of illusions.

Gramophone’s 2013 winners – Kopatchinskaja, Gardiner, trumpeter Alison Balsom, guitarist Julian Bream among them – are serious musicians. Their job is to perform to the best of their ability, to answer eloquently in interviews and choose daringly in their repertoire. Ours is to shout about the results. Classical music itself may still escape the vulgarity of hyperbole and excess that dogs the pop music industy, but if we are to have a hope of keeping it that way then we may have to risk a little vulgarity ourselves in promoting it. I’m holding out for a Gramophone Awards ceremony with elephants, Rhinemaidens and a chorus of thousands – after all, it’s what Verdi, Wagner and Mahler would have wanted.

Julian Bream, who won a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Gramophones. Image: Getty

Alexandra Coghlan is the New Statesman's classical music critic.

ahisgett - Flickr
Show Hide image

Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis