I am not saying that listening to Mozart – or Debussy, Schoenberg or Xenakis – is necessarily going to be the solution to all of our many absurd, chilling problems at the moment, which stretch as far as social media stretches, to the ends of a pummelled reality and back. It’s just that for me, listening to an increasing amount of classical music, especially this year, seems to help with essentially living in crazy town.
I don’t listen to just classical – I listen to it mixed up with all the music that is now available through my phone, which is just about all music ever recorded. But as a soundtrack to 2020, a year of lockdown, anxiety, loss, mourning, alarm, bubbles, bewilderment, anger, loneliness, corruption, frustration, etc, etc, classical music seems the most appropriate, the most stimulating and/or soothing.
It used to mean little to me, being music composed by mostly dead people that was often about death, but now when the whole planet is at death’s door, and I myself am of an age creeping up on death even apart from the pandemic, it increasingly makes more sense. It is only as conservative, bourgeois and drearily canonical as you make it, or Classic FM makes it, and at its best, most imaginative and ingenious it is a constant celebration of open-minded psychic energy, of free-thinking, freedom-seeking idealism.
It’s a few centuries of music, of astonishing thinkers, of making up rules and then shattering them, that is as revelatory and revolutionary as any, that has dealt with all sorts of catastrophes, crises and disdain and kept going, built from and because of hope, always aiming for the future, where it will still be listened to, because there will still be people living and needing positive signs of life and of continuing civilised values.
I also love the fact that listening to classical music – from beautifully self-controlled Bach to the beautifully berserk Birtwistle, from Mozart’s string quartets to Elliot Carter’s, from the more or less beginning to the furiously present – can put you way outside the obsessions, squabbles, cancellations and general unstoppable idiocies of the daily, hourly delusions, objections and manias, the indignant social media concerns and all those hurt feelings.
It reminds you that you don’t have to remain enslaved to those in charge of “the conversation”. In the time of social distancing it is a form of cultural distancing that allows you to avoid being infected by stupidity, hostility and trivia. It is in the exact opposite metaphysical space to Piers Morgan, to TikTok, to madcap political moon shots and plagues of emojis. A trip through Bela Bartok or Sofia Gubaidulina is better than any staycation, a few hours spent with the brief but breathtaking music of Anton Webern as good as any box set.
It also reminds you that music is not simply a utility, the root of all talent-show evil, a constant repetition of the music you listened to as a teenager, an endless series of anniversaries, reunions and jukebox musicals. It’s got a greater purpose than just being entertainment and consolation and a series of algorithmically organised playlists. It can be life itself turned into a mystical shape, a way of diagnosing and negotiating existential and communal threats, of announcing – before anything else – dangerous, challenging changes in the air and offering clues of how to adapt to them.
In deeply troubled times, it becomes clearer how music can help us tolerate cognitive dissonances – especially useful as we are tossed on the perpetually screened and shared ruins of post-truth and apocalyptic decay – and aids protective accumulation of knowledge and progressive cultural evolution. In other words, when things get really bad, play your favourite music – and try some Mozart thrown in.
Paul Morley is the author of A Sound Mind: How I Fell in Love with Classical Music (and Decided to Rewrite its Entire History), published by Bloomsbury
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