Bach in fashion: How classical music became cool
Classical music is having something of a modern renaissance.
With sales of classical CDs and streaming increasing by more than 10% last year – almost double the average rise across all genres – more and more people are getting to know their Mozart from their Mendelssohn.
Last month saw the launch of new classical radio station Scala (only the third UK station dedicated to the genre), and a recent report commissioned by the Royal Albert Hall found there had been a 270% increase in streaming of Deezer’s most popular classical playlist in the six months prior.
For Scala, the time was right to launch a classical station which presents the music in new ways – and shows that it’s not just about “dead white men in wigs”, says programme manager Jenny Nelson.
The station plays everything from the masters to new works; from film scores to modern music influenced by classical.
“I think previously [classical] was considered, compared to other genres, maybe slightly more ghettoised,” says Nelson. “You might be scared of being judged for not knowing enough.
“With Scala, you don’t need to know that Beethoven wrote nine symphonies, it’s about how does the music make you feel.”
Double bassist Chi-chi Nwanoku, who established the Chineke! Foundation, Europe’s first majority black and minority ethnic (BME) orchestra, three-and-a-half years ago, says the organisation has helped change attitudes to classical music.
“There was a huge urgency and need for an organisation where so many underrepresented members of our community could feel at home and flourish,” she says.
“I had had a very successful international career as a double bass player but I was always the only black person on the stage. I was always aware of that but never had the conversation with anyone as I didn’t know who I could safely talk to about it. It was easier not to talk about it.
“For our first concert, I had to find the orchestra. I didn’t know if our first would be our last, but it sold out and propelled this notion into the atmosphere.
“You don’t have to be black, you just have to share our philosophy. We want to create a more diverse and inclusive industry. It’s an environment where you’re not the odd one out, even if you’re white.
“People can be intimidated by classical music and they think unless they’re trained in it and studied it it’s above their heads. That’s the tragedy.
“I do think people are seeing it in a different way more now. At our first concert, the audience looked like [it represented] London for the first time in my professional career. There were people who had never stepped foot in the Southbank, who had never seen a classical concert before.”
Alexis Ffrench, a contemporary composer and pianist who presents a weekly show on Scala, says classical music is shedding its “fussy, stuffy” image.
“It’s changing, not only in reality but also in perception,” he says. “With that, new audiences are getting involved, particularly younger audiences.
Classical as an inspiration for modern music is not new, but its awareness of those classical influences that is growing.
In recent years, Hacienda Classical has taken the tunes the famous Manchester club was known for in the ’80s and ’90s and recreated them with an orchestra.
The events have been hugely popular, featuring the DJs who helped make the club such an iconic venue.
At the Royal Albert Hall, UK DJ Clark is among the performers taking part in Bach Evolution as part of the venue’s Love Classical season.
“I’ve always wanted to do something that’s a bit of a crossover, a bit out of my comfort zone,” he says.
“I’d been playing Bach and trying to draw parallels not just with my music but modern music in general. A lot of Beatles melodies are very Bach. He was the original melody king, really.
“The image of [classical music] can be quite formidable to people who are untrained and I dislike that. I just see it as another form of music.”
In the short time they have been going, Chineke! have already collaborated with Stormzy and NAO.
During Love Classical, they will be performing with Detroit DJ Carl Craig.
“Techno? I feel the vibe,” says Nwanoku. “If there’s clever arrangements it can go together easily.”
“It’s such a great time because it’s so post-post-modern that you can kind of do anything now,” says Clark. “It’s all there and you kind of put it through the meat-grinder… and whatever comes out, comes out.
“That whole culture of siloing things off, that doesn’t seem relevant anymore. I just think music is in this really open field at the moment and it’s great.”
Composer Peter Gregson, who will also perform in Bach Evolution, says there is a “broadening sense of what classical music can be”.
“I think the age of being defined by a genre is most definitely over,” he says. “I wouldn’t self-describe myself as a classical cellist and I wouldn’t define myself as a pop cellist either.
“In this show, Bach is central but there’s three widely different strands to it. It’s incredibly exciting to be involved in anything like this; to be part of this narrative is a real privilege.
“Festivals like Love Classical show that it’s very much a vibrant, living thing, and that’s exciting.”
Streaming services are also providing a smooth pathway to finding classical.
“I don’t necessarily think it’s fair to say it’s easier to find classical music now – I don’t think it’s ever been difficult to find Beethoven’s music,” says Gregson.
“But with the huge technological advances we’ve seen, we have Netflix, Spotify, Amazon – they all recommend things. ‘If you like this, how about that?’ For example, you might find Morton Feldman through listening to Radiohead.
“We’re also seeing an increasing number of film composers coming from rock and pop backgrounds; I think people are hearing music in a way that speaks to them more.”
“One of the crucial things is that streaming is opening it up in a way that isn’t compartmentalised,” says Ffrench.
“In order to access classical music in record shops, they would tend to be grouped by genre, and you’d have to go to a different section or floor.
“Streaming platforms have opened up the idea of music without borders.”
Film, TV and gaming
And more and more people are finding their way into classical music through film soundtracks or gaming scores.
“There’s been a rise in immersive music events, Hans Zimmer-type events,” says Ffrench.
Scala has a weekly show on gaming music.
“The quality of the orchestral music is phenomenal,” says Nelson. “I’m not a gamer but I’m fascinated by the world.”
:: Catch Carl Craig with Chineke! on Sunday, and Bach Evolution on Wednesday, both at the Royal Albert Hall
:: Listen to Alexis Ffrench on Scala on Sundays from 3pm to 5pm