new technology

Why Mozart didn’t really win 2016.

As 2016 wrapped up, the world was reeling from the news that a 17th century classical composer had outsold the likes of Beyonce, Drake and Adele.

For those of you whose Christmas-addled brains missed the news, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart sold the most CDs in 2016, thanks to Universal Music’s 200 CD box set release of his complete works. Cue classical music nerds fist-pumping and saying things like “Classical music will never die!”.

Well, this just in: young people weren’t the ones buying the CDs. Thanks to Apple Music and Spotify, streaming has captured the hearts (and bank accounts) of twentysomethings everywhere, including yours truly. So really, the fact that Universal filled the stockings of our parents and grandparents is nothing much to whoop and cheer about.

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“Adele who?”

Excuse my pessimism, but if you’re under 30 and not working in the classical music industry, I am willing to bet Mozart is not in your daily playlists. He might pop up on your ‘music for sleeping’ or ‘music for studying’ compilations, but who really has the time to sit down and listen to anything longer than 3’10”?

Don’t be offended: I’m including myself in this sweeping generalisation of millennials’ music habits.

My cynicism is well-founded. Since the age of 6, I was trained in classical piano until the completion of my AMus diploma some years ago. For the best part of my life, I was playing Baroque, Classical and Romantic music almost every single day (note the almost: I had my rebellious moments). But as soon as that diploma was on my wall, I ceased to listen to or play classical music (meant here in the broad sense, encompassing music from Bach to Beethoven-ish) on a regular basis…eventually, my interest in it just faded out completely.

And yet. My most formative musical moments dogged me, even as I buried myself in musical theatre, pop and jazz. My father introducing me to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. My obsession with Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf suite, Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker and Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik. My early fascination with Chopin’s polonaises, nocturnes and mazurkas.

As a teenager, I used my finely honed technical skills to accompany singers, play in theatrical ensembles and teach a multitude of students aged 3-90. Occasionally, I played a little Beethoven, a Chopin waltz or two – just to remind myself that I could. But for the most part, I shunned my classical days as lonely, finnicky training that had never enabled me to ‘join in’ with other musicians. Clearly, popular music was the way forward.

Strangely, my students thought otherwise. And damn it, they were right.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. “They always pick Bach,” my own vastly experienced piano teacher told me on numerous occasions. Having known the pain of learning to play five (simultaneous) voices with ten fingers, I privately thought my students would not be so moronic. In years to come, they proved me wrong (or right? I eventually recognised that appreciating Bach was anything but moronic), choosing J.S. and Mozart time and time again. They seemed to enjoy their choices, too – and on the occasions students chose popular songs to play, they almost all lost interest (which, I might add, had been BLAZING interest initially) within a week or two.

My heart began to sink every time a student requested a ‘radio’ song, and jump for joy each time they chose a star of the Western Canon. Popular music might be fun to sing along to, to share with friends, but those students who were most curious about music, most eager to learn the innermost secrets of its makeup, kept choosing Bach et. al.

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The author, not playing Bach.

Gradually, I lost my resentment for this music that made me a ‘lonely’ musician, and instead began to relish the joy and intellect it brought to my lessons with students. Classical music, in its finest forms, is a celebration of aural architecture on a grand scale. It plays with expectation, pushes at the boundaries of creativity, and connects us with both our innermost selves and something far, far bigger than our human existence.

So here’s my challenge to you: listen to some classical music. Now. Today. If you don’t like it the first time, listen to it again. This is music to be savoured, to be explored, to be absorbed. Be patient. Be open-minded. Be awestruck. And if there are children in your household, let them listen too.

“Won’t music so complex blow children’s minds?” I hear you ask. I say, let it. And once they’ve picked their jaws off the floor, let them ask questions, work on the techniques, learn the theory and have their minds blown all over again.

Then maybe, just maybe, Mozart will fly up the charts once more – this time on the Spotify Top 100.

The CD-lover’s guide to surviving the digital revolution: swim, don’t sink

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I bought an iPod last month.

“Did you want an iTunes voucher with that?” chirped the sales girl breezily.

“Uhh…no thanks, I’m right…”

“Are you sure? We’ve got 20% off at the moment!” enquired Breezy Sales Girl, with that careful mix of concern and encouragement that conjures up FOMO faster than logging out of Facebook. It was at this point that I decided to gesture awkwardly to the pile of CDs I was holding – and fully intending to purchase – in their tangible, plastic-cased, liner-notes-filled glory.

“Erm, no thanks…I…I prefer to buy the actual…CDs…”

For a second there, my helpful neighbourhood shop assistant failed to comprehend my motives. For a second there, I have to admit, so did I. After all, she had just helped me select a digital music device; and now, with an opportunity to buy 20% more music, spend 20% less money…I was still firmly clutching my environmentally-unfriendly, bookshelf-filling, dust-collecting, old-fashioned stack of compact discs.

Ex-Breezy Sales Girl recovered herself admirably, though the concern thing she’d had going suddenly became a little more genuine. “Oh! Oh…yep…you’re right…sure!” Leaving my perplexed companion, I made my way to the sales desk, quietly pondering my  progressive/stick-in-the-mud music consumption habits.

I fell in love with MP3 players at an early age. At an engagement party for a school friend of my mother’s, I met no less than 5 fellow thirteen-year-olds in possession of these magical pocket-sized jukeboxes. When I eventually obtained my very own predecessor of the iPod, I couldn’t have been prouder. With its impressive capacity of 128MB, I could finally take the entirety of the ABBA GOLD collection everywhere I went. Occasionally, I swapped it for my 1980’s compilation of U2 hits. This, I thought, was technology at its finest.

This is almost exactly what my first MP3 player looked like. Gotta love that sneaky USB connection!

The good old days. This is almost exactly what my first MP3 player looked like. Gotta love that sneaky USB connection!

By the time my musical taste required me to have the entire Beatles catalogue close by at all times, I had upgraded to a snazzy little 512MB number, which was followed in later years by my becoming a patron of the omnipresent iPod. See? I can move with the times! With each increase in storage capacity and sound quality, my excitement bubbled over – today, holding the latest generation of iPod nano in my hand, I feel that same thrill of having all my music on tap, in such a marvellous little device.

But quite paradoxically, if the albums in my iTunes library aren’t also on my bookshelf, I feel strangely deflated. In a day and age when a music nerd such as myself should be jumping up and down praising the availability of my favourite art form, I find myself disappointed with every digital purchase or streaming opportunity.

Perhaps it’s because as a working musician, I have always felt music to be an experience, rather than a commodity. Attending live music is much more than the notes that reach our ears, playing music is much more than reading those notes off a sheet; owning music is not just the songs, it’s the feel of the packaging, the look of the artwork, displaying it in alphabetical order alongside the rest of an ever-growing collection (is that just me? It’s not just me).

Perhaps it’s because I associate the purchase of CDs with my tender university years, lingering in music shops and making the delicious choice of which album I’d bring home with me that week. Either way, my primary source of music has always been real, actual, CDs…that I then rip to my iTunes library. I’m a musician, not a logician, okay?!

But despite this love of album-collecting, I have signed up for an Apple Music trial. I’ll admit: I was slightly terrified.

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SO MUCH CHOICE. HELP ME.

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Digital music offers such a gratuitous overload of choice, it feels much like going into a bookstore and being told I don’t have to buy whole books anymore, I can just buy my favourite pages. WHICH PAGE, WHERE DO I START. And do they even mean anything when ripped from their original context, shuffled into a ‘genius’ order and spat out again?

Well, I’m not gonna lie: I feel like a kid in a candy store.

For the first time in my life, I don’t have to consult my budget before deciding to listen to all the latest albums in full. I can explore the unchartered waters of bands I’m curious about, but not convinced enough to buy into. I don’t have to actually own any of the music that I reluctantly admit to enjoying *coughsTaylorSwiftcoughs*.

So now I’m faced with the startling question: could this be my music consumption future? Even with my starry-eyed love affair with pretty packaging and outdated technology? I think it could. Maybe.

As I seriously consider allowing Apple to take my money every month in return for this glut of music, I realise that if I choose the digital path, that means ceasing to buy albums in their hard copy form. Which means dealing with a distinct sense of loss. Not just of lingering in the aisles and revelling in liner notes, but also of the delayed gratification involved in deciding which album to commit to.

But given my insatiable appetite for new sounds, perhaps moving with the times won’t hurt quite so much.