Paul Morley Opinion The Gramophone Awards 2012

Danielle de Niese at the Gramophone Awards

Danielle de Niese at the Gramophone Awards

We invited the music writer Paul Morley to report on two of classical music's biggest awards ceremonies, the Classic BRIT Awards and the Gramophone Awards, held a few days apart in London recently. To our minds, each represented very different attitudes to classical music and we were interested to see what an experienced cultural and musical critic and commentator from outside classical music would make of them. We couldn't have predicted the overwhelming - and largely supportive - response to Morley's first review of the Classic BRITs. And now here's his second, from the Gramophone Awards.

Despite being held at the Dorchester, the more professionally sedate and carefully modulated Gramophone Awards seemed set on a barely decorated desert island. The gaudy Classic BRITs vessel might steam past without having any idea that anything was happening there, give or take a couple of earnest oddballs trying to make fire by rubbing sticks together. This was the quiet, dignified approach to classical music; a modest, almost mute celebration of the music as something ghostly, intense and moving. It was for those in the know with their own refined tastes and knowledge, with standards miraculously unspoiled by commercial pressure, fickle popular culture or temporary music fads and fashions.

This was the unhurried, apparently unworried, almost blissfully - possibly complacently - serene classical music of Radio 3, as far away from the ITV/Classic FM of the Brits as the sun is from the moon. (Outside the world of PR and Decca Records, few seem to belong to both the sun and the moon, although 20-year-old Decca pianist Benjamin Grosvenor crossed from one to the other, winning at the Classic BRITs because he is a quirkily cute young prodigy surrounded by a sweetened halo of hype, winning at the Gramophones because of the uncanny clarity of his playing that seems to zip through the centuries and to the edge of the galaxy.)

The Gramophone Awards is the classical world who those weaned on pop and rock would consider lacks anything sensual, spectacular or sonically adventurous enough ever to interest them. It's a remote, even cobwebbed world made up more of mysterious rules and regulations, a whole series of almost cultish and quite airless routines and habits, than of sound and content that reflects and makes sense of the world changing around us. Even young Benjamin, as formidably sensitive as he is - and prematurely matured in the name of mundane commercial positioning - seems to have been tamed of the sort of wildness and unpredictability that might make him actually timeless enough to interest outsiders and generate genuine cultural momentum.

Oddly enough, in its quiet, studious commitment to quality of performance, recording and hierarchical order, and despite the meticulous, almost neurotic historical breakdown of music into very specific and uncontroversial shapes, eras and genres, the Gramophone Awards is closer to the current holy grail of classical music as 'cool' than the Classic BRITs. This is because in the end, any 'cool' that classical music can carry will come not from softening, lightening and sanitising the idea of great minds using sound to reflect personal feelings about life, death, love, memory and thought, or decoratively wrapping it in trite, uplifting entertainment, or adding dance beats, rock rhythms or electronic static, but from the essential integrity, insight and intelligence of the music, the players, the composers and the hard-core fans. It will come from innovation, not dilution, and from absorbing avant-garde 21st-century impulses, not blanking them out.

It will come from the fact that what has continually driven the music forward, even as much of it has been set in stone, co-opted by the establishment and dressed in uniform, is an experimental spirit, a quest to make things different, and search out and reflect new worlds and new environments through unprecedented sounds and concepts. This experimental vision means that a music that started its history before the Industrial Revolution is, for all its cultural, commercial and creative distortions, still alive in the dissolving post-industrial era, and more capable than pop and rock of extending that history into the 21st century.

Pop and rock has lost the formats, and most of the industry, that helped it shove classical music into the past, and now that it is floating free it is threatened with losing its own unique momentum and meaning. The technology, playfulness and sonic freshness of pop may end up feeding the next period of classical development, influencing the language and more importantly the context, without creating ugly, contrived hybrids. Pop and rock fades away as a music still developing and influencing mainstream manners, stuck forever inside a ravishing, racy 50-year period and becoming the past, which it can do nothing but repeat, recycle and reconsider. Classical music, meanwhile, has already spent years facing up to its apparent decline and extinction, and appears better suited to the adaptations required now that objects are being replaced by experiences.

This liquid, experimental classical energy was inevitably far better expressed at the Gramophone Awards, even though the music it fetishises has centuries of complicated, overlapping history and apparently belongs only to the privileged and middle class. Its major heroes are long dead and turned into stern, forbidding statues, its new heroes invisible and even incomprehensible. It's a world where you to have to dress up in the right clothing and time your applause, and it all seems to require explaining and defining in ways that feel dry, educational and over-detailed. But the stubborn intelligence of the Gramophone Awards was something that might yet fight back against the Classic BRITs' dumbness, an intelligence that is ultimately more glamorous than the shrivelling, soul-destroying small talk.

Then again, the serious, airless Gramophone method of maintaining interest in the music for a select few, and fastidiously consolidating aesthetic patterns, can be just as alienating as the bloated Classic BRITs cruise-ship approach, and it does not have loud, familiar cheerleaders such as Anthony Hopkins, Alan Titchmarsh and Gary Barlow on its side. As its leading critics were shown on a huge screen sensibly talking about each of the winners, demonstrating such fussy, religious care and devotion to the pieces and the performers, you just wished sometimes they would tell us what the music made them feel and why it actually matters in any wider cultural sense, and why anyone else outside their particular club should actually care.

Paul Morley is a music journalist and a cultural commentator.

Read our summary on the winners at the Gramophone Awards 2012, which also includes our video interview with Benjamin Grosvenor.

 

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