Now, it might look a little odd to be posting after such a long gap (ooh, Liam Finn!), but this piece doesn’t look like it’s going to be run by the publication that commissioned it, so it’s ending up here. It seemed like a waste to let the issue pass without discussion, especially seeing as those involved with the debate at the Cambridge Union Society was so interesting. So yes. Onward.
Tonight, we gather in the debating hall of the Cambridge Union Society to argue whether or not classical music is relevant to today’s youth. Now, being that this debate is to be adversely headed up by Radio 1 DJ Kissy Sellout and Wagner-phile Stephen Fry (arguing for and against the motion respectively) and that the make-up of the assembled crowd is largely atypical of whatever the ‘youth’ might be, it’s fair to say that most will have made up their minds before attending. An ideal spot for a spirited defence of the tired maxim that classical music is dead, haw-haw-haw. Tempting as it is to side with Fry’s eloquence rather than Kissy’s earthiness (who could’ve dressed up for the occasion) from the off, we hear first from two student debaters.
Because, unlike most of the other debaters here, they’ve taken it at least a tiny bit seriously, the students actually do a passable job at making it seem as if there’s an issue to talk about here. Hopelessly well-spoken they may be, even more noticeably when talking about the indefinable youth, but at least they’ve thought further ahead than “cor, this classical racket’s really got something!” Good points about the Venezuelan El Sistema project (an education system that entitles impoverished youths to interactive orchestral music lessons) bolster the opposition, while the rather staid argument of supposed elitism forms a foundation for the defence if nothing else.
Inevitably, though, Kissy Sellout’s turn approaches. He is The World’s Most Nervous Man, and with good reason. After a few good plugs of his album and some bizarre attempts at stand-up, he finally gets down to the nitty-gritty of flannelling his way through half-baked notions of classical music being only for the privileged, of the names of pieces being too long and, most ridiculously, that Bacardi Breezers aren’t usually on sale at classical concerts. It might enlighten Kissy to know that the majority of classical musicians throughout history and today are stinkingly impoverished, that the tracklisting of any given Ministry of Sound compilation takes up more wordage than your average symphonic disc and that one can liberally sup pint after pint of refreshing ale at the King’s Head in Islington’s pub-opera recitals. Not sure about Breezers, mind. Still, none of it deals with relevance.
Even more confusingly, Kissy intersperses his speech with electro vignettes that sample Boccherini, undermining his points completely. He re-iterates the elitism argument, rightly stating that much classical music was sponsored by and dedicated to the aristocracy. What he fails to mention is that the musicians who performed said music were mostly ill, poor or at brewing their own weissbier in order to forget about their crumpling lives. Kissy is terribly embarrassing, most of all when attempting to school Fry in the ways of turntablism (on a side note – one wonders if Kissy has heard Gabriel Prokofiev’s recent Concerto for Turntables and Orchestra. Surely this must merit at least investigation). Fry looks agitated and awkward as he jabs at knobs while Kissy moronically slaps him on the back.
Next up, more academics: one English, one American, one for, one against. That’s basically as much information as we can gather, aside from the fact that the American one sounds like a hybrid of Kermit the Frog and Yogi Bear. To be fair to Kermit/Yogi (in fact composer Greg Sandow), he at least approaches the point of relevancy. He argues that relevancy as a concept is redundant in this debate – if you are hungry, a ham sandwich becomes relevant, he suggests. A fair point, certainly. Sadly it’s a stray amongst a pack of silly ones.
Stephen Fry, like so many before him, misses the point totally, but is intellectually swoonsome nonetheless. You can almost hear the overbites of under-sexed undergrads hitting the floor in admiration. Preferring it to traditional argument engagement, Fry excels at making the past sound exciting, romantic and, yes, relevant, but it amounts to very little in the way of debate. He is the winner and was as soon as his name was announced. By not engaging with the argument (even though he clearly has the knowledge to do so) he still engenders electric warmth as a speaker. When he takes the stand, he addresses everyone in the room fondly before sneering upwards at us journalists, “Assorted media scum.” It’s all good-natured, of course, but it gets us absolutely nowhere, like the debate itself.
Abstention is the only logical conclusion here. However, the Fry-factor is more than enough to secure a landslide victory for the opposition. When it’s announced afterwards in the bar, the result causes a titter of interest at most. The students go back to their Speckled Hens, the celebs leave the building (Fry apparently has an appointment with Lady Gaga later tonight), and classical music remains under-examined. It’s not an issue of whether classical music is relevant to today’s youth. As with so many of these things, it’s a simple mistake in the way it’s communicated. This evening it’s communicated with no little humour, but far too little respect or ease.