“…the whole performance is as if we are being told a series of strange, beautiful and disturbing secrets” – Parvula Sed Satis, September 2012
Unsurprisingly, being both a classical and a nonclassical musician, I’m frequently asked by people on both sides of the divide what the difference really is. I usually make a horrible mess of answering. The most obvious, and seemingly fundamental, is that classical music is much, much harder. Harder to a point where it can be difficult to make nonclassical listeners understand how much work has to go into your preparation and training, and classical colleagues stumble over the idea of why anyone would want to be involved in music that isn’t so hard, if they’re able to do the fancy stuff.
Personally, the biggest difference probably lies in the fact that the majority of what I perform on the alternative scene is music I’ve written myself – and the vast majority of the classical music in my repertoire is written by others. It’s easy to fall into the trap of ‘songwriting as confessional’ – and for an audience to assume that if a singer writes their own lyrics then they must, automatically, feel them more during the performance. I know that I’ve made that assumption about myself.
But the work I’ve done on my latest project - Dark Angels – has really shaken up my notions of who I am as a classical vs. alternative performer. My (incredibly patient and generally awesome) singing teacher had been telling me for quite some time to try to incorporate elements of my alternative performance into my classical work. Not technique, obviously – but attitude, delivery – a way of being so wrapped up in the text and its meaning that I’d stop the constant monitoring and checking that sent anxiety and tension spiralling through me. I tried but, inwardly, felt like it was an attempt doomed to failure – there was no way I could ever let go enough. And then, with this project, somehow, I did. Instead of my classical singing and my alternative singing being almost two different instruments, one formal and for others, one informal and for myself – they suddenly came together, like two sides of the same coin.
And I don’t think I could sum it up better than with the quote at the top of the page. The idea of telling secrets, of whispering to each member of the audience and passing on a message intended for them, and them alone, of using your body as a conduit for some hidden knowledge – that’s what singing is, to me. Whether the words were written by me or not ceases to matter – the difficulty of the music ceases to matter – so long as it’s Ginsberg’s “taste my mouth in your ear”.
I know – or, rather, I’ve heard and I’ve listened – that classical music can be intimidating to those on the outside, as it were. I know that some people reading this who loved Ashes are going to give Dark Angels a miss, and wait for my next alternative album, Aether. But consider this a request – if that process of telling, that intimate communication, is what you love in nonclassical music – then think about whether you might well love it in classical music too. If I can take a leap as a performer then it can’t be so hard to do as a listener. Rewarding, too.
“…come Poet shut up eat my word…”