This article was written for the Reverse Thieves Anime Secret Santa project.
Your Lie in April opens in a way that suggests it will be a very unremarkable handling of well-worn themes in fiction about musicians; the iconoclastic performer whose playing style disgusts the Establishment and enthrals audiences, the retiring prodigy who has lost their confidence, etcetera. This is not to its detriment; it may not shake the boat in how it tells its story but it nevertheless, in episode 2’s scene of Kao playing her recital piece in a violin competition, depicts in a relatable way the thrill of hearing familiar music in unfamiliar settings. The “different” classical musician, the one who makes a stuffy musical canon fresh and new again, is a real-world phenomenon primarily of hype and PR; artists like Charlotte Church, Vanessa Mae et al come and go, each bringing their own easily hypeable angle to a musical genre that the media wishes to claim irrelevant.
Often this music is easy enough to listen to but a transient thing; the rise of the celebrity opera singer with a repertoire of famous arias to sell on anthology CDs seems to (if one believes the current state of writing about classical music) have had little long-term impact on the popularity of opera as an artistic event to attend. It is very difficult to discuss the social “relevance” and importance of classical music without seeming either a stuffy voice of the artistic Establishment or, possibly, anti-intellectual in some way; this is a result of the deeply ingrained association of class and culture in society. Classical music has traditionally been held to be inherently a superior thing to enjoy to popular music by, if not tastemakers per se, those with social clout. It has been a historically expensive, formal and exclusive thing to enjoy live and – I would venture – much like theatre there has been an unspoken distinction between local amateur performance and big-name orchestras much like the derisory way in which theatre criticism has deployed the phrase “am-dram.”
The recurring word in writing about this is relevance. What can be done to make this musical form relevant again? If one believes social mobility has eroded class barriers to culture, then surely some other thing is preventing audiences from flocking to classical concerts. Indeed, nowadays there is wider access to culture for everyone than before; local arts events are often inspiring, exciting and accessible events. Ticket prices may be generally high in London but efforts are being made to lower them and thus attract people put off by the cost. So, if classical music in performance is in crisis, it – arguably – is not for want of trying. Thus the question of is it relevant. Relevancy of art is a fool’s errand to my mind; it invites us-and-them discussions, being either a snob or a reverse-snob. In books this is often reduced to nobody really enjoying the classics. My view is that while a great deal of classical music – much like a great deal of “classic” literature – is beautiful, it is not intrinsically superior by dint of age and authority to newer works. To begin taking the line that it is age, authority and reputation that affords superiority to a work of art is absurd circular logic. Much “classic” art was popular art in its time, but superlative examples of popular art that endured by dint of quality to earn their reputation of canonicity. This is why it is fallacious to say that modern art is inferior in intrinsic terms to classical art; not only is it applying absolutes to aesthetic taste, it is basing these aesthetic judgments on bizarre misunderstandings of “classic” status. The surviving art of centuries past represents a small fraction of the total potential artistic canon. What endures is that which was either fortunate enough to survive, or was popular enough to remain aesthetically pleasing.
This may seem like banality to an artistically-minded reader but it is, in my mind, a useful foundation to discussion of what it means to be revolutionary in performing classical works. One line of thinking in restoring classical music to “relevance” is reimagining it totally; merging classical and popular techniques, reverse-porting popular songs into classical forms (as the celebrity opera singers do, with reimaginings of My Way and Unchained Melody and so on) or taking classical pieces and modernising them (the superlative example being the reworking of Purcell’s music for the funeral of Queen Mary in A Clockwork Orange). The artistic quality of these adaptations is variable; sometimes it is a gimmick, sometimes it is truly excellent music. The strange digital version of Purcell heard in a dystopian science-fiction world as it introduces violent, rebellious rapists and thugs – juxtaposed with “original” Beethoven later as a symbol of authority, control and the Establishment, is an artistic choice in Kubrick’s film that works thematically. That this is possible – that classical music can be used as such an artistic tool – should be proof positive of its relevance. It may not survive in the traditional concert-recital form, but the fact that artists are still reacting to it, producing works either inspired by it or using its forms and timbres, shows that it is a living art-form.
The other approach to relevance is the more, I would argue, fallacious one; the conflation of all orchestral music as equivalent. This is a race in which I have a horse; in the past I was an advocate of the idea that in order for modern soundtrack writing to be “taken seriously” it had to be unconvincingly compared to the classical tradition. I used to insist that Nobuo Uematsu was equivalent to my favourite Romantic and Classical composers, rather than taking what I realise now is the approach described above. What makes the best soundtrack music – and I am not hesitant to include swathes of video game and anime scoring in that – is the ability of composers to respond to musical forms in ways beyond pastiche. I rather ungraciously described Damon Albarn’s Dr. Dee as “sludgy cod-Purcell” or some such in an online rant some time ago, but I think this was a visceral reaction to the kind of soundtracking, or classically-derived composing, that does not elevate the music beyond imitation and pastiche. Obviously the line between lazy pastiche and interesting derivation is an intensely personal one; I personally think Masamichi Amano’s use of operatic leitmotifs of the Dies Irae in his soundtrack for Giant Robo is excellent, while Yoko Kanno leans far too heavily on Klaus Badelt’s soundtrack to Pirates of the Caribbean (2003) in her work on Macross Frontier (2008) but others may disagree. In order to recognise this, I think one must consider the relationship one of inspiration and shared heritage rather than equivalency. Returning thus to relevance, I (perhaps in guilt at my teen years’ irritation of music teachers with Final Fantasy soundtracks) bristle at the idea that the way to make classical music relevant is to equate it with video game music. Appreciate soundtracks as their own entities, enjoy listening to them, but I would question if the sellout video game concerts are really driving up sales of tickets to other classical concerts.
How then does this all come back to Your Lie in April and the trope of the iconoclastic violinist embodied by Kaori? The series does not, in its opening episodes, dwell on issues of class, or the relationship between music and society. It is a love comedy, about a reserved pianist struggling to get over his mother’s overbearing perfectionism and an outgoing violinist. How did this cute, “healing” anime inspire this line of thinking? Two details in the first two episodes. Firstly, the way in which the series unsubtly showed Kaori’s disdain for the establishment, and its motif in the dialogue of her making Beethoven’s composition her own – not being indebted to the composer. It reminded me of a pianist I greatly admired, Vladimir Horowitz, who was good enough as a performer to make my piano teacher grudgingly recommend Rachmaninov works (a composer he disliked for being sentimental). Kaori’s stereotypically technically erratic playing reminded me of how I felt listening to Horowitz turn the C Sharp Minor Prelude into something truly memorable – and in turn made me remember what it was I liked about classical music. Not that it has intrinsic value because it is old, or because it is what it is, but because so much of it is simply beautiful, and the very best performances bring that out. Secondly, the scene in which Kaori is introduced. This is not a scene of her playing her violin in her idiosyncratic way, it is her messing about in a park, playing Morning in the Slag Ravine by Joe Hisaishi – from the Studio Ghibli film Laputa. The way the series is introducing its quirky, iconoclastic character is by having her show a love of popular culture and popular orchestral music – a detail which drove me to thinking about the relationship between soundtracks and the classical tradition.