I was lucky that my mom was a big opponent of attending the Hong Kong Philharmonic’s weekly concert with my dad. His job as a musicologist at the University of Hong Kong got him two free tickets to every concert, and I had the honor of filling the second seat — or more frequently dozing in it. It wasn’t like I was a particularly precocious child who appreciated two-hour-long masterpieces by Beethoven; in fact, my dad tried tirelessly to convince me of his genius. After all, he spent his Ph.D. writing a 300-page dissertation on Beethoven’s “Galitzin Quartets,” and about two decades later, another 300-page book on Beethoven and freedom. I simply considered it optimal sleep music, and never truly understood it. To really hammer the nail in the coffin, I rebelled. I quit piano and picked up jazz drumset.
I am also lucky that about three weeks ago, I managed to collect classical pianist Hayato Sumino’s signature. About two months before this, I decided to learn Chopin’s “Étude Op. 10, No. 3,” though please ignore that I never actually finished the piece. After the past two semesters, I am now proud to call myself a reasonably big proponent of classical music.
It started with a conversation with my roommate in my freshman spring semester. By then, he was fed up with me digging into his anime addiction, and as a last-ditch effort to defend himself, told me to watch “Your Lie in April” (2014–18), a show about classical music. It took a while for me to warm up to the idea. I was a jazz musician after all; a self-proclaimed semi-tone deaf drummer who plays off of the musical “vibe” and is always in search of ill-defined “jazz moments.” A week later, I was crying in the shower. It was, out of the two anime I had seen, the greatest show ever. There was something about that show that sparked genuine admiration for classical performance.
Recently, when Sumino was performing at HKU, I remember my dad calling me completely shocked by the attendance and number of students in the audience. Ever since COVID-19, the concert hall has been increasingly empty. However, Sumino’s concert sold out so quickly that they asked if he would do another. In terms of repertoire, he gave a fairly normal classical recital. So where did all this sudden popularity come from? For those who don’t know who Sumino is, you may know him by his internet pseudonym: Cateen. His YouTube channel’s most popular videos are ones of him performing anime, pop or video game music; and his fourth most popular video, Chopin’s “Winter Wind,” is played in “Your Lie in April.”
When discussing my entry point into classical music, I sometimes feel a sense of inferiority. Especially in a more “academic genre,” one’s imposter syndrome might be amplified. There exists some mental barrier that distinguishes the legitimate and illegitimate. If someone comes into these more academic genres through a mainstream product, their appreciation for it appears less. Sometimes, even in jazz, there is a high barrier for what is considered “real.” For example, while I would not consider Laufey’s music to be proper jazz, the mainstream view of her music seems to hold her as some savior of jazz. Even if some consider her peripheral and disconnected from the direction jazz culture is going, it goes without saying that her public perception is almost definitely helping the jazz genre. Just as I started off with classical music pieces from “Your Lie in April,” or someone might start from Sumino’s YouTube videos on video game music, someone entering jazz through Laufey should not be considered an “illegitimate” listener. We all start somewhere. What should matter is where and how we continue to explore a genre. As Kaori Miyazono from “Your Lie in April” put it, “music is freedom.” To let someone explore music free from any constraints of genre, status and pretension is the highest good.
I have a grand total of 16 classical music pieces saved in my Spotify, which I don’t listen to regularly. And I still use it as sleep music. But that doesn’t mean I have stopped exploring the genre. Just give me some time. Clearly, my understanding of it won’t be as good as my roommate, who is a classical pianist, or my dad who wrote that Beethoven’s “Eroica” symphony “reverberates without decay as an endless echo. It is a Hegelian totality — the passing of everything finite.” I don’t think I will ever know what he meant by that. Besides, regardless of form, it is the exploration of genres that keeps them alive. Even if I don’t have as strong a proclivity to classical performance as many, I bet they didn’t get their fan art signed by Hayato Sumino. Chopout.