“It’d be very easy to take an outsider position, and just go ‘oh, I’m not belonging to this’ — I think it’d be much more interesting to take a hatchet, and try and get into the space; using the way classical music exists to try and actually change it.”

Aidan Teplitzky

Aidan Teplitzky is a Scottish-Australian composer currently based in Birmingham, UK. Aidan’s work centres around working class identity in classical music, in which he is currently pursuing a PhD, exploring the creative potential of working-classness through interdisciplinary composition at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire with Michael Wolters and Joe Cutler. Aidan has worked with ensembles such as Riot Ensemble, Orkest de Ereprijs, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Glasgow Barons Orchestra, and Psappha, among others; he is currently a Yeoman with the Worshipful Company of Musicians, and was an Associate Composer with LSO Soundhub from 2017-19. Aidan is the artistic director of new music group The Hadit Collective, and general manager of concert series #BirminghamNewMusic, alongside running the podcast ‘What Is Your Working Class?’.

In April, we sat down with Aidan in a café in Birmingham, talking about his practice concerning class identity, familiarity, thriftiness, and the creation of working class music…

Aidan Teplitzky, ‘Another Country’ (2023), performed by Dov Goldberg as part of Psappha‘s Composing For… programme. Manchester, UK, July 2023.

Zyggy/PRXLUDES: You’re two years into a PhD focusing on working-class identity in classical music — tell me a bit about how that came about?

Aidan Teplitzky: It started off probably in [the] last year of undergrad, start of Masters. For the majority of my studies the department was pretty “classless”, in that all that mattered was the quality of your work. Unfortunately, this changed during the end and shifted to become more inclined to more upper-middle class tastes and values. From that, it made me start to think “oh, why is this class thing so significant?”, and noticing that [my] sense of belonging became “now I feel like a complete outsider”, because I’m not part of that group and that culture. That was [an] incredibly strange situation.

A couple of pieces stemmed from that. They were very traditional, in the sense of: you have a concept for a piece, but you don’t convey the concept in a way that an audience can understand it. There was my Psappha [piece] as part of the Composing For… scheme with Miloš Milivojević called ‘It’s the Burden of Knowing’, based on David Bowie’s ‘Under Pressure’ — Bowie himself being a middle class art school student, but had a weird relationship with working classness. And then there was a piece called ‘Almost Achilles, Always the Heel’, which I did for the Glasgow Barons Orchestra. It was about this idea of having a flaw, and that flaw always being the thing that [defines] you.

When I was thinking to do a PhD, I was originally gonna do it on authenticity in autobiographical work, and they said “you can’t fucking do that, are you insane? How are you gonna prove that?” -laughs- probably for the best as it could so easily have become narcissistic, even though I would have tried not to make it that. That started making me think [about] class, about class and classical music — what does it mean to write working-class music? Looking into our sense of identity, and our experience of our identity and what that actually means for how you approach an art form.

Were there any pieces you wrote at the time that you feel catalysed this interest?

From that, I did a lot of pieces — but a couple pieces stand out to me. I did a piece called ‘Seven Working Class Time Pieces’, which I [wrote] for myself with a little keyboard I’d put on my knees and a metronome. It’s about those experiences of time, and of the precarity of time: working a zero-hours contract; trying to make things last as long as they can possibly [last]; trying to make the most out of your time in things such as commuting. And then a piece called ‘It’s Hard to Make an Oboe Sound Working-Class’, which is looking at (and kind of taking the piss out of) all these solo pieces for instruments that all use these extended techniques, and colours… -laughs- by exploring the idea of accents and accent discrimination.

That sounds absolutely fascinating. So now I have to ask — how do you make an instrument sound working class?

Why do certain instruments have this class identity? If you look at, say, brass instruments, you’ve got the brass band tradition, so it’s not “limited” to just being an upper-middle-class instrument. If you look at [the] piano, it’s the same situation — of course, there’s all these caveats of “do you have a piano in your home?” So why is it the oboe [that’s] hard to make working class? This idea of familiarity — of what you’re used to, and what that actually means, and what the expectations are because of these meanings we put onto things.

I don’t want to talk too much about it… I encourage people to go listen to it. -laughs- Both of them are very blatant pieces [of]: “okay, I’m gonna make it very obvious that this is about class”. Thinking about identity in that sort of way, both in terms of how it affects material, and how it affects the context by which you present things.

Aidan Teplitzky, ‘Escapism’ (2022), performed by the Hadit Collective, Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, UK.

How do you differentiate the two — musical material versus context?

In terms of material: there’s a lovely idea I came across in my podcast, called ‘What Is Your Working-Class’ — with Darren Neave — the idea of a creativity in thriftiness. Making the most of what you’ve got, because you don’t have a lot. That’s [an] idea you can also find in People’s Art: Working Class Art from 1750 to the Present Day (which would be 1990s, for them) by Emmanuel Cooper. It’s basically this history of how art was made by the working classes, and why it was made. In many ways, it was to identify themselves, but then in other cases, it was an act of escapism. In terms of content, that’s how I’m thinking about it. But in terms of context — looking at what the environment by which these things take place in, and how can you affect that? That’s more difficult to give a summary of, because it depends on the piece.

Tell me about how you’ve approached those themes in your work…

I’ve done more pieces that have tried to figure out a way of looking at how [to] do working class music without just going “I’m a working class composer, yah!” Trying to do it with a little bit more nuance, and a little bit more freedom. There was my chamber concerto, called ‘Escapism’, which looks at the idea of the function of art for working-class people. Many cases, from the articles I’ve read, of why people did this — I’m currently reading An Intellectual History of the Working Classes by Jonathan Rose — and a lot of them [say] it was an escape from what was the day-to-day; it was this new world, this great adventure. But if the point of art, or a lot of the function of art for a lot of the working-classes, is escapism, how do you then have a working class artistic identity that wants to escape itself?

The concerto looks at that through five different iterations of this idea of escape, and why people want to escape. And the various ways I’ve experienced [escape], like drinking in my teens — that idea of fun, getting smashed on a bottle of Frosty Jack’s or Smirnoff Ice… -laughs- Then eventually you get older, and start drinking properly, but it’s not as fun than when you were drinking at age sixteen… or fifteen, I think. -laughs- Looking at, at the time of writing the piece, the reasons why Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos wanted to escape the planet — that idea of stargazing, and light pollution. And working; the idea of meritocracy, of “oh, if I keep working hard, I’ll get success”. That was an interesting piece. I don’t know if I did it as well as I could have — because it is just such a complicated thing to isolate!

Aidan Teplitzky, ‘Pearlies or Ornamentations Taking Over a Theme’ (2022), performed at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire in partnership with the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.

There was a piece that was done [as a] collaboration between Royal Birmingham Conservatoire and Sydney Conservatorium Orchestra, called ‘Pearlies, or: Ornamentations Taking Over a Theme’ — which looks at the idea of the intent of something being obfuscated by beautiful aesthetics. These instances of big showey-offey charity affairs, of — “oh, we’re gonna have this big showy-offey display” — [but] how much of this is for the charity itself? How much of this is actually beneficial? Looking at that idea, through music, of diluting any sense of what the message is in favour of making something pretty.

That stems from the working class history of the pearlies. I can’t remember the name of the original pearly king; but he basically found these pearly buttons washed up on the beach, and he made this exuberant outfit — for the purpose of using that to make money for charity. He would do that to attract people in. But a lot of that history — on the philanthropic side — has gone by the wayside, so people just look at pearlies and go “oh, that’s a bit weird”.

The piece itself is all about this obfuscating of meaning and intent in favour of spectacle; so lots of ornamentation, trills, gestural flourishes, rich [and] over-the-top harmonies. Just as a way of covering up what the thing is. There’s also me singing in it, which is interesting… -laughs-

You’ve mentioned you perform much of your work yourself, or that much of your work includes this performative element — how has that intersected with your conception of identity in your music?

I just did it as a way of “oh, I know I can do this”… -laughs- And [it’d] be so much easier for me to do this than anything else. Then it became a lot more autobiographical. ‘Seven Working Class Time Pieces’ is very autobiographical. There’s another piece of mine, that I just did with orkest de ereprijs, called ‘Baguette Baton’, which is about why I love eating baguettes, and the poverty narratives around that. I go into the intricacies of that. I think I become quite present in my music — partially out of an “it’s easier for me to be a part of it” — but [also] thinking about what that actually means to actually have yourself be an important part of the music.

The first instance of me in a piece of mine would probably be ‘How to Own the Room’ — a piece I did in my second year of undergrad. Which was me [and] four contemporary performance artists doing this dragified performance of [a] wind orchestra piece. It’s about this idea of flamboyance, and extravagance. We basically paraded while there was [this] music — it was great fun. Then I did an inverse of that, which was called ‘Shoot Your Arrow’, which was about Dorian Corey in the film Paris is Burning, which is about the vogue ballroom scene name in maybe the 1980s, 1990s. The piece itself explores aspirations of fame, and not reaching that fame, and the regret and the pain of that. I did that as a way of [asking] “what is my future?” I’ve just finished my undergrad, what happens after this?

Aidan Teplitzky, ‘The Damned’ (2023), performed at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, UK.

In a similar vein, you’ve also included audience participation in your work — I’m reminded of your recorder “concerto” you made, ‘The Damned’…

Yeah, ‘The Damned’! That’s how I started music — on a lime green, translucent recorder, at age five. My whole experience and history with music was [from] my mum having a really good saxophone, and that was like “we have this, so it [music] is an option”. So you play the recorder to figure out how you then play saxophone — which is completely the wrong way to do it, because it’s completely different fingering! The only comparable difference is that it’s wind to produce the sound. -laughs- So again, [it’s] a weird class knowledge, in a way.

So the piece is about that experience of learning recorder in school, and how rushed everything had to be. You had maybe one instance of music lessons in school and the unfortunate inability for comprehensives to give you the resources needed to help you get to where you need to get to, if you want to make this more of a career. These resources being both the time music teachers have to get you to a good standard and the environment of teaching feeling so rushed to meet the criteria set out for you. So ‘The Damned’ was a fun experiment…

Have you further explored bringing the audience in, and almost forcing that sense of empathy for these lived experiences, outside of this concerto?

There was a piece that I did called ‘Holding’, which was for telephone. It was about my experience of being on benefits. The audience has the ability to call up [the telephone], and there’s original music written as the “hold” music — very classical, very twee — intercut with my talking about my experience.

It’s one of those things I would love to do more of; but part of me is like, as soon as I start doing anything that’s really outside the box, it removes the sense of it actually being classical music. Which is one of those weird things. I want to be in. It’d be very easy to take an outsider position, and just go “oh, I’m not belonging to this” — but that’s almost going “you don’t belong, you need to create a different space in which to exist because you are not welcome in this space”. I think it’d be much more interesting to take a hatchet, and try and get into the space; using the way classical music exists to try and actually change it. A lot of things in classical music actually make sense — there’s a reason you don’t clap in between movements, it’s because it’s sound interrupting [the piece] — but at the same time, you have a tension between a reasonable justification and a discriminatory culture has then built up a snobbery around it. So how do you figure out how to navigate that — in a way that you can still belong to classical music, but still inherently not shying away from who you are as an individual? [That’s] what I’m doing with my class exploration.

Aidan Teplitzky, ‘Baguette Baton’ (2022), performed by orkest de ereprijs as part of Young Composers Meeting 2022, Apeldoorn, NL.

In terms of where you are now, and the kind of work that excites you now — where do you see those explorations developing?

I’ve done a collection of open-score pieces that are looking at really famous pieces of canonical music, that sort of satirise what those pieces and what those composers have become — while also focusing in on how great the music is. I’ve done something on Beethoven’s 5th, where it’s about all of the films about the dog Beethoven, and the instances of drama within these films. It’s a piece that sort of takes the piss out of the culture that has formed around Beethoven as this very “serious” composer while readdressing the fact [that] the music is the important thing, not the mythologizing of the man.

I’ve done that for a number of pieces. I’ve done it for Vivaldi’s Spring; where I basically take all these different recordings people have done of Vivaldi, and layered them over each other… [Ravel’s] Bolero, and how people understand that from Torvill and Dean and looking at how people know of this music; poking fun at it, poking fun at what the culture has made it into, but also going “this is great for very specific reasons”.

Of course. I guess that also factors into ideas of community and accessibility in classical music…

That’s something I’ve been hesitant to address, because I don’t have the money to do it. I don’t have the resources to do it properly. I could possibly have done something that maybe lasts six months, but that’s not good enough. In order to actually make real change, it needs to last generations — it needs to become a part of the community. If you look at the history of the working classes, and education — the WEA — so many working class people were taught, and had the opportunity to learn about, art and history and geography, all of these things. And then that filtered out, that all stopped. When something’s gone, [you] have to try and build it back up again. In order for me to do what needs to be done, I need the financial support in order to do it; and also, people wanting to do it! We obviously assume everyone wants it… but I think the option should be there. It should be a possibility for you. Trying to make that feasible, and possible. I’m not looking at that in the basis of a PhD — maybe afterwards… -laughs-

Of course — opening that can of worms is such a huge deal, as well.

Yeah. -laughs- But I try and do the best that I can. I try to create work for people as much as possible. I run #BirminghamNewMusic, which is the new music group at the conservatoire, and through that I’ve organised commissioning schemes. I think we’ve managed to get 24 commissions through that, for composers in the department. [There’s] none of this hoity-toity “oh, submit a score and I’ll judge it”, it’s literally first come, first serve. And then with my own ensemble, Hadit Collective — I’ve commissioned people just because they’ve done good music. But it’s time and energy, corolling players and stuff.

Exactly — time and energy that’s much easier to utilise when you have the resources to do so. And at least from my experience, sometimes it can feel like the institutional culture of classical music can easily work against you.

You have this weird ambiguity in the culture of classical music; you have a clear “functional” point, and then you have the culture stemmed from that. On YouTube, you have four-hour long casual classical music playlists for studying to, for sleeping to. In that way, we have an understanding that classical music calms you down — a very particular kind of it — [but] it has a functional use. But then on the other hand, you have the cultural idea of what classical music is; it is this lauded, intellectual thing, [with] a high sense of cultural capital. And thereby, it’s like “oh, we will treat the ailment of the poor by giving them culture” — which is a very common mentality in upper-middle class culture.

There was an old practice — that is coming back, in a way — called poor visiting, which is a Victorian practice where rich women would go into the homes of working-class people and tell them how to do housework. They wanted to have this voyeuristic thing of “oh, let’s see what poverty’s like.” You now have that replicated; there was an article in 2012 [about] people going to poor countries to “see the poverty”, in a way. The ways they would address that was “we wanted to humble ourselves”, or “we wanted to try and help” — which is fine, but it raises the question [of]: why do you think your understanding of how you can help will be the cure for whatever that community actually needs?

And then, you have it in a business side of things. There’s a couple of bars in Manchester where they adopt a working-class stereotype — one of them is an old laundromat, the other one is a pawn shop — and they’re posited as this working-class street cred, which is something you’ve also got in the fashion industry, which intersects with race as well. It’s that sort of ambiguity that makes class analysis very difficult, because: how much of that is intentional on their part — trying to signal something — and how much of that is them existing? You have all of these cultural markers, so it gives it that tension.

The line gets so blurred, you can’t tell what’s co-opted and what isn’t.

You have that with classical music. I’m good friends with Paul MacAlindin, who runs the Glasgow Barons — an orchestra based in Govan, in Glasgow. Govan is one of the poorest areas in Scotland; he works constantly with the community, and he will see instances of other musical organisations who will “drop in” a bunch of musicians to play some music, and then leave again. That sense of “you go and you leave.”

And then that makes it so difficult to maintain a sense of artistic or community identity…

I think it’s one of those things of: how do you negotiate your sense of identity? In many cases, you always write from yourself — but it’s how you approach that writing from yourself that’s the important thing. My PhD is looking at working-class identity in classical music — but how do you do that in such a way that isn’t just a bunch of pieces about brass bands in Wales and the ‘North’? That’s not my experience. It’s trying to find the nuance and experience of yourself, and thinking: how can that relate to your creative outputs?

It’s also that aspect of identity politics, where it’s a particular kind of “other” who is supported, if you look at the history of it — the idea of “you can be gay as long as you own your own property!” The whole history of the pink pound. You then become a commodity, your existence and your identity becomes this commodity that is enjoyed by the community itself — [because] we’ve got a space — but there’s a cost of entry. It’s like poor visiting, in a way: you can be valued as long as you follow the established way people are valued.

More about Aidan’s work can be found at:

Learn more about The Hadit Collective and #BirminghamNewMusic:


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Zygmund de Somogyi is a composer, performer, and writer based in London, and artistic director of contemporary music magazine PRXLUDES.

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