Length Equals Genre

My complaint about people who listen to new music and automatically respond, “I know a rock group sounds just like that!” brought an excellent anecdote from a reader who said that it

reminds me of an exchange I heard while auditing [Fred] Frith’s composition class at Mills; he’d play examples of various music and ask students whether the music was “rock” or “classical.”

He played the beginning of Tony Conrad & Faust’s Outside the Dream Syndicate, (monolithic 2/4 bass & drum stomp). Girl instantly says aloud, “rock.” Frith says “what if I told you that this goes on for another 50 minutes, much like this?” She then instantly said, “Oh well, then it’s classical.”

This echoes a remark I’ve quoted many times. In the 1980s, when new music groups were playing at New York rock clubs while rockers were playing at the Kitchen, postclassical music and rock seemed all mixed up. One night at a bar, Robert Ashley gave me his ironclad definition: “If it’s over five minutes it’s classical, under five minutes it’s pop.” That definition has only come to seem more relevant over the years.

After all, it seems to me that the formal issues of, say, a Beatles song are not particularly different from those of a Schubert song in, say, Die Winterreise. To write a three-minute song that states a single musical idea is a different project from writing a 20-minute piece that goes through a journey of transformation. Each requires a particular talent, and many composers who are very good at one don’t do the other very well; I love Schubert’s piano sonatas and chamber music, but I’d have to say his long forms aren’t quite as flawless as his songs. Much of the classical prejudice against taking rock seriously in the ‘60s was not so much the energy or instrumentation as the habit of placing song-writing on a lower scale of difficulty than larger forms. That prejudice is dying out, and rightly so. But the simple distinction between songs and longer forms may remain, transcending all pop/classical definitions – much as writing short stories requires a different talent than writing novels, or watercolors versus oil paintings, or portraits versus murals, or houses versus skyscrapers. Whether “pop” and “classical” are the appropriate words is another issue. (I have to admit, I felt slightly mendacious referring to Sonic Youth’s Female Mechanic Now on Duty as a pop song – successful or not, it’s kind of an extended work.)