Taking on the Postmoderns

Taking off several weeks in August to write a new work for pianist Sarah Cahill put me way behind in my work, and teaching five courses this semester made catching up a slow process. But I have just officially caught up tonight. Perhaps blogging will resume.

I have been having an unexpectedly good time teaching my course “Populism versus Progress in 20th-Century Music.” The students are aggressively thought-provoking. After I gave a long exposition on the origins of minimalism, one asked, “Why do you represent this as somehow a continuation of classical music instead of something else entirely different?” I offered several rationales, all of them noticeably weak and unconvincing. On the other side I did cite the example of California minimalist Harold Budd, who once told me that whenever he walked into a record store and found his discs in the classical bin, he moved them to pop. So – why connect minimalism with classical music at all? Why not declare our independence?

In another class I played several examples of “postmodern” pieces that combined classical and symphonic idioms with jazz or rock or country and western, starting with William Bolcom’s Songs of Innocence and Experience and continuing with diverse examples by Christopher Rouse, Mason Bates, and Erkki-Sven Tüür. Virtually every such piece was met with an almost unanimous thumbs-down. First of all, the idea that orchestras would try to lure younger listeners into the concert hall with orchestra pieces influenced by Led Zeppelin was seen as transparently condescending. The idea that rock fans might in any way get the same kind of pleasure they get from hip-hop from a bunch of guys in tuxedos was apparently ludicrous. Even the more thoughtful, less gimmicky examples, though, fared badly. The idea of classical musicians attempting to simulate the energy of rock or jazz turns them off, and even the audio image of a jazz band alternating with the orchestra injures their sense of good taste. (The class’s John Zorn fan protested, “Where’s the unity?”, and I shot back, “Hey, you’re the Zorn fan.” “I know,” he answered, “but his style quotations are all in short snippets.”)

But I’m not satisfied, and I will continue to press the point. Why isn’t it acceptable (and I’m not claiming it is – I’m as bothered as they are, but I’m an old fart) to present two highly opposed musical styles in one piece? As one young woman theorized, perhaps in 1924 audiences experienced the same jarring dislocation with the jazz elements of Darius Milhaud’s La Creation du Monde, and perhaps 80 years from now people will be so inured to such style clashes that Songs of Innocence and Experience will sound tame. I want a better excuse for why they think such music doesn’t work, can’t work, than just, they’re not used to it.

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Comments

  1. Michael Wittmann says

    Here’s my lame attempt at answering your question – I speak, as always, as a DJ of many styles of music, and not as a composer or creator of the music:

    I think it’s timbre, sound quality, the “feel” of a song. I’m serious. I can get away with mixing all sorts of wacky-ass music, as long as the sound qualities merge, one into the next. There’s nothing weird about Gavin Bryars (Titanic) moving into Nurse With Wound (some great industrial sounds), or Kronos Quartet (of a certain period, say Black Angels) connecting to Einstuerzende Neubauten (again, industrial music as an example). Similarly, I can do Tom Waits (after all, the Black Rider was an opera of sorts) followed by Robert Ashley, Tin Hat Trio followed by Ethel, and so on. It works, if you’re careful and work with the “sound” and nothing much deeper than that. The issue is the sound, the feel, and I’m sorry I can’t typify that more.

    The silly ass attempts at crossover classical sound like utter crap, in comparison. I’m with your students on that one. Be honest, be hard core, be indie about it, instead. Sure, you can have a cello quartet play the songs of Metallica (a band from Finland, I believe, did this), but it really doesn’t sound good. (Now, John Zorn is typically hit or miss, but his Masada work gets played by so many different groups and instruments that it’s actually possible to use the songbook to quanitfy what is meant by “sound” a little better.)

  2. Michael Wittmann says

    A separate response, and a request:

    What were your not-so-good reasons for putting minimalism into the classical story line? What might be reasons against putting minimalism into the classical story line? Can you elaborate on that answer?

    (No need to post this to the comments section, unless others wish to respond – I really am asking for an entirely different post, I guess!)
    KG replies: My reasons, as given, were:

    1. Reich and Glass were Juilliard grads, and drew on influences such as Perotin (Reich), Milhaud (Glass), and Debussy (both).

    2. Several aspects of minimalism ended up connecting with the American-classical-derived ideas of Cowell, Ives, Nancarrow, and others.

    3. I’m a completely classically trained musician myself, so I don’t have another tradition to attach my own understanding of the music to.

    Reason #2 isn’t bad. The others, I think, are lame.

  3. Rodney Lister says

    My guess is that the fact there not used to it IS the reason why they think it can’t work.

  4. says

    Wow. This is a question I’ve wondered about for a long time. There seems to be a level/pace of stylistic variety within a continuous stream of music or even, as in the case of the Bolcom, that listeners will accept. I don’t know what that level or pace is, but it sure does seems to be there.

  5. says

    Michael Wittman wrote: I can get away with mixing all sorts of wacky-ass music, as long as the sound qualities merge, one into the next. There’s nothing weird about Gavin Bryars (Titanic) moving into Nurse With Wound (some great industrial sounds), or Kronos Quartet (of a certain period, say Black Angels) connecting to Einstuerzende Neubauten (again, industrial music as an example). Similarly, I can do Tom Waits (after all, the Black Rider was an opera of sorts) followed by Robert Ashley, Tin Hat Trio followed by Ethel, and so on. It works, if you’re careful and work with the “sound” and nothing much deeper than that. The issue is the sound, the feel, and I’m sorry I can’t typify that more.

    I think that your mixing works because each of the tracks are the “real deal”; each are performed by the people native to the piece and style. But having Ethel convincingly move from Bryars to Nurse With Wound to Ashley to Carter to Waits, and in the same piece?… Or Tom Waits convicingly channeling Wagner, Einsturzende Neubaten, Aaron Copland, Xenakis and Human League?… Maybe it’s a bit like Lawrence Welk or William Shatner doing “Light My Fire”; the best response you can hope for is as hilarious schtick, no matter how serious the attempt was.

  6. Mark Surya says

    I haven’t really heard the pieces that you mention here, and I hate to do this, but I’ll make the assumption that they were somewhat similar to something I tried at school.
    Part of it may be that they’re not used to it, but on the other hand..I think people can instinctivley pick out ‘dishonest’ music. I mean, music which clearly panders to fusion..shows off it’s ‘fusion’, so to say. Which of course, means it’s not fusion at all-to emphasis a part of it means it’s still apart.
    (Did that make any sense at all?)
    But maybe the ‘postmodern’ ideal isn’t fusion, but just presenting all the different styles?
    But if presenting all the styles is all you’re doing, isn’t that ridiculously pedantic? And even..segregationist? What’s the point in showing them all of if you’re still not treating them equally? Just to say you can? (Pheww..I’d be disgusted too.)

  7. Samuel Vriezen says

    What we want from art is clarity of attitude and perspective. If you have a way to use different styles but there’s a higher reason for it, it may work. Otherwise it’s gimmick.
    Berio’s sinfonia works. Luc Ferrari had Stravinsky and Beethoven in conversation in his piece “Strathoven”. And somebody remind me how it was with the film music Bunuel played for un chien andalou – what was it again, Wagner and tango? The juxtaposition being more or less the point?
    The “classicalness” of minimalism has I think to do with the training of the people who are in the ensembles (the tradition being largely one of notation), if not the ensembles (string quartets, symphony orchestras, piano solo or two pianos, opera etc) themselves.

  8. says

    The classical connection to minimalism is quite direct: Webern – Young – Riley – Reich – Glass. (With music concrete in their too, with the early tape manipulation pieces of Riley and Reich.) If minimalism is not classical, why are Bach and Liszt the same genre? The minimalists’ drive to stay on the quest for “the new” marks them as modernists, quite distinct from (and more classical than) the post-modern pasticheurs like Bolcom.
    Jon Hassell is an interesting case too. My neighborhood record store carries him in Rock AND “Experimental.” I’ve seen him in New Age too! And discussed in jazz books! He has the same classical training as the minimalists — AND he studied with Pandit Pran Nath, as did Young & Riley; AND he played on the first recording of “In C.”
    I like Bolcom’s pastiche, particularly the reggae finale to the Blake Songs.

  9. bill says

    I remember feeling the same way as these kids as a classical guitar student at the U of Az. in the 90′s. I heard the so called third stream stuff with an orchestra and a jazz quartet or some such thing. I thought it was horrible! So transparently attempting to be clever. My feeling at the time was that there was no structural reason for alternating the two styles, and therefore offended my sense of efficiency. I think if you actually wrote a musical structure that required as the best means of presentation as many styles or sounds as necessary then fine, but otherwise it seemed like needless, forgive the pejorative, wanking. Just cause you can do something doesn’t mean you should. Just for the record, I think Gil Evans and Miles Davis may have done the best possible jazz/classical combo in Sketches of Spain– somehow minutely notated and totally improvised simultaneously. I always loved the harmonies in that record, and Miles of course…

  10. Wayne Reimer says

    A general answer (and it’s VERY general and there are tons of exceptions, I’m sure) to the style mix question may be this: for performers of “classical” music, the music they perform is not supposed to be in their own personal style, but should be a realization of the composer’s intent (although they are, of course, allowed personalization within a constricted range). But for pop, rock, and jazz performers the idea is that the most important aspects of the music are their very own personal creation/expression and, by and large, these performers are identified by (and valued because of) their personal stylistic idiosyncracies. This is true not just in performance alone, but also in how they assemble and personalize the musical elements of whatever they are performing (even if they are covering someone else’s “song”, which is usually an act of recomposition). Yeah, I know, a pop album producer may be doing most of that “personal” work for the performer, but the principle remains the same, which is that there is a very personalized musical style associated with the individual performer that is the over-arching characteristic of everything they do.
    Whenever there’s an attempt to mix these drastically different approaches to making music, the results are nearly always awful, which only makes sense – the sets of values about what makes music worthwhile have practically no overlap, and, in some ways, are opposite each other. For an exception to that rule, the Bang on a Can version of Eno’s Music for Airports does succeed and I’d expect your students could (somewhat tentatively, of course) agree that it does, but that’s only because Eno’s music was already so far outside the usual categories. But then there’s the other question about that particular cross-over transcription: why bother, when the original can still be obtained and when there’s so much other good stuff that is not being heard?

  11. Andrew McMechan says

    One of the criteria I have used to place music within the classical tradition vs the pop/rock tradition is whether it is first and foremost a “composed” piece. That is, was the piece formulated and transcribed to paper (yes, I know about computers, you know what I mean) so that any group of musicians can reproduce it within a relatively narrow set of performance conditions. In contrast, music from the pop/rock tradition is created first as a recording by a particular performance group. It lives originally as that particular interpretation. Any transcription of it is limited to lead sheets or piano/guitar based sheet music. Future performances are judged in comparison to the original.
    Ergo, minimalism as practiced by Glass, Reich, et al, belongs within the classical tradition, not pop.

  12. says

    Kyle, you gave as one reason to connect minimalism with the classical tradition:
    “2. Several aspects of minimalism ended up connecting with the American-classical-derived ideas of Cowell, Ives, Nancarrow, and others.”
    I would argue that minimalism also connects with an earlier classical tradition, which was largely ignored in the main stream of western art music until minimalism came along. Listen to the C minor prelude in Bach’s first book of preludes and fugues, or to the opening Sinfonia in Cantata BWV 146 (“Wir mussen durch viel Trubsal…” — the same theme was used in his D minor keyboard concerto BWV 1052) and try telling me that minimalism was invented in the 1960s!
    This is music that spends a lot of time apparently going nowhere, exploring subtle nuances, and reveling in tiny differences of pitch, instrumentation, and rhythm. This music asks the listener either to attend very closely to all those subtle differences OR to submit to its hynoptic, trance-inducing sound-world, in other words to listen without conscious attention at all. Just as with contemporary minimalism, in fact.

  13. says

    In contrast, music from the pop/rock tradition is created first as a recording by a particular performance group. It lives originally as that particular interpretation.
    This probably hits the general case, but there are also rock groups whose pieces are created first as written compositions, even if the compositions are never going to be seen by anyone outside the group. (Two two-word examples: National Health in the late 70s; Normal Love right now)
    Where does this procedure leave something like Cobra?
    I mostly agree (and also speak solely as a dj) with Wittman. In response to a bit of a response he got:
    But having Ethel convincingly move from Bryars to Nurse With Wound to Ashley to Carter to Waits, and in the same piece?
    Seems like “in the same piece” is really the key here. Plenty of discrete units (individual performers/groups/composers/whatevers) can manifest a lot of diversity across pieces; consider, say, Mike Patton or Fred Frith. I don’t see why one shouldn’t be able to do the same in a single piece, provided it’s done well.
    I actually think that one of the reasons that going from one piece to another that’s seemingly completely unrelated, as in the examples Wittman gave (or to give some of my own, going from Schubert to Sinatra to a swedish rock band, or Frith to Carla Khilstedt to the Stanley Brothers) is that the audience can tell that not only are they different musically, but that they’re by different groups; they can recognize the role of the dj in putting interestingly different, but also interestingly similar, things together. When it’s all part of the same piece, though, it probably becomes harder to avoid a sense of pastiche (not to mention mostly spurious worries about authenticity).

  14. says

    I want a better excuse for why they think such music doesn’t work, can’t work, than just, they’re not used to it.
    my guess is feel. just because you really like style x doesn’t mean you know how to play in style x. for example, if you’ve been playing classical all your life and you’ve been listening to hip-hop all your life, but have never attempted to play hip-hop on your instrument, your chances of getting the hip-hop feel right the very first month or so of playing a piece that incorporates hip-hop are small. that’s not to say you’ll never get it. that’s just to say that the first performance or recording will probably sound stiff. now multiply that by an entire orchestra’s worth of folks who may or may not have really played a lot of style-x-that-is-foreign-to-classical. and bring in a composer who may be in the same boat. i haven’t heard bolcom’s reggae ending, but somehow i can’t see him being as well-versed in reggae as say, joe strummer. so you put into your piece what you think style x is about, but the translation might not be very good, and then it gets further mistranslated in performance. i think a lot of the third-stream stuff is similar – jazz folks who liked classical, but didn’t spend years playing it. when people like reich and glass incorporated elements of ‘world music’ into their compositions, it worked because they used structural elements; they didn’t try to make their music sound recognizably african or indian on the surface.

  15. says

    Kyle, I find it interesting that the students are so arrogantly sure of what classical music is “supposed” to be, even if (as I assume) some of them have barely encountered it or thought about it before taking your class. I believe this has to do with the incredibly solidity of the classical-music stereotype as it is presented in the media. “Good taste” has nothing to do with great music, and it never has.

  16. says

    Two things I thought of since leaving the last comment:
    1. The first time I saw the bass clarinet quartet Edmund Welles, they played not only pieces written by the leader, whose name I forget, but also covers of heavy metal and boogie-woogie piano. Not in the same piece, but I can imagine them being integrated fairly well.
    2. This track mixes what one would probably antecedently think are pretty disparate styles (English folk-rock and klezmer) and pulls it off pretty fantastically, IMO… I think that this sort of thing is pretty common in less conventional rock and jazz bands, really, only it’s not noticed very much both because it’s not that uncommon and because, when done well, it’s not so stark—you can reconstruct a reason why it’s there. If it weren’t done well, it would be much more obvious.
    I’ll just continue to monotonize a bit …
    The idea of classical musicians attempting to simulate the energy of rock or jazz turns them off,
    Why “simulate”? (Actually what this snippet really makes me think of is the Butcher Shop Quartet, a rock band that plays The Rite of Spring—you might find that incredibly gimmicky, or farcical, or a tragedy, but I can attest that it does indeed rock.) But this presupposes that of its nature classical music is completely lifeless and lacking in energy. Maybe this is in fact the opinion of your students, or maybe they just think it’s the manifest intent of the pieces under discussion, but it seems like an odd way to frame things.

  17. says

    I really think the key is the sincerity of the composer and the performers and whether or not they truly connect with the styles they are combining. It’s interesting that the previous poster mentions the Edmund Welles bass clarinet quartet, since I actually play in this group. In my opinion, this group very successfully blends classical, jazz, heavy metal, and other styles, because our leader and composer/arranger, Corneluis Boots, is not only classically trained, but also has a degree in jazz performance and genuinely loves Black Sabbath and other heavy metal bands and puts real time into transcribing their songs and really getting inside of how they work. Then he just composes from his heart, and it all comes out integrated in a very natural way. I think this is the only way it can be done successfully. Otherwise it’s phony.

  18. Richard says

    My problem with say Bolcom’s use of reggae, or for that matter with a lot of “crossover” or whatever you call it, is that that the composer/performer is too “respectful” and “true” the genre’s style , most times when I hear this stuff, I feel like screaming “throw a wrench into the Machine” or “throw some dirt on it”. In other words, subvert it; twist it.

  19. says

    Mozart was often dismissed for combining learned style with popular buffa elements, etc. Now it all sounds like Mozart. Sometimes listeners who are farther removed from the sources can hear connections that contemporaries miss.

  20. Andrew says

    has anyone heard the recent spate of classical groups playing mid-period IDM (e.g. Aphex Twin, etc.)? How does that go off? As for mixing within a concert, this group plays Aphex Twin, David Bowie, Brian Eno, Philip Glass, Arvo Pärt, Ann Southam and John Tavener all in the same concert. I haven’t heard them, though. I suspect that this might sound a lot better than orchestras trying to play in rock idioms, both for sonic reasons (violins don’t sound like distorted Gibsons, but can sound a little more like synth string patches), and because a lot of eno and aphex stuff is probably influenced by minimalist composers…

  21. says

    Bolcom’s pastiches in the Blake Songs tend to work for me because:
    a) he IS respectful of the source style; composers who try to “improve” it rarely make it work for me (Milhaud’s “Creation of the World” being an exception that comes to mind);
    b) along with the respect, he understands pop rhythms, which is unsurprising, given his expertise in ragtime and early 20th century pop;
    c) he puts serious thought and feeling into making rhetorical and emotional connections between the words and the music.
    Golijov’s klezmer pastiches haven’t struck me as deeply.
    Ives’s reworkings of the “people’s music” (which includes church music, for him) are gorgeous, but again, he knows that music through and through and loves it deeply. Copland’s “borrowings” feel tourist-y by comparison. If Bolcom’s a musical tourist, he’s one who’s bought a time-share in pop and spends months of the year there. He knows the local grocer, if you will forgive the tortured analogy.
    Live, the Blake Songs were mightily impressive. (Saw the American premiere in ’84.)

  22. says

    Some of this music needs to be separated here. The students probably object to huge orchestras trying to play rock-infused works, but are probably more inclined to give the Kronos Quartet a pass for playing Sigur Ros. An orchestra of a hundred destroys the personal intimacy of a band, which is kinda the heart of rock’n’roll. There’s no lead singer to focus on.

    But a little bit of rock and jazz’s smaller scale comes across from a string quartet. The “feel” that Wittman mentioned above is also easier to capture with instruments from a single family than with a brass/woodwinds/strings/percussion orchestra.

    The Butcher Shop Quartet’s Rite of Spring does rock, I agree.

  23. Michael Wittmann says

    After a few days away, I finally return to this conversation. Thanks, Ben Wolfson, for pointing out the fact that listeners can follow the different groups, rather than finding a single group doing it all at once. (A personal trick of my DJing used to be to find greater variation in a single song than in the transition between songs – you were supposed to be about 20 seconds into the new piece before you said “whoah! when did that change?” It rarely works, though.)

    Am I hearing people correctly when the general tenor is that IDM/ambient/electro/whatever bands are more capable of adding “classical” styles or playing “classical” songs than are orchestras? Is that everyone’s opinion?

    Also, what about bands like Bang on a Can, or the many elements the Masada songbook (composed and improvised, playable by a jazz quartet, a string trio, solo guitar in the classical style, and so on)?

    Just tossing a few questions out, I guess…

  24. Paul H. Muller says

    Minimalism would seem to fall into the classical category because it is a (successfully realized) reaction to the conventional methods of reinforcing tonality with harmonic progressions. Could minimalism exist or have importance without the previous 400 years of musical evolution?
    As to popular music being distinguished by its use of style sheets and informal playing, it should be pointed out that Bach could improvise a fugue from a simple theme. I believe that the best musicians express themselves through music and then document it later with paper and notation.

  25. Samuel Vriezen says

    “Minimalism would seem to fall into the classical category because it is a (successfully realized) reaction to the conventional methods of reinforcing tonality with harmonic progressions. Could minimalism exist or have importance without the previous 400 years of musical evolution?”
    Of course. Perotinus or Tallis are much closer to minimalism than Bach or Mozart. Schoenberg is closer to the latter.
    I guess it all depends on which minimalism you’re talking about. I don’t hear much “classical” about La Monte Young’s Dream House (which I finally managed to witness last saturday) but I guess his Well Tuned Piano is, a tiny bit, classical.

  26. Jun-Dai says

    Kyle,
    I think there are two aspects of the high- and low-brow fusion that may raise eyebrows amongst your students. The first is simply that we know both genres being fused, which makes us acutely aware of the fusion where we might not otherwise be. It’s a bit like how an Italian gourmet might object to some of the Italian-California fusion we serve here because he’s acutely aware of the dishes or at least style of cooking that’s being “butchered”. I’ve never heard of anyone objecting to Pablo Sarasate’s “Zigeunerweisen” on the basis that Classical music had no business involving itself in gypsy music. It would be very interesting, in this light, to see the contemporary responses to similar cases of such fusion in the past (perhaps you know some already?). How many famous Classical composers have fused the grand classical tradition with local folk music–it seems to me that it must make up a significant percentage of classical music as a whole–and in the less subtle cases, how did it play out in the critical response? Surely in the 19th century there is some mention of this phenomenon?
    The second aspect is a combination of suspect motivation and guilt by association. There’s a sense of dubious motivation–a kind of guilty-until-proven-innocent approach to listening to this music–in that the composers or the sponsors may be aiming to latch onto the success of certain music, or that they may be trying to find a way to make “Classical” music easier to approach or more digestible to curious pop-music fans (i.e., marketing themselves to the non-Classical world). The guilt by association comes into play in that the very notion of pop-”Classical” fusion brings to mind Pops orchestras, movies soundtracks, the London Symphony Orchestra being hijacked by Roger Waters, opera singers singing pop tunes, and any other cases where pop music meets the world of classical musicians but very little fusion is involved. It’s hard not to think about these things when listening to a classical ensemble cross over the line.
    To further explore the concept, it might be worth approaching it from other angles. There are examples of popular music forms clearly merging in Classical music (mostly older Classical music, I suspect). I just put on Nina Simone’s “Love Me or Leave Me” to remind myself of how much she abandons the jazz sound for the whole middle half of the piece. Uri Caine, Yngwie Malmsteen, “A Fifth of Beethoven”, and the techno remix of Carmina Burana that was so popular in the goth clubs all come readily to mind. While such music is bound to be marginal (unless it can spin off a genre of its own?), I don’t recall hearing any objections to it. You might try playing “A Fifth of Beethoven”, and if your students perk up when they listen to it, ask them why their reactions are different.
    Another interesting comparison might be with other cross-genre music, such as the ubiquitous Celtic sounds coming into pop rock, with Enya at the head of it; or the “world music”-pop fusions, like Dead Can Dance, Deep Forest, et al. Ska-rock fusions abound, as do punk-rock/pop, hip hop/rock, and there are numerous popular recordings of pop artists singing jazz standards.
    It’s interesting that classical music seems to stand alone in the degree to which these fusions seem distasteful. The reason why the reaction is strong, especially among the students, may have a lot to do with the very reasons why they got into the field in the first place. I must confess that as a student it was all a bit bewildering trying to figure out what “Classical” music is, why it seems to have entered an alternate reality ever since 12-tone, and why it seems to have such a stranglehold in academia as the dominant form of music when it is anything but outside. Perhaps in addition to the two reasons I mentioned above, there is also a fear that breaking down these walls between postclassical music and the rest of the world will make that fragile identity (whose fragility is so strongly revealed in the very term “Classical” and the difficulty in successfully supplanting it) even harder to maintain.

  27. says

    it’s a bit harsh to accuse people of insincerity or monetary greediness when their attempts to fuse fail. while the powers that be may be looking to ‘lure,’ i hope composers are coming at their work from a more honest place. turks probably would have had something to say about authenticity in mozart’s abduction from the seraglio.
    perhaps it’s hubris? as i suggested above, people think that their fondness and aural familiarity with a style will carry them through when it comes time to compose and perform. but talent and love do not translate into convincing reality without elbow grease and time.
    if the kids are not digging rouse, a fifth of beethoven will make them writhe and wretch. i wonder, too, if there’s an influence from the teacher: kyle, were these pieces you felt really worked as pieces?
    KG replies: Well, I guarantee that I didn’t say “Here, listen to these lousy pieces” for the fun of reporting back that they didn’t like them. I thought the examples ranged from brilliant to lousy, and I presented them all with equal neutrality; play one, let them discuss, then say, “OK, how about this one?” Rouse’s Der gerettete Alberich I find pretty empty; I enjoy Mason Bates’s music; and the Tüür Fifth Symphony CD had only arrived the day before, and I hadn’t had a chance to get familiar with it yet. When I’m teaching history, I try not to give my opinions until after they’ve given theirs, and then only when pressed.
    I don’t think there were cheap or dishonest intentions on the part of any of these composers, but I do think that orchestras will sometimes choose or commission works based on shallow, audience-condescending criteria, and I believe there are composers out there willing to follow along.

  28. Akio says

    I’d fit the model of those disdainful students, I suppose. I think, though, that there are specific problems with the common approach to such fusion projects that aesthetically handicap them.
    First, 99% of the time such attempts come down to nothing more than the incorporation of genre signifiers into an entirely different music by composers and players who do not have equal command of each and, accordingly, comes off as artificial and stunted.
    The second problem is that most of such experiments do not take into account the differing energies and aesthetics behind the musics that are being combined, and therefore never make the two interact in a meaningful way. Consider: Rock, say a Led Zeppelin-style hard blues-based rock, craves driving force and aggression, spontenaity, a certain rhythmic feel that is simultaneously precise (exactly where it needs to be) and sloppy (less precise in pure metric terms). The harmonic structure isn’t complex, but makes up for it with performative force and the exploitation of the specific timbral qualities of the instruments involved, as well as particular bends and expressive performance on the part of (in Zep’s case) the vocalist and the guitarist.
    Grab one of their songs and throw it to an orchestra. The orchestra can’t capture the sponteneity or particular rhythm of a power trio, and sacrifices the slam of the drums, the fullness of distortion. The bends and howls of lead guitar and vocalist are either deleted or precisely arranged; either way, a fundamental part of the texture is lost. What you are left with is a composition that, compared with classical works, is incredibly simple, and stripped of everything that made it interesting. No wonder nobody wants to hear it.
    Same thing happens in reverse, too, which is why so much prog rock and virtuosic guitar heroism and neoclassical metal are just… well… lousy. The compression present in distorted guitar (as well as the limitations of the instrument itself) destroys the subtle dynamics and emotive quality that jazz or classical musicians can deliver in virtuosic lines; on top of that, virtuoso-rock is generally composed with a myopic focus on soloists that leaves the rest of the composition entirely in the lurch and generally still in a rock idiom, working at odds with the featured musician. Or rap-metal? God, that was a mistake. The rhythmic instincts of rap and metal are entirely different, and the reliance on the metal sound took away the varied and potentially-infinite production that is so important to hip-hop.
    There are many hybrid genres that DO work, of course. Punk and funk got together and formed delightful offspring (three cheers for Gang of Four), and the secret wasn’t just the rhyming names – Gang of Four/Delta 5/etc. suceeded by taking some important characteristics of funk (the hard grooves, stacatto syncopations) and some of punk (stripped-down sound, aggression). Throw on “Natural’s Not In It” and you can dance… OR break furniature and pump your fists. Woot.
    Minimalism and a variety of other 20th century classical isms have better chances of mating with rock/electronic/jazz, because they, really, already have – rock and jazz have thrown up their own experimentalists whose music intersects with minimalism in many different ways. Minimalism is part of the classical tradition, but many of its aims and practices are distinct, and minimalists in other genres have independently approached similar goals.

    “You might try playing “A Fifth of Beethoven”, and if your students perk up when they listen to it, ask them why their reactions are different.”
    Dear lord. I’m of the opinion that if they perk up when they hear “A Fifth of Beethoven” it’s futile to talk to them about music in the first place. There is no classical element to that song at all, simply the reference to a melody that has (sadly) become cultural cliche.