Getcher Dirty Mitts Off My Genre

My “Progress Versus Populism in 20th-Century Music” class became a focus group for trying out recent musical styles. Time and again the students surprised me, never more than by their resistance to the attempt to fuse classical music with pop conventions. They just didn’t seem to see it as a worthwhile goal. The way I approached it was, many composers today grow up being trained in more than one genre – playing in a garage band in high school, playing jazz in college, studying classical history and composition – and they’re tired of having to compartmentalize. They want to be able to use all their chops in their music, and also to break down this wearying high-art/low-art divide that relegates fun and physicality to one arena and intellectual respectability to the other.

But my students couldn’t see it that way. They almost inevitably heard any attempt on the part of a classical composer to integrate pop elements as condescending. The very fact of notating a trap set pattern or a bass guitar riff seemed to locate a composer on the classical side of the divide, and render him guilty of appropriating something that wasn’t his. No amount of anecdotal evidence would convince them that these composers (we’re talking Mikel Rouse, Nick Didkovsky, Diamanda Galas, Michael Gordon, Mason Bates) had just as much respect for Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix as for Reich and Ligeti. They challenged me to find out what these composers really listened to at home for pleasure, and felt certain it wasn’t Metallica.

This biggest reaction came against someone I had considered an easy sell. I’d always thought that Nick Didkovsky’s music for his Doctor Nerve ensemble was the most seamless fusion of rock, jazz, and classical ingredients anyone ever pulled off. I started with Nick’s piece Plague, which you can click here to listen to. A few students liked the music, but the nay-sayers were vociferous. They thought he had stolen those guitar sounds from heavy metal and was, so to speak, emasculating them by scoring them in a tightly-played, notated arrangement. Some made a big issue about the music being played from sheet music (as I assume it is, it’s pretty complex) rather than being memorized – as if playing music from memory is the only way to give it pop authenticity. Some students were really indignant that a bunch of conservatory-educated musicians were stealing these precious pop drum and guitar riffs and sticking them in their sterile, intricately-notated scores.

I don’t quite know what to make of this. One thing that occurred to me is, the students have grown up with the commercial boundaries of pop and classical music starkly demarcated by the commercial industry; maybe asking them to rethink their boundaries on a first hearing is too much to ask. What I really can’t grasp, though, is how anyone can think that a particular sound can be reserved only for a certain kind of music. What’s so holy about an electric guitar pitch bend with distortion that no one outside of a rock group is allowed to use it? It’s like the objection, which I’ve often encountered, that no one should ever use a synthesizer because it sounds like ’80s rock. Imagine objecting to someone using a prepared piano because it sounds like John Cage’s music of the 1940s! And upon hearing Diamanda’s spine-tingling Plague Mass, they dismissed her for using so much reverb, “kind of an ’80s sound.” (I replied, “Well of course it’s an ’80s sound, it was made in 1988!”) Sometimes I think they’ve become so attuned to listening to production values that they can no longer perceive the basic content of pitches, rhythms, and text. I reflexively listen to a recording as a document of live music, but they clearly listen to an mp3 as having its own ontological status. But what are we supposed to all do, remaster our recordings every few years to keep up with changing fashions in technology?

I can’t tell whether I’ve got legitimate complaints or whether there’s some true pop sensibility that I and the music I love have fallen out of touch with. But the students do confirm, more violently than I might have wished, what I’ve long suspected: that we new-music composers don’t automatically win over new listeners among the pop crowd by using sounds they’re used to. It was easier to sell them on music that was just weird in its own way (Feldman, Nancarrow, Ashley’s Improvement) than on music that dared tread on sacred pop-music territory. Many good composers feel honestly driven to mix the elements of pop, jazz, and classical music to create new hybrids, and they’ve gotta do it. The problem has always been, where do you find an audience that wants them mixed, that wants their beloved genre diluted? Not in my classroom, apparently.


  1. Caleb Deupree says

    What about Naked City? I remember an anecdote that they spent more time changing pages on their sheet music stands than they did playing (for their really short pieces, like Torture Garden). Zorn clearly cuts across any side of this argument one cares to make. And FWIW, the contents of his record collection are somewhat documented in various interiews over the years.

  2. Michael Wittmann says

    You write:

    “they clearly listen to an mp3 as having its own ontological status. But what are we supposed to all do, remaster our recordings every few years to keep up with changing fashions in technology?”

    to which I have to ask if that isn’t what we’ve been doing all along. Pink Floyd has released the same album how many times, in how many remastered versions? The Beatles “Love” is being hailed as a master of audio quality, based on the original masters. Plus, how many people consider the differences in audio quality between old vinyl recordings of symphonies and new CD versions?

    Perhaps the commercial line you are talking about is one of recordings in general dominating one’s understanding of music. I live in Maine; I don’t hear this stuff live. Ever. So to me, there IS a major difference between the recordings. (As an aside, I heard a recording of Sonic Youth’s Evol album being covered, and it just wasn’t the same – the notes were the same, but the tone wasn’t. Sometimes, there’s something about those specific artists playing that specific song, and it does matter.)

    As to your broader point, I was just reading about Steve Reich as performed live at the Whitney, with him there watching the performance. He pointed out that So Percussion played a piece without notation. (This interview is at He said his Ensemble had been playing the music for decades and still needed notation. To quote him, “They play a piece of mine called “Sextet”, which my group still reads off the notation, but these guys play it from memory. My mouth is hanging open. It’s just because they’re in their late twenties and early thirties and saw this stuff when they were in their teens, so to them it’s no big deal.”

    I convey the story because I agree with you: musicians these days play it all, enjoy it all, and don’t see the line. LISTENERS may be different, but I agree that performers and composers are leading here.

  3. X. J. Scott says

    That is a thought-provoking post.
    Compartmentalized thinking is a foundation of western institutionalization (edukashionalism.)
    But is that the issue here? There is something to be said for expectations. If I take a sip of milk and find that actually the glass contains orange juice, I am shocked and upset for a moment.
    The mp3 posted Plague is good when I imagine I am at a funky venue and it is being played by a modern jazz band.
    When I play it again, imagining that it is coming from a new music composer and performed in a university concert hall, I cringe at the piece because the composer is trying too hard.
    Same piece, different expectations going in.

  4. CM says

    That piece Plague actually captures what I dislike about attempts by some composers to blend different musical genres.
    One problem is instrumentation. To me, the brass instruments sound terrible against the electric guitars in that piece. I usually hate it when people compare music to food, but can you really wonder why someone who likes, say, martinis might not like to have one with a hot dog and creme brulee in the same sitting? According to the line of logic suggested in your post, if someone likes peanut butter and steak, then that person should also like steak topped with peanut butter. I think the reason why your students (and others including myself) dislike new music that combines different musical genres has less to do with having “grown up with the commercial boundaries of pop and classical music starkly demarcated by the commercial industry” as you say than it does with simply trusting what one likes and dislikes.
    Another problem is writing. In Plague, you can’t rock to the guitars for the brass and you can’t swing to the brass for the guitars. The listener is left with nothing to do but passively contemplate an intellectual exercise.
    In my opinion, composers who can successfully incorporate elements from different musical genres into a single coherent composition are successful because the end product does not sound like an odd mix of ingredients thrown into a blender. For example, John Adams can successfully incorporate a piano quote from Jerry Lee Lewis into a larger piece of music without the piece sounding condescending and without the quote even being immediately obvious to the listener. Arvo Part can use the prepared piano to great effect in a composition like Tabula Rasa but without the composition sounding like John Cage’s music of the 1940s. Glenn Branca can utilize electric guitars that are normally reserved for rock music to create compositions that sound little like what most people generally associate with rock or classical genres. Brian Eno can mix recordings of frogs, the wind, bass loops, and what not to create captivating environments of sound. Granted, Eno and others might not necessarily be combining different musical genres, but they are able to combine different elements into an organically coherent whole.

  5. Paul Donnelly says

    You wrote:

    “Sometimes I think they’ve become so attuned to listening to production values that they can no longer perceive the basic content of pitches, rhythms, and text. I reflexively listen to a recording as a document of live music, but they clearly listen to an mp3 as having its own ontological status.”

    It’s funny; just as I came to this line I caught myself thinking about the posted mp3 in the way you describe. I think this is a natural result of recorded music’s prevalence. Many years ago a performance was ephermal — maybe you hear a bad one, but you know that that’s just how it turned out; the next may be better — but now a performance can be “the song” just as much as its description as sheet music. In fact, I tend to think of recordings as more authentic than scores in most cases. A recording isn’t just one performance; it’s the author’s intent meticulously arranged the way it “should” be (assuming it was done right, under their supervision, and so on).

    I’m not at all surprised that Nick Didkovsky’s music didn’t meet with an overwhelmingly positive response. Judging by what I’ve tracked down, his idea of rock music bears little resemblance to modern rock music. When I first listened to “Plague” I wasn’t impressed myself. Small wonder after you had introduced him as “the most seamless fusion of rock, jazz, and classical ingredients anyone ever pulled off”. I couldn’t help but compare him to all the rock music I’ve ever heard, and he’s not playing it very well.

    He is, of course, playing something else well.

    Perhaps your students have conflated the things they like about pop music with its performance practices. When they listen for “rock” in these fusion pieces and fail to find it, they decide that it must be because “he’s doing it wrong”. It’s sort of a misunderstanding about what fusion is. It can never really sound like its roots, because it has too many. The whole is more than the sum of its parts, as they say. They expect to hear building blocks when in reality the music is its own style, with elements whose inspiration can be traced to diverse traditions. Small wonder they can’t find enough red or blue when you give them purple.

    They are seeing a failure to achieve everything a pop tune should be, where in reality some other goal has been worked towards and reached.

  6. says

    I really admire how open you are to learning from your students, Kyle! This is a very interesting topic… I firmly believe that the answer to the schism lies in rhythm, or more specifically how music “feels.” (I blogged about this once before.) “Plague” is quite an interesting piece, but the way the high notes of the bass line and the snare drum are locked up is not quite right, sounding just a little too even or forced or something else hard to define. If the composer had a drummer and bass player who could make up their own parts, his concept would take off.

    To reverse the telescope: any decent performance of Mozart is in tempo. However, Mozart shouldn’t be played metronomically, since the curves of the melody and the changes of harmony need to influence the beat at least a little bit for a Mozart performance to be reasonably authentic. A jazz or rock musician playing Mozart fluidly but rigidly in time might sound ok to listeners who only have a casual relationship to 18-century music, but those who know their Mozart would find it appallingly amateurish.

    The music you are linking to on your blog is not amateurish by any means. However, I have yet to hear a classical piece with a backbeat that is successful on every level. Most of the time the composers and performers seem to have only a casual relationship to the rhythmic feel of rock or jazz. I do admire the third movement of Thomas Adès’ orchestral work, “Asyla,” but in that case his infernal disco remains backbeat-free: the beat is just four on the floor German techno, which a symphonic bass drummer can do since only a metronome is required, not a groove. (However, Adès’ transcriptions of pop music for chamber ensemble like “Cardic Arrest” are completely wrong-headed.)

    It should be ok to use distorted guitars or 80’s synths as long as the composer loves it. It’s the beat that matters. I think if you took a poll of non-classical musicians, they would rate “feel” as the most important element of rock and pop music, far above any other consideration.

    Aha–just saw the other comments, where Caleb brought up John Zorn’s Naked City and Daniel Clark brought up Frank Zappa. The thing that made Naked City so great was Joey Baron, who can play any feel as beautifully as one could want. Joey might have had music by his drums, but he mostly made up his own parts any time there was a beat. And of course, any Zappa drummer–while they did have to read the solo drum feature “The Black Page”–would have been given the same freedom in his ensemble.

  7. Paul Donnelly says

    Oh, and a response to this:

    “I can’t tell whether I’ve got legitimate complaints or whether there’s some true pop sensibility that I and the music I love have fallen out of touch with.”

    Probably both. If you are thinking this music of yours captures pop music convincingly then you have indeed fallen out of touch with it. It nods its head to pop much more than it is pop.

    On the other hand, if your students are thinking that it should mimic pop music more closely, they aren’t quite “getting it” (to use a much-loathed phrase) either. “This isn’t my music,” is a valid observation to be sure, but to reject it on those grounds shows a lack of openness to those who would build on pop music.

  8. Tom DePlonty says

    There was something about “Plague” that didn’t quite work — the improvs. There just wasn’t enough space made for them to develop into anything interesting. But that isn’t an issue of trying to fuse styles.

    I don’t understand the objections about the orchestration and rhythm. The rhythmic conception is what the piece was about for Didkovsky, it seems to me. And if brass doesn’t go with electric guitar, I’ll have to throw out my 70s Miles Davis. I’m reluctant.

  9. says

    Whenever I’ve played “Plague” for rivetheads, they’ve liked it. But I don’t tell them it’s classical or post-classical music. Why should I? Doctor Nerve’s CDs are found in the rock section, and sit comfortably within a progressive rock tradition going back to Frank Zappa and Henry Cow, and carried on today by any number of Cuneiform and ReR artists (Doctor Nerve are on Cuneiform).
    That said, “Plague” may not be the best DN track to hook most pop listeners, because unlike most of their material it uses overt heavy metal cliches. To me this makes the fusion the opposite of seamless; the fish tastes like fish and the ice cream tastes like ice cream, and you’d better like tasting them both at once. I do, but I’m not surprised that others don’t, especially those that aren’t crazy about fish in the first place.

  10. says

    I should add that my first experience of Doctor Nerve’s music was live in a rock club, which probably colors my opinion. They were spectactularly good, and as far as I can recall did not use sheet music.

  11. mclaren says

    Gann mentioned:
    What I really can’t grasp, though, is how anyone can think that a particular sound can be reserved only for a certain kind of music. What’s so holy about an electric guitar pitch bend with distortion that no one outside of a rock group is allowed to use it? It’s like the objection, which I’ve often encountered, that no one should ever use a synthesizer because it sounds like ’80s rock.

    Various pathologies seem to have converged to produce this situation. First, there’s the mania for live performance. One crank on Sequenza 21 actually responded to my commonsense statement that “Nowadays the primary medium by which people to listen to music of all kinds is recorded music,” with this gem:

    “That’s not my experience. I’ve gone to five live concerts this week alone.” Naturally the crank lived in Manhattan. Naturally everyone on Sequenza murmured approvingly.

    Just think about that logic for a second — if you live in Manhattan and listen primarily to live music…that must mean everyone does. Good logic. So since I’ve never gotten cancer, no one gets cancer. Since I haven’t died, no one dies. Since I’m not female, no member of the human race is female.

    This kind of thinking requires no comment — but it does, sadly, permeate classical music. For some weird reason, composers who produce music using their laptop computers or synthesizers are not “real” “serious” composers and never can be. It works in reverse, too. The instant a serious contemporary composer touches an electric guitar, s/he instantly reverts to “non-serious” “non-real-composer” status. It’s the same mindset as the laws that said a single drop of african american blood instantly rendered a white guy in the deep south persona non grata and a non-human.

    But many other pathologies busily undermine serious contemporary music. Another one involves the fanatical monomania for acoustic instruments. Like everyone else, I enjoy hearing acoustic instruments. F horns sounds great. The violin is wonderful. I also enjoy hearing synthesizers. I do not understand why the two ought necessarily to be mutually exclusive… Any more than I see any reason why caucasians and african americans ought to be required to use separate drinking fountains or separate rest rooms. Acoustic orchestral instruments and electronic synthesizers differ. They should should not be ranked against one another in a musical witch hunt. That makes no more sense than concluding “I like my index finger and my pinky and my forefinger and my ring finger, but I don’t like my thumb at all because it’s trying to be a ring finger and it just doesn’t succeed. So I’m going to cut my thumb off!

    Yet we keep hearing this kind of bizarre reaction to synthesizers in serious contemporary music. I myself have encountered the objection, when playing a CD of some music by our microtonal ensemble: “You’re playing the wrong piece. You said that piece was performed live, but it has synthesizers in it.”

    Yes, it has synthesizers in it. And yes, it was performed live. And, yes, it has other instruments in it too — electric guitars. Sometimes acoustic guitars too. Sometimes home-made instruments like Ivor Darreg’s Megalyra (a 6-foot-long micrtuned steel guitar). Or Jonathan Glasier’s Wing
    (a triangle of space alloy festooned with welded spines that sits atop a balloon and gets stroked or bowed or hammered to produce any number of unearthly sounds). Or microtuned tubulongs (aluminum tubes resting on foamcore and played with felt mallets). Sometimes we combine a ‘cello with synthesizers. We combine everything together…so what? What’s the problem?

    Another pathology may, frankly, be purely an East Coast thing. Here on the West Coast, everyone seems to mix it up a lot more. West Coast pop groups combine electric guitars with ‘cellos and do it seamlessly — check out Bright Red Paper, for example:

    Also check out Steven Turre’s composition Andromeda performed by the improvising jazz quartet Quartette Indigo:

    No one on the West Coast seems to regard bright Red Paper as “posers” or “trying to appropriate rock riffs into classical music disrespectfully.” Ditto Quartette Indigo. So the fetishistic mania for maintaining an acoustic apartheid twixt electric guitar/synthesizers and traditional European orchestral instruments may boil down to a weird regional fetish which afflicts only the East Coast of the United States. Other regions of America exhibit equally weird abberrations. For example, the plethora of new age cults on the West Coast. And the pervasive horror of evolutionary theory which afflicts the deep south.

    So it may be the case that the effort to block the integration of circuits by standing in the musical schoolhouse door is…well, how do I put this delicately?…an East Coast thing.

    Too, AmeriKKKan KKKulture has been suffering through a testosterone-poisoned ueber-male frenzy ever since 1980, when Bonzo the chimp’s co-star got mis-elected President. Of course Bonzo’s co-star wasn’t a real macho he-man…he just played one in the movies.

    This strain of uebermacho chest-thumping jaw-jutting bug-eyed jingoism reached its apex (or should I say, nadir?) with the drunk-driving C student who currently infests the White House. This ex-college-cheerleader never came close to being a real macho he-man…but that didn’t stop a legion of crackpots from creating action figures (translation: dolls for boys to play with) in honor of the drunk-driving C student;s manliness:

    The sheer bizarreness of these kinds of dysfunctional behaviors sends us a clue. Perhaps (just perhaps) the ueber-macho he-man worship has passed its peak in AMerica and now finds itself in precipitous decline. (It long since declined in Europe. That has led to endless contempt evinced by the people who gave us the Iraq debacle for such cowardly cultures as the French…who incidentally have the most successful military record of any Western culture in the last 1,000 years, reaching all the way back to the Battle Of Tours.) What with ever-growing concern about global warming and a revulsion for the debacle in Iraq, feminine values seem to be staging a comeback. This may provide some long-overdue balance for the crazed faux-masculinity of draft dodgers who portray themselves as phoney he-men and macho war heroes like Bonzo’s co-star…who sat out the real WW II playing phoney officers in films like “This Is the Army.”

    The sheer bogusness of the entire ueber-macho culture centered around Bonzo’s co-star and the drunk-driving C student currently in the White House has caused the entire macho fantasy to implode, nowhere more clearly than in Iraq. Fortunately the country has collectively rejected the entire ueber-macho delusion with a disgusted shudder. So we may be in the process of a pendulum swing back to a more balanced apportionment of masculine and feminine cultural qualities.

    Then again, the issue may boil down to Western culture itself. Gore Vidal has pointed out that Western Europe/North America adores vengeful male sky gods noted for their savage cruelty and their devotion to fanatical abstraction. Other non-western cultures, however, worshipped female earth goddesses who were celebrated primarily through fertility rituals, and whose devotees focused their adoration on things we can see and hear and smell and taste and touch (as opposed to invisible deities living in the sky). This schism twixt abstraction/hate-filled sky gods and tactility/nurturing earth goddesses goes back to the dawn of recorded history. One group of cultists worshipped YHWH and delectated in torture and destruction and mass murder and abstraction (no graven idols — you can see an idol and you can touch it!). Meanwhile, other groups worshipped Isis and preferred the Eleusinian mysteries and the healing arts (since Isis was renowned for her ability to heal the sick).

    According to this view, we’ve slithered down a long cultural downslope since the 4th century B.C., when the worship of Isis reached its zenith. That’s a more pessimistic explanation for the hostility of your students. In that view, they’re dedicated cultists of vengeful male sky gods who demand abstraction. Therefore it’s clearly verboten to mix any feminine qualities into the testosterone-overdosed heavy metal archetypes. That would be like standing up in an Episcopalian church, proclaiming yourself a devotee of Isis, and shouting, “Okay, everybody, now let’s fuck to celebrate the Goddess!”

    Too, we ought not to forget the pathology of scriptism, which also afflicts serious contemporary music. Music isn’t “real” “serious” “contemporary” music, according to this strange belief, if it’s not meticulously notated on paper in common practice notation. This means of course that improvised music becomes automatically suspect. And since rock typically involves a fair amount of improvisation, especially in live performances, this represents a tidy set of musical Jim Crow laws to keep serious contemporary music strictly segregated from pop music.

    Separate but equal, of course.


    Gann averred: I can’t tell whether I’ve got legitimate complaints or whether there’s some true pop sensibility that I and the music I love have fallen out of touch with.

    You’ve got legitimate complaints. Your East Coast students are behaving bizarrely. It might be a phase they’ll grow out of. Or it could be all that ritalin they got dosed with back in grade school. Or it might represent a pathology which the rest of us will simply have to ignore, like the need by certain fringe political groups to frantically keep trying to ban fluoridated water as a “communist conspiracy.”

    Regardless of the exact nature of your students’ dysfunction, it’s not typical of all or even a majority of classical listeners in the United States. Not by a long shot.

    I hear nothing wrong with “Plague.” It kicks ass and takes names. Sounds like a fine combo of 40s big band music, metal, and fusion jazz. It doesn’t sound as hardcore as Metallica or Pantera or Napalm Death or Judas Priest, and that’s clearly not the intention. If Didkovsky wanted to do pure heavy metal, he would’ve orchestrated the entire thing for guitars & Rat distortion pedals, so what’s the problem?

    Gann has previously censored my remarks to the effect that all too many young are young fogeys, and I predict he’ll censor this one too. But in this case I think that’s the real answer. Those kids are just young fogeys, set in their ways and intolerant of change. The very comment that synthesizers in pop music produce an “80s sound” betrays a startling back of listening experience. Check out Tangerine Dream’s albums from the 70s, or Kraftwerk’s albums, or Larry Fast’s albums.

    Phaedra, an “80s sound”? Rubycon, an “80s sound”? Larry Fast’s “Cords,” an “80s sound”? Wendy Carlos’ “Sonic Seasonings,” an “80s sound”? Gentle Fire’s music…an “80s sound”??? Kraftwerk’s “Autobahn”…an “80s sound”…???

    Ought a young person who thinks history started with Ronald Reagan to stand supreme as our arbiter of things cultural and musical? Is it possible there’s a reason why the constitution of the united states of america places a minimum age of 30 years for senators? Should we contemplate the possibility of demanding a similar minimum age requirement for people before taking someone’s opinions about music seriously? Not in the internet age, where everyone is equal, especially people like these:

    The irony, of course, is that a wealth of evidence converges to show that America’s getting sick and tired of the vengeful-male-sky-god ueber-macho youth-obsessed zeitgeist. Evidence? Try Richard Dawkins’ “The Root Of All Evil.” Also the re-emergence of Wicca. Perhaps even general American weariness with eternal war for eternal security. Add the trend together, and it’s just possible America culture may be undergoing a sea-change. Perhaps we’re headed back to a more feminine paradigm. Perhaps we’ve grown tired of the obsession with youth as the end-all and be-all of cultural values. Perhaps a grassroots surge of respect for the environment and some concern for our custodial duties toward the planet are starting to flavor the cultural bouillabaisse in the United States of Amnesia.

    As for the allegedly “anti-climactic” ending of Baptism, I must be a mutant. Sounds like the piece winds down peacefully yet adroitly, and the ending seems (to me) thoroughly conclusive albeit quiet. What, do we have to have a big oompah at the end of every serious contemporary composition…?

    [Since essentially every statement in this comment runs violently counter to the vengeful-male-sky-god ueber-macho youth-worshipping zeitgeist of the early 2000s, it’s easy to predict that this entire comment will go straight into the bit bucket and never see the light of day. Such, such are the joys of citing uncomfortable documented facts in public…a crime more despised in America than child molestation.]

  12. says

    Sigh. . .
    McLaren– You’re an interesting mix of right and off-the-deep-end, dude. Your enraged-persecuted-counterculturist attitude is painfully similar to the faux-macho conservatisim you so loathe. It really undermines what are in some cases valid points.
    So. . .
    I must have missed the comments thread at Sequenza21, but if I had been following it I would have agreed with you that recorded music is the primary way in which people experience music these days. So let’s not go painting S21 with such a broad brush, okay? And then you launch into this series of extreme analogies and over-the-top statements. There are certainly some important but substantially less extreme versions of what you talk about — yes, in some circles there’s a mild prejudice against computer music. Yes, in some circles there’s some prejudice against electric guitars. Yes, certain instruments are associated with certain genres and with certain amounts of “seriousness” and often this causes problems. But the way it works as many, many times more complex and subtle than the way you address it.
    I don’t have time to go through your whole rant, but over and over again you take some small kernel of truth and inflate it into an offensive monstrosity that’s full of hyperbole and overgeneralizations and ceases to be accurate even though it’s founded on what, as I said, is often a kernel of truth. And in some cases that kernel of truth is important and worth discussing.

  13. says

    This post has stuck with me for a few days. In my days of producing music at The Kitchen (lots of Dr. Nerve performances, Mikael Rouse, Diamanda Galas, etc.) this question came up a lot, for me because I had also spent a lot of time doing sound for people like John Lee Hooker, Bo Diddly, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Wendy O. Williams and more, and had my own funk band that played places like CBGB.
    Anyway, I found something in todays NYT that has some relevance to this discussion:
    The the section most germane to this discussion is:
    “The subtlest reason that pop music is so flavorful to our brains is that it relies so strongly on timbre. Timbre is a peculiar blend of tones in any sound; it is why a tuba sounds so different from a flute even when they are playing the same melody in the same key. Popular performers or groups, Dr. Levitin argued, are pleasing not because of any particular virtuosity, but because they create an overall timbre that remains consistent from song to song. That quality explains why, for example, I could identify even a single note of Elton John’s “Benny and the Jets.”
    “Nobody else’s piano sounds quite like that,” he said, referring to Mr. John. “Pop musicians compose with timbre. Pitch and harmony are becoming less important.”
    There is a perceptual war going on in the heads of you students when they listen to this music in the context of your class, where they are focusing on everything but timbre. Perhaps outside of the class, they would be more receptive.
    But also, if the “classical” composer is using pop music elements, but paying more attention to pitch and harmony, then their effort will be less than successful.
    In an earlier post, you presented a recording of a piece of yours in which you apologized for the use of a Casio synthesizer, saying that it was the only one available at the time. Not to say that that’s right or wrong, but a pop composer would never release a recording using an instrument with the wrong timbre. In fact, there are plenty of stories of 8+ hour days in a recording studio devoted to getting the perfect mic placement on a kick drum. A little excessive, but evidence of the importance of timbre to pop musicians.

  14. says

    This whole thread has me wondering if someone can clear up an issue for me on which I’m ignorant. I’ve always assumed that most pop music is experienced first and foremost on recording. Do fans feel disappointed when they go to live performances of the music they’ve memorized and hear it sounding somewhat less than studio perfect? As someone who never goes to pop concerts, I honestly don’t know the answer. But I’m guessing it would be awfully difficult for most bands to recreate their studio sound in a live environment.

  15. Aacooper says

    “Plague” is interesting, but I suspect some of the negative reactions were because the song is (IMHO) a bit of a mess. You can throw the kitchen sink into a song, and it doesn’t make it better than something simpler and with more soul.
    Mixing genres, on the other hand, has been done for a long time, and with various amount of success. There’s no right or wrong way to mix genres, but it’s easy to find artists who’ve failed in their attempts to do so.
    A lot of artistic breakthroughs are made by mixing genres, or less obviously, using lessons learned from another genre. Look at Miles Davis… would his modal revolution come about if he didn’t have a conservatory musical education? Would his fusion revolution come about if rock hadn’t been invented?

  16. says

    have you tried working the other way at all, kyle? how do they feel about jeff buckley singing benjamin britten? or that motown tune with the minuet from anna magdalena’s notebook? emerson, lake, & palmer basing a record on pictures at an exhibition? yngwie malmsteen’s cult of paganini? kid koala playing basin street blues using eight turntables? why is okay for beck to use hip-hop beats? for matisyahu to sing in a fake jamaican patois? is scott joplin a classical composer or a proto-jazz composer? was it condescending for debussy to write cakewalks?
    KG replies: Didn’t play any of that stuff. Couldn’t do it without wincing.

  17. says

    very interesting that you couldn’t play rock or jazz appropriations of classical without wincing, yet you’re confounded by your students wincing at classical appropriations of rock or jazz. it sounds like you all need to examine what exactly causes the wincing. what is musical condescension? is it in the eye of the composer/performer or the listener? why do you think the classical appropriations of rock work and why haven’t you been able to find any rock-appropriating-classical that satisfies you?
    but let’s go out on a limb here, perhaps a la mclaren: what makes a bunch of snotty, suburbia-raised, private school undergrads the experts on what creates authenticity in rock ‘n’ roll anyway? what makes led zepplin ‘authentic’ and nick didkovsky ‘condescending?’ why is it a sin for didkovsky to steal riffs from heavy metal but it’s okay for heavy metal bands to steal riffs from black blues guitarists (or from bach or paganini – there’s certainly plenty of guitarists out there who have cited them as major influences)?
    KG replies: I don’t know. Maybe. I don’t know, except that most of the examples you give are back from the ’60s. My son is into Yngwie Malmsteen, and while I haven’t actually heard him, I don’t know that his Paganini would actually make me wince. Maybe they’re not. Maybe it’s not. Perhaps this would be something to discuss at ACA.

  18. Student says

    I’m a high school senior that doesn’t play an instrument (although once did for a short period). Nearly all variants of popular music, save a select few “progressive” or “intelligent” varieties (although these categories can be dubiously deceptive) are immature as far as their musical content is concerned, and classical is where most of the richest notes I’ve heard are (most). It’s not concerned with “rocking”, “breaking”, “swinging” or “getting crunk”.
    That being said, I liked “Plague” as well as your “Baptism” piece. I don’t have any data to support it, but as a hypothesis as to why “Plague” was rejected, one could assume it’s because they aren’t used to hearing rock music of that sort. Had you played it for a group of students that follow “Behold… The Arctopus”, the result would have likely been much different.
    With another equally dataless prediction, I can say that few young admirers will be gained if a composer tries to fuse the elements of popular music and classical music, at least if it’s the kind that can actually be called “popular” (i.e. “heard of”). Music like Metallica et al isn’t meant to be fully listened to, it’s meant to devote half of one’s attention to listening and the other half to mindlessly moving one’s body. I don’t listen to music with the intent of doing something else (“Bach for Barbeque“?!), I listen to music with the intent of listening to music, and that’s the distinction between popular and classical that is the apparent and enjoyable to me. I have attended one and only one popular music concert, to which one was expected to “mosh” to the beat of the music just as the crowd was. Never have I desired to go to one again, as I do not enjoy acting like a zombie. That’s the distinction–popular music is made with external usages in mind.
    Perhaps I am an anomaly, as most of my peers rank no better than “detestable barbaric juveniles” in my eyes. But that seems to be what is making up the bulk of young classical music listeners who have not been raised as one: those who desire a type of music that takes itself seriously. Keep in mind, I’ve had an excessive exposure to popular music, and it comprises the bulk of what I have heard throughout my life, so it’s likely that I am probably a much different breed than your students.

  19. says

    student, when i was in high school i felt very similarly to you: music is an intellectual activity that rejects the body. i think in my case, a lot of that rejection stemmed from the fact that i’m not super coordinated and my mental talents were a lot stronger. i’ve since come to feel that intellectual activities must incorporate the body; rejection is a dead-end (i’m still quite uncoordinated). i totally agree with not wanting to act like a zombie, but it is possible to pay attention to what your body says/learns/does, react accordingly and honestly, without sacrificing what you gain from ‘pure’ intellect or sacrificing your personality in a mob situation. much of music’s content is perceived and understood kinesthetically – which comes out as the natural tendency to bob and sway, flail and mosh, or create a set of proscribed dance moves. i urge you to observe your own and your peers tendencies to move, the how and why of it, without judging it as good or bad, high or lowbrow, and see what it tells you about what kinds of music hit you where you live. and if you care to see a real set of zombies, come see a rock show in new york, where everyone is too cool to move anything other than nodding their heads a few millimeters up and down.
    (ps to kyle – out of my examples, the jeff buckley is from the 90’s and kid koala is from the 00’s. there’s plenty more, i’m sure, but that was just off the top of my head. anyway, i was just saying that you can’t harbor such prejudices and then hold having similar prejudices against your students. but i’m a big fan of mixing stuff up, from the rock to classical/jazz and the classical to rock/jazz, and the jazz to rock/classical. cheers.)

  20. says

    As for the general issue of appropriating pop language for classical constructs —language is completely transferable as long as the composer has A.some love and musical mastery of that language, B. an understanding how that language can transfere musically to classical, universal forms, C. and that everything is logically unfolded. Metal riffs that go nowhere or free jazz sections that have no musical preperation before or after is an insult to both metal and free jazz.
    Also one of the essence of pop culture is production, so you can’t have things produced along side things unproduced. Everything has to sit in some form of reverb and compression/limiter with massive amounts of signal processing as glue or it just sounds wrong. This is probably the only thing the modern or young listener actually responds to intelligently ( just listen to 30 secs. of a Limp Bizkit record —-it is definitely all in the same sonic/musical room).
    Also, If you are going to make leaps between language, you have to create common elements in each language. Part of the whole point of this kind of music is how you get from a to b —not actually listening to a or b because we have heard them all before.
    Finally, Us older listeners—We still are’ closet modernists’ in a post-modern age—- we still want our postmodern rip-offs to sound new.

  21. CM says

    The comments by the high school student were interesting. It was during high school when I really became interested in contemporary classical music. Throughout junior high and a little later, I listened mainly to jazz, several musicians on the Windham Hill label, and some older classical music. But a friend of mine lent me Kronos Quartet’s first album, where I heard Philip Glass’s second string quartet. That piece really sparked my interest in what other music might be available. Around the same time I heard Ligeti’s music from “2001: A Space Odyssey” and was floored. From there I went backwards through Cage, Schoenberg, Bartok, Webern, Mahler, Bruckner, etc., devoured whatever writings I could find by and/or about contemporary composers (e.g., John Cage’s Silence, books by Edward Strickland, Michael Nyman, and later Kyle Gann), and became particularly taken by American music after hearing Riley’s Salome Dances for Peace and Reich’s Music for a Large Ensemble. And when I finally heard La Monte Young’s music, it was as if the music I had been waiting so long to hear had been made manifest, like hearing the music of the cosmos for the very first time.
    For a while I developed an attitude that other genres of music (e.g., pop/rock) were not worth listening to. But there are many interesting forms of music being created and performed by people in many different genres and in many different parts of the world. I would advise the high school student not to close his/her ears to new music, regardless of where it comes from. At some time you may find yourself understanding and liking something better now that you disliked in the past.

  22. says

    Andrea’s examples can be multiplied, effortlessly, without end, across the past, say, forty years, but I’ll spare you my doing so, and the people who mentioned bands like Behold … the Arctopus! and the Cuneiform/ReR roster (and those labels could be multiplied as well) are right on the money regarding silly prejudices about what counts as “rock”. (This may just be my prejudice, but I’d hesitate to class Malmsteen anywhere near the groups/people successfully rocking out classically—though I think A Student is underestimating Metallica, corporality, and the values of rocking out and swinging, etc.) I’m not really sure why, say, Zs or Normal Love get referred to as composers’ collectives or projects thereof, except that they bill themselves that way, while Art Zoyd or Rich Woodson’s Ellipsis are just rock bands, actually.

  23. Alex says

    Student said:
    “Music like Metallica et al isn’t meant to be fully listened to, it’s meant to devote half of one’s attention to listening and the other half to mindlessly moving one’s body. I don’t listen to music with the intent of doing something else (“Bach for Barbeque”?!), I listen to music with the intent of listening to music, and that’s the distinction between popular and classical that is the apparent and enjoyable to me.”
    I think your concept of “listening” is quite narrow and since you seem like a smart kid that needs some sort of intellectual justification for what most people perceive as just music that feels good I suggest this doctoral thesis by the jazz pianist Vijay S. Iyer which contemplates the idea that music listening isn’t just an intellectual activity, as Western music has taught us, but a corporeal experience that can be perceived through the body. This may raise your appreciation for non-classical music.

  24. Pablo says