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.