An introvert, in Jung’s view, was someone who not only is focused on his own thoughts and perceptions, but considers his own viewpoint the final arbiter of reality. When popular opinion and one’s own perceptions come into conflict, the introvert cannot but decide that the world must be mistaken. However, in Jung’s view, every conscious principle is balanced by a compensatory principle in the unconscious, and it is common, he observed, almost necessary, for an introvert to elevate public opinion to a deity-like monolith with which it is useless to argue. Secretly, introverts assume they possess the truth, but also assume that the world holds all the cards.
I think composers of my own age and especially younger have internalized some such attitude toward pop music. They’ve studied classical music and can deconstruct it and criticize it, but the very popularity of pop, its perceived universal appeal, makes it, for them, immune to criticism. They compensate for a secret guilt over the self-consciousness of their classical background by considering pop music sacred. I’ve encountered this attitude for years with my undergrad students, and I discussed it at length with the more experienced composers at the Atlantic Center, because I truly want to understand it. It’s not a universal opinion, and there are many nuances and varying viewpoints, but the general attitude is too common to be ignored. My teachers’ generation considered pop music beneath serious discussion; my students believe that whenever pop and classical collide, classical must be in the wrong.
I happen to think that pop and classical have a lot to learn from each other, and that neither has a monopoly on musical truth. Sonata form was an important contribution to culture, and so was the concept album inaugurated by Sgt. Pepper and Pet Sounds. I believe, as an ethical principle, that classical composers should learn from pop, and incorporate what lessons they gather – because I think its popularity is based on something real, if not all-embracing. Having come to pop music comparatively late in life, I don’t appropriate its elements much myself, but some of the composers I admire most are those who have tried to fuse aspects of the two: Rhys Chatham, Glenn Branca, Mikel Rouse, Eve Beglarian, Ben Neill, Nick Didkovsky, and so on. I don’t believe, as some of my contemporaries have claimed to, that pop music is kind of a neutral vernacular with the same status as folk music: i.e., that borrowing pop influences is analogous to Haydn inserting rustic folk songs in his symphonies. Far from being anonymous, pop music is drenched in the personality of its performers; every byte of it is owned by someone, and often valued exactly for its personal associations. Nevertheless, if something of the physicality and contagious energy of pop can be imported into more extended or complex notated forms, so much the better for the progress of music.
But, as I’ve documented here before, I am not encouraged by the public reception of music that explores this aim. Music that borrows pop elements is rushed into an inevitable comparison with pop, and never to its advantage. Restrict yourself to cellos and oboes and marimbas and accordions and you can write whatever you want, but the second you insert an electric guitar or trap set, you’ve conjured up the genie of a pop-music comparison, and it is not going to go back into the bottle. For a hundred years or more, composers have been gleefully divesting classical audiences of their expectations: expectations of first and second themes, of tonality, of stylistic consistency, and a hundred other things have been thrown on the dust heap of history. But the expectations raised by comparisons with pop music are not to be denied. They are sacred.
For instance, many composers, in the habit of determining every rhythmic detail of a piece, have tried notating rhythms for trap set. But god help you if your drummer plays those rhythms accurately and doesn’t swing them, if they sound measured out rather than improvised in the heat of the moment. Pop fans are accustomed to a certain kind of time-distorting drummer energy, and if you tie your drummer down to a 32nd-note grid, it makes no difference at all how brilliant your rhythmic structure is: they are not going to be impressed. Pop musicians also determine their personality by the obsessive search for a particular high hat sound, an exact guitar distortion. Classical composers have never been in the habit of notating music with specific sounds in mind; you write a drum part, you notate the cymbal, and you assume that the drummer, whoever he turns out to be, owns a high hat cymbal. A little bit of classical new music gets made with exact timbral specificity – Poème Electronique springs to mind – but it is entirely exceptional.
In short, the pop record has turned its fans into cognoscenti of precise timbres. One reads constantly how proud they are of being able to recognize a tune or album from the first split second of a single note. There are possibly classical music mavens so familiar with recordings of the Brahms symphonies that they can recognize which orchestra is playing from the first note; but what does that have to do with Brahms’s intentions? Most instruments are neutral, and can be easily dissociated from the music they are associated with. We can hear a piano without being disappointed that it isn’t Chopin or Horowitz or Bud Powell, we hear an oboe without thinking of Mozart or Strauss, even an accordion without necessarily thinking of polkas. But trap sets and electric guitars, at this stage of the game, are not neutral, and cannot be bent to any compositional use the composer imagines. They make musicians want and expect to hear a certain kind of energy and virtuosity, and no music that fails in that comparison will be well received.
The attempt to compete timbrally with pop music is usually doomed to failure not only in terms of instrumental deficiencies but in terms of production values. The amount of money that went into making Sgt. Pepper, or any of Bjork’s albums, what they are is unimaginable to the new-music composer. Most of us make do with the machines and software we can afford to own. The great majority of electronic composers skirt the issue by relying on synthesized electronic timbres and gradual sonic transformations that never remind anyone of real instruments. Those of us reliant on MIDI, trying to simulate melodies, harmonies, and rhythms – in my case because I’m looking for tunings and polyrhythms that live ensembles can’t currently play – are generally reduced to a repertoire of sounds summarily dismissed by audio software experts who can recognize their source. And even those who have their own groups and record in the studio rarely have access to the best microphones, the best mastering, the best guitar-shredders in the business.
And finally, some composers will never use pop elements to pop fans’ satisfaction because they’re trying to do something else instead. What classical music, generally speaking, has to offer pop is a more global sense of structure, a reconceived relationship of detail to overall form. For those details to be as imagined by the composer, the performer can often not get carried away. You may set up some nested polyrhythms, or an interaction of two isorhythms, which would lose their rhythmic meaning were the drummer to play them imprecisely. Many composers, myself included, think music through notation, and there are limits to which the performer can interfere. What I listen for in music may be perfectly well satisfied by a composer using vernacular elements. But for most pop music fans, the points of comparison are sacred, and admit of no leeway.
Well, so what? I find it a little sad, because a tremendous amount of music that I find powerfully written and brilliantly conceived gets dismissed as worthless because of timbral and production-value reasons that have nothing to do with the music’s intent. I trust that the state of affairs is temporary. It may be that a new generation coming along now will become so expert at studio techniques that they will be able to merge a classical sense of composition with the most timbre-oriented recording values. It may be that a future generation less in thrall to pop records than ours will return to the pop-influenced music of the last 20 years and hear all the wonderful things it had to offer without perceiving as a negative the things it wasn’t trying to do. Whatever the case, I think we need to acknowledge that the sacredness of expectations based on pop music comparisons puts the would-be-pop-influenced composer in a difficult double bind. One can continue writing music that has nothing to do with pop, and resign yourself to endless facile charges of elitism no matter how transparent, pretty, or cogent your music is; or you can cross the line and try to draw on the other music you love listening to, and almost certainly draw yourself into a contest you are going to lose. I’ve become convinced: a pop-classical fusion may indeed be the eventual future of music, but given the way people are conditioned to listen today, there is no chance it will be the immediate future. I admire the people who try, but personally I wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole.