The future is here

It’s too late to stop pop and classical music from interbreeding. There’s just too much of it going on, and it goes way beyond the obvious, well-publicized crossovers (Ofra Harnoy putting out a CD of Beatles songs, Michael Bolton singing opera arias, etc., etc., etc., etc.). The good stuff has a real artistic edge. I’m thinking of Capital M, a New York rock band, which commissioned seven pieces from seven classical composers, and premiered them in March. I’m thinking of the Steve Reich remixes, by dance music DJs, that came out on Nonesuch years ago. I’m thinking of Alarm Will Sound, the terrific New York new music group, which recorded arrangements of techno songs by Aphex Twin. Plus (picking things now almost at random) Christopher O’Reilly playing piano transcriptions of Radiohead,  Conrad Cummings, writing piano pieces based on Beach Boys tunes, my own te, for cello and piano, with an echo of Led Zeppelin. (Score is here, computer realization of the music here. I have a recording of a good performance, by musicians from the St. Luke’s Chamber Ensemble, but I can’t put it on the web.)

Not to mention classical pieces written with a pop beat or a pop style or pop rhythms, by composers like  Scott Johnson and Randall Wolff. Or Christopher Rouse, with his percussion piece that’s a tribute to John Bonham, the Led Zeppelin drummer, or his sequel to Wagner’s Ring, Der gerettete Alberich, for percussion solo and orchestra, which has rock & roll passages. And so much more.

I’m only scratching the surface. And I haven’t talked about classical moves from pop musicians—industrial bands indebted to Stockhausen, for instance, and much more. Or the collaborations between the London Sinfonietta and the techno label  Warp, and with members of  Radiohead.

Or the fuseleeds festival (no capital letters) in Britain I mentioned here 10 days or so ago. Or the Philadelphia Orchestra musicians, shown in the film Music from the Inside Out, who play in salsa and bluegrass bands.

And then there’s a student in my Juilliard course this past semester, Justin Brown, a bassoonist, whose graduation recital (presented on April 29th) for his master’s degree had this program:

RADIOHEAD Everything in its Right Place

BJORK Hunter


RADIOHEAD I Might Be Wrong


SIGUR ROS Hoppipolla

BJORK Army of Me

WEEZER Only in Dreams

BONNIE TYLER Total Eclipse of the Heart

All of this, Justin says, was “performed by an amplified acoustic ensemble of Juilliard Students (Justin Brown, bassoon; Evan Kuhlmann, keyboards; Gareth Flowers, trumpet; Brendan Kane, double bass; Michael Caterisano and Brian Flescher, percussion; Mike Block, cello).”

And he adds: “There were about 150 in attendance (the largest I have seen at a student recital @ Juilliard in the last five years). The audience members appeared more excited than I could have possibly hoped for (cigarette lighters were used without request!).”

Why shouldn’t classical musicians play concerts like this?

Why shouldn’t they treat themselves as jazz and pop musicians do? Instead of saying, “I’m a bassoonist, I’ll play the bassoon repertoire,” why not say, “I’m a musician, what music do I like? How can I make it work for my instrument?”

Another lovely sign of change, supplied as a comment to one of my recent posts, from someone who signs himself only as Luis, and is with the IberoAmerica ensemble (I think he’s probably Luis Díez, the violist in the Holland branch of the group; there’s also a branch in the US). Anyhow, Luis writes (along with some warm praise for me, for which I’m grateful), that “our cellist is reputed to have recently sung one of her favourite songs as an encore for her last concert!”

And there’s much, much more. How about pianist Gabriela Montero including a bonus CD of improvisations with her recent EMI classics release? Or soprano Melanie Mitrano recording a CD of new music, which includes some really good songs she herself wrote (words and music both, just like a pop singer/songwriter)?

Classical music is changing, maybe faster than we think. We’re least likely to see the changes at the big institutions, but elsewhere things are moving fast. The pop/classical bleedthrough is impossible to stop, because even before it ever showed up to any great extent in concerts, it was happening in peoples’ heads.

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  1. says

    The real question to me has always been why would anyone want to stop it? When I started performing popular music on my recitals back in undergrad days, it never even occurred to me that it shouldn’t be on the program, that is, of course, until my professors strenuously objected.

    I haven’t the foggiest idea why, though. It’s a sort of cultural amnesia that holds there’s no place for popular music in classical performance. Say what? The history is to long and obvious to go into here, but it’s my generation of musicians that have finally stopped questioning the legitimacy of popular music.

    For the next year, I’ll be headed out on tour with Cursive, one of America’s premiere indie rock bands. I consider that experience just as important and legitimate as my studies at the Yale School of Music or my work at Juilliard. If the aging arbiters of taste in the classical biz disagree, it’s at their own peril, not mine.

  2. Peter S. says

    Greg, I’m all for classical musicians drawing upon popular music, but — “TOTAL ECLIPSE OF THE HEART”???!! Good God, that’s cheese of the stinkiest variety.

    Go argue with Justin!

    Seriously, though, one wonderful difference between pop and classical music — or rather the way smart people live inside each genre — is that in pop music, it’s often fun to like cheesy stuff, and a lot of people do it without apology. In classical music, many people are just too serious to go in that direction. Or, maybe more to the point, too much afraid of what others might think.

    Case in point from someone I know. She’s an oboist, and played a baroque oboe concerto. Someone wanted to give her a compliment, and, after much hesitation, said she’d played the music as if she was playing the blues. She took that as very high praise, but the person who said it to her was afraid she’d think he was trivializing what she’d done. Because what could blues have to do with classical music?

  3. says

    I think it is fantastic that the (ridiculous) division between ‘creative’ and ‘re-creative’ musicians is being blurred, and hopefully one day obliterated completely.

    So much of the time, in the classical world, the emphasis is on the medium (instrumentation, technique) rather than the message. Really, it doesn’t matter all that much if you’re playing Bach or Pink Floyd – the passion and conviction of a performance is much more important.

    I’d encourage everyone to click Anastasia’s link at the end of her comment, to read her excellent blog. She has more to say on the subject of this comment, and it’s well worth reading. Not to mention what she says about everything else. Thanks for commenting here, Anastasia, and I’m glad you’re reading me.

  4. Michael Wittmann says

    I have to disagree on the reaction to Total Eclipse of the Heart. After a set of music by my favorite non-classical contemporary artists (such an Icelandic influence, oh my! and so much Radiohead, woo hoo!), one absolutely has to enjoy the cheeze of the last song. Why not? I’m sure it got a laugh when it began (from people too young to know the horrid video) and then I’m sure that it was played with poignancy and emotion, with actual expressiveness.

    As you say, why the hell NOT mix genres, play one song in another style, and so on. Brad Mehldau did Radiohead in a jazz idiom, and there was that cello quartet that played Metallica. I loved that album and my brother-in-law (a sound designer for theaters and a roadie for bands at different times in his life) ate it up.

    My first radio station, WXDU in Durham, NC, had a motto that still rings true: Open ears, open mind. Except the order seems to go the other way, too often…

  5. says

    After a set of music by my favorite non-classical contemporary artists (such an Icelandic influence, oh my! and so much Radiohead, woo hoo!), one absolutely has to enjoy the cheeze of the last song.

    I think I might be the only one who found exactly those selections kind of predictable (not that I would have predicted precisely those songs, but is it any surprise on a program of this sort that Björk, Radiohead, and Zappa came up?). At least Weezer and Bonnie Tyler let some of the performer’s personality through. (Of course liking Radiohead, Sigur Rós, et al. might be in accord with his personality as well, but they’re such safe, anonymous choices… Wouldn’t it be great if that lineup performed, say, something off Nico’s second album or something by Upsilon Acrux?) I like the bass clarinet quartet Edmund Welles in this regard, it’s clear that its leader/composer has his tastes that manifest themselves in his own music and his choice of arrangements.

  6. Richard says

    On further thought, might this concert be an updated reiteration of the tried(trite) and trueorchestral “Pops” concerts that my folks dragged me to? Did Justin and friends play around with the material (i.e. thought compositionally) or were they faithful to the “text”? My hat’s off to them, though, for mixing things up at a place that I have always thought to be a bastion of eastcoast stodginess.

    They played with it compositionally, as far as I know. They wouldn’t have just played it straight. These are smart people, very far from any pops concert mentality.

    Your comment on Juilliard isn’t wrong, I have to say. Justin’s work to get the recital on, with the necessary approval from faculty and administration, would make a fascinating study. The guy’s got a great future ahead of him as a manager or administrator. He knows how to get things done, against great odds.

  7. Evan Kuhlmann says

    I just wanted to speak to the selections for the recital. If people can’t understand “Total Eclipse,” all I can say is that you had to be there. And yes, we did have a sense of humor about it. As for the “predictability” of the program, the only criteria used when selecting the repertoire was what we liked. Classical musicians don’t just choose Bjork or Radiohead consistently because it’s more popular than obscure crossovers, but because it’s good. This recital was not planned as a representation of quintessential programming for classical-rock crossover. Just a bunch of stuff that we liked and wanted to play.

    The fact that the program then seems predictable might give off the impression that this was some kind of planned crossover extravaganza, but in actuality it was the result of late night jam sessions in Juilliard’s orchestral rehearsal studio. We didn’t come up with the ideas for half the tunes until we actually just started messing around with the sounds the ensemble could get.

    Thanks, Evan. Evan did the arrangements for this concert. Maybe you can answer the question somebody asked about whether you did some compositional playing around with the music. I’m guessing you did…and I’m still annoyed that I had to be out of town, and couldn’t hear the recital myself.

  8. says

    Thank you for your comment! Yes I am the violist from IberoAmerica in Holland 😉

    I am very interested by this graduation recital, the most adventurous thing I have listened to at school here (in Groningen, Holland) is Le Grand Tango by Piazzolla. How did they ever convince the faculty to play that?! I had a friend that was considering playing some Kapustin, but was afraid they wouldn’t take him seriously. Can we listen to the concert or any of the pieces?

    Getting this concert approved was quite a saga. Justin, if you’re reading this, you might want to comment (discreetly, of course).

    I’d love to have a CD of this myself. Evan, any chance of it? Or downloads? I can imagine some legal problems, though, with licensing the music. Though wouldn’t Juilliard’s ASCAP and BMI payments take care of that?

  9. Richard Voorhaar says

    Luis, they don’t do any Louis Andriessen? Gronigen must be full of reactionary stick-in-the-muds!

  10. says

    Greg – thanks for your comment!

    The arrangements were very tricky not only because they were all done in less than a week, but also because we scrapped several in the process. Having electric bassoon and electric cello as lead instruments was challenging orchestrationally, but the key to this performance was the skill of the performers.

    Because each of the musicians in this ensemble has a different non-classical background, I chose to write the arrangements more or less like modern classical music. Some of the musicians are comfortable reading guitar tablature style reductions, others are more comfortable reading fake-book style lead sheets. But the thing that everyone in the ensemble could do was read traditional notation. So I split the difference between what I knew to be each person’s style and a medium that we were all familiar with. The percussion parts to Bjork’s “Hunter” look a lot like Louis Andriessen’s “Worker’s Union.” The piano part in the bridge of “Hoppipola” looks like John Adams’ “China Gates.”

    As in rehearsals for Steve Reich’s “Drumming” or “Music for 18,” the biggest problem was navigating repeats for the repetitive or jam sections. For a rock band or jazz combo this isn’t as difficult because they are used to jamming regularly. This group only had a couple rehearsals, but I tried to incoporate jam sections and opportunities for improv into the arrangements. We learned very quickly how to negotiate these and had several great and surprising moments in the performance that I felt were part of the developing chemistry of the group.

    One of the stereotypes that arrangers have about classical musicians is that you have to write the style into the music. Not true! Justin gave out Mix CDs to the ensemble that had songs in each style. People forget that a classical musician’s job is to take a template and breathe life into it. If you give a classical musician 4 bars of the style, they will take care of the rest. It’s what we do.

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