In the DNA

I’ve been pondering the reasons why the composers I call alt-classical seem to strike a nerve with the new young audience I keep talking about. It’s not just because these composers sometimes write music with a pop-like beat. First, the pop-like beat might not be steady, and might just pop up here and there. 

But second, and much more important, the music might not have a pop-like beat at all. And yet it feels like it fits into the culture where pop-like beats dominate. How does that work?

I got some insight into that, I thought, when I heard a piece by Glenn Kotche, called Snap, at a performance by the Bang on a Can All-Stars at the University of Maryland last weekend. Kotche is the drummer in Wilco, but he’s also a free-jazz improviser and a composer, so his music can get complicated. And Snap is complicated. It’s based on classic R&B songs recorded by the Stax label in the 1960s. (I’m lucky enough to have the nine-CD boxed set of all that label’s singles, swag from my days as a pop music critic. The quality is strikingly high.)

But Kotche doesn’t even come close to imitating any of the songs. Instead, he picks them apart, finding rhythms and textures he likes, and then putting those (often in fragments) into a new piece that’s put together like classical music. Which means, in this case, that it’s an abstract construction, changing constantly, full of complexities and surprises, without any trace of a tune or the generally simple construction that we’d find in the original songs. Well, for one brief momen there’s something that sounds like it’s descended from a Stax guitar solo, refracted into something not very Stax-like. Similarly, there’s a brief Stax-descended bit played on the sax. 

But these are over almost before they start. The one thing clearly descended from the Stax originals that we hear throughout the piece is the rhythm. It’s much more detailed than the rhythm in any Stax song, but it’s got the same propulsive feel, along with a Stax-like backbeat. I’m not sure that anyone who didn’t know how the piece was built would identify the rhythm as Stax, but someone who knows where it comes from will most likely hear the connection right away. 

Or, to put it differently, Snap has Stax in its DNA. It evolved from Stax, the way we humans evolved from a common ancestor we share with fish. Which then means, first, that if you don’t  feel the way Stax rhythms go, you can’t play Kotche’s piece with anything like the right rhythmic drive. And, conversely, if you’re heard all your life the kind of rhythms Stax was full of — which basically means if you’ve heard pop music all your life — you might well feel some kinship with this piece, even if you’re not used to music constructed out of things that change so quickly.  

I’m sliding here over the tricky question of how many kinds of pop/rock/hiphop/country/R&B/house/techno/Latin rhythms there are — not that I couldn’t name many more genres — and how many of them any casual pop fan might feel easy with. I’ll just assume for the moment that most of us in this culture know what a rhythm with a backbeat is, and that we feel comfortable when we hear one.

But then there are pieces without any audible beat, or even any audible pulse, that still seem to share some equivalent kind of DNA. I’m thinking now of two percussion pieces — “Descarga,” by Marcos Balter, and “raingutter,” by  Michael Early — that.I heard when the Nonclassical record label from London held a club night at Le Poisson Rouge in New York. These pieces sounded fully classical. No trace of any R&B beat. But somehow they seemed to have some kind of pop beat, or, more subtly, the feel of some kind of pop beat, in their DNA. 

So here’s a theory. Feel free to shoot it full of holes. My theory is that music in our culture, after rock & roll broke out, developed a backbeat. When you clap or snap your fingers, you do it on the offbeats. Pretty much all our pop music for two generations now has had that feeling. But before that Western music had a very different feel — when you clap to it, you clap on the beat. 

New classical music, once modernism hit, grew more complex, and when you get to composers after World War II, like Boulez or Stockhausen or Carter, you might not have a steady pulse at all. But still the inner feel — the rhythmic flow that’s in the music’s DNA — is that you’re clapping on the beat. But now it’s possible — now that popular culture has become, simply, culture — to find classical pieces that don’t throb with a steady pulse, but still have an inner feel that derives from a backbeat, so that if it were possible to snap your fingers to these pieces, you’d do it on the offbeats. 

This music sounds instantly comfortable to anyone prepared to accept something complex in music, whether they’re used to classical music or not. Music with on-beats in its DNA doesn’t sound as comfortable. If this is really true, we now can understand one big thing that the many forms of alt-classical music (from minimalist works with a steady pulse to fragmented percussion pieces with no audible pulse at all) have in common, and we understand why an audience steeped in pop culture responds to them. 

And we also understand why modernist works from the classical mainstream — well, from the hyper-intellectual new music monastery that clings to a corner of the mainstream — don’t immediately touch the alt-classical audience. Even though, as I’ve said before, this audience is the only one I’ve ever seen open-minded enough to accept solidly on-beat driven modernist works, even if they don’t have anything familiar in their DNA. Which makes this audience pretty special, though it doesn’t mean we could just program pieces by Boulez or Matthias Pintscher, and expect the new audience to show up.

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  1. Richard Mitnick says


    This is terrific insight on your part. But, it is not without prior precedent.

    Back in the first several decades of the 20th century, especially some European composers were picking up on Jazz, the new dissonances, the new chord structures. They were heavily influenced by Jazz. In the USA, Copland and later Bernstein certainly showed Jazz in their composition.

    I see these earlier guys as really the beginning of “New Music”.

    I think your insight is right on the money. Here is my question: while we can be sure that this stuff will make it to BAM and Zankel Hall, do you think it will get into Avery Fisher Hall or Walt Disney in L.A.


    Yes, the history goes way back.

    Will the new stuff make it to the traditional concert hall? In some small degree, it already can. And surely will do more.

    But a related question is whether the new audience will care to go to those halls. Probably they’ll go to Disney (I think they already have), but maybe not to Fisher. And almost certainly not to very traditional smaller venues.

  2. Richard Mitnick says

    I am sorry, I should have said my sources for my above remark are Kyle Gann’s essays for American Mavericks and Alex Ross’ “The Rest is Noise”.


  3. says

    I think you’ve hit this one on the nose. You’ve reminded me of something that Christopher Rouse (who has taught courses in the history of rock) once told me. He said that when American conductors of his generation and younger look at certain rhythms in his scores, they know exactly how they should go — with that backbeat, in other words. He doesn’t have to mark the passage “à la John Bonham”. Like the alt-classical composers you’ve mentioned, it’s in their DNA.

    Other conductors, of course, won’t get the rhythms at all. I’ve had some bad luck with classical players who don’t quite get rock or jazz passages in my music. (Hey, and thanks for coming to the concert last night!) I can write “with a rock & roll backbeat” in the score, and even some younger musicians don’t know what that means, or how to do it. Seems like Chris Rouse has been pretty lucky.

  4. says

    There has been so much research suggesting that our body maps underlie our perceptions and even acts of imagination. Maybe one viewpoint is that when a culture embodies music in a certain way, that way of listening will also dominate even when they sit in a concert hall, and when music does not connect with the body, even in the imagination, it loses dimensions of meaning for the audience.


    And now let’s imagine going to [fill in the name of almost any classical music performing group], and asking if their performances connect with our bodies. And if they think it’s a problem if the performances don’t connect that way.

  5. says

    I’m having some difficulty understanding your point, as I don’t understand how it can apply to music that is not in 4/4. Can you perhaps explain that a bit, and maybe provide some examples to hear?

    David W. Fenton

    Glad you asked, David. Maybe others want more explanation, too.

    I started my train of thought, of course, with music that really is in 4/4, and thus can literally have a backbeat. But I extended that thought, speculatively, to suggest that there can be music that exists, so to speak, in a line of descent from music that literally has a backbeat. I was thinking that the backbeat might have other musical consequences, especially for rhythm, that are subtler than simply snapping your fingers on the second and fourth beats of a bar, instead of the first and third. There might, in other words, be some kind of very supple rhythmic flow that was first heard when there’s a backbeat, but can continue to exist in music with no backbeat audible.

    As an example, I might think of Julia Wolfe’s string quartets, which have been recorded, or even David Lang’s Pulitzer Prize piece, “The Little Match Girl Passion,” which is coming out on CD or download, and can be heard on streaming audio on somewhere on Carnegiei Hall’s website. These are pieces without any backbeat, but I think that people from the backbeat generation (so to speak) will find them culturally sympathetic, especiallyl the string quartets.

    Of course, there could be other intangibles at work, too.

  6. Andrew says

    Of course in actual DNA you find base pairs, not backbeats. I think it’s interesting how most scientific knowledge, being extremely dull, complicated, and esoteric, remains confined to a sort of intellectual ghetto where it remains unknown to the vast majority of humanity. But occasionally major concepts, like DNA, or hormones, or black holes, escape from this scientific ghetto into popular consciousness, but in so doing they change their meanings so as to become almost unrecognizable. So you can write about popular music having DNA, and people will know what you’re talking about precisely because you’re not talking about DNA at all. I guess you’re using DNA to mean “essential characteristic.”

    I half suspect that, just as Stalin repressed Mendelian genetics because according to Marxism all children are born perfectly blank and equal, part of the reason Americans are so taken with the ideas of DNA and genes is their deterministic quality, an imagined potential to give a scientific basis to inequality. Anyway, if Kotche built this classical piece around Stax rhythms, I’d see a closer analogy from those rhythms to proteins than to DNA. As many classic soul sides are built around the rhythm, so many cellular structures, including the cytoskeleton itself, are built around proteins. DNA itself has no structural role at all and is largely a set of instructions for which proteins to make, so it’s more analogous to the score Kotche wrote than to anything you hear in the music as such. But then “protein” is another escaped scientific word, so if you used it people would think you were talking about meat, and they’d be confused. Finally in the comments Steven Swartz uses DNA basically to mean memory or habit or musical upbringing, which of course is nurture, not nature: the thing has become its opposite. It’s actually quite interesting to watch.

    (Sorry this post is so far outside the normal subject matter of the site, but you just kept using DNA to talk about music without meaning the no wave band.)

    Digressions are the stuff of life, so let’s range widely outside the normal subject manner. And thanks for mentioning the band. Haven’t played those records in years and years. Liked them a lot.

    I was using DNA as a metaphor. Meaning something that programs the growth of an organisms, in this case musical organisms. And in this case programming that growth so that the grown organism has a rhythm descended from a backbeat, even if no backbeat is audible. More or less as we human animals are bilaterally symmetrical, a characteristic we share with other animals that don’t look much like us.

  7. says

    Interesting post, Greg. I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot lately.

    Seems to me that every time I write a classical piece I have a hard time getting my musicians to really sit “in the pocket” with the rhythmic figures. I think it’s because I’m going for rhythmic feels that exist in pop music as opposed to the lightness of older classical music. Musicians that have no pop training have a hard time really feeling that beat in every note.

    I feel like most of the new music that I like (both ‘alt-classical’ and various pop genres) has a sense of “groundedness” (a sense of rhythmic pulse that permeates every gesture) while the modernist stuff that I can’t relate to – and the old classical stuff with its on-beat pulse – has a sense of “airiness” (no connection to any “beat”).

    I once heard a comparison of breakdancing and ballet that seems like an apt analogy – a ballet dancer tries to become part of the air, while a breakdancer tries to become part of the earth.

    I’ve had this same problem with classical musicians, and so have other composers I know. Probably a lot of us have had it. Maybe we need at least an informal database of composers who write grounded rhythms, and of musicians who can play them.

  8. Tamas says

    Hi Greg,

    This reminds me of something that I read some time ago on David Byrne’s journal. He described the same problem: the difficulty of connecting to music that does not groove. The funny thing is that his post was not about “hyper-intellecual modernist works” – it was about Steve Reich’s music! Here is a quote:

    “My complaint would be that it doesn’t groove. Oh, occasionally it hits a pulse and stride, but having stood for hours around Candomblé drummers in Bahia, rumba drummers in Cuba and elsewhere, having seen Ade’s band — who also play non-stop for hours — a few times and joined the sweaty dancers, I miss the body connection with Reich’s compositions.”

    So Byrne makes basically the same argument as you, but from his point of view Reich is in the same camp as the modernists. What do you think of this?

    Hi, Tamas. I’m so glad you brought this up. Fascinating. My first thought is: David Byrne spends a lot more time than I do with music that grooves, so he’s quicker to spot any lack of groove in Steve Reich.

    Or, to put it differently, for me, coming on Steve Reich from the classical music world, I’m struck by how nonclassical the rhythm is. For Byrne, coming on Reich from the groove world — and hearing (as I’m sure he did) that Reich was supposed to have some kind of pop music energy — Reich was disappointingly classical.

    At a concert during the Tully Hall reopening festival, I heard the Bang on a Can All-Stars followed by Steve Reich and his ensemble. And here I’d agree with Byrne. The All-Stars grooved, Reich and the gang didn’t.