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Jan. 07 2020

When Classical Met (and could meet) Pop

By John Scherch | Posted in Host Blogs, New Music | Comments Off on When Classical Met (and could meet) Pop

Some of the most well-known forms of composition in classical music are of dance music from the pieces’ time. A Bach suite (which he wrote very many of), for example, would contain dances such as an allemande (a French German-style dance), a courante (a triple meter dance often following an allemande in a Baroque suite), a sarabande (another triple meter dance), a minuet (triple meter again), a gigue (based on an Irish jig), a passepied… the list goes on. Many of these styles of dances would be used well beyond the Baroque period by many different composers. Another very prominent example is, of course, the waltz, a popular Viennese dance kept especially famous by Johann Strauss Jr. among many others, and the annual New Year’s Concert held in Vienna where much of his and his contemporaries’ music is used to ring in the new year.

One might think, then, that classical composers today might still incorporate dance themes in their music, and perhaps of their time (they do, but we’ll get to that). The names of traditional movements of dance suites are still used in compositions that bear the name of traditional composition forms, but if you want an idea of how much a lot of them relate to the historical dances that share their names, go listen to Caroline Shaw’s Partita for 8 Voices, and as soon as you’re done listening to the first ten seconds of the piece (and while I would last longer as I like weird things like that, the snark stands), you’ll find that these names are a system for structure rather than any rules for how the piece is meant to sound.

While I would argue that there is value, though perhaps not of the sort that sways traditional fans of classical music, in a work like this, many would see this kind of piece as just part of a continually unmusical path that composers are treading and then expecting their works to be programmed alongside Beethoven (#beethoven250). Much of the music composed since Schoenberg indeed lacks what many would traditionally define as musicality, and is therefore largely inaccessible to people outside conservatories. This isn’t this type of music’s only problem, though; just as classical music is a niche market (though we’d like to believe it isn’t), there are niches that enjoy noise music, sound collages, and blasts of distortion that would make Webern sound like Mozart. But this isn’t about how to get people who like weird music to like weird classical music. What I’d like to propose, and provide some examples of, is a form of new classical music that is accessible to all audiences, is high quality music, and is relevant to potential new audiences.

There’s one big hitch in all this, though, and it is well-explained by Richard Taruskin in the fifth volume of his Oxford History of Western Music series. He describes the advent of the recording industry as the first time music was marketed as generational — that a certain kind of music is for one generation and not their parents. That generational divide, along with composers’ increasing experimentation, set classical and popular music apart so it seemed like they would never meet again. This is why the latest form of popular music incorporated into the classical canon is jazz, and I would argue that it’s a big reason why our canon is so canonical.

Classical music listeners are hesitant to accept the incorporation of modern popular music largely because it has become so distinct from classical music over time, in complexity, instrumentation, attitude, and yes, quality, though certainly not in all cases (this will not be the place for a discussion of the merits of Kendrick Lamar earning a Pulitzer, though I will say that I wholeheartedly approve). Another reason is that some people’s idea of a fusion of classical and pop (as in non-classical) sounds something like this:

Or maybe this: https://www.ispot.tv/ad/whdB/subway-signature-wraps-tiny

Cringeworthy, no? I certainly did. But what if the pop elements are built into the music? Here’s a version of Vivaldi’s Summer in which the composer incorporated pop elements right into the score:

It of course doesn’t have to be just a rhythmic nod towards popular music. Here’s a partita (this time a much more accessible version of the modern use of the term) in which the first movement (the only one without a traditional dance title) could be considered in the style of Jimmy Page:

Or the use of classical instruments in ways that are evocative of instruments more commonly used in popular music (which has been done time and again historically); in this piece for string quartet, one might expect the use of mandolins not knowing the ensemble:

There are obviously other barriers for people who don’t normally listen to classical music to be able to get into it, and more than just tangible or measurable ones. New music being composed after the pop music of today would just be one of the methods of bringing people in. More immediately, though, if more new music were composed like this, it could at the very least be introduced more often into classical programs. Ensembles and radio stations are hesitant to program new music because of the tonal experimentation done in the 20th century that still remains in a thankfully shrinking proportion of today’s music. At the same time, orchestras are experimenting with bringing pop acts and live scored films into their houses. Working within a structure can show the greatness of an artist; just look at Bach or Haydn or Mozart. If that structure were to be simply the requirement to incorporate an element of music that is popular today, that could demonstrate a composer’s level of artistry and be a work that will potentially bring people to concerts, both longtime symphony-goers and new audiences. From another angle, there are composers who are doing so, and a fair amount of them represent things that potential new audiences find to be missing from classical music. Classical music reuniting with the music of its day could help heal the great divide of the 20th century, and perhaps make its future look (and its music sound) clearer and brighter.


The newest announcer and WBJC's evening and Listener's Choice host, a former heavy metal program director and erstwhile enthusiast, and Peabody graduate in voice and pedagogy, both of which he still practices. Full bio here.

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