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Awesome Music 

What might the classical music establishment learn from pop?

Wednesday, Oct 17 2007
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Who’s Who

Owen Pallet is a Toronto-based musician who has created arrangements for indie artists Arcade Fire, Bloc Party and Beirut. He releases his own music under the name Final Fantasy.

Ronen Givony was recently named one of Billboard’s “30 Under 30,” a list of music-industry “talent on the rise,” for founding Wordless Music (www.wordlessmusic.org), a concert series devoted to classical and contemporary instrumental music.

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Alex Ross has just published his first book, The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century. He is classical-music critic for The New Yorker and blogs at therestisnoise.com.

In the 20th century, music was a genre-based battleground. Hippies hated the milquetoast pop of the 1950s. Punk rockers hated the hippies’ psychedelic indulgences. Hair metal triumphed over punk; grunge killed the hair farmers; teen-pop killed grunge. On one point, though, almost every pop musician could agree: Classical and composed music was a bloated, boring corpse. Similarly, when composers and conductors like Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland championed the Beatles, they garnered amazement from the classical-music establishment. And so it went . . .

Such intergenre combat seems, well, a bit old-fashioned now. You hear composed music’s influence in the complex electronic experiments of Radiohead, the symphonic arrangements of Arcade Fire and the dreamy soundscapes of Sigur Ros. Why is this happening and what might the classical-music establishment learn from pop? The L.A. Weekly convened a trio of forward-thinking presenters, critics and musicians to help articulate an emerging sensibility.

To kick things off, we brought up a phrase New Yorker critic Alex Ross introduced in his blog: He stated that classical music should be renamed “Awesome Music.” Was this a rebranding effort on par with parental efforts at calling brussel sprouts “tasty”? Or is it simply a reflection of contemporary composition’s current vitality?

ALEX ROSS: “Awesome Music” was a throwaway line that subsequently struck a weird chord in a way that made me happy. Yes, it’s a self-consciously absurd attempt at rebranding — more “KFC” than “war on terror” — mocking marketers’ desperate attempts to make classical music seem “hip.” At the same time, it’s perfectly serious. The music is awesome. When it’s played, awe ensues. If you’re sitting in the seventh row while a great orchestra is tearing through Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony at full force, everything else kind of drops away.

Classical music obviously has a major image problem in modern American culture. Look at the way it’s presented in movies. Serial killers invariably prefer Mozart to the Rolling Stones. Classical musicians are emotionally repressed. Etcetera. It’s used as a signifier of everything American pop culture professes to liberate us from. But this establishment image of classical music is something of a fiction. Filthy-rich people sit in concert-hall boxes, but it’s no different when the Rolling Stones play Monster Park in San Francisco. It’s just that at Monster Park, the billionaires are wearing easy-fit jeans.

RONEN GIVONY: All forms of music have to re-evaluate themselves in light of the realities of the new musical marketplace. In the case of classical music, the “rebranding” defines the genre as one of many, instead of situating it in the position it enjoyed in the past, when the “importance” of classical music was undisputed, and Glenn Gould was a household name.

It’s undoubtedly an exciting moment to be a listener, performer or presenter of classical music. There have never been more composers, ensembles, forward-thinking venues and avenues of distribution for new music. And it’s a fairly obvious point, but with the advent of Rhapsody, iTunes, MySpace and file sharing, there has never been a time so much music has been readily available to so many people.

Think of the musical games someone like Bach, Mozart or Beethoven could have played if they had the history of 20th-century music at their disposal — not only Steve Reich, Philip Glass and György Ligeti, but Aphex Twin, John Coltrane, Public Enemy and Buena Vista Social Club. We’re at a rare moment when anyone has almost any piece of music from any country or moment in history just a few mouse clicks away. What’s frustrating about the authorities who lead the worlds of classical and pop is that they view this access as something to be feared, wished away or litigated out of existence, instead of harnessed to their own advantage.

OWEN PALLETT: I’m skeptical of any rebranding of genre. That’s a hindsight observation made by historians. I’m inclined to attribute recent sympathies between classical and pop to inventive promoting, like Toronto’s Music Gallery; or to technological developments — such as the widespread availability of digital recording software, making it easier for composers to work within the recorded medium; or to the increased access music makers and appreciators have to recorded digital media.

The distinction I’ve always made between classical and pop music of the 20th century has more to do with the format of its presentation. Classical has the opera, the symphony, the string quartet. Pop has the album, the single, the songbook and the press release. Classical is a tradition rooted in performance in a concert hall, whereas pop is responsible for the creation of a recording industry. As a musician who both plays in bands and writes scores, format is the only distinction I make between my “serious” music and my “pop” music.

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