‘Pop Music’ vs. ‘Classical Music’, Part One

Written by Ronnie Rocket, Classical 2.0 (www.classical20.com)

The recent debate on the influence of classical music on indie rock and vice versa, originally initiated with this post in the excellent Flavorwire (cultural news from the übercool, digital cityguide Flavorpill) and later commented in The Guardian here, seems to have touched an interesting nerve among music buffs. It is always interesting, when artists crossover or show new, surprising sides of their talent. Sometimes, they create a whole new genre, like Rufus Wainwright in recent times with ‘popera’.

For more than 30 years I have followed the developments and firsthanded experienced some defining moments, that are examples of meetings or outright clashes between genres. Karlheinz Stockhausen live with punkrockers in the audience, Balanescu Quartet playing Kraftwerk and releasing records on the esoteric electro-label Mute Records, Elvis Costello performing live in a concert hall with the Brodsky Quartet, Glenn Branca with 100 electric guitars in an auditorium in Rome, and many more.

Inspired by the current discussions, I have put together a list of 20 important events, where the popular music genres of the day, be it jazz, pop or rock meets the established world of classical music. They have since, in their own right, changed the future of music, no less.

1. Miles Davis playing Manuel De Falla on “Sketches of Spain” (1960)

The jazz trumpeter studied at Julliard School of Music (his father let him drop out to pursue a career in jazz). Davis was frustrated about the focus on white, European composers. Later in his career, working with arranger Gil Evans, he went back to the European tradition and quoted references on the landmark ‘Sketches of Spain’ album. Read a review of the album here. He was a big fan of Karlheinz Stockhausen, an important inspiration for his late electric period.

2. The Beatles putting Stockhausen on the cover of “Sgt. Pepper…” (1967)

Everybody knows that the most famous songwriting couple in the world, Paul McCartney and John Lennon, had their differences. They even could not agree on who discovered the music of Karlheinz Stockhausen first. You can see the archived correspondance about the inclusion of Stockhausen’s face on the Beatles’ album cover here and here and  a christmas card John Lennon sent to Stockhausen here and here. Stockhausen himself hated pop music.

3. Walter/Wendy Carlos releases “Switched-On Bach” (1968)

Wendy Carlos not only introduced (and collaborated with Robert Moog) the Moog synthesizer, but did it with music written by the Godfather of classical music, Johan Sebastian Bach. Later, she worked closely with movie director Stanley Kubrick, creating futuristic sounds for the innovative cinematic experiences that would later be regarded as some of the most important movies ever made. However, several of the recordings were rejected by Kubrick. Carlos later released some of these out-takes on two CD’s (1, 2). The introduction of the synthesizer, the adaption of classical music and the soundtrack work for Kubrick were very early experiments connecting popular culture with the classical music world.

4. Stanley Kubrick introducing György Ligeti on the “2001: A Space Odyssey” soundtrack (1968)

The film introduced the avantgarde composer György Ligeti to a wide public. Ligeti’s Requiem (the Kyrie section) and Atmosphères act as recurring leitmotifs in the film’s storyline. Other music used is Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna and an electronically altered form of his Aventures, the last of which was so used without Ligeti’s permission.

5. Ornette Coleman writing “Skies of America” for orchestra (1972)

Skies of America is a third-stream composition, meaning that it encompasses parts of traditional classical music and parts of contemporary jazz. This work was meant to be a collaboration of a full orchestra, in this case the London Symphony Orchestra (conducted by David Measham) with Coleman’s quartet, but conflicts with the musicians’ union in Britain forced the quartet players from the recording. Skies of America is Coleman’s epic “harmolodic manifesto.” Read a review of the reissue here.

6. Electric Light Orchestra’s first single (1972)

“10538 Overture”, released in 1972, was the first single by Electric Light Orchestra. 15 overdubbed, cheap Chinese cellos played by the legendary Roy Woods creates a new sound, that became part glam rock, part symphonic rock.




7. Brian Eno & Obscure Records (1975)

Ex-Roxy Music glamrocker was instrumental in introducing classical music to the rock world. The 10-album series issued on the Obscure Records label introduced an unsuspecting audience to Gavin Bryars, John Adams, Michael Nyman and more. Not since the Beatles album have a single act had such an influence on exposing classical composers to a ‘rock’ audience.

8. Manfred Eicher from ECM Records releasing Steve Reich’s “Music For 18 Musicians” (1976/1978)

The Bavarian record producer Manfred Eicher had already established one of the most innovative records companies ECM Records, releasing records with Keith Jarrett and Art Ensemble of Chicago among many others. Early on, he began expanding into and focusing on so-called classical music and released several records with Steve Reich reaching a new, more mainstream audience. These releases eventually became the platform for the ECM New Series, a sub-label and a ‘market leader’ in contemporary music today.

9. The soundtrack for Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” (1980)

György Ligeti (again) and Krzysztof Penderecki‘s music introduced to a massive audience in a soundtrack to a popular horror movie earning almost 100 million dollars was a major breakthrough for contemporary classical music into pop culture and the hard-to-find soundtrack is still a favourite in the indie crowd today.


10. Glenn Branca writing symphonies for electric guitars, like “Symphony No. 1”, and releasing them on underground cassette tape labels! (1981)

Music from the pioneering no-wave artist, Mr. Glenn Branca – here making a modern classical masterpiece with four guitar parts, including axe-man Lee Ranaldo from Sonic Youth:

Here is a clip from the Rome performance of “Hallucination City: A Symphony for 100 electric guitars”:

Part Two of this article will be posted here next week – stay tuned for 10 more groundbreaking moments in the grey area of popular and classical music!


On a personal note, I would like to add that I am promoting a chamber music concert in Copenhagen next week, where the programme goes from baroque, impressionism and modern to contemporary 20th century and completely new music including a version of Kraftwerk’s “Die Roboter” arranged for treated piano and amplified cello thrown in for good measure. The music is performed by Eriko Makimura & Co. More information about this special event here
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Nico Muhly and Craig Lucas opera based on a real Internet murder plot

The composer Nico Muhly and the playwright Craig Lucas have crossed the finish line first.

Their opera, based on a real Internet murder plot, will be the first to be staged under a joint commissioning program by the Metropolitan Opera and Lincoln Center Theater, the Met said on Friday.

Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, has said that the idea behind the project, which began when he took over the Met in 2006, is to develop new repertory and give the compositions the benefit of improving through a workshop process, more of a Broadway method.

The work will make its debut in June 2011 at the English National Opera, which will share in the production’s cost with the Met. It will come to the Met for the 2013-14 season. It will be the fourth time that the Met and the English National Opera have co-produced a show since Mr. Gelb took over, in a system that has essentially turned London into an out-of-town tryout locale for the Met.

Read the full article in The New York Times here.

Nico Muhly in Concertgebouw tonight

Britten Sinfonia
Pekka Kuusisto, viool/leiding
Mark Padmore, tenor
Jacqueline Shave, viool

* Purcell – Fantasia a 7 in c, Z 738 (arr. N. Muhly)
* Purcell/Muhly – Let the Night Perish (Job’s Curse), Z 191
* Purcell – Fantasia Upon One Note, a 5 in F, Z 745 (arr. N. Muhly)
* Tippett – A Lament (uit ‘Divertimento on Sellinger’s Round’)
* Britten – Les illuminations, op. 18
* Reich – Duet
* Muhly – Impossible Things
* J. Adams – Shaker Loops (Version for String Orchestra)

Voorafgaand aan het concert in de Grote Zaal zullen Pekka Kuusisto en Nico Muhly worden geïnterviewd.
Aanvang: 19.35 uur, Spiegelzaal. Reserveren is niet nodig.

Podcast: Alan Gilbert/Nico Muhly/Dalston Songs/Julia Jones

Tom Service talks to two New Yorkers – conductor Alan Gilbert in his first season with the New York Philharmonic, and young composer Nico Muhly. Stories are turned into music in Helen Chadwick’s Dalston Songs, and Tom meets British-born conductor Julia Jones ahead of her debut at the Royal Opers House.

Listen now (7 days to listen).

Composers' Workshop 2010

Nico Muhly composer

Student composers New Works

The annual Britten Sinfonia Composers’ Workshop has become a firm fixture in the calendars of up-and-coming  student composers. This year, Nico Muhly, who is in residence with Britten Sinfonia during January and February 2010, will select five pieces written by student composers to be rehearsed and performed by Britten Sinfonia. The workshop is a fascinating opportunity for audiences as well as students to hear the advice and opinions of one of the hottest properties in America’s musical community.

“Very useful – [Oliver Knussen’s] incredibly sharp ears picked out several details that greatly improved my piece and his general comments were also interesting” 2008 student composer

The workshop takes place from 10.30am in the concert hall, with the final concert performance at 3.30pm.

Tickets – available through Cambridge Corn Exchange box office

£8 full day
£5 concert only
£5 workshop only
Students free

Nico Muhly and Britten Sinfonia, review

Young New Yorker Nico Muhly may be one of the hottest composers on the planet, but his music also pays homage to some unhip influences – like the Jacobean composer Orlando Gibbons. Rating: * * *

If anyone rivals Thomas Adès for the title of the planet’s hottest composer, it’s surely the young New Yorker Nico Muhly. So it was a very smart move on the Britten Sinfonia’s part to bag two world premieres from him. The first of them was premiered by the Sinfonia in Krakow last weekend, and had its first UK outing in Cambridge on Tuesday.