‘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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Classical elitism

It took me years to find [Radio 3] the [pop radio] station remotely penetrable. For a long while I had no patience, my laziness supported by the thought that just because classical music – and world music, and jazz, and folk, all played on the station – existed didn’t mean I had a duty to listen to it. But music is music: if you love music you will find something to love about almost any music. It just takes time. In the last fortnight I’ve attended, and loved, two classical performances: Satyagraha, a Philip Glass opera about Gandhi; and one by the London Symphony Orchestra, which featured Glass’s fellow American minimalist composer John Adams conducting his own work and that of Benjamin Britten.

It’s through the music of Glass, Adams and Steve Reich, in particular, that many rock fans have found a way into the fear-inducing labyrinth of classical music, through their use of forms and themes, both musical and topical, that seem to form a bridge between the genres. Jazz is often the halfway point at which even adventurous classical and rock listeners stop, and go no further, with their musical explorations. The former look to jazz for its rigour; the latter for its apparent anarchy.

What you get with minimalism, however, is the chance to listen to little motifs, over and over as you would with a pop chorus or riff, changing and swelling with time. As with any relationship you have in life, it repays the investment of listening well. You can do that with pop music, too, but only if you regard quality as something that is detectable, and appreciable, across the board.

Read the full letter in The Guardian here and a comment here.

Marin Alsop will conduct the London Symphony Orchestra in this new performance

The Frans Lanting Studio announced the London Premiere of the multimedia production of LIFE: A Journey Through Time, which will be performed for a special evening “Celebrating Our Planet,” on Sunday February 21, 2010, at London’s Barbican Centre.

Marin Alsop will conduct the London Symphony Orchestra in this new performance of LIFE, which features the imagery of Frans Lanting and the music of Philip Glass in a one-hour multimedia orchestral production that celebrates the splendor of life on Earth. LIFE interprets the history of life on our planet in seven movements, from its earliest beginnings to its present diversity, in a work that merges the photographic arts, science, and music. “Lanting’s majestic photographs dance lightly across a huge screen over the orchestra, while some of Glass’s most elegant music pulses underneath,” writes The Washington Post.

It’s a celebration of nature in all its glory.

Alsop, the Music Director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, conducted the world premiere of LIFE in Santa Cruz, California, in 2006, as well as subsequent performances in Washington, D.C., Baltimore, and at New York’s Lincoln Center. Since its premiere, LIFE has been performed in major concert halls in both North America and Europe, and for celebrations including the Gala Opening of the World Science Festival in New York, the World Wilderness Congress in Merida, Mexico, and in Geneva, Switzerland, at the official ceremony to inaugurate CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, the most powerful machine ever built to study the origins of the universe.

More info: