‘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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London Symphony Orchestra / John Adams, Barbican Hall, London

The intimations of both Ravel and Stravinsky in Colin Matthews’ opulent orchestrations of Debussy’s gusty Preludes “The Wind in the Plain” and “What the West Wind Saw” made for a quite incestuous feel to this the second of John Adams’ cunningly devised concerts with the London Symphony Orchestra. All five composers cross-fertilised in interesting ways.

Matthews’ take on the Debussy Preludes was governed by a desire to make them as orchestral in texture and as far removed from the piano as was conceivably possible. It’s what the best orchestral transcriptions always do and why Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition at times feels as though the plainer piano original came after and not before. Flickers of “Gnomus” and “Baba Yaga” breezed through the Matthews, the headiness of Ravelian rather than Debussian colours making for an exotic palette.

Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales then generated their own turbulence, the sort produced by sensuous swirling bodies. The problem was, though, that Adams, the conductor, slightly short-changed us on the swoon and salivation of these hedonistic morsels, failing to exploit through phrasing and rubato the full variety of pleasure that they offer. In short, they were rather stiffly, uniformly, despatched.

Read the full review in The Independent here and a review in The Telegraph here.

How one should behave at a classical music concert

The great debate of our times – about how one should behave at a classical music concert – had a special resonance for me this week. A couple of days before Alex Ross gave his lecture in London on how protocol might curb an audience’s enthusiasm, I went to a concert at the Lincoln Center in New York, given by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Vladimir Jurowski, the stunning young Russian conductor. The programme was varied and sophisticated: three pieces of music written within five years in the Thirties. The Ravel G Major Piano Concerto, one of the greatest works in that genre, was framed by two pieces by Shostakovich; his Five Fragments, with which I was not familiar, and his Fourth Symphony, with which I was.

Shostakovich spent much of his life looking in his wing mirrors, and rarely more so than in the mid-Thirties, when Pravda denounced him on the orders of Stalin. Stalin fancied he knew a thing or two about music (like Hitler, who actually did), and Shostakovich was not rash enough to disabuse him of this notion. The Fourth Symphony has ravishing moments in it, but other passages sound as though they are crying out to be piped over the PA system of a tractor factory in Sverdlovsk. I don’t think the poor old boy quite knew what he was doing at the time, and the work suffers in part from a structural incoherence. But it was played flawlessly, and the orchestra and conductor deserved the ovation they received at the end. Between the three movements, purists will be glad to hear, we sat sedately and silently.

Yet it was the performance of the Ravel concerto that now brings Mr Ross’s words to mind. It is one of my dozen or so favourite pieces of music. I could bore on about it for pages, but suffice it to say if you don’t know it, go out and listen to it. It requires an Olympic-class soloist to deal with it even half adequately and a genius to play it well. Ravel wrote it after visiting America for the first time, in 1928, and meeting Gershwin, whose work he admired and which became an enormous influence on him in this concerto and its sister, the Concerto for the Left Hand. Jazz is everywhere in the first and third movements: it seems when Americans hear the work they feel it is one of their own, and with some cause. The middle movement could not be more different. It is like a dreamscape of slightly sad but beautiful tunes that need to be played with the utmost delicacy.

Read the full article in The Telegraph here.