Sunday, October 30, 2011

Yo-Yo Ma and Bluegrass

Yo-Yo Ma is a classical musician who has done an amazing variety of collaborations. His latest is with bluegrass musicians and they have a new album out called The Goat Rodeo Sessions. Here is the song "Here in Heaven":

Now this is undeniably an excellent performance of a nice piece of music. Is there anything else to be said about it? Perhaps not. I'm a big fan of simple music, after all and this is, underneath the bluegrassy elaborations, a pretty simple piece of music. Does this count as classical outreach? Well, not really as there is nothing classical about it. Yo-Yo Ma can play pretty well anything on the cello, so this presented few challenges. Does this count as crossover? It is certainly unlike the examples I talked about in this post. There is usually something a bit awkward about a pop musician performing classical music--though Sting does a pretty good job on Dowland. But it can be equally awkward when classical musicians try to do popular music. Luciano Pavarotti comes to mind:

Interesting tell-tale detail that Pavarotti is reading from the music... A classical musician has a formidable technique that can easily handle this sort of music--though he may have difficulties with the style or interpretation. For a lot of music, popular songs or bluegrass, there is enough commonality that crossover is feasible. But is it interesting? Well, not really. This is usually done for commercial purposes and if you look at a list of best sellers in classical music, the Goat Rodeo album is number one. At the moment, anyway. So it worked. The perhaps unfortunate thing is that on the list of best selling classical albums we don't actually get a classical album until number nine (if you aren't too fussy), or number twelve. If you are me, there isn't much until number seventeen which has two Beethoven symphonies.

I've said before that there are two senses of the word 'classical' when applied to music: that musical style from the death of Bach to the death of Beethoven (as opposed to, say, Baroque or Romantic) and that music that has stood the test of time, that is of long-lasting quality whether it is Medieval or Stravinsky or the Beatles. But the Goat Rodeo album doesn't fall into either of those categories. Fun music, well played, though.

At the moment that is all we can expect from 'crossover'. But there is something else looming on the horizon. As did many classical composers, the young composers of today are listening to and being influenced by the popular music of today. It hasn't resulted in much interesting so far. But it might...


Anonymous said...

Not sure this counts as crossover, except in the marketing sense. Yo-Yo Ma is being an ordinary session player in this gig. No need for the world's best cellist here. Stevie Wonder has done the best and the worst: this falls squarely in the "worst" category. Pavarotti is cringe-inducing...

I am huge believer in "influence." Curiosity is the driving force of great art, but I don't believe in fusion. Jazz absorbed tons of classical European music but remained jazz. Ravel borrowed from jazz but it remained classical. That's how it should be. On the other hand, jazz fusion managed the feat of taking the joy out of rock and the thrill out of jazz. Lifeless mush.

Bryan Townsend said...

Sometimes I think there is no meaning to the word 'crossover' except as a marketing tool.

I agree with every word you say about influence and fusion. When Haydn used gypsy idioms in a string quartet, it was fully integrated into Classical style.

My least favorite kind of fusion is flamenco/jazz, which I call "flamenco stew". Mush, indeed!

Jon Silpayamanant said...

Sadly, Crossover is very much [still] a marketing tool. While I generally don't care much for many of Yo-Yo's "crossover" work I do have to say I'm a big fan of his Silk Road Project. If only because with that group there is a sense that we have access to great artistic traditions that can stand their own with the Western Classical tradition.

Sure, practically none of the ensemble pieces are particular "authentic" and for the most part, the repertoire chosen are of the standard popular fare (for the most part) and not much different than, say, things like the 1812, Bolero, or other orchestral "favorites" that are barely the tip of the iceberg of more serious fare.

But some of them are gorgeously orchestrated for the eclectic ensemble that comprises the group.

Bryan Townsend said...

One of the many things going on that I have not taken the time to listen to is the Silk Road Project music. So I went and listened to some. I appreciate what you are saying about the gorgeous orchestration. But I have to say I'm bored by the static harmony.

Jon Silpayamanant said...

That's the problem with taking the traditional music out of context and having an ensemble of musicians without the necessary training to perform in various styles. While they are all fantastic musicians in their respective traditions, so much of that skill that makes them shine is a bit lost in these arrangements. And so much of the luster of the music as idiosyncratic gems of their respective cultures gets lost to the idiosyncratic sound of the ensemble.

As far as harmony is concerned--so much of the world's traditional musics are structured in ways that don't often include any sort of harmonic content. Often I find that adding harmony to, say, a piece in a particular non-western scale which doesn't have a modulation tradition built on functional western harmony makes it difficult do a whole lot since rules of harmony are nonexistent as a method of constructing complex music.

I think the shimmer of the ornaments and improvisatory passages gets lost to a bare bones melodic treatment with ad hoc harmony.

Bryan Townsend said...

That's a brilliant description of what seems to be going on!

It is the "shimmer of the ornaments and improvisatory passages" that is the real delight in these non-Western musics, isn't it? And you have to listen to quite a bit to really start to appreciate it. At least that was my experience with gamelan music.

There are quite a number of harmonic systems in Western music, starting with the polyphonic organum of Leonin and Perotin, through Renaissance modal harmony, Baroque through Romantic tonal harmony and all the systems of the 20th century. But it is my impression, correct me if I am wrong, that non-Western music doesn't have harmony--functional harmony--as we understand it. Is that right?

Jon Silpayamanant said...

Yes, exactly! Repeated listenings of this repertoire in more traditional settings will give us a much better perspective of the performance practice used in realization of works.

Most modern and Westernized interpretations of this repertoire piggyback on functional harmony as codified by Rameau and its extensions with the Romantic eras. Though in some ways I think some of this repertoire might be very interesting with Medeival or Renaissance polyphony and modal harmony.

There are very few exceptions to harmonic development outside of the Western world. Georgia is one of those exceptions and I recall that my first introduction to their music was through the NYC based New Music Ensemble Bang on a Can. The clarinetist, Evan Ziporyn, recorded 'Tsmindao Ghmerto' which is a 13th Century Georgian work traditionally performed by an all male vocal choir. He wanted to recreate the full range of the harmony on a solo instrument so uses split tones and humming and trills to recreate the four part harmony on a solo instrument. Here's what the song sounds like in a more traditional context:

Other examples of harmonic traditions might include some overtone singing (Mongolia, Tuva) where the manipulation of the overtones over droned notes to create a melodic line over more slowly moving bass vocal line ( ). Some Eastern European harmony also evolved out of the vocal traditions. Le Mystere des voix Bulgares popularized some of the that ( ).

I think there's a wealth of different ways of approaching harmony/polyphony with the satellite countries of the former Soviet Union. One of the things we never really learn about in our Classical training was that while Soviet music is often included in the canon of the Western Classical music tradition, most of those composers are writing in a more centralized "Soviet style."

We don't get to hear much, or perform much, of the repertoire of, say, Azerbaijan which found a way to meld their native Mugham art music with European Classical compositional style nor the highly developed folk orchestras we'd find in Bulgaria where they institutionalized the folk music ensembles in lieu of Classical music ensembles--it's incredible to hear a group of University trained Bulgarian folk musicians playing a traditional tune in 13/8 with the exact same articulation of the ornaments despite the older tradition of (as in the case of Ottoman/Middle Eastern music) instruments using idiosyncratic ornaments as part of the natural way to perform their music.

The obvious reason is that Azerbaijan Mugham instruments and singing, or Bulgarian folk instruments just aren't a part of the standard instrumentation of the Western Orchestra which the composers writing in that centralized "Soviet style" are writing for--but again, I think that on a bigger scale we lose all this color in our Western art music tradition due to the standardization of a more normative compositional style and instrumentation in a way that's similar to how we lose the color of traditional repertoire when we try to fit it into a more standard Western harmonic style.

And I apologize if I've gotten a bit preachy--I actually hadn't thought about some of these things in this way before and the analogy in the previous paragraph only really came to me as I was writing this response--so I thank you for given me a chance to use your blog to pontificate a bit and for the helpful question(s) that prompted me in this line of thought!! :)

Bryan Townsend said...

Jon, I find this all absolutely fascinating! I'm going to put up a post on it.

The music of the regions under the Soviet Union is another huge topic that I have read a bit on...

Jon Silpayamanant said...

I'll respond to that post in a bit--and yes, I imagine that given your many posts about Shostakovich that you have read much about the Soviet system!

Unknown said...

Yo Yo Ma is the best cello player for me. These videos are enjoyable and among the best performances of him. I am looking for some more videos of his performances. If you have; please share with me.