Monday, September 1, 2014

Crossover Mush

I said somewhere recently that I'm not a snob, I'm an elitist, but somedays I wonder. Today's Globe and Mail has an article on the latest trends in crossover, which apparently means taking seriously the attempts by pop musicians to leverage their fame into being considered composers of serious music. This is almost as funny as Alex Ross referring to Radiohead as "those English composers". But let me restrain my inner snob and have a look. Is there any there there?

Here is the Globe article. They assert:
What isn’t so radical any more is the notion of a rock or pop artist composing so-called serious music. Beethoven no longer rolls over in his grave. Rather, he’s propped up on one elbow listening to Radiohead. Musicians such as Parry, Owen Pallett, Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood and the National’s Bryce Dessner – who produced Parry’s Music For Heart and Breath – are at ease in classical and pop genres.
Well, yes, it has been happening, or has been asserted to be happening. In my mind Beethoven is putting in ear plugs right about now. But the proof of the pudding is in the eating. How does cranking out pop albums for a few years imply that you can actually compose real music? Even if Kronos are willing to record it? What we need is to listen to some of this stuff and decide for ourselves. But the problem seems to be that it is hard to find on YouTube. Owen Pallett, who has composed a violin concerto, is represented by stuff like this, which I presume is his pop mode:


Well, it's not Franz Schubert, is it? Here is part of a film score by Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead:


That sort of sounds like classical music because it uses strings, but honestly, is there anything there that you wouldn't come up with in about five minutes of noodling around? The Glove avers that:
Pallet, Parry and the others, they’re all young. The full musical spectrum they embrace is a generational matter, really. If you’ve grown up listening to the Beatles and Bartok or Debussy and Devo, the lines inevitably will blur.
I grew up listening to the Beatles, and Bartók and Debussy and, well, not Devo so much as Talking Heads, but how I became a mature musician was by realizing the differences between them, not mushing them altogether. Blurring the lines turns everything into mush. One of the composers mentioned, Richard Reed Parry of Arcade Fire, is represented by a whole composition. Here is his Music for Heart and Breath.


I found it to be a dull, self-indulgent piece, going nowhere very slowly. I suspect that this is what this new generation of sort-of composers thinks classical music is. No rules, just mushily let your feelings flow. With strings!! Referring to his work with Arcade Fire, Parry muses:
In response to the band’s relentless touring and robust, carnivalesque concerts, Parry virtually retreated deep under the skin for his neo-classical work. “What I was craving was the opposite,” he explains. “I was looking for quietude and introverted music. I wanted to feel the smallness of myself.”
Well, ok. But couldn't you have indulged yourself with a little polka music instead?

20 comments:

Shantanu said...

Listening to such "attempts" makes you realise how music is a gift to the ones who can make it well.

Bryan Townsend said...

And another thing I notice is the humility of those who are trying to create good music. As opposed to the pretension of these folks.

Susan Pagenkopf said...

I do agree with you that blurring the lines between classical and pop, etc turns everything to mush, and I think that there is a huge difference in writing a classical composition and a short pop song,but surely you are not saying that the term 'composer' cannot be applied to someone writing music in a different genre than classical? By that standard, Cole Porter isn't a real composer!

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh no! I may be an elitist, but I'm not an idiot! For example, I think the greatest composers of songs in English are John Dowland, Henry Purcell, Cole Porter, Benjamin Britten, Lennon and McCartney, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan.

But what irks me is the deference given to pop artists who are really just pop musicians even though they are trying to write "classical" music. Mind you, there are some interesting attempts out there, but not much in the ones mentioned in this article.

As Duke Ellington once said, there are only two kinds of music: good music and bad music. And what he didn't say is that there are examples of good (even great) music in virtually every genre.

Susan Pagenkopf said...

Yes, I agree that too many people have no idea what goes in to writing a true classical composition, and to think that just because someone is successful in one genre they can then sit down and dash off a genuine work of art in another genre is gross ignorance.

Bryan Townsend said...

Susan, I have the feeling that you are a composer?

Susan Pagenkopf said...

You may say that I'm a composer,
But I'm not the only one....

Bryan Townsend said...

Is that a quote from "Imagine"?

Susan Pagenkopf said...

Yes sir! Great song, but I'm glad Lennon didn't attempt to write any classical music!

Bryan Townsend said...

I take the position that a piece like "Strawberry Fields" is a kind of "classical" composition according to my somewhat eccentric definition. It is a piece that will stand the test of time, transcending its genre.

Susan Pagenkopf said...

Interestingly, I have a CD of Baroque settings of Beatles' songs and it is surprisingly well done. Like Bach being set in the jazz idiom, I think that truly great music can transfer over from one genre to another because it is intrinsically well-written and solid musically.

Bryan Townsend said...

Who are the musicians?

Susan Pagenkopf said...

They're called The Baroque Chamber Orchestra, led by Richard Edlinger.

Susan Pagenkopf said...

Happy to lend if you are interested :)

Bryan Townsend said...

Sure!! Are you in town?

Susan Pagenkopf said...

Yes I am - my email is spagenkopf@gmail.com

Christine Lacroix said...

HI Bryan

You said: "But what irks me is the deference given to pop artists who are really just pop musicians even though they are trying to write "classical" music Whoa!! That really does sound a snobby! JUST pop musicians! Yikes!

You said : "How does cranking out pop albums for a few years imply that you can actually compose real music?" Real music? What on earth is that? Another snob alert there. And I'd like to ask how a child Mozart managed to compose without having a masters degree in musicology? Maybe I'm wrong but it seems to me that if more people had the courage to make attempts at producing any kind of music we'd have a better chance of finding some hidden talent?

You also said: "And another thing I notice is the humility of those who are trying to create good music. As opposed to the pretension of these folks." Is humility really reserved for the good musicians and pretension the bad? That's news to me, but I guess it's possible. It takes a certain amount of courage to expose yourself by trying something new though, doesn't it? Is it pretentious?

If I haven't thoroughly annoyed you with this post I'd really like to know what you thought of the Baroque Chamber Orchestra's renditions of the Beatles songs!


Bryan Townsend said...

Anyone expressing their sincere opinion cannot possibly annoy me! After all, that is what I do. The thing is that while pop music is economically dominant and seems very high tech, to someone with serious musical training it seems rather like it comes off an assembly line. I recall reading about a young woman--I forget her name, but she was the 20 year old daughter of a Montreal politician--who took up the electric bass and six months later was the bass player for quite well known and successful band off on a world tour. This is not impossible in the pop music world. The reason is that the genres and the techniques required to play them are fairly simple constructions even though this is skillfully concealed by a lot of studio wizardry. Much pop music is the recreation of a fairly small set of formulas with a new hook and lyrics. The important thing these days is really the video and the choreography.


Compare this to the training necessary to become a classical musician and I think you might see why we don't take pop music that seriously. Mozart is the great child prodigy of all time. His father was a well-known violinist and his teacher from the earliest age. Mozart, by age 11, was a fully-trained professional composer. Most people, to reach a similar level, would need several years of private instruction on an instrument followed by intensive courses in harmony, counterpoint, ear-training, music history and composition. Then, after perhaps five or ten years of that, you would be a trained composer. Not to say that you could write anything good, but if you also had a creative mind, you could.

Of course 2Cellos display all the technique of people who have spent the necessary years in the classical discipline.

A pop musician setting out to write classical music without this kind of training is simply a bumbling amateur. The fact that they are treated with great reverence by the music critics simply means that the music critics are also untrained amateurs. Or they were bribed.

On the other hand, some pop musicians are great creative artists, just not classical ones. Bob Dylan is a songwriter without peer, but not a classical composer. The Beatles were an extraordinary creative group, but the classical bits on their recordings were all written or arranged by George Martin, also classically trained.

You can call me a snob, but I think "elitist" is more accurate. I think that I am simply aware of what the real differences are between classical musicians and pop musicians.

I tend not to like any of the covers or arrangements of Beatles songs because I regard a large part of the "composition" to be those unique and special things they did in the recording process to make the songs so original.

Christine Lacroix said...

Expressed this way I can't help but agree.
Thanks for the Haydn symphony today. It's lovely to wake up to these posts

a piece of crossover for you:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oFVhSDQmIxs

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes, sometimes, as in those phrases that set off your snob alert, I do say things to get a rise out of people!

I can't think of a composer I admire more than Haydn...

As for the clip, now that really is crossover.