A new recording of music by an obscure Baroque composer, Carl Friedrich Abel, written for the obsolete viola da gamba, a predecessor of the modern cello, also happens to include some new music written pretty much in the style of the Baroque. There is, of course, nothing particularly eyebrow-raising about that. A generation ago--when Baroque music was a newer rage and fancifully costumed, recorder-tooting hippies flocked to the Renaissance Faire--this would have been something perfectly suitable for the nerdy Society for Creative Anachronism.
But these are more sophisticated times, and there are some modern peculiarities to this recording, titled "Galax," and featuring gambist Roy Whelden and American Baroque.
For one thing, Whelden's original compositions really are creative anachronisms, employing both minimalist and 12-tone techniques, and he has written a set of variations on the Beatles' "She's So Heavy" for solo gamba that sounds closer to Marin Marais than Lennon & McCartney.
For another thing, many readers will not need to have Marin Marais identified, as they surely would have a year ago. One of the best-selling records of the past season, a huge international crossover hit, happened to be a recording of the haunting, somber gamba music of Marais, since it was the soundtrack for a sentimental hit French film "Tous les Matins du Monde," which starred Gerard Depardieu as the French Baroque composer and gamba player.
And finally, "Galax" is released on New Albion, a San Francisco label that specializes in West Coast new music, the label more identified with the gamelan-tinged music of Lou Harrison or the transcendental electronic transformations of Carl Stone. On "Galax," old and new, pop and classical, high and low are--depending upon your point of view--either entirely confused or beyond the point altogether.
Welcome to the startling and complex new world of crossover, which has become a network of interlinking musics that seems to indicate that Marshall McLuhan's global village has arrived in more artistically profound ways, as well as a couple of commercially ominous ones, than the mere electronic babble on computer bulletin boards. Economically, crossover, whether it is opera stars singing '50s Broadway musicals or the turning of modern composers, such as Philip Glass and Henryk-Mikolaj Gorecki, into pop icons, is driving the classical recording industry of the '90s. But it is also a movement wide open with possibilities that is fueling a musical revolution that shows every sign of becoming the dominant musical style of the era, just as minimalism had been for the previous generation, and serialism was before that.
Crossover, before it was crossover, used to be called "light classics" or "pops" and was as easy to identify as a copy of Reader's Digest. In the '50s, it was Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops, or Carmen Dragon and his symphonies under the stars at Hollywood Bowl, playing the least demanding, best known, most melodically memorable bits of Romantic repertory, along with syrupy orchestrations of Broadway tunes. The idea was to make the classics comfortable by removing all the disturbing elements that real art can convey.
It was Muzak before its time, but its place was clear. Everyone knew Fiedler was no Furtwangler conducting philosophically overpowering accounts of Beethoven or Bruckner. And everyone knew that a little lightly done Delibes or Saint-Saens or Richard Rodgers was a universe away from the cutting edge at a time when John Cage was exploring the extreme limits of chance composition, when Pierre Boulez was dictating that every element in music must be serially determined, and when Karlheinz Stockhausen was pioneering futuristic electronic music.
Pops did not mean pop, either. It was also a cozy escape from the early stirrings of rock 'n' roll and the experimental ones of jazz. Fiedler, Stockhausen, Karajan, Miles, Elvis. The names jar; there are no possible connectives. There was no question about who was highbrow, and who low.
Consider, now, some of the most successful and most interesting CD releases of the past year or so. The Kronos Quartet, a classically trained string quartet, on a recent Nonesuch compilation, "Short Stories," plays an eclectic range of works that include a Willie Dixon blues tune from 1960 in a raucous string quartet arrangement by Steven Mackey, a composer and electric guitarist who is on the faculty of Princeton, once the American bastion of forbidding serial music.
Philip Glass' most popular composition in quite some time, the "Low Symphony," recorded on Point Music, is a symphonic metamorphosis of songs from an art-rock David Bowie album from the '70s produced by Brian Eno. Elvis Costello has created a full-scale song cycle with another classically trained string quartet, the Brodsky, on Warner Bros. Electric guitarist Bill Frisell--along with a band of downtown Manhattan art-rock, jazz, new-music (what do you call them?) improvisers--has made a very amusing arrangement of Aaron Copland's ballet "Billy the Kid" for Nonesuch. Tom Waits can be heard participating in a new version, recorded for Point, of Gavin Bryars' "Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet," a British minimalist cult classic from the early '70s.
Consider also the phenomenon of Gorecki's Third Symphony, a serious work written a decade ago by a former avant-garde Polish composer that has long been No. 1 on the classical charts here and abroad. In England, where the Gorecki rage is the greatest, the work has even risen high on the pop charts. And it is now a common sight in London to see punk-attired young rockers, with the spiky orange hair, going into Boots, the pharmacy and general-store chain, asking for the symphony.
Indeed, Gorecki's Third, which was recently performed at Hollywood Bowl as part of the Los Angeles Festival, is so popular that there are now fights in places like New Zealand over which ensemble will get the first performance there.
All the barriers are down. Kiri sings Kern; Pavarotti appears with Sting; heavy-metal fans chill out to Gorecki; popular cellist Yo-Yo Ma plays happy music with jazz singer Bobby McFerrin; McFerrin himself conducts Beethoven symphonies. Paul McCartney has written his naive, if intermittently charming, semiclassical "Liverpool Oratorio"; Stewart Copeland, of Police fame, tried his fledgling hand at opera a couple of years ago and just had an evening of his orchestral compositions performed in Seattle. David Byrne and John Cale have both written for orchestra. And on a CD produced for the Venice Biennale this summer, Deborah Harry and Joey Ramone attempt, however feebly, to sing early John Cage songs as part of a tribute to the late composer.
Yes, the barriers are down. But how genuine a revolution is in progress? The classical music business--particularly orchestra managements, recital and chamber music presenters and record companies--has been acting as if, with the graying and dumbing of audiences, the end is near unless drastic steps are taken. But do orchestras around the globe perform McCartney's Oratorio, Gorecki and Glass because they are dying to, or because they have no other way to bring in new audiences?
Marketing, necessarily, is behind much of the crossover phenomenon. But, then, it always has been a major force in American art music. Nineteenth-Century America, for instance, was opera mad and in no small part thanks to promoters like P. T. Barnum, who made soprano Jenny Lind a household name. Italian opera, at that time, was popular culture; arias, often with new English lyrics, became ubiquitous songs, as common to an organ grinder as to the concert hall.
"Today I have heard 'Casta Diva' seven times," Philip Levine quotes a music lover in the 1870s in his 1988 book "Highbrow/Lowbrow," "four times with the monkey and three time without; on the whole I prefer it with the monkey."
It was only with the introduction of "serious" German opera, and opera sung in its original language, along with the building of culture palaces for opera, that it became highbrow. Later, in our own century, the selling of Toscanini created an audience for "art" music and made a culture god of the Italian maestro, as Joseph Horowitz has documented in his book, "Understanding Toscanini." And thus the clear demarcation between high and low in the '50s.
Such a demarcation was not, however, unusual in American culture in general during the Eisenhower years. But music dug its heels in. It had no pop art movement, the way the visual arts did. It had no Beats, the way literature did. Serious composers were extreme, often academic, modernists or experimentalists, who paid no attention to popular tastes; and composers who had, such as Aaron Copland or Samuel Barber, were out of favor. Gershwin was not taken seriously the way he is today. Meanwhile opera companies and symphony orchestras became museums of a bygone culture.
Because the barriers had become so rigid, when they started to crumble as part of the larger upheaval of society in the late '60s, it was because of a radical break with tradition rather than an evolving style. Composers like Glass simply announced that they no longer would be constrained by high-art attitudes. Glass, whose father ran a record store in Baltimore, has said that he grew up listening to everything. And along with the other minimalists, he sought to find a way to capture some of the energy of rock and jazz in classical music.
But while the '60s became the time when permission was finally given to cross over, most of the early attempts were tentative. The Beatles flirted with electronic collage. On the other side, Joshua Rifkin made Baroque arrangements of Beatles songs, new-music soprano Cathy Berberian sang them, and British musicologist Wilfred Mellers analyzed them. But there was a certain amount of cheerful gimmickry in all of this.
It took, rather, the breaking down of the two most exclusive bastions of classical music--opera and the string quartet--for the revolution to be really felt. Glass was the opera composer to revivify the medium with "Einstein on the Beach," his 1977 music-theater collaboration with Robert Wilson. At about the same time the Kronos Quartet began to demonstrate that the string quartet could be an unexpectedly adventurous medium for a generation raised on rock.
Now it is becoming hard to find a young American classical composer who has not incorporated his background, namely pop music, into his works. Michael Torke will not hesitate to write an intricate orchestral piece over bass lines from Madonna, or Aaron Kernis to suddenly evoke Jerry Lee Lewis in his "Symphony of Waves." Both write for classical ensembles, whereas Steve Martland, the current British bad boy of music, a classically trained composer with a rock sensibility, has created a whole new genre of music--sounding loud and arrogant as rock--that incorporates drums and electric guitars into traditional classical ensembles.
Though much performed and recorded, these composers have not yet broken into the mainstream, as their recordings (Torke and Kernis are on Argo, Martland on Factory Classical) fall between many cracks.
There is also an increasing number of young, classically educated composers whose music is formally sophisticated yet whose medium is rock instrumentation. One such example is Todd Levin, whose "Ride the Planet," a lush, beautiful album released last year on Point Music (a crossover label that Glass artistically administers for Philips Records), seemed to completely defeat most record stores' classification systems.
So, in the end, it all comes down to marketing. It has been the marketing strategy of Nonesuch that helped make new-music celebrities of the Kronos Quartet and John Adams--both had been around before they signed with Nonesuch in the '80s. Robert Hurwitz, who has made Nonesuch the model of the industry, runs his record company as if it were a driving cultural force. Himself a product of the '60s ethos, Hurwitz records music he personally believes in and then tries to find a way to sell it, as he did with the Gorecki Third. Following suit have been Point Music and others. BMG (formerly RCA, the Toscanini catalysts) just unveiled its own hip new-music crossover label, named (what else?) Catalyst, and including music of (who else?) Glass.
But there is the other side as well, where marketing tries to follow crossover taste, where any rock star thinks he can produce interesting music for classical ensembles (without having the technique of a Martland or a Levin) and where classical musicians think they can play popular music with panache. There have been the perfectly awful results of the Ma-McFerrin collaboration or of respectable opera singers, such as Jose Carreras and Lesley Garrett, singing Andrew Lloyd Webber.
And now even an old Boston Pops recording, in cleaned-up sound for CD, is once more on the Billboard charts, as if there to simultaneously remind us how far we have come but also how quickly and easily we seem able to slip back into ancient inanities.
Mark Swed is a free-lance writer based in New York.