Entertainment & Arts

The joys and embarrassments of classical and pop music hybrids

Gustavo Dudamel
Gustavo Dudamel conducting the L.A. Phil. Dudamel is among the Deutsche Grammophon artists.
(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)

The venerable German record label Deutsche Grammophon has just signed Schiller. No, not Friedrich Schiller, the poet and playwright whose “Ode to Joy” is the text for the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (which has been recorded on DG by Karajan, Bernstein and many other major maestros). We’re talking the platinum-selling German electronica band Schiller, which is named after said Friedrich.

Classical music mavens online are outraged. Bloggers, ever busy bees, buzz.

But perhaps some of that platinum will underwrite expensive major projects from Esa-Pekka Salonen and Gustavo Dudamel, both of whom are DG artists. Letting pop pay the classical piper is a time-honored tradition. We can thank pop sales for helping Columbia to record Stravinsky conducting his nearly complete works in the 1960s. Nonesuch Records has operated admirably on this principle for years.

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This latest DG pursuit and the knee-jerk reaction to it are a small instance of the financial or artistic interdependence between classical and pop that goes back to the Dark Ages if not before. The divide then was between Gregorian chant and vernacular music outside the church sung by traveling entertainers known as jongleurs. Eventually, church composers began to use the bass lines of “popular” tunes as a way to keep the masses coming to Mass.

In the funny way things can turn around, the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles currently serve to chill-out harried 21st century listeners. Their latest CD of chants currently occupies the No. 2 position on the Billboard classical charts, topped by 26-year-old dubstep violinist Lindsey Stirling (that’s classical?).

Our age of musical grazing on the Web suggests that anything goes with anything else, just as bacon and olive oil are supposed to be ice cream flavors. In fact, music is a mess at the moment, and the problem seems to be one of division masquerading as unity.

And this only reminds us that that he classical pining for pop, along with pop stars attempting to class up their acts, has quite a history of embarrassing mishmashes, along with the occasional inspired ones. My favorite — the utterly silly “An X-Rated Song,” recorded by Ezio Pinza with the Budapest String Quartet in 1943 — is a little of both.


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So far, the contest for most risible classical schlock rock of the year is a toss-up. In “Night,” the pianist and Bach specialist Simone Dinnerstein teams up with singer-songwriter Tift Merritt for a feast of sentimentality. I’m not sure where to start with “Great Voices Sing John Denver,” maybe with René Pape ridiculously throwing his great bass around “Follow Me” (please don’t).

Does anyone remember the venturesome organist, and also Bach specialist, Anthony Newman’s infectiously silly 1973 acid-rock song “Barricades,” based on Couperin? Then again, that year Barbra Streisand went into the studio to record “Classical Barbra.” Who would have expected this funny girl would be exquisite in Debussy or Schubert? Recently remastered by Sony, it sounds gorgeous. Nor would I have predicted that the Spanish soprano with the most ethereal pianissimos, Montserrat Caballé would partner so sensationally with Freddie Mercury.

I hang on to a 1982 LP of heldentenor Peter Hofmann, “Rock Classics,” for a hilarious blend of Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra” and “House of the Rising Sun,” as I do Brecht’s “Baal” with a potent David Bowie, also from 1982. A couple of years later, Philip Glass wrote a symphonic metamorphosis on Bowie’s “Low,” which started Glass on a symphonic odyssey. He is up to No. 10, which will have its U.S. premiere at the Cabrillo Festival in Santa Cruz next month.

Nothing is more commonplace than the entwining of classical and pop these days. The composer Christopher Rouse happened to be one of the first to offer an academic course in rock music back when he taught at the Eastman School in Rochester, N.Y., in the 1980s. Now he is composer in residence of the New York Philharmonic. Electric guitarists head two of America’s most historically significant music departments: the composer Steve Mackey at Princeton and the British pop star Fred Frith at Mills College in Oakland.

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It was at Mills, coincidentally, where the Budapest, having fled war-inflamed Europe, wound up when the quartet shellacked the Pinza novelty. And it was at Mills nearly four decades ago that the Kronos Quartet first began shaking up the stodgy string quartet world with an arresting arrangement of Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze,” played along side such 20th century masterpieces as Berg’s “Lyric Suite.”

Age of crossovers


Now everybody’s doing that kind of thing. On its latest CD, the popular American male vocal ensemble Cantus squeezes a soupy version of U2’s “MLK” between a piece by the Spanish Renaissance composer Tomás Luis de Victoria and “Lift Thine Eyes” from Mendelssohn’s “Elijah.” No one raises an eyebrow.

Does this mean that we are finally inhabitants of a one world/one music universe?

At the Brooklyn Festival initiated by the Los Angeles Philharmonic earlier this year, young composers asserted that the world has indeed changed.

They are comfortable in both musical worlds and don’t like the separate categories. Their remedy all too often, however, is to put all musics through a pop blender. Simplify rhythm and harmony and add a backbeat, which you can do with a machine, and you have the recipe for half the hipster sound in Brooklyn.

In the past, the innovative pop musicians used avant-garde music as a laboratory, taking techniques that appealed. The Beatles knew something of John Cage, as “Revolution No. 9" attests. Pop/folk singer Tim Buckley learned a thing or two about vocal production from listening to Cathy Berberian records, and Radiohead (which also knows its Cage) was influenced by Buckley. Björk is fluent in Stockhausen’s electronics.

It always worked both ways. Gershwin wanted to study technique with Stravinsky. Stravinsky wanted to study musical finance with Gershwin. This is the year when there is a “Rite of Spring” around every corner to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Stravinsky’s ballet, and so we are regularly reminded that the basis of the revolutionary score is in Russian folk music. In a revelatory performance of “West Side Story” with the San Francisco Symphony last month, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas revealed just how much Ravel and other classical composers influenced Leonard Bernstein’s Broadway classic.

Something new was produced in all these cases, pop or classical, and not at the cost of smoothing out an original musical identity. Getting along was never the point — rather getting inside a new or different music.

The Ojai Festival last month explored the almost unfathomably rich worlds of Charles Ives, Henry Cowell, Lou Harrison and John Cage. Between these four American pioneers, little music went untouched. Ives all but originated uniquely American concert music by his mash-ups of sentimental American ballads, hymn tunes, marching bands and Beethoven. Cowell not only invented modernist techniques (including tone clusters on the piano) but was the first composer to investigate foreign harmonies and thus practically inaugurate the whole category of world music.


Harrison juxtaposed Elizabethan dance music, trash percussion, the Indonesian gamelan, Korean court music along with the lush Western orchestral tradition, sometimes tuned in old Baroque ways, but he was always true to his sources, which he then made his own. Cage opened the definition of music to include sounds of nature along with (sometimes literally) anything played on the radio. He also once wrote a piece that involved the complete Beatles songbook, utilizing his chance methods of composition to distill a kind of Beatles essence.

Essence is the key. In every case these composers--as did Bartók when he used Hungarian folk music or Beethoven when he made arrangements of Scottish folk music or Mahler when he let klezmer slip into his symphonies--dipped into that essence.

There is no formula for any of this. The jazz trio Bad Plus made a faithful transcription of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” which was also played at Ojai. While intriguing, it seemed to tame Stravinsky’s wildness rather than the other way around. Frank Zappa was more brazen when he applied a little of the “Rite” to the Mothers of Invention, but even he remained respectful, at least for Zappa.

At my one meeting with Stravinsky, I asked him about Zappa’s riffing on the “Rite.”

“Charming,” he replied in a heavy accent and with a sly smile that made it impossible for me to tell whether he meant that ironically or not.

You tell me what it means that Salonen, who triumphantly opened Walt Disney Concert Hall with “Rite of Spring,” will celebrate Disney’s 10th anniversary in October with Zappa’s joyously obnoxious “200 Motels,” originally written for the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 1970 but never fully realized.

On a CD from a few years ago, Bad Plus took a more rewardingly way-out approach to smashing the classical/pop/jazz partitions than it did with its “Rite.” “For All I Care” begins with Kurt Cobain’s “Lithium” and ends with 12-tone genius Milton Babbitt’s “Semi-Simple Variations.” Interspersed are the Bee Gees, Ligeti, Pink Floyd and Stravinsky rubbing shoulders, and the rubbing is vigorous, with everything here strongly jazz-inflected.

Then again, jazz has always had an easier time jazzing up the classics. The Modern Jazz Quartet made Bach hip. Duke Ellington’s got the “Nutcracker” to cook. More recently the Italian period instrument group La Venexiana has gotten together with an Italian jazz trio of saxophone, accordion, bass and drums for a dazzling CD called “‘Round M: Monteverdi Meets Jazz.”

But no matter what music comes up against or how, anything goes only when a musical personality, not a drum machine or lame concept, makes that happen. There are two kinds of hybrid fruits, those that produce new flavors and those that are devised to subdue individual flavors, to make, for instance, the tart less tart. Let art remain tart and let us fear no new flavors. Or old ones, revitalized.

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