Thursday, October 9, 2008

Blurring the lines between classical-pop

I'm not talking about classical pop music, the kind of pop music that will stand the test of time, or pop(ular) classical music, which is the kind of classical music which typically plays on ClassicalFM radio when they need to "soothe" the audience with candy-floss like classical music, which can be any number of pieces from Mozart to the Romantic Masters like Schubert, Chopin or Liszt. Classical-pop is a new form of music which attempts to use pop songs or idioms and play them in a classical format - so, in many respects, very much like the pop(ular) classical music I just described as candy-floss like and yet, perhaps more recognisable (read: familiar) with a modern pop acquainted audience.

According to Tony Sauro of Recordnet.com, there is a quintet which plays John Denver music, using classical instruments and classical techniques. Ok, it's not the kind of music I would have chosen, but the point of the group is bring familiar music to people to a style of performance more closely related to classical concerts. Consider it like taking baby steps toward solving a problem. If this group can get concert goers, who happen to like John Denver music, to accept music by a string quintet, then when the group plays other "tunes" by the likes of Schubert or Liszt the audience won't be so resistant.

Another group is called Alias, and features eleven performers of classical training who play everything from Schubert to Jazz to pop to avant-garde. Bill Friskics-Warren, staff writer for the Tennessean, writes, "Some are apprehensive about attending a concert because they might not be familiar with the composers or music on the program...All of which makes going to hear a performance by Alias, Nashville's most approachable — and arguably most intrepid — chamber ensemble, so refreshing." They like playing in a variety of different styles and performing pieces many have never heard of (particularly from notable female composers). The main point is to create entertaining, accessible concerts that typical non-concert goers can appreciate.

This isn't the first time I've talked about groups performing blends of pop and classical music. However, it does beg the question, why are these groups gaining such popularity? What is it about pop music (played on classical instruments) that appeals to people more so than the more challenging works of Shostakovich or Schoenberg? I think it has to do with the simplicity in the design of the music. While Schubert was beginning to explore interesting harmonic shifts, much of his music (and that of his contemporaries) were based on the three common chords (or their substitute chords), and melodies were still a primary focus of the music. Pop music is often criticized for being based on only three chords, and yet, if you work out the chords the Beatles used with Eleanor Rigby some of the chord substitutions are quite interesting. Sure, the piece can be played with just three chords, but if you really want to get the sound the Beatles had you need to substitute the chords. Many of the melodies by Schubert and Chopin can be simplified to three chord varieties, but if you really want to enjoy the pieces you need to play them with the harmonic varieties in place.

I believe the modern audience is more discerning than we (classical musicians) tend to give them credit. While they are willing to listen to simple song with simple chords, they tend to gravitate to music which is more complex - and yet, still has a melody and still has harmonic movement that isn't so far removed from Mozart.


Personally, the music I write tends to be further afield than classical-pop. I like the harmonic movements more adventurous than Schubert or Chopin and I very much like the inclusion of rhythms of jazz. So, while I list numerous classical composers like Coltrane, Brubeck and Davis also affect my musical style. However, I can appreciate what these performers are doing. They are getting more people to listen to classical music, which in turn will eventually get more people to my concerts. That is a good thing.


Composer Louis Banks is using Miles Davis themes and infusing them with Indian instruments and ragas to garner a Grammy nomination. This is written about in NDTV.com and discusses how Mr Banks manipulates the Greek modes used by Davis to the corresponding Indian modes, staying true to the themes, but giving the music as distinctive Indian sound. Another example of how the music of two cultures can blend to not only create new and wonderful music, but expand the horizons of listeners.

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