Modern Music for Modern Times

Taking a page of music from today to create music that fits with a modern audience

When Bach wrote multi-movement works, he used dances of the day as a basis, a framework for this music. Moving further back there are numerous examples of composers using "popular" tunes folded into religious works so listeners would hear familiar elements in the music of the church, adding layers of meaning and pleasure for all involved. Mozart and Haydn framed their music with styles popular in their day. Beethoven and Liszt were performers as well as composers, getting rave reviews from their improvisational styles, which (again) echoed music of the day. All of these composers took the music of their day and made it something more, but they started with the familiar, with the current music of the day.

We do have examples of this same sort of treatment. Lee Johnson wrote the "Dead Symphony No. 6" as a tribute to the Grateful Dead. There if FuGaGa (Lady Gaga Fugue) by Larry Moore is a "baroque-meets-techno" treatment of Lady Gaga's Bad Romance (the term fugaga also means "to make something cheap" - so I'm not sure if Larry is poking fun at Lady Gaga, or all pop music). There are other examples of taking modern music and folding it into a classically written score, but seldom do the pieces capture the feeling of the original music.

Current culture has numerous tribute bands which try and recapture the sound of the original artist. Big name artists often re-mix past popular songs, trying to give them their own sound, while still capturing the power of the original. Some succeed, other's not so much. When an artist does succeed, it is because they understand what power the original piece had. They try and retain that element, while bringing something new to the music.

A new craze, made even more popular with shows like "Glee" and films like "Pitch Perfect," is the mashup, where you take several songs and mash them together. Again, when this works, it's because what worked in the original song is retained. Layering another song over top of the first, gives new meaning and dimension to both original works. It only take a portion of the original song to elicit the feelings and emotions of the original, as those are already part of our culture. Like the two notes of "Jaws" can send chills up the spine, small snatches of pieces can immediately capture the sentiment. Therefore, mashup artists can layer multiple sentiments together to creating whole new concepts.

Even though there are a few cases of composers trying to capture a sense of the modern music scene in their music, I don't see many examples of it. Most of the time, new works are striving to be something wholly unique and so removed from the 'pop' music world, they end up feeling disconnected from our current world. This is not a call for more classical music tributes, or for classical music composers to return to the tradition of "something on the theme from someone." Classical music does need to find a way to re-connect with a modern audience.

There is a sound unique to Adult Contemporary Music. Turn on the radio and flip through the channels, and within moments you'll be able to identify what kind of station it is based on the style of music they play. Classical music needs to tune into this and capture some of that culture. If we do, composers will find new listeners, people who will resonate with their music, at it pulls on the same emotional ties of the other music they enjoy. It then does what classical music should also do - take it further, give it richer meaning and depth.

Yes, a lot of popular music is based on three chords. A lot of folk/popular music during Schubert and Schumann's time were simple chord structures. Still, if you play a piece of 'popular' music from their era and then play a piece of theirs you'll hear similarities you don't hear when you do the same thing with modern music. Modern classical music should reflect the world it is composed in.


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