Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Classical and Pop: The Great Musical Schism (Part 1)

Yesterday, a couple of friends and I went to see the Seattle Symphony. They played excerpts from Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, Igor Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto and Hector Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique. I hadn’t seen the Seattle Symphony since I was a young tyke, being dragged by my parents from concert to concert, so this was the first time I had gone on my own accord. Well, it was certainly worth it. Using my “Campus Club” student discount card to get a $60 seat for only $10, I was reminded how truly incredible live music can be. I have listened to a recording of the Symphonie Fantastique many times, but seeing and hearing freakishly talented human beings perform it in a top-notch facility is completely different. But not only was this concert incredible; it made me think about the function of classical music today.

Of course, I think about this all the time but describing the concert seemed like a better intro than “I was sitting in my room, looking out the window, when I started thinking about the function of classical music today.” But seriously, there were more bald heads and wrinkles in that nearly full audience than I have seen in a long time. This was no surprise though. Classical music is synonymous with the word tradition and what demographic loves tradition more than senior citizens? There's the answer: classical music exists to keep old people happy.

Little joke...that isn't my opinion.

I am currently studying classical music at a liberal arts institution. Nearly everything is geared toward finding enrichment through performing and listening to the masters of the classical vein. And this is great! There’s a reason that Mozart is legendary more than 200 years after his death. But sometimes my fellow students can be a bit ridiculous. For example, the other day I was working on lyrics to a song in one of the practice rooms in the music building. A music education major came in and asked me what I was doing. I replied that I was writing a song. He then asked me if I was writing an art song in the tradition of Schubert or Brahms. I couldn’t help chuckling a little bit even though he was completely serious. Not every music student would assume I was writing lieder, but this really did happen. Some people are stuck in the 19th century.

I enjoy learning about sonata-allegro form and imitative counterpoint and all, but my musical foundation will always be in the popular music of the 1960s and beyond. I became the hopelessly obsessed person I am today back in November of 2001 when I was in 7th grade. This is when George Harrison died. Beatles’ music was being played on nearly every radio station and I was hooked. I’d liked the Beatles since I can remember but this renaissance made me think outside the “like” box a little bit. Over the next few years, the only music that mattered was “classic rock,” whatever that convenient idiom means. My musical taste buds grew more tolerant over time and I even started listening to classical music. But I’d always go about listening to classical in a different way than popular music. In some ways, I still do.

There are countless differences between the classical and pop. Of course, let me first warn you about some huge generalizations. Classical and popular music can’t be pinned down in a statement. They are mighty big animals. But classical is typically associated with careful attention to detail, refined subtlety and complex structure. Popular music, however, is often performed by people who don’t read music, and usually focuses on the catchiness above the overall form. In terms of audiences, many feel that classical is for the bourgeoisie, popular is for the proletariat.

But the two are so closely related!!!! This may be a recurring theme in this blog as I am currently flirting with the idea of writing my senior capstone project on this very subject. I've spent many hours wikipediaing both, so I feel like a true expert on this subject. Why are they closely related? Believe it or not, classical and popular music are based on the very same Western music system! Rock ’n’ roll was not invented like the printing press. Elvis Presley used major and minor keys in his music. Four is still the most common meter whether you are listening to J.S. Bach or Bachman Turner Overdrive. But the similarities go way deeper than that.

To be continued…

1 comment:

  1. Hey Ben,
    I should have read this a long time ago! "There's the answer: classical music exists to keep old people happy." I love that!

    Anyway, I'm trying to go through and read all of these, so you might have a few comments from me here and there. So far I'm really enjoying it!