Saturday, March 28, 2009

The Great Schism: Part 2

I left my last post with two gigantic unanswered questions: What is the function of classical music today? and What are the similarities between popular and classical music, with the exception of both fitting in the bubble of Western music?

There’s no correct answer to either question. I hate it when teachers say that but the truth is most important questions don’t have easy answers. Regarding the second question, it’s important to remember that the best classical composers and popular songwriters both strived for the same result. Jimmy Page and Ludwig van Beethoven were both utter perfectionists, not stopping until their work was entirely satisfying. Sometimes we look at these two musicians like two aliens from different planets. But this is not so! Both Page and Beethoven grew up in societies that staunchly supported musical achievement, albeit 174 years apart. Page felt the mystique and aura of the Beatles, Beethoven of Mozart. Both listened carefully to what was around them but wanted to make something new. Well…Beethoven listened for as long as he could.

Within a 40 minute Led Zeppelin album or a 35 minute Beethoven symphony, we find the same rises, the same falls, the same meticulous layering of strings (violins or guitars), the same cohesive nature, and ultimately, we find something to get excited about. But what creates the schism is the sociological association. When we hear the unmistakable riff of “Black Dog,” we are transported to an enormous stadium, packed with screaming intoxicated teenagers and twenty-somethings, each with his/her hair down to the waist. When we hear the equally recognizable beginning to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, we think of a stuffy concert hall, filled with highbrow men in tuxedoes, accompanied by their elegant, sophisticated wives. There’s truth in these instant mental pictures, and hence people find no common ground between the two compositions. But in truth, both Page and Beethoven were only trying to push their craft a bit further, whether that may have been accomplished by using new modulation techniques or new distortion pedals.

I am quite aware of the differences as well, putting context aside. Beethoven was more gifted, hands down. It’s staggering that the man was deaf for a good part of his life yet prolific till the end, all the while suffering from other overwhelming health problems. Page was in a band with three other talented collaborators and only made significant musical contributions for about ten years, all while sleeping around and doing drugs like any good rock star should. Beethoven’s work stands 182 years later while Zeppelin’s does only about 29 years after the hammer of the gods fell for the last time. Still, both men were giants in their prime for good reason. They were able to find “it” with consistency, the goal of any artist. If you don’t know what “it” is, see my second post.

This goes back to the importance of classical music today. Beethoven (I’ll just keep using Ludwig because he’s a good example) lived in a time with no microphones, recording devices or notation software. Musical statements were made live, on the stage, by a bunch of people wielding odd-looking concoctions of wood or medal known as instruments. Yet despite these overwhelming limitations, art was made, art that is still admired today. Even after the Moog synthesizer and multi-track recording, we still marvel at the power of dozens and dozens of people on stage playing their part in the grand scheme of things. Orchestral music stands as a testament to human stubbornness. Some things we simply refuse to let become obsolete.

Not only does it stick around, classical music is the best example of why music is the “universal language.” People throughout the world have heard the music of the masters and keep coming back for more. Even those of us who couldn’t tell Bach from Stravinsky have watched the classic film Fantasia in awe, and not just because of the pretty colors and dinosaurs. Studying and enjoying this stuff is a way to connect us with the whole world. In the twenty-first century, we need to grasp at every opportunity to find common ground. Brahms, not bombs!

To summarize this lengthy piece of propaganda, don’t get fooled by having separate categories for classical music and popular music. The brilliant minds of both spheres are blessed with the same innate ability to communicate human emotions using sound and silence. In 1956, Chuck Berry released the song “Roll Over Beethoven” which was later covered by the Beatles. If you haven’t heard the song, the title pretty much says it all. But as revolutionary as Berry was, I have to disagree and say that Beethoven isn’t going to budge and he needn’t tell Tchaikovsky the news.


  1. Worthy of mass publication. Got teary. Keep at it.

    Court Jester Seventy (TT) (D)

  2. Keep up the great work, Ben. Excellent commentary! I'm really enjoying the blog.

    - Fergalicious, def.

  3. Spicy shit man.

    Roll Over Beethoven done by ELO is fantastic to.

    Yeah... uh...

    Good post!