A few days ago in the Guardian, our latest young-wunderkind export Nico Muhly (sorry Nico, I wasn’t being mean, really!) jotted down a few thoughts on the current state of ‘crossover’ between classical and pop (serious crossover, that is; Yannis and Bocellis need not apply). It’s a good read, with a number of relevant observations. One in particular struck me, and I quote:

Everybody knows Prince’s song Kiss. I once heard him perform it with just an acoustic guitar sitting on an office chair in the middle of Madison Square Garden in New York City; the core nugget of the song remained the same, while the arrangement changed entirely. This is the wonderful flexibility built into popular music; in classical, you can’t randomly decide to change up your set at the last minute and do Die Schöne Müllerin with Thomas Quasthoff accompanying himself on the autoharp.

Traditionally, I think it would be safe to say that the best kind of old-fashioned pop song is one that can bear the weight of infinite variations; you can imagine songs such as Like a Virgin or Kiss or Jolene working themselves out in a variety of situations. This is built into the genre inasmuch as the recording is one type of documentation of the art and the live performance another. I would then argue that the inverse is true of 20th- and 21st-century classical music (let’s leave the older ones out of it for the time being): you like to think that something like Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring banks on its specific details (that pair of tuned antique cymbals in the Augurs of Spring), just as something like Steve Reich’s Music for Eighteen Musicians works because of the perfect combination of this many marimbas and that many pianos.

The intersection between the two genres is coming from artists who want to have it both ways, but who don’t talk about it.


In the 19th and early-20th century, it was pretty standard procedure for composers to learn about cutting-edge works at the piano, regardless of the actual instruments the score called for. I happen to love hearing the two-piano rehearsal version of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (the dissonances take on a extra weight that’s missing in the orchestration), and have even enjoyed a couple nice rock-band performances (Fireworks comes to mind). But since the 1960s there’s a whole raft of stuff that calls for ‘this sound, and this sound only’. Original scores tended to become almost sacrosanct objects. There is another crowd, though, that all along has purposely kept their scores more open to timbral variation.

So, just wondering which side of the fence you all have been coming down on lately; if you stick pretty close to one side or the other, or do a little climbing over now and then?

10 Responses to “Feelin’ Malleable?”
  1. Steve Layton says:

    Oh, and here’s John Ringer’s amazing 2003 pseudo-power-trio Rite that I couldn’t quite remember while writing the post:


  2. Chris Becker says:

    I’m premiering a piece called “Shanty Town Suite” this week here in NYC thanks in part to The American Music Center. It is “scored” for laptop (running Ableton Live), electric guitar, trumpet and electric bass. There are also prerecorded performances on trombone and electric bass that are cued in the suite’s second movement.

    Some of the material in the suite was generated out of the trio of guitar, laptop and trumpet improvising over top of prerecorded looped clips of music. Some of those improvisations were then scored and later presented again to the same musicians as “parts” to realize in the performance of this suite. I also did a recording session with the musicians playing and improvising over the material – some of which reappears in this upcoming premier performance.

    There is a 20 bar scored melody with chords in the second movement.

    There is a section where we simply cue up a cassette player to “play” a remix of the material the audience will have heard live – this functions as a segue into the third movement.

    The trumpet player (Lewis ‘Flip’ Barnes from William Parker’s quartet) improvises quite a bit throughout the suite.

    What’s the point of this long post? The fact is the lines between the compositional techniques related to popular music and so-called “new” classical music are blurred for many artists – but in fact they’ve been blurred for a long time. Jazz musicians have been working this way for years. Dub music (my latest obsession) introduced compositional strategies into popular music that we take for granted without knowing their roots (Nico mentions Arthur Russell but tellingly doesn’t mention dub music for some reason…).

    I don’t have anything against Nico…but reading his essay just seems like a “duh” moment for me. Like – has he heard Duke Ellington? Charles Mingus?

    Are there really “two genres” we move between? That’s not the zone where I find myself…it is way more complicated than that but not without precedent.

  3. Chris Becker says:

    Sorry – but this is bugging me…

    From Nico’s article: “This productive intersection between notated and non-notated music comes out of the experimental music scene in the 1960s and 70s in New York City and elsewhere (the Berlin of Bowie/Eno, for instance).”

    This is completely inaccurate. The blending of notated and non-notated music existed for a long time in jazz (and rock and blues and many other indigenous music) before and outside of NYC circa 1960. I think both Prince and Philip Glass would agree.

    And what does he mean by “productive intersection”? Music that blended notated and non-notated elements before was an unsuccessful experiment? I’m sure that’s not what he meant, but the statement, for me, is bizarre.

    He’s building a fence here and doesn’t even realize it.

  4. Nico says:

    Hi! I should actually make something clear – the assignment, in this particular case, was to deal with the “productive intersection” within the indie-rock world in specific (hence my _incredibly_ limited set of examples – you may notice that it is basically restricted to “homosexuals in their 20′s”); the way the article works on the Guardian website doesn’t make that clear. Obviously there is an enormous amount of non-notated/notated interaction since the Beginning of Time, also Jazz, of course, also, hello, a whole other thing to talk about is the use of sampling in hip-hop and, and, and! This article, though, was just meant to be a very brief dip into the waters of one specific ‘scene,’ such as it is perceived (another key distinction).

    Also, I should clarify that when I say “productive” I mean it in the sense of “something is produced” – with no value judgement (as in, like, “I feel like that was a productive meeting”). Also I was referencing a specific productive intersection rather than The Only one; I think the grammar makes that clear but I apologize if it makes it sound like anything too all-encompassing. I was trying to draw a larger point which is that thinking about genre as something that needs to be performed is itself problematic, and that another way to think about it is the same way we think about food, which is to say, the subtle art of nourishing one another regardless of our nationalities and biographies. Anyway, just a brief interjection before anybody gets too excited or bugged!

  5. Chris Becker says:

    “…hence my _incredibly_ limited set of examples – you may notice that it is basically restricted to “homosexuals in their 20’s”

    Actually, I did notice that, but I didn’t want to point it out :)

    I jumped on the word “productive” and that was a little unfair. I knew what you meant, but in context of the entire article I got irked.

    This is helpful – thank you for posting. The food analogy is good. It all goes into the pot.


  6. Steve Layton says:

    Hey Chris and Nico. I purposely steered clear of the whole classical/pop-divide/war thingy (though if any lurkers out there are ready to rumble, go for it! We can always use the juice).

    I was more interested in this idea of “infinitely variable” vs. the “ten commandments” take on the score or composition, no matter the camp. In classical, I suppose we could have a whole group of kazoos take on the Tristan prelude, and even lift it from parody to pathos; but woe betide the same group working over Boulez or Lachenmann! And sure, there are all kinds of recent scores that leave some of the details fuzzy, though more often than not working with improvisation, but far fewer that simply try to open themselves up to alternate forces and arrangement.

    Does that sul pont. tremelo double-bass harmonic in m. 35 really need to be a holy relic, without which the piece simply can’t be?

  7. Nico says:

    Hi Steve. Yes, I agree, that’s probably the most useful thing about what I wrote! And, if you read the specific wording, I still keep it on the surface of the water – “you’d like to think that…” this that and the other thing; it doesn’t mean it’s necessarily always the case or even true; it’s just one of those mindsets that makes sense for brief moments…

  8. james sproul says:

    I think it is less about the music and more about the musician. Pop musicians are much more likely to be comfortable with improvisation, which leads to rearranging etc… most “classical” musicians that I know are not comfortable with improvisation and therefore have a hard time dealing with it. I include a lot of free improvisation in my compositions (along with anything from minimalist to 12-tone techniques) and musicians often have a really rough time wrapping their head around it. Especially when I give a small motive for them to improvise on, they (for the most part) simply can’t do it. So I get jazz players to do it, and they have no issues. So I don’t think it is so much built into the genre as it is built into the musician. And yes, it is true, back in the day (mozart and co.) they were more than adept at improvisation (either free, or on a theme or what have you). somewhere along the line that went away, and an unfortunate loss if you ask me.

    now I have seen a rekindling of classical musicians that can, and are willing and even excited to improvise. And this is a very, very good thing.

  9. Jerry Gerber says:

    Hi Steve,

    There are numerous reasons why I work in the virtual orchestra medium, but one of them is the flexibility by which I can re-orchestrate and try out different timbres with different musical passages. Though I eventually settle on a “final” version, that version has been through many incarnations before I arrive at what tone colors and articulations best fit the music I am composing. Some music is simply far more idiomatic than others. There is some classical music, for example, Chopin’s, that were written for the piano. Chopin won’t sound good on the harpsichord, organ or synthesizer. The medium is “fixed”. But Bach’s music is the opposite. A fugue by J.S. Bach will sound effective on harpsichord, piano, synthesizer, orchestra or digital orchestra. So, though almost all pop music can be arranged for solo guitar or piano, I think with classical music it is more complicated, depending on how the composer first conceived the work and for what medium.

    Jerry Gerber
    San Francisco

  10. Hucbald says:

    I don’t know how I missed this thread, but my counterpoint teacher from my Berklee days just emailed me the link.

    This is exactly what I do. I just completed my Sonata One in E Minor for solo classical guitar, and the first movement Tocatta in E Minor uses the tap technique I learned from guys like Eddie Van Halen and Joe Satriani from my rock guitarist days (When I was even on MTV a few times), but I extended it by using classical right hand tech (A cutaway guitar with a low action is required for this piece).

    The second movement is a Sonata in A Minor, and it’s a neo-Romantic thing as best as I can describe it, but it uses the colorful harmonies I learned from studying contemporary jazz (Think Pat Metheny).

    For the third movement Scherzo in G Major I used a 32-bar swing tune notated in 12/8, which is written in two-part counterpoint. I kept true to the swing style, but I avoided any parallel perfect consonances and parallel dissonances between the melody and bass line. The “trio” uses the bass line as a cantus firmus, and the melody is elaborated like a chorus of solo, and then the second sixteen bars of the “menuetto” return.

    The finale is a barn-burner of a Fugue in E Minor, and it uses the same premise as the D Minor Organ Fugue (Which I’m convinced Bach didn’t write: After transcribing it to the guitar, I’m pretty sure it was originally for archlute), but I used Sergi Taneiev’s Convertible Counterpoint tech to get derivatives from an original contrapuntal combination.

    You can download PDF scores and MP3′s of it here if you want:


    And the stories behind the pieces are on the front page of my blog at the moment, just scroll down.

    I don’t think any composer ought to be squeemish about this idea. After all, Bach’s bourrees &c. were just pop tunes written in a sophistacated style, and the Romantics use folk stuff all the time. Why not?