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 SchÃ¶ne MÃ¼llerin 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?