||Billy Joel has been writing
classical music. He writes it like a fan, which is hardly a surprise, since
he's not a classical-music sophisticate. He took classical piano lessons
when he was a kid and then got turned on again eight years ago or so, when
he listened to Beethoven. "I let these symphonies pound over me," he says.
"Last time I felt like this was the first time I listened to Led Zeppelin.
I felt puny. I am nothing, I am insignificant."
But then he thought: "It's time for me. I'm in my 40s. I want to get out
of this box I've been working in." So he listened, as he says, "mostly to
the romantics. Schumann. Schubert. I listened to Brahms, the Germans. I
became enamored of Rachmaninoff."
This year he released a CD of classical piano pieces called
"Fantasies and Delusions" (a joint product of Sony
Classical and Columbia, one of Sony's pop labels, for which Mr. Joel has
recorded since the start of his pop career). It sounds like the romantic
music Mr. Joel has listened to -- like Chopin, most of all, but also like
Schubert, Rachmaninoff and sometimes Debussy. When I first heard it, I
unkindly thought that Mr. Joel was just an imitator. He wants to write
classical music exactly like the classical music he loves.
At least, I added thankfully, he's not like Paul McCartney, whose first
classical work was a huge oratorio, which he needed help to compose. But my
musical judgment wasn't fair. I didn't listen carefully enough. Yes, there
might not be enough variety on the CD, so it's hard for me to hear more
than a few tracks at a time. Sometimes there are moments that echo the past
a bit too lovingly -- one phrase in the first movement of Mr. Joel's "Suite
for Piano," for instance, comes straight from Chopin's C minor prelude.
But the melodies are genuinely beautiful. They might not stick as
quickly in my mind as Mr. Joel's best pop tunes, perhaps because he hasn't
yet found a classical voice that's entirely his own. As a pop songwriter,
performer and personality, Mr. Joel can get in your face; as a classical
composer, he's retiring. When I worried that he sounded more like Chopin
than he should, I compared him with real Chopin, and got a shock. Next to
other classical composers, Chopin seems yielding and romantic; back to back
with Mr. Joel, he's muscular. Mr. Joel only emulates the sound of Chopin.
In its heart, his music is his own.
And what's most impressive is the way the sections of each piece succeed
each other. "Aria" starts with a tune that sounds like walking, then
flowers into a gorgeous melody, so unpretentious that it wins my heart in
part because it doesn't draw attention to itself. But before that comes
something magical -- a musical idea that works as a transition, though it's
hardly more than a wisp on one repeated note. It's light enough to take us
toward the gorgeous theme without upstaging it, yet it's also in itself
delightful. Classical compositions are (or should be) built from unassuming
triumphs like this one; in this small moment, Mr. Joel shows that he's
already, in his beginning way, a master.
And I found that I'd underestimated his musicianship. It's true that he
seems like an innocent. He's not at ease with musical notation, so he plays
his pieces into a computer, then has a copyist write them down. He thinks
Chopin "writes in difficult keys," though no classical musician would find
them hard. He shapes his pieces only intuitively: "One day," he says, "I
sat down and started to write a song. It was based on a visit I was having
with my daughter. She was leaving and I was devastated. The chords kept
ascending, and I said, 'No, wait, I don't need words.' The theme I started
with led me to the next section. 'You don't have lyrics,' I said to myself.
'So now what are you going to do, big shot? You have to state the theme
differently, but it has to be the same.'"
And then he turns around and shows me how much he knows, maybe not about
classical forms, but about something more basic, the guts of music itself.
How, I ask him, does he handle independent inner voices, a standard
classical refinement, but not always found in pop? "I was using inner
voicing in rock," he quickly says, demonstrating over the phone on his
piano, with a guitar part from "Allentown," on his "Nylon Curtain"
How did he learn to make melodies succeed each other? He'd already done
that in pop, he answers: "In a rock song, you have to write a bridge [a
section that contrasts with the main melody]. It's like a song within the
At that point I remember his "Scenes From an Italian Restaurant" (from
"The Stranger"), a seven-minute track with independent sections that
dovetail faultlessly. And when I ask him about Bach, he floors me. The one
piece I don't like on his classical album is "Invention in C Minor," which
imitates Bach, but only superficially. In Bach's Inventions (keyboard
pieces written to demonstrate techniques of composition), each melodic
voice is independent. None is more important than the others. But in Mr.
Joel's piece, the top voice is just a melody, and the
bass not much more than an accompaniment.
I'm too polite to tell him that; instead I simply ask him what he had in
mind. "Now I'd do it differently," he says. What would you change? "The
left hand," he says. "It's just a fast-moving accompaniment. It starts to
imitate the melody in the other voice, but it doesn't finish." He may not
have studied music, in other words -- but he knows it intimately.
Classical sophisticates might wish his style was more advanced, that his
music sounded more like the present than the past. Perhaps defensively, he
says he's listened to 20th-century music: "Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Boulez,
Copland, Gershwin, Stockhausen, John Cage, Samuel Barber. I'm not afraid of
the 20th century," he says, "I don't dread it. I'm just beginning to
understand its dissonances, its tonality." It's touching, somehow, that he
knows even less about advanced rock. When he tells me rock is now
"reactionary," I object, citing Sonic Youth, a famous, dissonant,
alternative art-rock band; he's never heard of them.
"I'm a student at this point," he says, sounding humble. That almost
forces me to ask him how he feels about releasing a CD of what he seems to
say is student work. "I didn't think it was going to sell five copies," he
says. (It hasn't done too badly.) "I admit that it sounds like Chopin or
Rachmaninoff -- nobody grows up in a test tube."
He says he was encouraged by the support of a very few people in the
classical world who've heard these pieces since he started writing them,
including the young pianist who plays them on the CD, Richard Joo. (Mr.
Joel can't play his music himself because his piano technique, sensational
for rock 'n' roll, isn't good enough for classical work.) He says he hopes
that he at least can lead his fans to classical composers.
It's good, in any case, that it took him eight years to go public with
his classical pieces; for any major pop star, that's modesty. And wherever
he finally goes as a classical composer, he's at the very least shown that
he's a phenomenal talent. His biggest challenge, in fact, might be his
sensibility, not his grasp of modern compositional technique. His pop songs
can be bitter, tough and thoughtful. Can he write classical music that goes
in that direction, instead of the mostly sweet and pretty stuff -- no
matter how well constructed -- that's on his album now?
Why should Billy Joel get to release a classical album, when many
classical composers -- better-trained and, maybe, more interesting than
he is -- don't have that opportunity?
That's what a friend asked me, and the answer seems simple enough.
First, life is unfair. Second, and to me more important, there's Billy
Joel's ability. He's an extraordinary musician, and if he wants to try
classical music, that's automatically interesting; he ought to be
encouraged. He also ought to study more, but that's between him and his
musical conscience. He knows it's true.
He also ought to pay more attention to the classical music world.
He told me that he doesn't go to concerts. In one way, that's
understandable -- he doesn't want to be fussed over, or to be treated as
a token pop defector. But by staying home and listening to CDs, he hears
only the music he wants to hear. He ought to throw himself into the
middle of the classical music world the rest of us inhabit, and learn
how things are.
No one, though, should think his record companies exploited his
turn toward classical music as a way to sell records. Sony Classical, as
far as I know, didn't solicit this album from Billy Joel. Instead, he
took it to his long-time pop label, Columbia, also part of the Sony
stable, which enlisted Sony Classical as a partner to help publicize the
CD to the classical world.
Columbia, however, would surely have preferred a new Billy
Joel pop album, which (unless Joel has lost his touch) would sell
more copies than this classical disc ever could. But, as Joel told me,
he hadn't brought a new pop record to his label for eight years. They
surely figured they'd better take what they could get -- and not
alienate Joel, so he'd take future pop projects somewhere else.
There's another, larger issue. What does it mean for someone to
write classical music as if the 20th century had never happened? This
seems almost like a classical fan's dream, and a sophisticate's
nightmare. All the people who hate the dissonance of 20th century music
are finally getting something we might imagine they've been waiting for
-- new music that doesn't sound new.
In a way, the classical world deserves this. If it's going to
concentrate on old music, it shouldn't be surprised when someone starts
composing as if the old styles were all there were. This, though, is
more cultural analysis than Joel's album really deserves. He's not a bellwether,
not the creator of a new trend. He's just a guy who loves older
classical music, and decided he'd write some.
The real trends in classical composition are toward a far more
robust kind of tonality, one that's built from everything that's ever
happened in music, including 20th-century dissonance and pop. And the
strongest question to ask Billy Joel is why he doesn't build his pop
style into classical forms -- why, to write classical music, he wants to
use styles so far from anything he's ever done. In this respect, he's
like classical musicians who don't quite know what classical music
has to do with their everyday lives. This is the biggest way classical
music has failed us -- it's lost touch with the way we really live.
Wall Street Journal, November