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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" album.
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 song."
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 6, 2001