Who says classical composers can't reflect popular culture?
pop fiction headline
All of us know Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony, and I’m sure most of us have smiled at the peasant band in the third movement. Beethoven is having fun here, depicting rural musicians with more verve than technique -- especially the one who plays the bass line and seems to know just three notes.
So now tell me something. Could classical music make an equally affectionate contemporary joke? Wouldn’t we be just a little surprised if a composer wrote an American Pastoral and brought us an off-key rhythm and blues band from a rural Southern roadhouse?
And yes, I know that some composers have done things like this. I’m going to talk in detail about Christopher Rouse and Michael Daugherty, but of course we all know pop-influenced music by Copland, Gershwin and Bernstein. William Bolcom, too, brings relaxed vernacular styles into his work.
The problem is, though, that Copland, Gershwin, Bernstein, and Bolcom haven’t dealt with contemporary pop, which means rock and its many allied styles, from R&B to hip-hop. Copland, for example, caused a commotion with his populist works, but the pop idioms that he adopted -- Mexican folk and dance music in El Salon Mexico, cowboy songs in Billy the Kid, old Southern and Shaker folk tunes in Appalachian Spring -- stood apart even from his own life, and certainly can’t evoke America today.
Rhythm and blues -- to return to my opening example -- is, by contrast, right in our face. It’s music of our own time and place, a style that swept into the American mainstream with the rise of rock & roll. That means it might bother part of the classical audience, people who didn’t like rock & roll when they first heard it many years ago, and won’t feel affectionate towards R&B, maybe even seeing it as some kind of mass-market threat.
But does current popular music really endanger the concert hall? For those who quickly answer "yes," I’d like to point out a few problems with that position.
First, other arts don’t seem to feel the same threat. Playwrights, poets, and novelists freely incorporate pop-culture elements, and so do painters and sculptors. Twyla Tharp long ago choreographed a dance to the rock & roll of Chuck Berry, and the world didn’t come to an end, not even when she put the piece on the same program with a dance she’d choreographed to Brahms.
Next, there’s the tiny matter of classical music’s past. Classical music used to welcome other styles with open arms. Mozart imitated Turkish percussion, which was almost a fad in 18th-century Europe. And Gypsy music -- originally a vigorous, even rough country folk style -- charmed composers as diverse as Brahms and Liszt.
So what’s the problem now? Elsewhere in the musical world, styles are melting into each other. Arab singers have adopted the pounding pulse of Western dance music; Jamaicans, emigrating to American cities, brought reggae with them and transformed rap, which acquired a loping reggae beat. North Indian music, in its own culture a severe, classical idiom, slipped easily into rock with the Beatles, who also enlarged their style to include Western classical techniques, which also were used by other rock artists, ranging from (to cite only some of the ones who did it well) Led Zeppelin to Elvis Costello and the Pet Shop Boys. The British art-rock band Yes even shifted time signatures, in the manner of many 20th-century composers. So why does classical music hold back?
When embracing diverse musical styles -- and the diverse people who sing, play, and dance to them -- is on the world’s musical menu, why does the classical concert hall stand apart?
The simplest reasons are logistical. The orchestra might be the grandest of all resources for any classical composer, but if you ask Scott Johnson -- a composer and electric guitar virtuoso whose work has been recorded by Nonesuch and by Philip Glass’s Point Music label -- it hasn’t kept pace with modern life. Orchestras don’t include his own instrument, or the electric bass, both crucial in much of today’s music. But, as Johnson sees it, there’s an even more basic omission, one that’s several generations older than the rock era. "Orchestras," he says, "don’t even include -- " "The saxophone!" I broke in, laughing.
Johnson knows, of course, that orchestras use saxes, and electric guitars, too, in pops concerts, but that’s exactly his point. Their very presence on the pops stage seems to prove they aren’t considered fit for serious art. But it’s also important to note that Johnson doesn’t want to turn the orchestra into a rock band, or a sax-heavy swing ensemble. He gets quite involved, in fact, explaining ways to create a rock beat without hiring new orchestral personnel. "If you want a drum set," he says, "there’s no doubt that half the people in the percussion section can do a good job with it." Or -- and here his voice gets lively, as he delves into the kind of technical details composers love -- you could write the beat out, notating the rhythms rock drummer might improvise. One player, he says, could handle the heart of a drum set, the basic kick-drum, snare, and high-hat cymbal. "Then, with the guts of the groove under one person's control, you’d spread the rest of the cymbals and cowbells and tom -toms out among the rest of the percussion section.
Still, Johnson's lifelong dream is to mix classical composition with the everyday music of America, and his own ideal orchestra would include what we still think of as pop instruments. How, he wonders, can the orchestra become a contemporary ensemble when it doesn’t even make the sounds that, for nearly every citizen of the modern world, most define today’s music? In Holland, another composer, Louis Andriessen, asks the same question, and writes many of his scores for a shifting ensemble he calls The Orchestra of the 20th Century, which often includes saxes.
Johnson's imagined orchestra might use winds, brass, and light, amplified strings, with the sound fleshed out by contemporary instruments. Among those, he says, "what I would really like is a guitar section, that could make three-note chords out of single notes." Though, as he sadly adds, "if I did write something for orchestra I wouldn't go for a guitar section, because the piece would never be performed, ever." And where would he get even a single guitar? Maybe the pops concert guitarist wouldn’t be right for Johnson’s music, because he’d need someone with contemporary-music chops -- someone who can sightread complex scores and might otherwise need fancy classical technique. Pop instruments might be a financial burden for your orchestra, too; if you wanted to tour the piece they play in, you’d find yourself paying extra for people who might not perform on every program and won’t often be called to perform with your orchestra.
By now, Johnson is listing all the problems that might arise. Synthesizers can be trouble, he knows, because merely saying "synthesizer" doesn’t mean anything. Synths play many sounds -- that's what they're for -- so he needs to specify a precise sound played on a particular model, perhaps even supplying its detailed parameters on a floppy disk. At the very least, he says, he’ll give a general description of what he wants ("a harp-like plucking," maybe, "sustained with the reverberation of a sampled piano"), so someone can recreate it on another instrument. And of course electric or amplified instruments require something that orchestras don't usually make time for: a sound check before each concert.
Thanks to all this, Johnson says, "we have a disconnect between two types of music -- though maybe, he says, the distinction is, in the end, "more psychological than practical," a matter of "institutional inertia."
It's the
But how great are the psychological obstacles to blending pop and the orchestra? Here we have a mystery, because two notably successful composers I’ve mentioned, Michael Daugherty and Christopher Rouse, have done it with no trouble at all. Rouse -- a true fan of rock & roll who drops band names the way musicologists cite Köchel numbers -- has written rock-inspired works, including Bonham, a 1992 tribute to John Bonham, Led Zeppelin’s extravagant drummer. And though prominent composers don’t usually do such things, Rouse wasn’t trying to make a point. "I wasn’t setting out to create some new type of music," he says. I just thought it might be fun. My teachers might have grown up in the jazz era, but I grew up in the rock era."
He won’t, of course, just imitate rock. "You have to make it interesting," he says. "You can’t just regurgitate Bob Dylan songs." Lately, he adds, he’s moved away from pop-music sounds, but, again, not for any ideological reason. "I guess I wanted to write a different kind of music," he offers, "more introspective, or something like that."
Still, Rouse hasn’t given up on rock. He might be a little down on the ubiquity of popular culture -- "It’s completely overwhelmed everything, so it’s hard for people like me to get even a hangnail’s worth of attention" -- but his percussion concerto, Der Gerettete Alberich, premiered last season by Evelyn Glennie and the Cleveland Orchestra, has a distinct rock reference. "There’s a point near the beginning where Evelyn takes over a drum set, and turns the ‘Dawn’ motif from Wagner’s Gotterdammerung into heavy metal," Rouse says, with a smile that’s unmistakable even on the telephone. "It just seemed like something impish to do."
As for Daugherty, he’s a composer that a friend of mine might like, a friend who’s precisely the kind of smart, inquisitive under-40 listener the classical music world wants to attract. "The problem with classical music," she told me once, "is that it isn’t noir enough." Her reference, of course, was to "film noir," the dark and troubled genre that brought elements of 20th-century art to movies in the 1940s. Daugherty has in fact tackled film noir, and his music bounces off other things in pop culture that my friend would recognize. Take, for instance, his Spaghetti Western, an English horn concerto that the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra premiered this fall. This piece was inspired, as you might have guessed, by the famously spare and ironic Italian cowboy movies stirring Clint Eastwood and directed by Sergio Leone. Its movements have wonderful Italian titles, translations of phrases that evoke the films: "Strade Volte," ("Empty Streets"), or "Assalta d’Oro" ("Gold Rush").
And then there’s Daugherty’s Metropolis Symphony, based on Superman; his chamber piece Dead Elvis, in which a bassoonist plays Elvis Presley, and an opera called Jackie O. Coming soon are UFO, which he’s writing for Evelyn Glennie and the National Symphony Orchestra, and Hell’s Angels, for David Zinman and the London Philharmonia..
How easy was it for him to establish himself, writing works like these? "A lot of composition students might have gotten discouraged in the '70s and ‘80s," he says. "They might have said, ‘I’m not going to deal with the concert music world. I’m going to start a rock band, or go to Hollywood and write film music.’ There was no possibility for them to get their love of pop culture into the orchestral world."
But slowly, he says, "different perspectives were allowed into concert music," starting in 1983 with the New York Philharmonic’s Horizons festival whose theme was "The New Romanticism" -- encouraging, as Daugherty stresses, the open display of emotion. Even so, when he started writing his Metropolis Symphony in 1987, he still felt that "it was not a cool thing to do" -- though, cool or not, the reaction was "fantastic."
Christopher Rouse introduced Daugherty to David Zinman, who began conducting his works, and since then Daugherty’s never looked back. Part of his secret, he’ll note, is that he’s always had support from orchestral players and from conductors (especially Zinman). Here, I think, Daugherty benefits from a peculiarity of the classical music world. Contemporary work is still not performed often enough for any composer to blanket the field. Conductors have their own favorites, and anyone with a conductor’s avid support will get played.
But, as he himself stresses, Daugherty’s compositional technique also helps his success. The content of his music might be unusual, but he works hard to make sure that musicians will enjoy playing his work. "I’ve spent a lot of time hanging around orchestras and studying scores," he says. "I’ve spent a lot of time trying to get my technique down in that area. I try to get the sounds I want, but the parts are idiomatic. If I want something complex, I’ll do it with a combination of instrumental choirs." Daugherty, then, is both an innovator and a traditionalist. And he’s happy, too: "I feet as if I’ve integrated my life and my art."
But here’s the mystery. If Michael Daugherty can build a career writing music about pop culture, why hasn’t anyone else on his level done it? Why haven’t other leading composers quoted rock, like Christopher Rouse?
Why, in fact, does Daugherty himself seem not to ask these questions? Here we have yet another classical music curiosity. There isn’t much aesthetic debate in the field, so someone who takes a surprising path does so quietly, without banners or manifestos. When I asked Daugherty why other composers don’t do what he does, his reply, very simply, was, "I don’t know. Maybe we’ll see more of it in the future."
Rouse, too, didn’t have many answers when I asked him why more composers don’t quote rock & roll. "It should be an increasingly natural thing to do," he told me. "I’m stumped." He suspects that young composers are discouraged from getting into rock. "Some of my students," he says, "aren’t even aware of the pop and rock music going on around them. I suppose there’s some residual sense that high art shouldn’t sully itself by mixing with the vernacular. You’re surrounded by scowling busts of Bach and Beethoven, looking sternly down at you. On some subconscious level, you think you’re supposed to stay within that tradition."
Just For
So now we’re back to the war -- or alleged war -- between classical music and pop. As Christopher Rouse suggests, this perceived conflict might stem, at least in part, from "a sense of real paranoia in the classical music world. We’re threatened with extinction, so there’s a ‘circling the wagons’ mentality." This paranoia gets so intense, at times, that even pop crossovers -- Paul McCartney writing symphonies, Michael Bolton singing arias, Aretha Franklin belting "Nessun dorma" at the Grammies -- seem to be a threat. Which makes no sense. Did McCartney steal classical listeners, or even classical funding? Does anybody think that the throngs who heard his Standing Stone would otherwise have flocked to Ligeti?
If anything, these crossover projects, whatever their artistic value in classical terms, draw attention to classical music. They’re good publicity and we all ought to be grateful. (Besides, Franklin’s "Nessun dorma" was great singing. [For a little more on this, see my review of Aretha Franklin singing with the Detroit Symphony.] Maybe it wasn't exactly Puccini, but then Franklin’s "Eleanor Rigby" was even further away from the Beatles, and her fellow soul singer Otis Redding recorded a version of "Satisfaction" that was lightyears from the Rolling Stones. The pop world can handle reinterpretations. Why can’t we?)
Are we afraid of pop because it’s commercial? "Look me in the eye," all but shouted one of my composer friends, "and tell me that pop record companies don’t want to make money!" Of course they do, but how, exactly, do they manage it? The executive director of an important East Coast orchestra had one answer to suggest; he told me that pop executives deliberately manufacture music with no staying power, music that will become obsolete, thus forcing the pop audience to buy new records.
But, as anyone who knows pop music can tell you, this is a myth. It’s self-serving (since it makes us feel that classical music has to be superior) and it’s dangerous, because it stops us from understanding how pop really works, and what place classical music really holds in the musical world that pop dominates.
The truth is that the pop music business can’t dictate what music people will like. If anything, it’s forever playing catchup; if there’s any solid rule, it’s that the audience won’t like tomorrow what it likes today. Pop record companies need to guess next year’s trends, and since they usually fail, they’re always scrambling to record what they’ve belatedly learned the audience wants to hear.
Smart musicians, meanwhile, know how commercial pop music is, and (along with smart people in the pop audience) not surprisingly complain about it. As a result, pop has developed an alternative wing, where art is valued more than commercial success. But here there’s a great contrast with classical music, because pop’s artistic styles pay for themselves. In a huge market even the fringes are huge, and you can make money recording music as foreign to the mass audience as Milton Babbitt would be.
It goes without saying, of course, that pop -- unlike classical music -- reflects contemporary life. When Martin Scorsese, no slouch as an artist, made his film Goodfellas, depicting three decades in the life of the Mafia, he used pop music to set the tone for each era. Could he have used classical works -- Babbitt for the ‘50s, George Crumb for the ‘60s, the newly tonal string quartets of George Rochberg for the ‘70s? Get real.
And this brings me back to where I started, with Beethoven’s affection for the music around him, and our own wariness, especially when we compare ourselves to any of the other arts. Pop and rock, we need to learn, are much more than commercial fluff. They’re a deep expression of the world we live in. They can rise, sometimes, to artistic heights, just as classical music does; they can also serve, in the simplest possible way, as our folk music. To see how that happens, visit Shea Stadium in New York to watch the New York Mets. When their closer. John Franco, comes in to pitch, the sound system plays Chuck Berry’s "Johnny B. Goode," the assumption being that baseball fans get the connection because they know the song, and love it.
Can classical music speak in the language – musical and cultural -- of contemporary life? Of course it can. As we’ve seen, there aren’t any immovable obstacles, technical or artistic. But to come alive in our own century, classical music will have to reestablish a connection Beethoven would have taken for granted, a profound and nourishing relationship with all the other kinds of music that our friends and neighbors love. That music includes pop. If we turn away from pop, we turn away from America and from the world.
Circling the

This piece (which appeared in the official publication of the American Symphony Orchestra League) got a lot of favorable comment -- though maybe the people who hated it haven't been heard from yet. For another approach to the same subject, see my unpublished essay, Why Classical Music Needs Rock & Roll.

Symphony Magazine, December 1998