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Classical Music and Pop
February 20, 2004 2:35 AM   Subscribe

Is Alex Ross Trying Too Hard To Be Eclectic? It's a great article but, imho, a few false notes are struck here and there. Can you love classical and popular music at the same time? Classical types always like the same popular stuff (Dylan and Pink Floyd, of course) and popular types always like the same classical stuff (Wagner, Puccini, Mahler) but somehow the suspicion remains that one's heart can't be in two places at once. There's something ingratiating and icky about attempts to pretend "it's all music". It isn't, is it? Also, God forgive me, 20 is way too late to start listening to Pop.
posted by MiguelCardoso (50 comments total)

 
I don't think he is, no, at least that's not how it seems to me. Yes, you can love classical and popular music at the same time: I know this from experience. Personally, I dislike both Wagner and Pink Floyd (the Syd Barrett stuff excepted) but, like the article's author, I am fond of Blonde on Blonde and Sibelius' 5th. Ones heart needn't be in two places at once when it comes to loving several kinds of music at the same time. It's true, I guess, that some pop music is best enjoyed young, & perhaps the same might be said of some classical works too, but thankfully, no-one need take a statement like '20 is way too late to start listening to Pop' seriously. I grew up with pop music & only started listening to classical in my late 20s when I began to care less about received musical opinion & began to just follow my own ears.
posted by misteraitch at 3:04 AM on February 20, 2004


Why choose? When you can have the best of both worlds
posted by johnny novak at 3:06 AM on February 20, 2004


"If it sounds good, it is good." - Duke Ellington as oft repeated by Peter Schickeley (sp?)
posted by nofundy at 4:32 AM on February 20, 2004


When i was this post, I thought it was about Alex Ross.

Not the same guy, I'm guessing...
posted by jpburns at 4:50 AM on February 20, 2004


My pianist dormmate pointed out to me back when Amadeus was all the rage that Mozart would've been the Elton John of his era if there'd been radio and a recording industry.
posted by alumshubby at 5:01 AM on February 20, 2004


Is it just me, or does most 20th century orchestral music sound like either a movie score or a scrap automobile being compressed into a cube?
posted by ZenMasterThis at 5:41 AM on February 20, 2004


Interesting article...
from my point of view, the best way to be eclectic is to play as many different styles of music as possible. I play classical piano, jazz piano and jazz guitar, and rock/metal guitar. I adjust my role and personality within each genre, so I don't sound like Alex Ross pontificating about pop music. I think where Ross goes wrong for me in his article is by listening to pop music with classical ears. They do different things and need to be listened to differently. I do agree that the classical music image needs a desperate rehaul, it is a constant uphill battle as a music teacher to undo the image of classical music as boring, uptight and lifeless. I think part of the problem is that as kids learning to play classical music, it will be a long time before they can reach the technique and sophistication to breathe life to a piece, whereas those same kids can instantly express themselves in pop music. By the same token, classical music needs more listening effort to get something in return (usually).
I do find it amazing how people limit what music they think they should enjoy depending on whether it fits with their social identity. Enjoy everything! If you don't like it, consider that you might be missing something. Do you feel threatened by the social group the music can represent? Do you have beliefs about what music should be? Throw them away! Strive to open your mind.
posted by BobsterLobster at 6:32 AM on February 20, 2004


can you love classical and popular music at the same time?/

Yes.

And if you don't believe that, then you need to seriously rethink your view of the world.
posted by Stynxno at 6:36 AM on February 20, 2004


Can you love classical and popular music at the same time?

Yes.

but somehow the suspicion remains that one's heart can't be in two places at once.

It can.

There's something ingratiating and icky about attempts to pretend "it's all music". It isn't, is it?

It is.

What's icky is the sort of purist loyalty to one genre and not others. Doesn't cogitating and overanalyzing and drawing false boundaries run counter to the entire spirit of music anyway?

My current Winamp playlist:

Charles Ives, Young Marble Giants, Louis Jordan, Mum, Buzzcocks, Woody Guthrie, Spike Jones & his Cityslickers, Devo, Kanye West, Prokofiev and Gene Vincent.

Hey, jonmc?
posted by dhoyt at 6:55 AM on February 20, 2004


Not a fan of Floyd and I'm an orchestral musician. I do have a hell of lot of variety in my music collection, though. Like Ross experienced, "shuffle" on my mp3 player can be a surreal thing.

Being eclectic does not make one any less sincere or passionate about what one enjoys. If anything, it just makes one a bit poorer in the pocketbook as there's just so damn much music/art/everything out there.

Is there something "icky" about my music collection or the victorian antiques in my living room vs the Transformers collection in my office? Of course not. Low art vs. high art? That's a debate in itself, but in the end, I just say, "whatever". Sure, I know the history and "significance" of the objects in my various collections, but that's born out of a desire to learn, and not to be exclusive.

BobsterLobster & dhoyt bring up a good point about preconceived notions and the role of cultural genres on social identity. Why close yourself off to what you can enjoy? Got some kind of image to maintain?
posted by Sangre Azul at 7:06 AM on February 20, 2004


Bobster Lobster: I do find it amazing how people limit what music they think they should enjoy depending on whether it fits with their social identity.

I'm in total agreement! I've always had difficulty with 'favorite' questions (e.g., What's your favorite color, What music do you like? etc.) for two reasons: 1.) I don't usually have a simple answer, and 2.) I chafe at the subtext of these questions: to pigeon-hole me in some simplified social identity.
posted by tippiedog at 7:13 AM on February 20, 2004


Zenmasterthis said it all, when he said "most 20th century orchestral music sounds like either a movie score or a scrap automobile being compressed into a cube." Classical music has run its course. Just like rock music. Just like rap. Nothing is meant to last forever. The good thing is that classical music has left us with a good 300 years worth of stupendous music, nearly all of it currently available on record, tape or CD, including multiple wonderful performances by passionate performers of many, many pieces, as well as regular live performances by great singers, instrumentalists and performers. There is so much classical music from the past available right now, that there is no need for any new classical music -- which is a good thing, for, as I said, the tradition petered out in the early twentieth century. "Pops" orchestras are an abomination. And good pop and classical inhabit two different universes, and saying that you can't like both pop and classical at the same time is like saying you can like both lambchops and apple pan betty at the same time (of course, you don't want them in your mouth at the same time). Dhoyt -- about your your current Winamp playlist, the only thing more annoying than Charles Ives is Spike Jones -- and I see you've got them both up there.
posted by Faze at 7:14 AM on February 20, 2004 [1 favorite]


I mostly listen to industrial, EBM, Tool/Perfect Circle (what the hell genre is Maynard anyway?), ambient electronic, Vivaldi, Finnish folk music, video game music remixes, swing, illbient, Tan Dun, darkwave, Lisa Gerard, Ladytron, Bach, Bjork, Toru Takemitsu, blah blah blah...

Probably easier to describe my musical tastes according to what I don't like: most pop, most rap, most 80's glam rock, most country except for Appalachian folk, most anything on a "soft rock for the workplace" radio format, most disco, most modern dance stuff that has a particular cliched hi-hat pattern.

The music I make myself is influenced by everything I hear. Including the voices in my head. ;)
posted by Foosnark at 7:36 AM on February 20, 2004


Oh, and I do like Charles Ives, or at least "The Unanswered Question." And, uh, whatshisname. But I'm not sure lumping that in with "classical" is at all fair.

Then again, I'm not sure "classical" is entirely meaningful as a genre heading anyway, anymore than "electronic" is. What do Bach and Mozart and Prokofiev have in common really, other than being dead?
posted by Foosnark at 7:41 AM on February 20, 2004


Dhoyt -- about your your current Winamp playlist, the only thing more annoying than Charles Ives is Spike Jones -- and I see you've got them both up there.

I think they're both great. *shrug* What's your point?
posted by dhoyt at 7:44 AM on February 20, 2004


At our house, what gets played is simply a matter of the moment. The Clash goes well with building things, the Beach Boys and Zydeco makes cleaning go faster and Schoenberg is lovely with Sunday brunch. Chopin and Tom Waits go equally well with talks in front of the fireplace.

As for calling Classical music "The Music," it doesn't make as much sense as when used to specify Jazz. Jazz is a much more specific type enjoyed by a smaller community-- making the phrase an insider term. I agree with Foosnark in that I'm not sure what the parameters of "Classical" are.

Actually, I think you could hold this exact same conversation about literature. Anybody else love both Charles Dickens and Stephen King?
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 8:02 AM on February 20, 2004


Metafilter: my tastes are more eclectic than yours!
posted by mookieproof at 8:12 AM on February 20, 2004


There's something ingratiating and icky about attempts to pretend "it's all music". It isn't, is it?

Isn't it? So are you saying that you don't like classical music then? I have never experienced any conflict with enjoying both (and other) types of music, personally, so I'm not at all sure what you're getting at here.
posted by rushmc at 8:12 AM on February 20, 2004


Well, I can appreciate the ability and artistry involved in classical music, and I live with a former classical clarinetist*. But ultimately, it's an emotional and cultural thing and classical for the most part just dosen't move me the way rock, R&B, jazz, country etc. does. I suppose there's probably all kinds of sociological reasons for this but ultimately, it comes down to what's in the grooves of the records.

and I don't flash my playlist anymore, dhoyt. I don't like making peoples heads explode. But good choices, esp. his majesty Gene Vincent.

*who has always dug rock and roll, and has a classicists ear for nuance. She says that Metallica reminds her of Wagner and Stravinsky. She loves both "Rite Of Spring" and "Sixty Minute Man," with equal fervor. So maybe people can love both.
posted by jonmc at 8:28 AM on February 20, 2004


dhoyt -- In re: Charles Ives and Spike Jones... seeing them both there on your list started a train of thought I didn't complete. For instance, if you put on Spike Jones (whom I actually really like in small doses) at a party, most people wouldn't hesitate to put their fingers in their ears and say "Ugh. What a racket." But Charles Ives -- who is not nearly as talented or creative as Jones -- always receives a respectful hearing, at least until intermission, when people can discretely leave the auditorium. It means something, but I'm not sure what. Other than Ives, actually, I think you've got excellent taste in music.
posted by Faze at 8:33 AM on February 20, 2004


Miguel, as has sometimes been the case before, I haven't the faintest scintilla of an idea what you might be talking about. As everyone else has said, of course you can love both classical and pop—and jazz, and punk, and the songs of the Kaluli people of New Guinea. Music is music. That's not to say you can love everything, of course. I love Mozart and Berlioz; don't mind Brahms and Tchaikovsky (upgraded recently from the next category); can't stand Puccini (except for La Boheme) and Copland. I love the Stones and Jelly Roll Morton and Miles Davis; am fine with the Byrds and Glenn Miller and Wynton Marsalis (music, not blather); can't stand Pink Floyd and the more violent forms of rap (what ever happened to Grandmaster Flash?). The details don't matter; the point is that certain things appeal to you at any given point and certain others don't, and trying to squeeze them into labeled boxes and make rules about them is just silly.

As for the Ross piece, it's nothing that hasn't been said a thousand times before, but it's well written and has some good examples. And this is a pretty impressive start for a rock enthusiasm:

The first two rock records I bought were Pere Ubu’s “Terminal Tower” compilation and Sonic Youth’s “Daydream Nation.”

Do you even know those masterpieces, Migs? If not, get cracking.

Jazz is a much more specific type enjoyed by a smaller community

Evidence? Ross says jazz and classical each have about 3% of the market. For every variant form of "classical" I can name you a form of "jazz" that's just as far from the norm. In fact, I'll bet I could play you recordings (by, say, Franz Koglmann or Anthony Braxton) that you couldn't assign to either category with confidence. Don't let yourself be ruled by labels.

On preview:

But Charles Ives -- who is not nearly as talented or creative as Jones

Faze, can't you accept that your personal taste does not equal God's Truth? I happen to like Ives a lot, but I don't think you're a tasteless nitwit because you disagree. Just imagine how foolish you'll feel if one day you actually start liking Ives. (And if you've never changed your mind about music, I feel sorry for you. I used to hate Cecil Taylor, now I have a bunch of his CDs. Life is change.)
posted by languagehat at 8:44 AM on February 20, 2004


At 10 p.m., the schedule switched from classical to punk, and only punk of the most recondite kind. Once a record sold more than a few hundred copies, it was kicked off the playlist. The d.j.s liked to start their sets with the shrillest, crudest songs in order to scandalize the classical crowd.

Oops, that was me, with hindsight it was immature. Sorry, Alex.

I've always liked Bloch, by the happy accident of discovering him when I was very young, and by from there being open to all of the other classical composers. Plus my sister played (and still plays) cello in a symphony, so I also learned what classical sounded like when played badly, a useful skill. These days I like any classical that I have not heard a million times for the background of a million movies. The constant repetition dulls me to the nuances.

BTW, there is plenty of classical on the P2P networks and it's a heck of a lot easier to track down rarities without having to endure the bug-eyed stare of the classical record store geeks when you mispronounce some obscure composer whose name you have only read and never heard pronounced.
posted by milovoo at 8:47 AM on February 20, 2004


I remember an NPR piece from not too long ago that explored the similarities between punk and opera. The basic premise was that, to an outsider, both are loud, overbearing and sometimes unlistenable. Being a fan of punk, I wouldn't say that any of those attributes are bad things, I'd say that they are fundamental characteristics of the style. Not being big on the opera, I can also see the outsider's view, yet still appreciate the style.
posted by eyeballkid at 9:02 AM on February 20, 2004


> There's something ingratiating and icky about attempts to pretend "it's all music". It isn't, is it?

I say it is -- with the proviso that it's all subject to Sturgeon's Law ("Ninety percent of everything is crap.") (jargon file entry) Classical music has the advantage that over the centuries a large hunk of the ninety percent has been deservedly forgotten and so doesn't count against its reputation. Consider for example all those 19th century Italian opera scribblers who didn't even reach the mediocre level of Bellini, Rossini, Donizetti, etc. Dust these many decades and please don't revive 'em. Consider the massive amount of tinkle-tinkle French clavichord/harpsichord dance suites that couldn't compete even with Rameau's tinkle-tinkle dance suites. Consider the warehouses full of baroque wallpaper music that doesn't even match Vivaldi for interest, let alone Bach. If you ever see a musicologist approaching with a heavy load of "lost treasures," run awaaay as fast as you would from an Abba cover band. Mozarts are scarce; Salieris are not.

That proviso aside, I do believe music is music. It's simply that different kinds of music scratch different kinds of itches. I grant that some kinds of itches are harder to scratch than others, and only a few humans (Josquin, Palestrina, Bach, Mozart, insert-further-namedropping-here) can do so. On the other hand, nothing by Okeghem scratches the same itch that Big Leg Emma does, for those of us still in touch with our Inner Neanderthal.

N.b. recent classical music has not yet had a chance to sweep its cruddy ninety percent into the dustbin of history; it's still very much in evidence (viz. L*on*rd B*rnst*in, viz. Ph*ll*p Gl*ss, vis 99% of "electronic classical" music, the shit-to-shinola ratio is especially skewed in that department.)


> My pianist dormmate pointed out to me back when Amadeus was all
> the rage that Mozart would've been the Elton John of his era if there'd
> been radio and a recording industry.

And the Salsburgers in the same cleft stick as the British, who can't decide whether Elton is a national treasure or a ragged-out old queen? Just bear in mind that the Mozart you saw in Amadeus was a caricature drawn by people who hate Mozart. (No Mozart lover could possibly have extruded that movie score. Repeatedly they started to play something Mozartean and wonderful, I relaxed and started enjoying it, and that Whack! they cut it off and left a bloody stump. It's like offering a dog a bone and then snatching it away so that the creature's mouth goes pop on nothing. Eventually a sharp doggie will start thinking go for the arm. If I ever meet the jerk responsible for the Amadeus score I plan on going home with an arm.)


> Is it just me, or does most 20th century orchestral music sound like either
> a movie score or a scrap automobile being compressed into a cube?

There's an interesting reason why a good deal of 20th century classical sounds like both at once: Arnold Schoenberg, the composer probably most responsible for the prickly, nonmelodic sound of 20th century classical music, became a professor of music at UCLA after fleeing Hitler, and a generation of his students went from UCLA into the movie biz. One of his students wrote a very influential book, Composing for the Films. A vast number of movies contain stretches of Schoenberg-lite, not-quite-12-tone music, and as a result a large number of people know what 12-tone music sounds like, though they likely don't know they know. In case that's you, it sounds like the psychopathic killer creeping through the darkened house toward the nursery.
posted by jfuller at 9:25 AM on February 20, 2004


I take your point about taste languagehat, but how far does that go?

Does anyone want to stand up for the James Last, Aqua or Milli Vanilli, which Miguel informs me he has on shuffle.
posted by johnny novak at 9:32 AM on February 20, 2004


You know what seems odd, this is a somewhat long article and yet after reading the whole thing, I find myself saying "ok, so what?".

I acknowledge the fact that the author can put words together well, but doesn't it seem as though everyone (really, Everyone!) has this same story, things you listened to when you were younger, then a rebellious teen music appreciation phase and then a synthesis of all that you learned into your mature preferences and tastes. Maybe the author is somewhat of a loner and hasn't pryed the same story out of enough other people yet, or maybe he's trying to say something profound about something, but I missed it.

Also "The hero is you." seems like an exceptionally lame last sentence in a quite lame last paragraph.
Was this article translated from the Japanese?

John Williams is classical, right? And modern? How many of us didn't really dig the Star Wars soundtrack when we were young - it's not like classical is that far outside the listening realm of your average kids, it's just when it's forced on people that they resist.
posted by milovoo at 9:34 AM on February 20, 2004


Does anyone want to stand up for the James Last, Aqua or Milli Vanilli, which Miguel informs me he has on shuffle.

Not those specifically, but I'll publicly declare my love for equally unloved artists like Grand Funk Railroad, Mountain, ABBA, .38 Special, Faith Hill, Kathy Mattea, the Edison Lighthouse and Petula Clark and plenty others. None of which negates my love for Lester Young, James Brown, The Band or X-Ray Spex.

There is no accounting for taste, folks.
posted by jonmc at 9:41 AM on February 20, 2004


There is no accounting for taste, folks.

Amen. And taste is a pretty mutable thing. I've recently started doing a lot of freelance music writing, and it's really changed my perception of my own tastes. There are a lot of bands that, when I'm assigned to cover them, sound like unredeemable shit to me. But almost invariably, putting in the time to figure out what it is they're trying to do and how well they do it gives me at least a little bit of appreciation. I mean, a few remain unredeemable shit, but more often I end up liking them, or at least liking some facet of them.
posted by COBRA! at 9:51 AM on February 20, 2004


Hey, "unredeemable shit" would be a great name for a band!

And jonmc is right on the money.
posted by languagehat at 10:19 AM on February 20, 2004


So then you won't mind if I put "Mississippi Queen," and "We're An American band," on the jukebox at the meetup tonight, then?
posted by jonmc at 10:29 AM on February 20, 2004


The Clash goes well with building things

The Clash goes well with breaking things!
posted by mr_roboto at 10:49 AM on February 20, 2004


I actually like "We're an American Band," and if they have it on the juke at Veselka, I'll contribute a quarter.
posted by languagehat at 10:52 AM on February 20, 2004


> Hey, "unredeemable shit" would be a great name for a band!

I dunno, it sounds artsy, too many syllables. And "shit", all unadorned, as a band name has already been used (in Joe's Apartment.)
posted by jfuller at 10:55 AM on February 20, 2004


I actually like "We're an American Band," and if they have it on the juke at Veselka, I'll contribute a quarter.

*air drums*

blick-em, blick-em, blick-em!!
posted by jonmc at 10:58 AM on February 20, 2004


Um, why can't I listen to whatever music I want to and like? I'm all over the board from rock to reggae to ska to ambient to techno to electronica to dance to country, no wait, I dislike ninety nine percent of country music, to acapella to anything else. My iPod has, at last count a few days ago, more than 80 different genres on it.

Music is music, if it makes you happy to listen to then listen to it and stop worrying about what pigeonhole someone's trying to push you into.
posted by fenriq at 11:00 AM on February 20, 2004


"The first question I ask myself when something doesn't seem to be beautiful is why do I think it's not beautiful. And very shortly you discover that there is no reason." -- John Cage

Enough said.
posted by speicus at 11:04 AM on February 20, 2004


Well, okay, so despite this I've still never been able to get into Britney Spears. Is this a personal failing?

Seriously, though, if you want to find 20th century classical music that doesn't sound like John Williams or automobile scrap, I suggest you check out William Bolcom, John Adams, Louis Andriessen, John Corigliano, Bright Sheng, etc. etc. There are a lot of composers making music that is both intelligent AND accessible, if you know where to look.
posted by speicus at 11:10 AM on February 20, 2004


There may be kids out there who lost their virginity during Brahms’s D-Minor Piano Concerto, but they don’t want to tell the story and you don’t want to hear it.

Amen to that. What kind of person makes out to Brahms? Debussy I could definitely see, Chopin maybe, but Brahms?!
posted by boltman at 11:29 AM on February 20, 2004


> William Bolcom

COMMEDIA (for almost 18th-Century Orchestra) (scroll down) especially recommended by jf.
posted by jfuller at 11:30 AM on February 20, 2004


How often do all you openminded folks let other people control the stereo?
posted by dydecker at 11:40 AM on February 20, 2004


> How often do all you openminded folks let other people control the stereo?

I think I left the stereo unguarded once in 1973, and somebody put on Roberta Flack.
posted by jfuller at 12:22 PM on February 20, 2004


speicus: I've still never been able to get into Britney Spears. Is this a personal failing?

Don't come on so strong to her. Take her out for a nice dinner first.
posted by COBRA! at 12:34 PM on February 20, 2004


I like Black Metal and Jpop.

If I can do that, chances are that people can like any two genres.
posted by vorfeed at 1:37 PM on February 20, 2004


Bolcom and Morris deserve their own thread. Especially for her, and her lovely rendition of Henry Clay Work's "Father, Please Come Home" and "The Silver Horn."
posted by Faze at 2:07 PM on February 20, 2004


i like music.

and i find my love of certain genres is dictated by my mood at the time. it's funny, i find that i like Gorecki's 3rd Symphony a great deal more when i've had too much coffee than i do at any other time.

i like Albert Ayler's freejazz improvizations a great deal more when i'm stuck somewhere sterile, like an airport, then i do at home. i've made a practice of always bringing his "music is the healing force of the universe" with me when i travel.

i like poppier music when i'm in a more energetic mood. i see absolutely no good reason to listen to "Hey Ya" or "Milkshake" unless i'm good and willing to get up and shake it.

on the other hand, i like a great deal of hip hop and rock music at just about anytime, which is more than likely due to being raised on them. i can listen to pavement or blackalicious at ANY TIME OF DAY, NO MATTER WHAT.



needless to say, i don't think there is ANYTHING wrong with having broad tastes. but i'm sure that's just re-iterating a great deal of what's already been said. just my 2 cents.
posted by sunexplodes at 2:17 PM on February 20, 2004


I think genre-hopping does require a bit of tween-time sensor recalibration - it's like dating two women - after you've finished with #1, just hop in the shower, suds off your tool, adjust your eyebrows, and you're ready for #2.
posted by Opus Dark at 2:42 PM on February 20, 2004


> "The first question I ask myself when something doesn't seem to be beautiful
> is why do I think it's not beautiful. And very shortly you discover that there
> is no reason." -- John Cage


Happily one doesn't need a reason, and us bodhisattvas don't flounder about looking for one. We just turns the shit off.
posted by jfuller at 2:53 PM on February 20, 2004


I don't understand why everyone keeps pickin' on Guns N Roses. But, just my two cents - Slash is much more eclectic.
posted by bradth27 at 3:45 PM on February 20, 2004


this distinction between classical and pop music has only come about recently.

mozart made great dance music, john dowland made great depressive songs, beethoven (played by a great interpretter of course) can make you feel the same things as jimi hendrix

i like music that sounds like it has to be made, not is music just for the sake of music, a lot of music is made to be sold these days (well for the entire history of western music really) and they use the rules of style, but behind the rules and style is just feelings and emotions.

so you cant be too eclectic because music is just the medium man.

take it from a music conservatory student (at berklee) - these days pop music is more classical than classical music is, in terms of melodies and forms, so why this distinction?
posted by klik99 at 9:38 PM on February 21, 2004


i think music is thought about and argued about far too deeply.

music is music. like what you like.
posted by sunexplodes at 10:20 PM on February 21, 2004


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