Good Neighbors

A musician repairs artifact instruments and attempts to reproduce long-forgotten performance practices, hoping to rediscover the original sound, setting and inspiration of the music to which he has dedicated his life.

A small ensemble is labeled “avant-garde” for its mixing of traditional instrumentation with prerecorded tape loops; deaf to the name-calling, the group faces the challenge of bringing its complicated studio concoctions to life on stage.

A radio station’s program director is excited by new performers and compositions and wants to bring them to the station’s audience, but the audience responds only to music it already knows. Classical music fans will find these scenarios pretty familiar: the divisive period-instruments standoff, the glut of repertoire warhorses, those tradition-threatening “electro-acoustic” composers. Each subject has sparked a fierce debate, a volley of aesthetic rivalry among liner-note manifestos, the academy, and magazine and newspaper articles. And each debate has, in turn, faded to a subtle but enduring residue on the face of classical music life in the late 20th century. It is nagging stuff, the content of party small talk and cursory surveys of the classical-music industry’s never-ending woes: poor record sales, a static canon, a graying audience.

What may be surprising, however, are the identities of the artists mentioned above. The musician toiling in the authentic-instruments movement is a prolific British punk-rock holdout who calls himself Billy Childish, the “avant-garde” ensemble is a rap group known as the Beastie Boys, and the struggling musicians favored by our hypothetical struggling station director are countless.

The search for common ground between classical and pop music is nothing new, but the discussion invariably focuses on superficial overlaps: the Beatles enticing Alan Civil to cameo with his French horn, a Sir Michael Tippett orchestration that calls for an electric guitar, a Madonna hit single that closes with a snippet of chamber music. Some of today’s composers dig deeper, attempting to absorb pop much as Dvorak did his own national folk music; Scott Johnson, David Lang and David Soldier come to mind. But the general public is far more likely to be treated to the reverse on that formula: commercial attempts to fire the classical repertoire under a pop glaze. Listen, if you must, to Visions, Angel Records’ recent cynical contemporization of 12th-century composer Hildegard von Bingen — complete with electric keyboard drivel more suited to a nightclub than a house of worship.

The attempt to make peace between classical and pop music is poisoned by attempts to make a heavy profit off that peace. What is neglected wholesale are the things that classical and pop music and musicians have in common, regardless of their aesthetic sympathies, or even mutual awareness. These essential, and invisible, matters are perhaps best described as procedural. Music is many things, but high up on the list is the attempt to answer questions, deal with problems; these challenges are the things classical and pop musicians have in common, even if their answers — hell, their whole vocabularies — are different. The results of this line of inquiry will not create the next Officium, the ECM label’s failed attempt to fuse its jazz and classical sides; nor will it determine the song list for the next 3 Tenors concert. If anything, focusing on what pop and classical musicians have in common ultimately brings into focus that which they do not.

Shouldn’t fans of the authentic-instrument movement be intrigued, even heartened, to discover that a similar tenet has taken hold in pop music? Billy Childish, for example, likes things lo-fi. The term encapsulates a relatively new recording ideology, a return to simple recording situations: limited microphones, tube amplifiers, no overdubs. We aren’t talking about gut strings, equal temperament and glacially escalating concert pitch, but for once pop music appears to be following classical music’s lead. Childish, for one, hears romance in the brittle echo of wire recordings, just as Malcolm Bilson does in the short decay of the fortepiano. By betraying the failings of source tape, CDs are blessed with a more human feel, or so the theory goes. That the repertoire of the classical period-instrument movement dates almost exclusively to pre-recording history shouldn’t preclude the albums of Childish and, say, his countryman John Eliot Gardiner from being heard together. (Similarly, aficionados of studio-minded composers Gavin Bryars, Alvin Curran, Alvin Lucier and Morton Subotnick should appreciate the Beastie Boys’ techniques, if not their music, given the rap trio’s agility at blending prerecorded and live music like no one else around.)

Getting to hear new music is the biggest obstacle. NPR listeners accustomed to catching one of The Four Seasons every week can relate: What gets played on radio isn’t what’s going on in classical music, only what has made it through the layers of consultants, ad agencies and bottom-line-feeding music directors. Same goes for pop radio.

After hearing Abbess Hildegard recast as a synthesizer-twiddling new-age seer (and looker), you too may bristle at the artificial sheen endemic to today’s commercial music and instinctively scurry off to a remote hovel with poor electricity, OK acoustics and a good spirit about it. And you may just find Childish or someone of his ilk already there, having set up a two-track recorder and ripping through a series of pop tunes that sound like they date back to the era of Heifetz and Stravinsky.

Originally published, in slightly different form, in Classical Pulse! magazine, December 1994.

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