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A Postmodern Convergence

(Note: This essay was originally part of a term paper written for Robert Morgan's "Concert Music Since 1970" class in spring 2002. Some material in this essay was reprinted in my File Under: Ambiguous column for the November 2004 NewMusicBox.)

Much has been made of the “postmodern” age of music and its potential to break down longstanding boundaries between high art and low art. With a classical music struggling to regain its audience, and greater access to music education and technological sophistication becoming available to popular musicians, conditions at the turn of the millennium seem ripe for a rapprochement between these two tradition-streams of music. Yet the marketing categories of “classical” and “pop/rock” persist, and serve to divide most artists decisively, if sometimes arbitrarily, into one camp or the other. Despite a radical increase in communication between art music and popular music in the past century, as manifested through such practices as quotation, sampling, and generalized influence, a true fusion has yet to be realized on a large scale. In the vast majority of cases, a well-trained listener will have no problems identifying the primary genre (i.e., classical or not-classical) of a piece or song based on its sonic content alone. However, a small number of musicians are actively attempting to subvert these boundaries to the greatest extent possible, and their numbers are slowly growing. In addition to providing a brief history of the classical/popular divide, I will attempt to demarcate fully the boundaries that have separated and still separate the two worlds.

The beginning of the 20th century marked a turning point for the twin spheres of art music and popular music. The advent of recording technology ushered in major changes in the way that people listened to music. Up until this time, most popular and folk music was inherently ephemeral in nature: tunes were learned and sung by heart, with only a relatively small body of work committed to paper. Songs were for the most part transmitted orally, if at all. Classical music, on the other hand, made use of the written score, which would serve as the definitive document for each piece. The existence of such a definitive document, clearly specifying every note and detail of the music to be performed, encouraged classical composers to see their endeavors as an artistic enterprise, and to strive for perfection in the recreation of their music. Furthermore, composers of popular songs usually did not attach their names to their creations, and thus their identities have all too often been lost to posterity. The widespread availability of recording technology (and, to a lesser extent, the sheet music revolution which had occurred several decades earlier) changed the face of popular music forever. Now, the recording itself could constitute a definitive document of a piece of music, allowing the consumer to experience the music directly instead of having to recreate it him/herself. Additionally, all recordings were published with the name of the performer (and composer, if applicable), thus introducing popular music “personalities” into the currents of Western culture for the first time. Lastly, and most importantly, there were no longer geographical or temporal restrictions on who got to hear what music—for the first time in history, people could have comparable listening experiences at different times and in different places from each other. In this way, popular music finally caught up to classical music (which had been using sheet music for this purpose for centuries), paving the way for a canon of popular music to take its place alongside its well-established classical counterpart.

This development had important ramifications for the future of popular music, as well as for our present discussion. Musicians soon realized that instead of the local bugle band across town, they were now competing against the entire repertoire of recorded music, and that “being the best” was taking on entirely new meaning. The concept of a “recording artist” began to take shape, and professional musicians, whether motivated by fame, riches or genuine artistic impulse, began trying to create music that would last long beyond the moment of performance.

The decade of the 1960s brought about a sea change in the world of art music, and an even more radical transformation of popular music. Communication between the two traditions reached unprecedented levels. Rock groups such as the Beatles came into contact with the likes of Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage, while the Velvet Underground found themselves only one degree of separation away from La Monte Young through violist/composer John Cale, who was a member of the band in its first incarnation. Minimalists Terry Riley, Philip Glass and Steve Reich were among the most prominent composers to form their own performing ensembles, which were often amplified to extreme volumes. This new method of live performance drew many comparisons to the rock band aesthetic, comparisons that were complemented by the music’s simplified style and relative accessibility. The period from 1965-1975 witnessed a number of explicit crossover attempts, primarily originating in the popular music sphere. Frank Zappa gained the most notoriety with his Varèse-influenced orchestral pieces (e.g., Lumpy Gravy), but even the Beatles got into the act with their avant-garde sound collage “Revolution No. 9.” In the early 1970s, the “art-rock” movement tried to bring classical elements into a rock ‘n’ roll context, though for the most part these musicians drew their inspiration from pre-20th-century Romantic art music. As production technology advanced, a wholly electronic popular music genre finally arose in the 1980s in the guise of techno. A number of interactions between minimalism, avant-garde electronic and tape music, computer music, and Brian Eno’s ambient music now became possible, and techno artists wasted little time in bringing these elements together via sampling technology. Some of the most prominent electronica pioneers of the past twenty years have cited the minimalism of Philip Glass and Steve Reich as seminal influences. Meanwhile, as popular music has slowly gained legitimacy within the academic community, the number of university composers who actively seek to fuse the two traditions has grown. Even prestigious ensembles such as the Kronos Quartet have embraced the raw energy and sex appeal of rock music (most famously in their transcription of Jimi Hendrix's "Star-Spangled Banner").

Now that we find ourselves at the turn of the 21st century, there is no doubt that the aesthetics of popular music have infiltrated the world of art music to an impressive degree. However, it is important to realize that the avant-garde’s influence on popular music, though real, remains scattered. Despite the radical increase in the level of communication and reference across boundaries that has taken place in the last 40 years, this activity has been, for the most part, confined to the fringes. The mainstreams of the two traditions remain solidly separate and easily distinguishable from one another, even today. The next section will enumerate some of the stylistic tropes that have served to differentiate art music and popular music from each other over the years, along with exceptions from the recent past.

Next>>

Writings

Createquity

Brother, Can You Spare $500: A Guide to Individual Fundraising for Composers

File Under: Ambiguous

A Postmodern Convergence (1, 2, 3, 4, 5)

Relevant Links and Resources

ArtsJournal: Critical Conversation
ArtsJournal: PostClassic
ArtsJournal: Sandow
beepSNORT
The Fredösphere
Hertz-Lion Yields
NetNewMusic
NewFrontEars
NewMusicBox (guitar issue, rock issue 1, rock issue 2)
Sequenza21
The Rest is Noise