The Pop-Classical Spectrum
It seems like the buzz in the comments from my article last week about The Road Not Taken derives from a misunderstanding of my definitions of “popular” music (the art of songwriting) vs. “classical” music. For reasons of both personal development and professional clarification, I’ve attempted a more in-depth explanation.
Composing is writing conscious of notation. Music that is self-aware. For example, if I’m writing a song, and the first thing I write is a really catchy chorus, what am I going to do with that chorus? Repeat it about five times throughout the entirety of the song. If I’m a composer and I write a really catchy tune, if I ever repeat it in the course of my piece it probably won’t be more than three times and each time I’m going to think carefully about building the piece and stretching my material to work up to that repetition, and most likely I will change something about that tune once I finally repeat it. Even if I’m a minimalist composer, at least I’m intentionally repeating my tune for affective purposes. Either way, it’s self-aware. I have a reason for doing what I’m doing. If I’m songwriting, then I do not. The pop world I’m talking about includes, well, pop, most modern R&B, hip hop, folk, country, indie, rock. It’s also called “commercial” music. Anything where the method of notation is sound—recorded audio—rather than paper (I recognize this definition gets tricky when you talk about contemporary electronic music, but let’s let that slide for now).
To prove my point I have embarked on what one might easily classify as The Single Most Ambitious Graphic Design Mission of My Young Adult Life: I’ve created a flow chart. Hold your applause, really, it’s just a draft. I’m so proud of this graphic that I might just name my first child after it. Without further ado, I present to you The Pop-Classical Spectrum.
Now there are lots of other music spectrums we could be discussing. We could talk about jazz, which is a world in and of itself, and its relation to pop music on the Jazz-Pop spectrum, or its relation to classical (notated) music on the jazz-classical spectrum. We could talk about the influence of world music on pop on the world-pop spectrum. Other “music worlds” include metal, noise, and electronica, because they involve a totally different aesthetic criteria and skill set. Same with film scores and musicals, because they serve a certain theatrical purpose and so have their own worlds as well. I’m not talking about jazz or world music or film scores or musicals. In terms of action, I’m talking about today’s world, contemporary music being created right now by people under the age of 50, but to help clarify my point about the spectrum I included a few oldies on the chart.
As I’ve already explained, pop music is less self-aware, whereas classical is more self-aware. There is a spectrum of things in between. Prog-rock, because it is technically challenging and conscious of structure and form, is more self-aware. Avant-garde pop/rock/indie is experimental in intent. Chamber/Baroque pop is conscious of instrumentation/arrangement. The order I’ve placed prog-rock/avant-garde/chamber pop in on this spectrum is slightly arbitrary—it’s debatable which is more and which is less self-aware. And don’t anybody dare mention Joni Mitchell again. No matter what she did later on in life, it was facilitated by her rise to stardom as a pure songwriter, and if anything she falls in the category of avant-garde rock/pop/indie, with her greatest achievement in Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter being world music crossover.
That’s why (for those who didn’t get the really obvious metaphor about The Road Not Taken), I’m looking for a third professional path: one that accommodates the midbrow composer. I’m looking for a business model (publishers and a record labels) as well as a model for education (conservatories that are rigorously classical but are open to accepting students with potential for originality as opposed to simply credentials) that accommodates someone who writes intuitive songs but notates their music and is conscious of form being engendered by the material, motivic development, counterpoint (both in vocal harmonies and instrumental arrangements), instrumentation, and direction. Someone whose music would thrive best in the type of crowd that appreciates a standing-room venue, but is written for classical performers (as opposed to being written by a band) who don’t, generally, tour. Perhaps for a Pierrot ensemble or a string quartet. Music that would be worthy of an article in Spin magazine, a blog on Pitchfork, and a performance at Carnegie Hall.