The Road Not Taken

In my blog last week about Matt Marks’s The Little Death Vol. 1, I struggled with the question of what, exactly, is “alternative classical” music? For me, it’s an organic expression of a combination of influences—as Matt Marks says, the use of pop music in our generation is “not an active movement, it’s a passive movement…we’re not trying to put it in; if anything we’re trying not to keep it out, and trying not to assimilate it into the boundaries of classical music.” This week I’d like to focus on the following question: Why is it important?

As I’ve written about before on these pages about the television show 90210 and the “Magic Discovery Myth”—a media perpetuation of the storyline that “the only way to succeed in the music business is by chance, minimal practice, and the kindness of strangers,” by being “discovered” by some nice record producer—there is a disconnect between perceived professional paths one can take as a music-writer. The first path is that of the music artist, regardless of which genre you occupy it involves thinking in short-term investments and making a living off of “street-smarts:” you’re touring, you’re recording, or you’ve got a steady gig at a venue. The second road is that of the composer, the path of academia, thinking about long-term goals and job security: you’re writing based on commissions, you’re teaching, or you’re working towards a doctoral degree.

When applying as an undergraduate to Universities I was definitely confronted with a lack of understanding on the part of music academia. There were certain schools I knew I couldn’t even try for because I was simply, in terms of credentials, unqualified. I think the fact that I was able to get in where I did was mostly because of my ability to explain myself, explain what I wanted (which was very vague at the time, but mostly amounted to a quality, conservatory music education) and what I couldn’t change (the fact that I wrote pop melodies). Any schools that looked strictly at my portfolio—which consisted of notated piano-vocal pop songs, an album of pop songs recorded in my basement with friends, and one art song based on a Pablo Neruda poem—would dismiss me as a songwriter.

After blindly applying to conservatories, not really comprehending what kind of a mess I had gotten myself into, me and my sub-par music theory education found itself way behind where a freshman composition major was supposed to be at Rice University. Certain things became very clear that year. First, that if you work really hard for something you want sooner or later you’ll realize you’ve caught up. Second, that I was the only beast of my kind at my school, a singer/songwriter whose main talent was writing catchy four-bar melodies, composing chamber music. Thirdly, and most importantly, I found that when I explained myself articulately my peers (whether they were graduate student composers or performers or roommates) and my teachers were very open to listen to my ideas about pop music, and generally they agreed.

I’m not by any means trying to tell a story of self-triumph. In fact, I’m saying the opposite, which is that I’ve been really, really, really lucky. Out of all the singer/songwriters who get turned away by academia somehow, through some fluke, I made it through the gates. There needs to be a half-way point. If professors don’t get off their high horses and start accepting more composers with potential rather than credentials (songwriters with weak portfolios), and if more students believe in themselves and their potential for making a living as an intelligent composer with a higher, classical music education, then I really do think we can change Top 40 radio. A massive shift in popular music towards creating intelligent art would lead to active listening on the part of consumers, and to long-term planning on the part of the music-writer. It means a healthier music industry and a thriving culture that values artistic achievement. I truly believe that the rise of “alternative classical” is going to facilitate this, and that’s why when I came back home to Jersey City this summer I volunteered my time to support New Amsterdam Records. Because certain stoic business models—both that of the classical world and that of the popular world—need to adapt to yield a third professional path for music-writers.

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9 thoughts on “The Road Not Taken

  1. Chris Becker

    …but this conclusion is a bit dubious for me:

    “If more students believe in themselves and their potential for making a living as an intelligent composer with a higher, classical music education, then I really do think we can change Top 40 radio. A massive shift in popular music towards creating intelligent art would lead to active listening on the part of consumers…It means a healthier music industry and a thriving culture that values artistic achievement.”

    From where I sit, this “massive shift” has occurred in our culture more than once going back to the career and recordings of Duke Ellington who developed his craft in the most popular of settings – the nightclub (and on the road).

    Fast forward several years and you have the ground breaking work of artists like Joni Mitchell, Stevie Wonder, and David Bowie (to name just three) who all enjoyed commercial success while embracing elements of jazz, soul, and classical in their recorded works (Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, Songs In The Key Of Life, Low).

    There is already so much “intelligent art” that happily exists (and has existed for years) outside of “classical music education” – I’m just confused as to what you are looking for that isn’t already there?

    P.S. Have you read The Mansion On The Hill?

    Reply
  2. philmusic

    There is already so much “intelligent art” that happily exists (and has existed for years) outside of “classical music education” – I’m just confused as to what you are looking for that isn’t already there?

    I have to agree with Chris here. Musical skill is not just the reserve of classical music.

    Neither is seriousness.

    Phil Fried

    Phil’s very serious page

    Reply
  3. robert.w.mcclure

    Joelle,

    Yes intelligent “art-pop” music is out there with artists taking influence from classical, contemporary, jazz, etc. But, it is just a small sub-set of mainstream pop music. For me, artists like Radiohead and Bjork truly personify the artist-pop musician. You are looking for a more global shift in all pop music towards a more intelligent product that doesn’t lose marketability; moving away from bubble-gum pop and towards art. Essentially, it would make the music of contemporary composers easier to palette if the general audience was used to listening to something more advanced. I agree with you and hope it happens in our lifetime.

    Reply
  4. danvisconti

    Hi Joelle, you bring up many good points but I agree with Phil that there’s an inherent disconnect between arguing how the pop influences that we love so much are serious and valid in their own right, and on the other hand wanting to shift that same music to something more “intelligent”/artistic. I think I understand what you mean overall though, so the apparent paradox might just be an unavoidable challenge in writing this kind of genre-felxible music. Have fun exploring!

    Reply
  5. mclaren

    What you’re talking about is music that falls in the cracks between the conventional categories of “highbrow” art music and “lowbrow” pop music. Call it “midbrow” music.

    Examples: Gershwin’s musicals. The musicals of Rodgers & Hammerstein, Lerner & Loewe, Cole Porter, Burton Lane, E. Y. Harburg, and Fred Saidy. All of Larry Fast’s “Synergy” albums. Mike Oldfield’s “The Tubular Bells.” Julian Cope’s album “Breath of Odin.” Yes’s double album “Tales From Topographic Oceans.” King Crimson’s albums. Wendy Carlo’s “Digital Moonscapes” and “Beauty In the Beast.”

    Once upon a time, American composers had a placeto go if they didn’t fit comfortably into the abstract Euro-art-music pigeonhole but also didn’t fit into the generic pop music pigeonhole. But now that musical theater and prog rock has largely disappeared, there’s no more place for midbrow composers. That’s a shame.

    Reply
  6. Chris Becker

    “But now that musical theater and prog rock has largely disappeared, there’s no more place for midbrow composers.”

    Well, tell that to Porcupine Tree. Or Down. Or The Dirty Projectors. Or TV On The Radio.

    Actually, some of the NYC based music touted as “alt classical” – specifically what I’ve heard with vocals – reminds me of 70’s era musicals (like Starlight Express or Jesus Christ Superstar) as opposed to rock and roll.

    One question: The profound and undeniable influence of African American music seems to be ignored and/or erased from these discussions of “alt classical” music that supposedly warmly embraces the music one grew up hearing on the radio or wherever. This is another issue I was sort of dancing around in my comment above. The word “pop” is used repeatedly in the press to signify music that is “non-classical” (i.e. non-European) while more descriptive words “rock and roll,” “blues,” or “jazz” rarely if ever appear in the same copy. This indicates to me some ignorance about “popular” music in the U.S. – not just its roots but the innovations of its current creators (be they in a University or no…) as well.

    The fact that Gershwin did appropriate (i.e. “steal”) musical material from African American and Cuban composers doesn’t make me love his music any less, but I do not want to ignore documented history.

    If we’re really talking about “breaking boundaries” here, it seems there is still a long way to go when you look at the way we frame these discussions about classical repertoire and, well, the rest of the music on our planet.

    Then again, the work of the artists I cited above shows that the “massive shift” did indeed happen and continues to happen. And I applaud New Amsterdam’s operation – the more music the better. The issues I’m considering in this comment should not be construed as rendering judgment on NA’s artists or staff.

    Has anyone here beside Phil heard a Joni Mitchell record?

    Reply
  7. philmusic

    “..But now that musical theater and prog rock has largely disappeared, …”

    I’m surprised by this statement as recent progressive rack based shows like: American Idiot, Spring Awakening, Rent or even A L Webber, or any of these:

    Nautilus

    have been quite successful.

    (Besides Joni I think we must also mention Laura Nyro who brought the character song, rather than a story song back to popular music).

    Phil Fried

    Reply

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