View From The West: Throwing Rocks Through a Classical Window



Dean Suzuki
Photo by Ryan Suzuki

In last month’s column, I discussed the significance of the Paul Dresher Ensemble Electro-Acoustic Band and the Bang On A Can All-Stars as ensembles featuring composer/performers and which also commissioned works by other composers. Both groups, along with a host of others of their generation, share another common element: Their music is informed and shaped by rock music.

Perhaps is it no coincidence that composers such as Dresher, Wolfe, Lang, Gordon, and Ziporyn have put together electro-acoustic bands to perform their compositions. All have included a rock component to their music with some frequency, if not often, and “cover” works by others. All are baby-boomers who grew up with rock and roll, some of them playing in rock bands or at the very least, playing a bit of air guitar and fantasizing about being in the Beatles, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Talking Heads, or the Clash. The ethos of creating music in the context of an ensemble, playing original and cover material seems to be encoded in the DNA of baby-boomers and subsequent generations of composers.

Of course, for years, the very thought of an electric guitar, especially one featuring fuzz, wah-wah, or other outboard devices, was considered anathema (in fact, it wasn’t so very long ago that even the classical guitar was not embraced by musical academia, but that’s another issue altogether). Today, it seems quite natural that the electric guitar figures in the concert hall, whether in the hands of Dresher, Bang on a Can’s Mark Stewart, Steve Mackey, or Glenn Branca and his minions, though it is still a stretch to imagine the Juilliard String Quartet or the Berlin Philharmonic performing along with a rock rhythm section.

The electro-acoustic instrumentation is the most immediate manifestation of the rock influence: the Bang On A Can All-Stars include electric guitar, electronic keyboards, and other amplified instruments. The Paul Dresher Ensemble Electro-Acoustic Band includes, in addition to amplified acoustic instruments, electric guitar, a MIDI mallet instrument, electronic keyboards, and electronic drums. Indeed, all of the instruments are not only amplified but are often processed and otherwise electronically manipulated, and the entire sound derives from the rock as well as classical tradition.

Dresher writes: “[I] formed the Electro-Acoustic Band in order to offer to composers a group of virtuoso musicians able to use the extraordinary advances in music technology of the past 15 years and who possess the ability to perform music which has roots variously in the classical tradition, rock and roll, jazz and world music. Throughout the band’s work, our goal is to expand the boundaries of what is considered chamber music and to challenge the boundaries which separate ‘serious’ and ‘popular’ culture, and musical styles which may have origins in diverse cultures.” He also says: “My goal in integrating traditional acoustic instruments with the new electronic instruments is not to explore the technology for its own sake but rather to approach these developments as the next step in the evolution of the resources from which composers may draw their sounds and compositional resources. Musically, my goal is to bring to as wide an audience as possible a repertory of contemporary chamber music which is largely unavailable from existing touring chamber ensembles and which I profoundly believe can cross traditional aesthetic boundaries and appeal to many diverse audiences.”

When one simply looks at titles of works on their CDs, the rock influence in Bang On A Can‘s repertoire is manifest. Of course, Bang On A Can made a big splash with their arrangement of Brian Eno‘s ambient masterpiece, Music for Airports, in which each of the four movements was painstakingly transcribed and then freely arranged by Bangers Gordon, Lang, Wolfe, and Ziporyn. “I Buried Paul” by Gordon, featured on the recently released Renegade Heaven, makes a clear reference to the Beatles’ “Paul Is Dead” controversy and is based, in large part, on the extended or false ending from “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Next spring, at a concert billed “Bang On A Can Rocks” at Merkin Hall, the All-Stars will perform arrangements of numbers by Nirvana and Steppenwolf, in addition to Eno.

What of other recent attempts at a synthesis of styles or sounds? Certainly the biggest flop that comes to mind is Third Stream Music. This failed hybrid of jazz and classical music garnered a great deal of attention and press, but ultimately failed. Why? On the one hand, one might hear the Modern Jazz Quartet performing swing versions of Bach preludes and inventions. Likewise, the Swingle Singers, a French chamber vocal choir, also performed jazzy arrangements of Bach, as well as Handel and Vivaldi, with upright bass and drum (most often with brushes). The group was led by a conservatory trained American who also studied piano with Walter Gieseking before making the transition to his own brand of faux jazz. On the other hand, you had Gunther Schuller and others attempting to infuse their works with jazz elements. In both instances, there were commercial successes (mostly on the jazz side), but it seems to have been more of a gimmick rather than a visionary artistic statement. The idea seemed timely, even brilliant and inevitable, but the finished product did not live up to expectations.

In retrospect, it appears that the problem was with the practitioners, not necessarily in the concept. Certainly, there were some similarities in musical construction between the then contemporary be-bop and cool jazz styles and both baroque and contemporary classical music. They shared a fast harmonic rhythm, the rapid change of harmonies, perhaps as frequent as every beat. Melodies were often angular and disjunct in both styles. With such similarities in structure, why the problem? Some might assume that the problem was in rhythm. The swing rhythms of jazz were rather alien to the classical musicians. Falling somewhere between the triplet and dotted rhythms, jazz was more fluid, spontaneous, and personal than the precise, measured rhythms of classical music. Perhaps Bach can swing and the classical musicians made valiant efforts to make their performances swing, but some would argue that neither were entirely successful.

There was, in fact, a larger and more intractable problem. Neither camp truly understood and practiced the idiom of the other. While one might make an argument that the classically trained composers may have had an understanding of the jazz idiom, the performing musicians certainly did not. Many of us have heard classically trained and ingrained musicians attempt to play jazz or rock and the results can be mortifyingly painful, stilted, and unnatural. And, of course, virtually all classically trained musicians have no training whatsoever in improvisation which is the heart and soul of jazz. Likewise, while perhaps more musically savvy and informed than their classical brethren, jazz musicians in the hay day of Third Stream Music often had little or no experience performing classical and especially contemporary classical music. Anyone who has heard Andre Previn‘s Concerto — a piece written for classical guitarist John Williams which includes a small jazz combo along with an orchestra — knows how false and contrived it sounds.

This is not to imply that Third Stream music, or at least the concept, has been an utter failure. The intersection of jazz and contemporary classical music thrives today in the work of composers such as John Zorn, Anthony Davis, Fred Frith, and a plethora of others who grew up with the jazz and improvisational traditions.

On the other hand, the current hybrid or synthesis of rock and classical traditions seems to have found success where most Third Stream Music failed. The generation which has embraced both rock and experimental music has grown up in both worlds and seems to move naturally and easily between them. Dresher grew up learning guitar solos by Hendrix and Clapton, and inhaling music by Parliament/Funkadelic, the Beatles, the Stones, and many, many others, while at the same time developing his classical chops. Indeed, Dresher composed, played, and recorded with Touchstone, the Grateful Dead, and the Country Joe & the Fish off-shoot band that included Tom Constanten and “Chicken” Hirsh (track down their LP Tarot on United Artists to see what Dresher looked like as a hippie with hair flowing down to his chest and requisite ‘stache). While in college studying music and preparing to be a “classical composer,” Dresher discovered and learned non-Western musics, studying both Indian and Indonesian music. He also developed a passion for the experimental arts, especially theater, which has served him well as a composer for the theater. He even dabbled in instrument building and the fruition of his early efforts has shown up in new works for sound sculptures which he helped to design and create. In depth training and life experience in various musical styles has paid off in handsome dividends for Dresher and many of his colleagues, as opposed to the nearly fruitless cramming of Third Streamers.

Rather than inserting an electric guitar into a composition willy-nilly, composers such as Gordon, Lang, and Wolfe know what the instrument can do by virtue of their working relationship with All-Star guitarist Mark Stewart. Guitarist/composers such as Dresher, Mackey, Frith, or Scott Johnson have an even more intimate knowledge of the instrument’s potential, not only through their understanding of the idiosyncrasies of various makers and models, but also of the seemingly infinite spectrum of outboard gear and effects. The incredible variety and malleability of sounds from the electric guitar is so great, one wonders why composers have not gravitated towards the instrument long ago, in spite of the prejudice against it which prevailed for so long. In addition to electric guitars, one now finds all manner of electronic keyboards, drum kits, both acoustic and electronic (though even the best electronic drums still have that annoyingly artificial sound), electric basses, MIDI instruments, and all manner of electronic and digital processing and manipulation which are part and parcel of the rock world and increasingly embraced by the “legit” music culture.

In addition to the instrumentation and sound of rock, composers are also incorporating elements of the musical style into their work. One can hear the guitar hero’s solo, full of bravado and histrionics in any number of works. The rock back beat, the simplicity and power of punk, the grooves of James Brown and subsequent funk masters, the ferocious and savage decibel level has been compositional fodder for many composers. The deafening drones of La Monte Young‘s Dream House have done the same kind of damage to the composer’s hearing as The Who‘s live concerts have done to Pete Townshend. The brutal and all-encompassing power of Glenn Branca’s music led John Cage to accuse his younger colleague of being a musical fascist. The bass heavy funk groove of James Brown is unmistakable in any number of works by Jon Hassell.

Of course, no one knows if today’s rock informed “classical” music will be embraced in the years ahead. It may, like Third Stream Music, be viewed as a naïve and contrived musical cul de sac. There can be no doubt, however, that rock music has captured the imagination of a host of composers, from John Cage (who wrote “Beatles 1962-1970″ for pianist Aki Takahashi), to La Monte Young (whose Theatre of Eternal Music included John Cale and Angus MacLise, founding members of the Velvet Underground), to hordes of student composers entering college music programs as of this writing. As contemporary music has become rather less elitist and more accessible, the rock component is unquestionably a part of new music’s current efflorescence.