We Shall Be Released: Saved on Both Sides



Daniel Felsenfeld

The bristling in the classical critical community was palpable when Elvis Costello took the stage as the featured “composer” at this summer’s Lincoln Center Festival. In an effort to remove the quotes from the word “composer,” they presented Il Sogno, an hour-long orchestral ballet score Costello wrote as well as allowing him to do “his thing,” performing songs with both his band and an orchestra. Brows became seriously furrowed: what business did he have leaping into a world in which he did not belong? Conflict ensued: on what basis do we judge such a piece as Il Sogno? Many (rock critics, mostly) were impressed by the simple fact that he took up the task. After all, he is famous, rich, and has legions of fans and a beautiful new wife—why go to all that trouble? Papers raved about the 200-plus-page score he wrote, can you believe it, by hand! No orchestrators, no arrangers—pure Elvis, every note. As if the sheer undertaking—something any composition graduate student does without blinking—was worthy of praise. On their respective blogs, Alex Ross wrote of his rather tepid reaction, informing us he took out a book and started reading during the performance; Greg Sandow wrote that he hadn’t heard the piece, but didn’t have to—he could just tell from the reviews that Costello took no risks. Even I, a dyed-in-the-wool fan of Mr. Costello’s work, judged, on Musical America, his piece too polite. Grumble and harrumph we did, as yet another rock musician makes a move—be it up or down—into our postage-stamp sized territory.

All right, the Costello ballet was an interesting experiment that was only mildly successful, so why the buzz? Simple: a rock star wrote it. A rock star sat down and wrote a 200-page score. Impressive, is it not? Like the art world hails John Currin simply because he can actually paint—something which used to be a requirement—and the pop world embraces the rather bland Norah Jones because she is a pretty girl who can play piano and sing—which, at one point, all pretty girls of a certain station could do—so, too, does the congenitally ignorant music world hail (or doubt) Costello for doing what, at some point, was de rigueur for even the most middling of composers. I am reminded of the great line from Dangerous Liaisons: “One does not applaud the tenor for clearing his throat.”

It gets worse: For the film Mystic River, director/actor (and famous badass) Clint Eastwood wrote the crappy, sap-drenched, three-note score and was applauded. Wasn’t it neat that he even ventured to do this? Would people have the same reaction if Steve Reich wrote a screenplay? Or if Ligeti decided to play Hamlet onstage?

Billy Joel, a few years back, released a record of his “classical” compositions, and his very sincere Schumann-lite topped sales of any Beethoven symphony. Add to the list Michael Kamen‘s scoring of Metallica songs (the band played with orchestra), The Symphonic Stones, and the Danny Elfman mystique (yes he’s good, maybe even the real thing, but he cannot read music), and what you get is a massive, shaggy, nobrow mess. And once in a while, adding insult to injury, a concert or article asks the question: Is rock and roll the great savior of classical music? Do we just need to hip up, add a backbeat, and get, as they used to say, “with it?”

Frequently you get someone like Paul McCartney issuing a statement like “pop is tomorrow’s classical,” or John Cale speaking of the records Nico made as “Éa contribution to European classical music.” It has always struck me as weird: why would Beatle Paul or the violist from the Velvet Underground need to say such things? Especially since Beatle Paul himself tried his hand at writing so-called “classical” music, and Mr. Cale, apart from being musically educated (school plus Tanglewood; he’s not an autodidact) wrote a lovely film score for American Psycho (albeit aided by Randall Woolf), which is much closer to the tradition than Nico’s records. Why does Billy Joel do it? Why did Elvis do it? Or David Byrne, Joe Jackson, Rick Wakeman (of King Arthur on Ice fame), or Randy Newman? I bet if they talked to any composer who regularly reads this site, one who slogs it out in school, studies hundreds of scores, and follows this so-called “industry,” that they would think twice. Do they really aspire to be one of us? Are we to be envied by millionaires with legions of fans? Have we, at last, arrived?

Perhaps we have, but truth be told, it seems more and more like we want to be one of them—and ought to be, according to some critics.

Gershwin Ruined Everything

In the 1920s, New York was undoubtedly an exciting place to live—in my mind, the entire place was a Hirschfeld cartoon with a hyperactive pulse, music throbbing around every corner, and glamorous celebrities in every restaurant, dozens more at the Schrafft’s counter waiting for their break, and W.H. Auden strolling the windy streets of the Village. There was a desire, then, for the new, the bold, and there were in fact brave new worlds to conquer. Ezra Pound, poet and fascist, demanded we “Make it new,” and we did.

Gershwin brought the shameless to the shameful, composing what is still a shot-heard-round-the-world work, Rhapsody in Blue. Here was a handsome, lower class Jew bringing “negro” music to the stage at Aeolian Hall, no doubt causing a titter amongst the horsey set who liked their jazz to be a downmarket underworld experience. Critics bleated loudly, trumpeting the end of civilization—and though the work went on to become one of the most beloved pieces in the repertoire, perhaps there was something behind the critics’ first reactions.

Suddenly, people weren’t trying to expand the idea of a symphony, or experimenting with a new, free-form musical narrative in the tradition of late Beethoven; nor were they trying to find other folk musics to incorporate. No, this Next Big Thing was incorporating something low (culture) into something high (brow), be it music of a far off land or what the children dig, suddenly barriers needed to be smashed. Jump forward quickly through the girl groups of the fifties, the British Invasion, Prog Rock, Punk, Techno, Rap, Hip-Hop, Boy Bands (or however you choose to chart the trajectory; I am sure I’ve offended someone by leaving out an important movement from my too-cursory list) and you see the dilemma: incorporation. To smash a wall—even for the sake of having smashed said wall—is, in our postmodern culture, progress.

In the age of information, everything is a blurry mess, and suddenly imagination is not about what you can do but what you can mix.

As a discipline, classical music is, if not dying, at least ailing. And now that to be accused of elitism is like being accused of communism half a century ago, many believe that concert music needs to be saved from below—that somehow rock music is what is going to “fix” the “problem.” The influence of rock, or avant-jazz, is hardly a new phenomenon: look to the music of Philip Glass, Lee Hyla, David Rakowski, David Lang, Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe, Derek Bermel, Leonard Bernstein, Michael Nyman, Steve Mackey, Thomas Ads, John Zorn, and a hundred others (including this author) to find its influence.

The problem, however, is not allowing low culture to seep into our fragile, longhair corner of the sky, but occurs when one gets passed off as the other. To be influenced by rock or blues is one thing; to simply score it out for a so-called “classical” ensemble is wholly another. That to me is where the damage gets done: the string quartet Ethel, who I love, plays a “blues” string quartet by John King, and what they are doing is the same as Kronos when they play Hendrix: it’s clever, but is it even a crossover venture, or have we begun to wage the battle of timbre? The question at hand: Does the fact that there are violins make the music “classical”? Or, simply because an artist aligns themselves with a tradition, even in an oblique way—take D.J. Spooky—does that, in fact, make them part of the lineage?

One trouble I have with the “it’s all music” school is that there is no distinction, and distinctions are what make us critical, aware, and define taste. Walls we need. Mr. Sandow, again, thinks that Lou Reed ought to be eligible for the Pulitzer Prize, and while this prestigious honor is low-money trumped-up foofaraw, the journalists’ heralding has, over the years, made it important, so let us talk about it. It may force us to make a critical distinction in music: the difference between composition and performance.

Last night I attended a concert, which featured “Born to Run,” Bruce Springsteen‘s retroactively Pulitzer-prize winning “composition” according to Sandow’s revised list. The performers included Dawn Upshaw, Tom Jones, and the London Symphony Orchestra. I can tell you, it was spectacular. For an encore, Ms. Upshaw joined pianist Pierre Laurent-Aimard and guitarist Julian Bream, singing “Black Dog” by Led Zeppelin and “Down By the River” by Neil Young. The audience stood applauding for at least 20 minutes, at which point I left to catch a train.

Absurd, right?

The point here is that rock music is the art of performance as much as it is the art of composition. Even cover songs are more about the interpretations than about the material—when Tori Amos sings “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” it’s not the song we love so much as her version of the song. Elvis Costello, in his song “This is Hell,” outlines a Vegas-style version of the afterlife, where “ÉMy Favorite Things is playing again and again/but it’s by Julie Andrews and not by John Coltrane.” It’s not the song—the composition—he loves (or fears), it is the performer. Rock music, once the voice of the revolution, has always been a performative discipline. Take the Velvet Underground out of the Velvet Underground, and all you have is a few chords and some edgy lyrics.

Like it or not, rock music is essentially a social phenomenon. This is not to deride the musical ability of those involved—some, like Costello, are fantastic musicians—but take away the words to “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” or “My Generation” and you lose the sense of disaffected youth; take away the words to “Ich Grolle Nicht,” and while some of the impact is gone, the music still stands. Perhaps there are occasional counterexamples (The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway? We’re Only In It for the Money? The Juliet Letters?), but for the most part the original rebellions are rooted in the slogans, not in the tunes. This is what gives it power: a room full of people singing, full voice, the words “We’re not gonna take it” has a hundred times the power as a room full of people singing, full voice, the words “Dum-dah-dum-da-Dum-dum.”

So when I hear one more composition that is claiming to break down a barrier, and is simply a string quartet with a backbeat, or a series of quotations from Zeppelin tunes scored for orchestra, I wonder about the intention—they are trying to cross a performative art with a compositional mien. This is not being influenced by rock music, this is simply trying to put a square (or rather, not so square) peg in a round hole. Perhaps it aspires to a certain cache of rebellion, an enfant terrible respectability wherein systems are bucked and birds are flipped to the musical establishment—thank you, Frank Zappa for putting this idea in our head; it’s not churlish and defiant, it ain’t art—but rock music stopped being the music of disaffected youth ages ago, as soon as fat cats realized money was to be made, so if we use it, how rebellious are we being? (To see how once art translates into big dollars there become fewer options for anything that is not big ticket, read Jonathan Seabrook’s masterwork Nobrow. It happened to movies, it happened to Broadway, it happened to popular music.)

Case in point: the disaster of Todd Levin’s De-Luxe record, the first (and last) piece to be commissioned by a mainstream classical music label. Levin combines Mahler with techno, and Deutsche Grammophon probably thought they had a hit on their hands, that they could lure in both the high-and low-brow set with one record. But nobody bought it, because why, if you like techno, buy less edgy techno (same goes for O’Riley‘s Radiohead record); if you like Mahler, will symphonic techno speak to you?

It works both ways: if I were a blues guitarist, one weaned on a long-standing and beautiful tradition, a midcult meddling composer dipping in, aping my tradition, and putting it wholesale into an orchestral piece might well offend me. The slumming is patronizing, and it—to me, at least—is as bad as what McCartney does when he “writes” his symphonies. That’s why people at least took Costello seriously—he didn’t believe that he could just waltz into a tradition that was not his and come out having produced a masterpiece with no effort (and without the use of arrangers, as is the case with Beatle Paul, Danny Elfman, and, sadly, Billy Joel—for his record of solo piano music!); like it or not, he clearly did his homework. These walls which people feel compelled to smash, they are not what is holding us back from progress—sometimes they are what earn people the respect they deserve. Smash them, and John Adams competes with a boy band or smooth jazz—after all, it is all music, right? Lines drawn—even in the sand—help people to cultivate taste, and to experience what they love; tell them they have to respect it all equally, and they won’t listen to anything you have to say. This, more than anything, is human nature.

An Answer

That Christina Aguilera and Milton Babbitt can both be found on a CD doesn’t mean they are to be judged by the same standards. Now, I don’t agree with John Harbison, who said that giving a Pulitzer to a rock record would be like giving the prize for fiction to an airport novel, because that’s qualitative. All music, regardless, is available for the liking or disliking—it’s called taste—but there are traditions to be honored, lineages of thought to be taken seriously, and disciplines to be respected. This is what separates us from the animals—and from the corporations. Rock music, for the most part, is an advertisement for itself: it is hardly heard if money cannot be made, even some of the greats: Tori Amos and David Bowie, two amazing artists, recently got dropped from their labels for not selling enough. Not to denigrate the potency or originality (or even genius) of many who work in the pop-rock field, but the industry behind it has different concerns; ’twas not always thus, but is indeed true now, quite sadly for them and for us all.

But if I hear one more argument whose thesis comes out to “Me, good; Britney Spears, bad” I am likely not to be responsible for my actions. Have we as composers lost our ability to filter? Now I am sure this screed is going to net me a truckful negative responses, and probably get me labeled an elitist or worse. But as a composer, I fear for the future of what I do—and with good cause; people write it is dying all the time—and I think many of us have gotten into dangerous waters by trying to toe lines, especially those demarcated by the critics, whose responsibility it has become to ferret out the Next Big Thing. But I want to beg, to implore those reading: leave Britney alone, she is not our concern. We do something that is ageless, beautiful, and part of an impressive lineage of dedicated, brilliant believers. Yes, we need our mavericks, but in always trying to collapse a wall just because it is there, maverickdom becomes simply the act of doing rather than of doing well. What we need, more than ever, is not the cutting of the edge, but a raising of the standards. If we compare ourselves to Britney, why do we not compare ourselves to other big ticket items—missiles, SUVs, or buildings. These are not qualitative “us-or-them” arguments—it is simply admitting to diversity, and celebrating it by not trying to slosh everything into a single art stew but by allowing there to be multiple strands of thought, one not better than another; in the words of Radiohead: “Everything in its right place.”

Critics: Instead of trying to ferret out the Next Big Thing, or aspiring to mild polyglot status, being conversant in many musics (and thereby showing how downmarket you can really be), why not write honest, invested reviews that are based in a knowledge of the tradition, and stop worrying about trumpeting The Next Big Thing because, here on the periphery, it simply doesn’t exist. Style does not equal imagination or substance.

Composers: Write great music, period! Learn from the masters, learn from the contemporary leading lights, learn from anyone (including Elvis Costello, Britney Spears, and Beatle Paul) that turns you on, but remember what it is you do, and the responsibility you have to what came before you. This doesn’t mean you have to toe a line—quite the opposite—but remember who you are and how much greater your tradition is than all of us put together. It is hardly a holy relic—knock it around as much as you want, it will survive you (as it will survive those determined to kill it) but don’t worry so much about walls. We may well be Alex Ross’s “genius parasites,” but it is not enough. Tradition always trumps fashion in the final reckoning.

Envy ruins everything; be happy with your lot.

And all of us need to consider this: perhaps walls are important. Maybe it is how people differentiate, and when everything is “classical” music, nothing is. As for Elvis: he deserves to be taken as seriously as anyone is, no less (and no more). Yes, his rock star status got him to Lincoln Center, but at some point the lights dimmed, the orchestra began to play, and Elvis or not, something musical happened. If we are going to judge it, it is by those standards alone. We owe him that—and I hope that one day, when Mr. Costello is sitting in an audience waiting to hear one of my pieces, he does me the same courtesy.

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