Interchanging Idioms: The Sound Sour Grapes make. Or, why popular music is important to classical composers.

Sour Grapes can make...

From elsewhere in the classical music blog world comes these thoughts: Interchanging Idioms: The Sound Grapes make when they're Sour.

People say pop music won't last, but we still remember "Blue Swede Shoes", "Tuxedo Junction" and "The Entertainer" which are now over 60, 80 and 100 years old. Maybe they're not on the pop stations anymore, but they are remembered. Lady Gaga is more than just good marketing. Shakira, Beyonce and Alica Keys are extremely talented. Their music will be remembered because it's more than just simple chords and repetitive rhythms.

On his excellent classical music culture blog, Interchanging Idioms, Chip Michael explores his frustrations with the elusive qualities behind pop music's allure. He says he "hates pop music" unequivocally, but he really hates how it eludes his own grasp in his composing. He appreciates and enjoys the form.

... good wine.

Capturing the essence of simplicity is the goal of any composer or creator of art. Artists aim to draw the listener, or viewer, into the artistic experience with the very structure of their art. Well structured art simultaneously fits into a clear and analyzable structure and moves just enough beyond it to be free. It also contains an essence of accessibility. It makes sense within itself, and in some way, also to its audience.

Genres of music could be said to blur together along this scale of complexity and familiarity.

Pop accomplishes these goals on the very simplest level of structure, adding a unique voice and or instrumental style along with some creative chord and rhythm structures.

Jazz and its related forms, bluegrass and alternative music move to more complex structures while still keeping one large foot in the familiar songs of ballads and blues melodies.

Classical goes deeper into structural complexity, by expanding the scope in all directions, length, rhythmical, tonal, chordal, and instrumental. Classical also adds the element of repeatability, but notating all these gestures in a detailed fashion.

But classical composers, in their attempts to be original, may find themselves eluded in their final product by the necessary qualities of "familiarity" and "accessibility". They compose themselves into corners.

In order to become masters, classical composers must retain some spirit of familiarity and historical continuity in their complex scores. The germ of simplicity is the icing on the cake, or perhaps the very yeast of the bread. Mozart and Beethoven are perhaps the best examples of nearly perfect balance between complexity and simplicity.

Each genre, from pop to classical, could be seen as moving along a distinct graph of qualities these various qualities. It moves from familiar and easily repeatable rhythmic song patterns to more and more complex patterns, eventually ending up potentially beyond any sensible reach. Classical music's danger is when it stubbornly insists on too obscure an end, leaving all connection to history behind.

In some cases, new music remains beyond almost everyone who hears it during their lifetime. Perhaps Gesualdo or Berlioz and Mahler were doomed to remain obscure until after their deaths. This type of music could be said to be "visionary", in that it envisions its popularity in the future, perhaps to the sad frustration of the living composer. Others may simply compose music far too obscure to ever be appreciated by any large audience, or simply never make sense to anyone.

Composers must locate their own place in the balance between accessibility and complexity. Complexity cannot replace accessibility, it must grow from it. Complexity must find its conviction in deeply balanced personal structure and form. It must be fed by instinctive and ultimately knowable shapes of phrases, character, and style. It must have its own voice.

From the point of view of performer or listener, well written classical music is easier to explain and easier feel for both audience and performer. A performer who knows and feels the structure and meaning of the music will better portray it. A performance which lacks understanding still lacks communication, even if technically proficient. I believe that sometimes the performer and even the audience simply do not trust their own abilities, their own ears and intuitions, having obscured them by their very struggle to "understand" the music's mysterious complexity. Any piece of well written music, if played or heard with untainted judgment and open attention, will divulge its structure and meaning.

The problem for both composer, performer and listener, is to find their own personal "voice" and "ear", to really feel what they hear, or what they compose for others to hear; ultimately to hear, understand, and compose with the playful understanding of a child.

It could be said that all great music is either deeply popular, or popularly deep.

What are your thoughts on the subject.

Sorry for the rambling thoughts. I've been playfully observing and thinking on these subjects for awhile.

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2 comments for “Interchanging Idioms: The Sound Sour Grapes make. Or, why popular music is important to classical composers.

  1. July 17, 2010 at

    Hi Ian. I had to retrieve your comment from the inadvertent dustbin. Some funky ghosts in the machine have been lurking over at Intense Debate.

    I realized and considered a lot of what you say in your comment as I finished my thoughts and published it. A particular sound is critical in pop music is something I alluded to in the phrase "adding a unique voice and or instrumental style along with some creative chord and rhythm structures.

    And of course words are seminal to the power of pop.

    As to the roots of pop, I would say one needs to go a good bit deeper into music's history, and find old fishing songs, country dances, bar music of fife or fiddle and drum, on to the troubadours and onward and upward into the present. Granted, the recording industry has magnified the universal power of pop by mega-exponents.

    I botched the English language again by implying that accessibility and simplicity were synonymous. I wrote: "Composers must locate their own place in the balance between accessibility and complexity. Complexity cannot replace accessibility, it must grow from it." I sort of corrected my meaning by the second sentence. I (try to) give the meaning that classical music's complexity must not lose its accessibility, its universal meaning.

    Earlier I said: "In order to become masters, classical composers must retain some spirit of familiarity and historical continuity in their complex scores. The germ of simplicity is the icing on the cake, or perhaps the very yeast of the bread. Mozart and Beethoven are perhaps the best examples of nearly perfect balance between complexity and simplicity." In this paragraph I try to communicate that simplicity is an inspiration for accessible complexity. Intentionally simple classical music is not to be confused with complex classical music which appeals to a wider audience by its accessible "germ" of simplicity, it's simple inspiration. I guess better words would be naivete or innocence.

    I am utterly flattered to have a comment from you. Please, continue!

    PS If I were to compose a piece, it would be inspired by poetry, for sure. Even a symphony. It would be my Das Lied. On a grand scale, with poems to match.

  2. July 17, 2010 at

    Some thoughts from a composer.

    One thing that continually fascinates me in these discussions is how classically-trained musicians and theorists insist on engaging with popular music on classical terms: using the language of tonality, harmony, and most especially formal construction to search for the meaning within. Yet what we know as popular music today largely evolved in the age of the recorded medium and the studio, which were not around for the bulk of the development of the Western classical tradition. Having dabbled on both sides in my musical lifetime, I can say pretty unequivocally that formal analysis completely misses the point when it comes to the vast majority of pop music. Who cares how many verses something has or whether there's a bridge or whatever? Instead, it's my sense that creativity/originality in the pop sphere is primarily concentrated along two vectors that classical musicians almost never talk about:

    1) Timbre. Most popular songs, those from Broadway musicals perhaps excepted, are not a collection of notes and rhythms. They are intricate studio creations, with every drum beat, every guitar tone, every singer's breath precisely calibrated and played with by expert engineers and mixers. Whereas in classical music, a piano is a piano is a piano (and the more it sounds like a piano the better), in the studio a piano can sound like just about anything, and often does. Classical snobs like to make fun of Gaga or Miley Cyrus or whoever on the basis of their chord progressions, but the fact is the production values on those albums are miles ahead of where classical recordings are. Teenage guitarists obsess about mimicking their idol's sound, not their compositional style.

    2) Lyrics. Obviously this isn't as big of a deal in the case of, say, a Van Halen or a Celine Dion, but many, perhaps most people who are not professional musicians listen to music as much for the text (and the text setting) as for the musical interludes. To analyze and judge the work of an artist like Bob Dylan or REM or Public Enemy without making any acknowledgment of the critical role of the lyrics is just silly. They are every bit as important to the overall experience as dynamics are to a Beethoven symphony.

    One final comment I'll make is that I don't think "simple" and "accessible" are at all the same thing. Formally, early minimalist music is brain-dead simple, yet a lot of people find it difficult to get into because of its length and extreme repetitiveness. What could be more simple, after all, than John Cage's 4'33"?

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