Pop-o-matic Trouble

There is indeed “trouble in the bubble”! There has been a lot of blog-talk recently about the ‘alt-classical’ scene and its relationship to pop music. Being the new music troll that I am, I injected myself into some of these discussions and stirred the pot a bit. I’ll explain my perspective a bit more in depth here at my virtual home.

Let me preface this by saying: I don’t love the term ‘alt-classical’, but it’s fine. Sure, call me an ‘alt-classical’ composer/performer if it looks good in print, whatever. As I understand it ‘alt-classical’ is a loose description of the new crop of music written by predominantly classically-trained composers for predominantly classically-trained musicians, which often blurs the distinction between ‘classical’ and pop music. It’s a substantially broader term than say, minimalism, but folks tend to define it in a number of unnecessarily specific ways, even though it’s a very large tent. It includes folks who are influenced by post-rock, math metal or IDM; folks who write dense, modernist music with significant pop influences; folks who write atonal music for rock instruments; folks like me who literally write 3:30 pop songs; and innumerable other types. Those of us who find ourselves labeled ‘alt-classical’ almost certainly do not identify with all of its manifestations. Where it is in a fact a loosely-associated movement though, is in its tendency to use pop in strikingly less self-conscious ways than previous movements/generation.

In his blog, Brian Sacawa highlighted a comment I made in his discussion of whether the ‘alt-classical’ scene is a fad or not:

IMO most of the ‘compromise’ young composers make is in making sure their music sounds ‘uncompromising’. What’s unique about the ‘alt-classical’ scene is that these composers are no longer forcing their music to sound ‘challenging’ and are rather letting it sound like the music they (we) grew up with: pop. This seems to be the main difference between earlier generations and ours. They added (forced?) pop flavor into their pieces. We are simply allowing it to naturally come out.

Now, I’m not arguing against modernism or atonality or for the irrelevance of ‘uncompromising’ music here. In fact, I’m a huge fan. My favorite Alarm Will Sound concerts are usually the ones in which we play Birtwistle, Rihm, or our own John Orfe (even if it means I have to practice a whole bunch). What I am trying to highlight is what I believe to be the pressure that many young composers have faced to disregard the pop music they love as a serious influence. Brian mentions something to the same effect:

Composers, correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me that in the past when a student went to college to study music composition, they were more or less required by those in charge of their compositional development to check their pop music influences at the door. Though you could be a pop music fan, there really wasn’t any place for that sort of trite, repetitive music in the realm of “serious” music composition so composers were passive-aggressively required to repress these lascivious musical tastes; a sort of elitist musical don’t ask, don’t tell (and certainly don’t you dare write music like that!) policy.

It would be easy to create a caricature of the ‘alt-classical’ scene – and indeed many are – as a bunch of naive young composers thrusting their iPods in the air vowing to write un-self-conscious pop-style works as an affront to The Classical Music Establishment. That is not what’s happening here. This is not an active movement, its a passive movement. What my comment was acknowledging is the fact that the use of pop music in my generation, or the ‘alt-classical’ scene, is not deliberate, it’s organic. 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 is what I mean when I write about why we shouldn’t ”compromise’ to make our music sound ‘uncompromising”.

This brings me to previous generations and their use of pop music and how that differs from the current generation’s. Gabriel Kahane responded to my comment on his blog stating his preference for art music that, while utilizing pop as inspiration, is more committed to the traditional ‘rigorous’ process of composition that, he claims, much of the ‘alt-classical’ scene ignores. He characterized my position as such:

In response to Sacawa’s exploration of whether or not the alt-classical scene— in which composers of new music draw liberally from contemporary pop sources (harmonically, rhythmically, texturally, otherwise)—is a passing trend, Marks suggests that in fact, this movement away from “uncompromising” sonic landscapes is actually a welcome unshackling of new music from its long-held snooty academic dogma that shunned any hint of diatonicism.

Whoa Canyonero! I could care less if someone’s music is diatonic or not, and I certainly do not think that adherence to diatonicism is any sort of litmus test for alt-classical music (btw, I’m officially losing the quotes since Gabriel just did). As I stated above, my comment was about freeing composers from the idea, mostly-self-imposed btw, that their music has to be utterly distinct from pop music.

[UPDATE: Luke Rinderknecht showed this LOLCAT to Chuckie Dubs himself, sentimentality ensued]

Gabriel goes on to suggest the work of John Adams and Thomas Adès as examples of successful uses of pop inspiration in art music:

It should be said that part of what makes Adams and Adès successful in this mode is that they are applying uncompromising procedure to vernacular music that they clearly love. When academics had a stranglehold over what was and was not acceptable vis a vis vocabulary in classical music, they were encouraging the marriage of, to put it crudely, uncompromising materials to uncompromising procedure. I have no doubt that the recasting of the vernacular by my peers into the concert realm is done out of a similar genuine love of this music we grew up with, but I wonder whether or not we have paid our dues in developing a craft that supports it sufficiently in the context of concert music.

This insistence on filtering pop sources through the classical idioms of thematic development, adherence to form/structure, etc. to gain legitimacy seems unnecessarily conservative. I don’t believe that high-quality, complex music has to contain the same compositional traits as classical music. A cohesive pop album is just as much a grand statement of art as a symphony, concerto, or song cycle. Now, I don’t want to insinuate false equivalence. I do not think The Fame Monster (though I love it) is the equal of the St. Matthew Passion and I think both sides of this debate discredit themselves by falling into this fallacy. Where I am somewhat conservative is in my opinion that complexity is, in the words of Joe Biden, “a big fucking deal”. Pop utilizes complexity in a very different way than classical and cats need to recognize.

Now a single song on a pop album or a single 5-10 minute pop-style alt-classical piece tends not to be the equal of a major classical work, in terms of complexity – or: stuff goin’ on. But as part of a larger work it can be similarly complex and cohesive, even if the other songs/pieces are not utilizing similar themes and/or contributing to a grand architecture in the classical sense. Where Gabriel and I agree is that many of these new alt-classical works fall short of being great works of art. But in my opinion it’s that they fall short of achieving the deepness and complexity of pop music, for two main reasons: the lack of  audio production as a major component and the lack of context as a part of an album or larger work.

In a similar discussion on the eighth blackbird blog – which started off as a debate on Greg Sandow but found itself in another art vs pop debate – I made a comment about the oft-overlooked role of production in pop music:

I worry that many folks from the classical world judge all music based on the notes, rhythms, counterpoint, etc. – essentially what the score would look like … Indeed if one were to take most pop music, be it The Beatles or Lady Gaga, the notes and rhythms laid out onto a score would look pretty simple. But that is only a fraction of where the care and work come into play. The producers behind the scenes meticulously shaping the audio work with just as much care and skill as ‘art music’ composers. No one would have heard of The Beatles if it weren’t for Sir George Martin. Behind every pop artist today is a producer (or producers), many of whom’s artistry is astounding, even if they tend to be ignored by the classical music establishment.

Whereas composers write crescendos they automate faders; whereas composers build sonic textures with instruments they create them. The crucial decisions about mic-placement, compression levels, synth patches, reverb, mixing, stereo panning, and hundreds of other facets are *musical* decisions. And whereas a great pop album might sound like a collection of loosely-related songs to the untrained ear, it is truly a unbelievably complex symphony of audio sounds, usually with hundreds or thousands of hours put in by the producers and engineers.

I think that many alt-classical composers compose acoustic works with the same “on the page” level of complexity as similar pop music, but ignoring a crucial element of its complexity, the production. This coupled with the fact that work is missing the larger context of the album as a large-scale work (again, equal to that of a symphony, albeit with rather different criterion), is why folks like Gabriel claim that “This music is often pleasant to listen to, but ultimately thin, lacking proper architecture and thorough procedure.”

In that sense he is correct, but it ignores an increasing amount of recent large-scale works that blur the line between pop and classical and are incredibly complex and meticulously organized. Examples that come to mind are: David T. Little‘s Soldier Songs, Corey Dargel‘s pop-album/song-cycle hybrids, Ted Hearne‘s Katrina Ballads, and Gabriel Kahane’s own Craigslistlieder (which I personally heart like a sweet tart).

However, I think it’s also important not to dismiss the less-complex works. Not every work of art has to be of the magnitude of a symphony. It’s incredibly healthy for composers to create works that are modest in scope: works that aren’t attempting to create a new harmonic language, works that don’t necessarily challenge the audience but are skillfully crafted. This has never been solely the realm of pop, but it seems to have become ghettoized into that sphere. Bach wasn’t trying to kick your ass with every new piece, many of which were quite modest in scope. He was simply getting the job done and exploring his unique voice. Young composers will learn to find their own unique (and complex) voice by learning to write the type of music they love rather than by focusing on challenging audiences and peers with seemingly ‘uncompromising’ works.


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15 responses to “Pop-o-matic Trouble

  1. DJA

    Hi Matt,

    Great post. I would only add that you chose to highlight one important aspect of the “off the page” tradition — production — but there are many others aspects of unnotatable complexity in popular music you could also have chosen!

    First among those is rhythm/groove, which is an area in which a lot of classically-trained musicians (present company excepted, of course!) have serious “unknown unknowns” — as the great poet said, “they do not know what they do not know.”

    Consider, for starters, the famous Bo Diddley beat. On the page, it doesn’t look complex at all: | two dotted quarters, quarter | quarter rest, two quarters, quarter rest |. But that is not even remotely approaching the real Bo Diddley beat! That is just the best approximation notation will allow (without going all Ferneyhough*), but to play it so literally would be a travesty.

    Anyway, to make the Bo Diddley beat groove requires a kind of rhythmic authority that is not at all easy to come by! A lot of learnèd musicians tend to vastly underrate (or do not hear) the level of rhythmic sophistication going on in a one-chord vamp piece like this:


    * I am amused at the idea of someone actually transcribing, say, “Who Do You Love” as if it were a New Complexity work.

    • mattmarks

      You’re right, I did leave out a whole bunch of “off-the-page” traditions – in addition to jazz, the various ‘classical’ world musics. But I think the complexity comparison between pop and classical is a bit more audacious because there is currently an “on-the-page” codified score language in pop/electronic music – the DAW – and it’s largely ignored by classical types. For example, when I was arranging The Dirty Projectors’ Getty Address, the ‘score’ was Pro Tools. I could see exactly what Dave did to compose it.

      But your larger point about the unrecognized levels of complexity, such as groove, is really astute. I wonder if jazz folks more often have issues with electronica, since a lot of its rhythm tends to be gridded pretty squarely?

      And by the way, the Bo Diddly talk reminds me of this awesome transition scene from one of my favorite movies, Fritz the Cat, where he just plays that groove as a character snaps along: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ovnzEGEFQrg
      It’s beautiful.

      • DJA

        Hey Matt,

        That Fritz the Cat bit is great.

        RE: electronica, it really depends. Amon Tobin was pretty popular amongst jazzers in the 90’s, for fairly self-evident reasons. In the early 2000’s, people went for Squarepusher and Aphex Twin. Lately, I’m not really sure… at any rate, jazz musicians respond to complex, syncopated rhythms even if they are programmed to be straight down the middle of the beat, so long as there is still an overall sense of ebb and flow going on. It’s more stuff like the unrelenting, on-the-nose boosh boosh boosh bass drum in, e.g., House music that really runs counter to jazz sensibilities.

  2. Great writing! It seems that our need to classify music is so strong that it is limiting our ability to just let art progress naturally.

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  4. James Hirschfeld

    I think it’s just a matter of not questioning peoples motivations. You think certain complex composers place self imposed restrictions on pop influence, but I have never met a composer (and let’s just talk about composers we respect) who felt that way. And I will admit to being guilty at times of assuming that the motivations of certain “classical” composers playing “rock”like music were impure, but I duly chastise myself at this moment [slap]. Ouch. Let’s assume the best of intentions of each other. That goes for everyone! Doesn’t mean we have to like everything though.

    • mattmarks

      I can think of several instances of composers placing concrete restrictions on pop influence. For example, John Adams once counseled a certain be-mohawked composer/performer friend of ours to ‘suggest a drum beat, without actually using a drum beat’. Now, this could just be a compositional thing, but I think it stems from a paranoia of embracing pop music too readily.
      But I agree that excessively questioning peoples motivations is pretty counter-productive.

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  7. I try and take the long, ideology-free view of all this. The first thing I would say is that I loathe the ‘alt’ label. It makes me think of alt-porn, which is the same old push ‘n shove just with variations in how the bodies are packaged. And the long view tells me that composers in the Western art music tradition have been making, and making use of, pop music since John Dowland. Mahler and Ives put pop music directly into their scores, untransformed. This isn’t new, although the quality of the debate is.

    Western art music is still dealing with the legacy of academic dogma and serialism, and the hangover has yet to fully dissipate. When it will, this debate will end. Although I’d like to start up a new one: I actually hear too much self-consciousness in these attempts, it’s the self-consciousness of saying ‘there’s nothing wrong with what I’m doing.’ I hear some lack of confidence.

    What matters to me though, in the long view, is that contemporary pop music is quantifiably different than that of previous generations. I’m as much, or more, of a fan of complexity in beats, timbres and electronic production than the next guy, and I think Kraftwerk is a better pop band than the Beatles, but fundamentally it’s about songs. And music has a particular strength when it comes to songs, and that’s harmony. Brahms, Mahler, Gershwin, Arlen all used harmony to express their ideas about the words; if you’re working with words, then you had better have some thoughts about them and you had better tell me what those are, and harmony is still the single greatest, most expressive means for that. What I hear a lot of is that composers seem to admire pop music that features of lack of affect and they emulate that same quality, eviscerating the power of song and taking, I’m more and more convinced, an untenable moral stand in terms of aesthetic values. Tell me something to agree or disagree with, don’t cop-out with a stance. A recent release in a multi-volume set of songs from poetry, a king of alt-classical-jazz thing, is in my opinion a complete failure because it tells me nothing, it’s all surface. Music is not a living room set from Ikea, put something on it.

    I think these are actual, serious problems: simplistic harmonies and lack of commitment to meaning. Perhaps composer who want to write unselfconscious pop songs should listen to a broader and deeper range of pop. “I Was Looking At The Ceiling …” works because Adams has a truly broad, deep, unselfconscious range of pop music to draw from. When I was a working jazz musician, I was playing a huge range of pop music, from the 1920s to the 1990s, but given a choice we kept playing certain things again and again, like “Stardust,” because the harmonies were so full of material and ideas, they went far afield and still came back to an incredibly strong anchor. I cannot think other than that harmony is the most important element in any kind of song, and composers dumb down their harmonies at their own peril.

  8. Yes as George pointed out, more vernacular or popular music has always found its way into the more rarefied air of “serious” classical music (even before Dowland, composers were using popular, secular tunes as cantus firmus or melodies as the basis for sacred music). But today I think some of the usage of popular music in classical music, as suggested by a few of the comments, is like what I said at Brian Sacawa’s blog, “there is [also] a fair amount of showing one’s hipsterness by declaring one’s love of indie rock, with a ‘hey, look at how meta and cool I am, by letting that rock influence come through my classical lens.’ ” Writers have been doing this vernacular-serious two-step for many years now: Junot Diaz in The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao or Zora Neale Hurston in Their Eyes Were Watching God, to cite just two examples from many, wrote serious, meaningful works using vernacular language and themes, can’t music just wear its Gaga and Feldman without angst?

    I think the quote that Matt referenced from John Adams, about suggesting a drum beat instead of actually using one, is interesting as it is certainly a generational thing. Maybe years ago composers had to hide their ‘intermusical’ love of pop music, by cloaking it, but today the miscegenation ‘laws’ are repealed; now, what’s wrong with a direct usage of a drum beat, if that is what the piece needs? Instead of playing compositional games by going around using a drum beat, I think most of today’s younger (or youngish) composers don’t see anything wrong with just using the drum beat and don’t really beat themselves up about it. I mean sometimes a direct proposition is more visceral, meaningful, and differently gets the point across more so than innuendo. And beyond some of the critics and the hipsters, who cares if the pop music influence is on the surface, below, or there at all, as long as the music connects with or moves listeners. When I hear ‘compositional rigor’ and ‘uncompromising’ both sound like code words to me, suggesting that somehow those ‘wild’ and ‘unsophisticated’ more popular forms need the elevated and moderating influence of the great ‘classical’ music to make it palatable. No wonder only a percentage of a percentage is actually listening to the music.

    One of the things that I think is great about the best music from the minimalist founding fathers like Reich (and later ‘children’ like Adams) is that their pop and jazz influences, while sometimes readily apparent in surface structure, are mostly subsumed into their own personal language. And this is one reason I call the ‘style’ mixed music (which has been the subject of one of my Composer Salons), because like mixed race children, something different is created that is both and neither of the ‘source material.’

    I think another issue is something George hints at in his response is, what does the all of this mixed music mean? what is it trying to say, beyond just a mash-up (however organically and artfully done) of genres and styles? I wonder if “recent large-scale works that blur the line between pop and classical and are incredibly complex and meticulously organized” have any deeper meanings beyond being complex and organized? Is our built in obsolescence age, where things are forgotten as quickly as they are written, a hindrance to some of the mixed music being remembered 50 years from now, referring to that Norman Lebrecht debate a while ago?

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

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  10. In my point of view classical music can never reach at the feet of pop music.

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