I have an alarming number of pieces to learn this week (I have first rehearsals for three big-ish programs in a 4 day period), alongside completion of my UK taxes (argh- I get to do taxes twice a year….), so blog posts may be scarce for a while.
Among the works on my desk is one I did not too long ago (thankfully), Gershwin’s American in Paris (you can read some of my earlier thoughts about this piece here). It’s a piece I’ve played, conducted and covered a few times, but one covering experience comes to mind this week…
It was during my year at the Cincinnati Symphony- the orchestra held a brief mini-festival dedicated to the intersections of classical music and jazz. There was a nice mixture of the new and the old, and some really fine performances, but at the end it really struck me that the best of the works we heard were those by Gershwin, which were the earliest pieces in the festival- not a tribute to progress, I’m afraid. To me, his music seemed to be the most successful as BOTH jazz and classical music- that is, it successfully integrated the rhythmic language of jazz, the spirit and vocal style of the blues and the sound world of the jazz ensemble with a classical mastery of form, counterpoint and motivic development. His music was also the most fun.
Over the years, this idea has, sadly, taken hold in my head. In the first 3rd of the 20th c., jazz had a profound and international impact on classical music. One could make the case that not all jazz-inspired works of that era, by the likes of Ravel, Milhaud and Stravinsky, qualify as both great works of jazz and great works of classical music. More often they’re great classical pieces inspired by jazz, where as Gershwin’s music excels in both worlds.
Still, as the century went along, jazz inspired classical music seemed to become both more common and, generally less good. Bernstein’s jazz pieces of the 50’s start to look like the last, magical gasp of a movement that was already fading away (and Bernstein was closer to Gershwin than we are to Bernstein). Many great jazz composers, from Ellington through Ornette Coleman, tried their hands at large-scale, classically inspired jazz pieces for orchestra, but I wouldn’t really say many of those works are really successful, at least they’re not as good as their pure jazz projects. The lesson of Milhaud and Stravinsky seems to be that a piece has to work in the genre in which it is being heard (in their case, as classical pieces), and then, if the music is also successful by the standards of another medium (in their case, jazz), congrats are in order. I’m not sure that a piece like Milhaud’s Creation du Monde is great jazz (in fact, I’m sure it’s not), but it is a great piece, and that’s fine. Rhapsody in Blue is great jazz and a great solo/orchestral work
However, if composers of the last 50 years have largely stumbled when integrating classical music with jazz, it seems like the fate of rock n roll and it’s siblings and cousins relationship to classical music has been a more or less complete and abject failure.
This is striking for a number of reasons. First of all, rock is a pretty old musik- it’s been around in one form or another as the more-or-less dominant form of popular music for about sixty years. The 20th c. left us with two huge classical movements- the serial path, and the folk/vernacular music path. Whether you’re talking Bartok or Vaughan Williams, the importance of vernacular music in art music in the last 100 years is hard to overstate. Gershwin took the vernacular music of his day into the concert hall and made magic. Ives showed the developmental potential of tunes like Camptown Races and hundreds of other musical dinner scraps.
However, nearly 60 years in, I’m not sure there has been a “classical” masterpiece written that integrates the language of R & B, rock ‘n’ roll, funk, hip hop, metal, hard rock or punk into its DNA. I fear now that the window has closed- the rock/pop family of genres seem to have atrophied into the plastic and lifeless artefacts of corporately generated background music to accompany product placement.
Still, there have been many efforts to mine the riches of the 60’s for classical ideas. Artists from the Kronos Quartet to Nigel Kennedy have struggled to bring Hendrix into the concert hall- so far all I’ve heard are arrangements that pale in comparison to the originals. It’s not as exciting, not as hip, not as funky, not as intense and not as cool.
Then there is the long list of rockers who, perhaps with the best of intentions, have tried to cross over to classical music. I actually like Elvis Costello’s classical projects on their own merits, but most of these faded-rock-star projects are just embarrassing….
Rouse’s “Bonham’s Drums” was a cool piece the one time I got to hear it. I’ve always wanted to commission an orchestral work from Steve Coleman.
I’d say rockers have done far better at bringing classical ideas and techniques into rock. Whether it’s Stockhausen’s influence on the Beatles or Verdi’s on Bohemian Rhapsody. Pete Townsend and Pink Floyd showed they could work in leitmotif’s and build large forms that hung together with a real sense of drama. Yes, Yngwie Malmsteen was embarassing for musicians in all genres….
Anyway- will we ever see a rock Bartok/Gershwin/Bernstein? If you know one, send me the link.