By Ricky O’Bannon
When pop meets classical, the results are often predictable.
No, not the musical results. Those range anywhere from splendidly inventive to cheesy and trite. But the receptions from both the classical and popular music worlds tend to fall along foreseeable and well-worn battle lines.
Take for example composer Steve Hackman’s mash-up of Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 and rock band Radiohead’s “OK Computer” album, which the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra recently performed as part of their FUSE series.
Hackman has created something of a hybrid niche for himself mashing up modern rock bands against classical greats like Coldplay and Beethoven, Bjork with Bartok or Bon Iver and Copland. You can watch a full performance of “Brahms V. Radiohead” below performed by the Colorado Music Festival Orchestra in 2013.
The mash-up was not greeted warmly by The Guardian newspaper’s Tom Service.
“You can weep at the breathtaking cultural violence done to both OK Computer and to the First Symphony in one of the most remarkably cynically conceived musical projects I think I’ve ever heard,” Service writes.
Service makes clear the great admiration he has for each respective work, but what he takes issue with is a perceived sense that this kind of mash-up is necessary to bring to each something they covet from the other musical tradition. In the case of pop or rock, it might look longingly at the intellectual and artistic social cache that classical music commands. For the classical genre looking at the greener grass on pop’s side of the fence, it is popular relevancy.
“The marvelous thing about Radiohead and Brahms is that they’re different, that they are both defining classics of their respective genres,” Service writes. “That’s enough for either of them, and it ought to be enough for us. We don’t need to fuse them for that to be true.”
Service is not alone in believing that the mashed potatoes and green peas on our musical plate are best enjoyed without touching one another. There is a large sector of classical music fans and participants who greet any pop/classical fusion with the same knowing eye roll you might give a middle-aged man who gets a red convertible and haircut of someone half his age.
For them, it can come across as a transparent ploy to “hip” up what is unfortunately perceived as a decidedly un-hip art form. Or from a critical pop perspective, borrowing classical parlance or musical themes might come across as a pseudo-intellectual attempt to be venerated as a higher-level of musical genius.
For proponents of blending classical and pop idioms, these sorts of efforts might offer an invitation to audiences who have never been to an orchestra concert to come and see that they might understand the symphonic vocabulary more than they might initially believe. Hackman told the Pittsburg Post-Gazette, “It cannot be a bad thing to create a memorable experience around Brahms.”
Much like Looney Tunes did for a classical audience a generation or two ago, many hope that pop/classical fusion might at least open a door for an audience to further explore classical music if they choose — even if they might chuckle at the mental picture of Elmer Fudd during Wagner’s Ring Cycle.
For better and worse these same arguments tend to play out on repeat any time a composer or pop artist dabble in blending genres. Each side has some merit. Proponents are right that cross-genre experiments may open up new audiences, and detractors are right that neither genre needs this kind of work to validate itself. However, those points can obscure the larger question we should ask, which is whether what is created is any good.
There is nothing new about combining classical and pop, whether that is in mash-ups, sampling, stylistic covers or any number of ways a pre-existing classical melody might show up in a pop song. So it shouldn’t be venerated as novel or dismissed as novelty. Instead we should focus on what the impulse behind each work is and whether it creates something interesting.
It isn’t hard to imagine hardline classical or jazz critics questioning Duke Ellington’s motives for making a jazz orchestration of Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite or Miles Davis for reimagining works by Joaquín Rodrigo in Sketches of Spain. Ellington and Davis succeeded in creating something interesting because they showed a nuanced love and understanding of both genres. Is it better or worse than the original? Did it bring jazz audiences into the classical concert hall? In the end, none of that matters — only that something with its own artistic merit was created and might endure.
Given a certain postmodern, Internet age impulse, we are likely to see more and more projects that try to combine pop and classical. Some may fall flat or just be confusing — like Lady Gaga sampling Vittorio Monti’s Czardas in “Alejandro.” Others that show some thought may succeed — like Just Blaze’s sampling of the Dies Irae motif in “The Second Coming.” Likewise it is fine to admit that in the ever-growing genre of string quartet pop song covers, some work and others don’t.
In the end, the next time we hear about a new piece of pop/classical fusion, we would do well not to worry about bridging new audiences or what it means about the place of either genre. Instead we would be better off deciding whether the project creates something interesting and whether once in a while it might be tasty to mix those musical mashed potatoes and green peas together.