MusicWatch Weekly: Everything is popular to someone

"Popular" and "classical" music, from Third Angle to School of Rock

This weekend’s concerts are pretty evenly split between “classical” music and “popular” music, so I think it’s time we talk about how you can tell the difference between them.

Humorist and Florida man Dave Barry discovered a pretty good definition in his son’s encyclopedia:

But we also need to define “classical music.” A little farther on in the World Book, we come to the section on music, which states: “There are two chief kinds of Western music, classical and popular.” Thus we see that “classical music” is defined, technically, as “music that is not popular.” This could be one reason why the “average Joe” does not care for it.

He has a point, sort of, but let’s break this down for real. First let’s dispose of some common half-assed theories. To start, “classical” music isn’t necessarily any more “intelligent” or “sophisticated” or “difficult” than “popular” music, and vice versa for ostensibly poppy characteristics like “accessible” and “simplistic” and “folk-based” and “relevant.” Consider Duke Ellington, Carla Bley, Björk, tUnE-yArDs, Brian Wilson, Imogen Heap, and the damn Beatles for “pop” (this is just off the top of my head–I’m sure you have your own favorites). Consider this bit of inspired Mazzolia and this bit of insipid Mozartiana for the rest.

Consider Caroline Shaw.

The one common charge that comes pretty close to sticking is the one about “elitism.” Musical education, access to “classical” performances, spare time for lessons, money for instruments, etc.–these are all earmarks of privilege. Many of the best classicists of the modern era (from Bartók’s Mikrokosmos to Frank’s Academy of Creative Music to Oregon’s BRAVO Youth Orchestras) have tried to break down those walls, and it’s one of the few things the internet has ameliorated. Yet “classical” at large remains a fairily conservative and meritocratic world.

If your parents or school or hometown didn’t have the funds to get you piano or violin lessons and take you to the symphony, the opera, or even the occasional string quartet concert or Met in HD screening, chances are you didn’t get many opportunities to acquire the taste or skills to participate in or appreciate “classical” music. To experience “classical” music fully as a listener requires some degree of guided listening experiences and a bit of ear-training, because one very common marker of “classical” music is that it’s harder to play and more challenging to appreciate–usually intentionally so. For most of us, these are features, not bugs. But they’re still barriers to entry, and overcoming these barriers carries a certain price tag in time, resources, or both. Hence “elitism.”

A thorny thicket! But we do have one easily-identifiable distinguishing feature which, though not always true, may help us separate “classical” and “popular” musics: “classical” music is played on pianos and violins, and “popular” music is played on guitars and electronic instruments.

Consider Stephanie Lippert and Joe Kye.

The instruments of the violin family are extremely difficult to master. It takes years of training and practice to even produce one decent-sounding note on the violin, the instruments are expensive to buy and maintain, and most of the worthwhile repertoire requires massive amounts of rehearsal. (The woodwind, brass, and percussion instruments that make up the rest of the “classical” ecosystem are difficult too, but I think “violin” is central enough to the idiom that we can treat it as a synechdoche.)

On the other hand, you can play easy, artistically satisfying music on a cheap guitar with nothing more than a couple hours on youtube. You can also play very difficult “classical” music on a very expensive guitar, but it doesn’t go the other direction: inexperienced violinists playing cheap instruments reliably produce the Actual Worst Sound in the World (well, aside from the sound of real children in literal cages–but fortunately that never happens in this world).

The same metaphor applies to most musical electronics. Sure, you could invest a few grand in a vintage Buchla and learn how to wire it, or you could invest in a good Mac and spend a couple years mastering MAX/MSP–but you can also spend an afternoon learning Garage Band on your ipad or pick up a used Casio and some delay pedals at the nearest pawn shop and start making cool music in your bedroom right away.

The beautiful Buchla.

We haven’t talked about the voice yet, because it’s sort of a special case–nearly everyone has access to a voice, and making a good sound with it is something almost all of us are capable of with a little practice and good advice. There’s where internet comes in handy again: find a teacher or a few good videos, learn a handful of vocal exercises, sing em every day in the shower or on the drive to work, and keep at it. You’ll be a decent singer in no time.

But here’s where “elitism” and “genre” expectations intrude again. “Classical” vocal music, from Palestrina to Ešenvalds, is generally expected to be “difficult” and “sophisticated,” and must conform to specific vocal techniques and stylistic norms. Even within the “classical” world there are firm expectations about the exact right ways to sing Mozart and Mahler, Medieval and Renaissance music, etcetera ad infinitum, and those who are able and willing to meet those expectations are rewarded with concerts and record contracts and critical favor. This all creates a boundary between “serious” singers and the rest of us.

One recent local example before we move on. Earlier this year, I went and listened to Pink Martini diva Storm Large perform Kurt Weill’s terrifyingly beautiful Seven Deadly Sins with Hudson Shad and the Oregon Symphony, and it was possibly the best thing I’ve heard in the Schnitz since Ravi Shankar’s farewell tour in 2001. But some audients were concerned and disappointed over her decision to sing with a rough, “poppy” tone instead of the usual more “classical” bel canto style we would have heard from, say, Renée Fleming. The grumblers may have had a good point, but Weill is a composer who deliberately blurred all the boundaries under discussion, and I’m glad Large did it her way.

Singing up a Storm.

This week’s concerts all muddle the distinctions in one way or another, from highly-disciplined and very popular Indian classical music to highly-wired and very strange synthesizers to highly-sophisticated and extremely popular film music. There’s also complex rap, rowdy country, kid rock, and everything else.

Music for violins, bel canto voices, and well-trained musicians and listeners

Portland is lucky to have several new music groups who are more than happy to muddy these waters for us, and one of the best has a concert tonight. Third Angle New Music has always been about being all over the place, performing (just in the last few years) concerts of: “accessible” Philip Glass and Steve Reich, and “difficult” Sarah Hennies and Luciano Berio; “popular” Elliott Smith and Steven Mackey, and “unpopular” John Cage and Morton Feldman; “relevant” John Luther Adams and Gabriela Lena Frank, and even a few “dead white guys” like Brahms and Ligeti.

Whew! This crew sure puts on a lot of concerts!

A whole lotta concerts.

Third Angle Artistic Director Sarah Tiedemann had this to say about 3A’s season-opening In Wildness concert on Thursday (tonight!) at Vestas:

As an arts organization, we find ourselves in the middle of a debate about whether the arts should be an escape or a powerful space for political and social engagement.

To be perfectly honest, I don’t personally care much about this distinction–although it is an important one, and Tiedemann addresses it quite well with both her words and the organization she leads. Music itself is what matters most to this writer: escapism and socio-political engagement are both lovely, as long as the music is good (I call it the Resonant Musical Meaning Effect).

But this is what Third Angle does, and they work hard to earn their reputation for relevant, well-performed, cross-genre concerts, programming classic 20th-century “modernist” music alongside the best in local and visiting composer-performers while keeping their concerts refreshingly, vividly diverse in all the right ways. Sometimes that means women playing percussion, sometimes it means inviting a guitarist to perform his opera, sometimes it means giving space to local electro-acoustician-composer-percussionists, and sometimes it means nothing more than a good old fashioned string quartet.

“Old-fashioned.”

The music on In Wildness is mostly composed for traditional “classical” instruments, with a sprinkling of electronics. There’s a string quartet, which consists of four instruments from the violin family–two violins, one viola (“big violin”), one cello (“really big violin held between the knees”)–and that lineup is about as traditionally “classical” as you can get. There’ll also be a flute (Tiedemann, a very fine player), a clarinet and a bassoon, piano (played very “classically” no doubt), and percussion (not “drums,” as any percussionist will happily clarify). In other words, these are clearly not “pop” instruments–and they’ll all be played with the sophistication and intelligence that comes with years of training and practice.

The music itself is all in the “modern classical” camp tonight, so it’s guaranteed to be at least a little “difficult.” George Crumb’s Vox Balaenae, like his best music, is a beautiful ordeal. It’s still “relevant”–the title is Latin for “Voice of the Whale,” fitting for a concert about oceanic environmental concerns–but it’s also some of the best and most listenable music in the composer’s catalogue (compare the first two volumes of Makrokosmos, much of which is nearly unbearable). Daniel Crawford’s Planetary Bands, Warming World was composed for the regular “classical” string quartet, but this is one of those data-driven compositions, translating 133 years of temperature measurements into written music as a commentary on climate change. Such music tends to eschew many of the features our ears interpret as “music” (classical or otherwise), and as such it reliably makes for “difficult” listening–though presumably no more “difficult” than the prospect of Making America Triassic Again.

Driven by data.

Mary Kouyoumdjian’s Sedna, Beneath the Sea combines clarinet, strings, and piano with pre-recorded audio, but not in a Milli Vanilli way–the live “classical” musicians are really performing their acoustic instruments, accompanied by field recordings of Arctic wolves. Rebekah Driscoll’s Testing the Second Breath is similar, with Tiedemann and OSO Principal bassoonist Carin Miller Packwood playing along to pre-recorded human voices discussing the impact of pollution and climate change on the world’s oceans.

It’s alive!

Black Snow, Dark Ocean for “singing cellist” was composed by singing cellist Nancy Ives, Oregon Symphony Orchestra’s Principal Cello (the other cellists and bassoonists have to report to Ives and Packwood when they get caught chewing gum and passing notes). We’ve heard Ives perform her own music on various Fear No Music concerts, and it’s always amazing; Valdine Mishkin, who premiered the piece at 3A’s Rooftop Concerts earlier this year, gives a repeat performance tonight.

Koch-aine by Jonathan Russ, scored for “piano trio” (that’s “classical” code for piano, violin, and cello–not three pianos), proudly thumbs its nose at the notorious Koch Brothers. It was composed in 2014, while both brothers were still this side of hell; I’m sure hearing it in 2019 will have a refreshing air of “ding dong, the witch is dead!”

Ding-dong.

This weekend, Oregon Symphony Orchestra performs music by John Williams, who would be considered one of America’s Great Classical Composers if we valued film music as much as we value “real classical” music. OSO does a few of these live-score-to-film concerts every year, and the first one of this season is The Empire Strikes Back–so all you really need to know is when and where, right? Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Friday through Sunday. See you there, rebels.

Regional arts-and-culture organization Kalakendra has been promoting Indian music in Oregon since 1987, and they always bring the best of the best, internationally well-known musicians like Zakir Hussain as well as classical, folk, and film musicians you might not be familiar with unless you live in India or study the art form.

This weekend’s concert is more or less the latter. Sitarist Purbayan Chatterjee is hardly a nobody–at 15 he was given the President of India Award for Best Instrumentalist–but unless you listen to All India Radio you’ve probably never heard of him. Same goes for vocalist Gayatri Asokan, who trained in the southern Indian Carnatic style but also performs in the northern Hindustani style and sings religious bhajan music. She also does a ton of film work.

Popular.

Asokan and Chatterjee recently got married, and I expect we’ll hear a lot of love at their concert at Southwest Portland’s First Baptist Church on Friday the 13th, where they’ll be accompanied by Ojas Adhinya’s tabla and Deepak Marathe’s harmonium. Be sure to read our incomplete and biased primer on Indian classical music appreciation first.

Also on Friday, Portland’s Big Mouth Society–run by local “composer/performer/community-builder” Emily Lau–indulges in a bit of creative anachronism with New Vintage: A medieval feast for the senses. This is the oldest stuff we mean when we say “classical,” which technically designates the Classical Era of music (Haydn, Mozart, early-to-middle Beethoven) but stretches out a few a centuries to either side to include the tradition that starts with Hildegard von Bingen and carries all the way up through Caroline Shaw (and beyond, we hope).

The “sensory immersive experience” is presumably not too immersive (no cholera, please!) and consists of two concerts, starting at 5 and 8 p.m. at the Southeast Portland gallery VESSEL by Eÿn Vas. There’ll be a “medieval scent and spice bar,” photographs of manuscripts on the walls, and a musical quartet singing and playing hand-made percussion, vielle (the violin’s grandmother), and douçaine (the basson’s grandfather).

This Friday and Sunday, Portland Columbia Symphony Orchestra performs “Beethoven’s Tenth Symphony” and Florence Price’s rediscovered Second Violin Concerto, with violin soloist Er-Gene Kahng and conductor Steven Byess at First United Methodist in Goose Hollow on Friday and at Mount Hood Community College on Sunday.

Reclaimed.

This one’s appealing for a lot of reasons. Brahms, despite all the shit we like to talk about him, was kind of a badass, and his long-gestated First Symphony is a giant heap of rich, delicious counterpoint and orchestral textures, perfect for experiencing live. This is also your chance to bask in the relevance of a newly appreciated American composer–and her violin concerto, with its folksy melodies and rhythms and its early-modern Americana textures, makes a good pairing with Brahms.

There’s another good set of “normal classical” concerts happening at Portland State this weekend: two concerts of opera scenes from Carmen, La Boheme, Der Rosenkavalier, and Roméo et Juliette, this Saturday and Sunday; and a concert of art songs by William Walton and Ralph Vaughan-Williams on Sunday afternoon. The only thing queer about these shows is their queerness: PSU’s Queer Opera specializes in taking traditional opera scenes and art songs, switching around familiar gender roles and voice types, and then bel canto-ing the hell out of it all.

Queered opera.

I’m bound to be a bit biased, being a PSU student myself, but for the last three years I’ve had a front row seat at concerts and operas and student recitals featuring these singers, and they put most professionals to shame. It’s not just that they’re youthful and enthusiastic; nor is it simply the exuberance and pathos that come from clever casting and a liberated, out-of-the-closet, living-your-most-authentic-life joie de vivre. That’s all good, but–as I said earlier–all I really care about is the music, and the music is mighty damn excellent.

We interviewed a few of the QO folks this week and posted their answers from the airport. You can read that right here.

Music for guitars, electronics, everyday singers, and musicians who dgaf about elitist bs

I know, I know: you like all kinds of music, except rap and country. Pop over to Runout Numbers and let Laura Pochodylo school you on that. I’ll wait.

Good? Good. I’ve got two shows this weekend that’ll help you embrace your newfound musical freedom. The first is Molalla-based country band Brass Tacks, bringing their “outlaw country” sound to Dante’s on Friday. Raunchy slide guitars, epic choruses, songs about love, life, loss, and pick-up trucks, and at least one great big bushy beard.

Wanted.

Next, follow your eager ears over to Star Theater for Blackalicious on Sunday. Fans of the Californian duo–rapper Gift of Gab and DJ Chief Xcel–have been waiting four years for the follow-up to 2015’s delicious Imani Vol. 1, and rumor has it we’ll be rewarded soon…ish. I’m sure it’ll be worth the wait, and this will be a terrific show no matter what they play. These guys get plenty of credit in the hip-hop world for their uplifting vibe and clever lyrics–and “Imani,” as Imani Winds fans already know, is Swahili for “faith.” That’s something we all need right now.

The first time I heard the local School of Rock kids doing their thing, it was at a Black Sabbath tribute concert at Star Theater. It was all pretty damn good–kids these days can basically do anything–but the standout performance was this little girl, probably around 8, wearing a cast on her arm and doing an even better Ozzy Osbourne impression than Ozzy does. This time around, it’s Devo vs. The B-52s at Mississippi Studios on Saturday afternoon, and it’s hard to imagine a more on-the-nose set of kids-music-that-ain’t-for-kids without going full-on They Might Be Giants.

Saturday night at Lovecraft Bar, local analog synthesizer enthusiasts Volt Divers create three hours of live electronic music on “real” instruments–meaning, “not laptops.” This synth collective is yet another post-genre club, performing retro-futurist “improv shows of multiple sets of various genres (noise, industrial, acid, ambient, experimental).” For those keeping track, this show is the exact inverse of the Medieval sensory feast.

Saturday night at Goodfoot Lounge, it’s Jujuba, a Portland-based ten-piece Afrobeat ensemble led by Nigerian talking drum master Nojeem Lasisi. You know that stupid old joke, “what do they call Chinese food in China?” In Africa, this is “pop” music. In Portland, it’s “world” music. Label it however you want, just get your ass down there and dance!

Talking drummer.

For our last show of the weekend, this Sunday at The Old Church it’s Connections Concerts: POWER, an evening of four women composer-performers. Are they “classical” or “popular” musicians? Are they “composer-performers” or “singer-songwriters” or something else?

Seattle’s Marina Albero sings and plays piano, sometimes with a band behind her, sometimes improvising solo piano music (with the occasional sax), always in a post-genre fantasy-land of Latin jazz and pandiatonicism, with a minimalistic love of arpeggios and shifting, “pop-classical” harmonies. Pianist Sophie Lippert more “mainstream classical” cred, performing Rhapsody in Blue with the Seattle Symphony this season, and plays with Joe Kye every now and then.

Artfully autotuned.

Don’t let the autotune fool you–Stephanie Schneiderman, normally more of a folk-classical singer-songwriter, is coming at that trip-hop sound through the side door. Schneiderman was already crossing genre boundaries with Portland’s Dirty Martini, a folsky-countrified “indie pop” guitar trio, and now that she’s got a DJ and some backup singers behind her she’s bringing a Portishead sort of vibe to her music.

Amenta Abioto is another of of these post-genre looper-based composer-performers (like Dolphin Midwives or Boja Kragulj), using her voice and an array of percussion and guitars to create electronically-layered “committee of one” type songs.

That’s all from Bali, dearest weirdos! Next Tuesday, MusicWatch Weekly comes back to Portland and switches over to its new bat-time (same bat-channel), and that’s when we’ll tell you all about Blue Tomorrows, Adrian Belew, Creative Music Guild, Northwest Art Song, and “Elvis.”

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2 Responses.

  1. bob priest says:

    Arts for escape?
    Arts for political & social engagement?
    Yes, to either/or both of the above as long as the quality of said arts emphatically remains Job One.

    But, wait jest a cosmic nanosecond, how ’bout an even bigger picture third party option such as that potentially provided by

    “THE Ensemble:
    faith-based programming
    according to God’s will”

    ???

    • Jeff Winslow says:

      Why does it have to be either or? How about arts to “close the gap between you and everything that is not you, and in this way, to pass from feeling to meaning.” (Robert Hughes) No escapes, no preaching, everything for the engagement and well-being (in the broadest sense of the term) of the individual in the audience.

Comments are closed.