The Unapproachable Sacredness of Pop

March 29, 2007

By Kyle Gann

An introvert, in Jung's view, was someone who not only is focused on his own thoughts and perceptions, but considers his own viewpoint the final arbiter of reality. When popular opinion and one's own perceptions come into conflict, the introvert cannot but decide that the world must be mistaken. However, in Jung's view, every conscious principle is balanced by a compensatory principle in the unconscious, and it is common, he observed, almost necessary, for an introvert to elevate public opinion to a deity-like monolith with which it is useless to argue. Secretly, introverts assume they possess the truth, but also assume that the world holds all the cards.

I think composers of my own age and especially younger have internalized some such attitude toward pop music. They've studied classical music and can deconstruct it and criticize it, but the very popularity of pop, its perceived universal appeal, makes it, for them, immune to criticism. They compensate for a secret guilt over the self-consciousness of their classical background by considering pop music sacred. I've encountered this attitude for years with my undergrad students, and I discussed it at length with the more experienced composers at the Atlantic Center, because I truly want to understand it. It's not a universal opinion, and there are many nuances and varying viewpoints, but the general attitude is too common to be ignored. My teachers' generation considered pop music beneath serious discussion; my students believe that whenever pop and classical collide, classical must be in the wrong.

I happen to think that pop and classical have a lot to learn from each other, and that neither has a monopoly on musical truth. Sonata form was an important contribution to culture, and so was the concept album inaugurated by Sgt. Pepper and Pet Sounds. I believe, as an ethical principle, that classical composers should learn from pop, and incorporate what lessons they gather - because I think its popularity is based on something real, if not all-embracing. Having come to pop music comparatively late in life, I don't appropriate its elements much myself, but some of the composers I admire most are those who have tried to fuse aspects of the two: Rhys Chatham, Glenn Branca, Mikel Rouse, Eve Beglarian, Ben Neill, Nick Didkovsky, and so on. I don't believe, as some of my contemporaries have claimed to, that pop music is kind of a neutral vernacular with the same status as folk music: i.e., that borrowing pop influences is analogous to Haydn inserting rustic folk songs in his symphonies. Far from being anonymous, pop music is drenched in the personality of its performers; every byte of it is owned by someone, and often valued exactly for its personal associations. Nevertheless, if something of the physicality and contagious energy of pop can be imported into more extended or complex notated forms, so much the better for the progress of music.

But, as I've documented here before, I am not encouraged by the public reception of music that explores this aim. Music that borrows pop elements is rushed into an inevitable comparison with pop, and never to its advantage. Restrict yourself to cellos and oboes and marimbas and accordions and you can write whatever you want, but the second you insert an electric guitar or trap set, you've conjured up the genie of a pop-music comparison, and it is not going to go back into the bottle. For a hundred years or more, composers have been gleefully divesting classical audiences of their expectations: expectations of first and second themes, of tonality, of stylistic consistency, and a hundred other things have been thrown on the dust heap of history. But the expectations raised by comparisons with pop music are not to be denied. They are sacred.

For instance, many composers, in the habit of determining every rhythmic detail of a piece, have tried notating rhythms for trap set. But god help you if your drummer plays those rhythms accurately and doesn't swing them, if they sound measured out rather than improvised in the heat of the moment. Pop fans are accustomed to a certain kind of time-distorting drummer energy, and if you tie your drummer down to a 32nd-note grid, it makes no difference at all how brilliant your rhythmic structure is: they are not going to be impressed. Pop musicians also determine their personality by the obsessive search for a particular high hat sound, an exact guitar distortion. Classical composers have never been in the habit of notating music with specific sounds in mind; you write a drum part, you notate the cymbal, and you assume that the drummer, whoever he turns out to be, owns a high hat cymbal. A little bit of classical new music gets made with exact timbral specificity - Poème Electronique springs to mind - but it is entirely exceptional.

In short, the pop record has turned its fans into cognoscenti of precise timbres. One reads constantly how proud they are of being able to recognize a tune or album from the first split second of a single note. There are possibly classical music mavens so familiar with recordings of the Brahms symphonies that they can recognize which orchestra is playing from the first note; but what does that have to do with Brahms's intentions? Most instruments are neutral, and can be easily dissociated from the music they are associated with. We can hear a piano without being disappointed that it isn't Chopin or Horowitz or Bud Powell, we hear an oboe without thinking of Mozart or Strauss, even an accordion without necessarily thinking of polkas. But trap sets and electric guitars, at this stage of the game, are not neutral, and cannot be bent to any compositional use the composer imagines. They make musicians want and expect to hear a certain kind of energy and virtuosity, and no music that fails in that comparison will be well received.

The attempt to compete timbrally with pop music is usually doomed to failure not only in terms of instrumental deficiencies but in terms of production values. The amount of money that went into making Sgt. Pepper, or any of Bjork's albums, what they are is unimaginable to the new-music composer. Most of us make do with the machines and software we can afford to own. The great majority of electronic composers skirt the issue by relying on synthesized electronic timbres and gradual sonic transformations that never remind anyone of real instruments. Those of us reliant on MIDI, trying to simulate melodies, harmonies, and rhythms - in my case because I'm looking for tunings and polyrhythms that live ensembles can't currently play - are generally reduced to a repertoire of sounds summarily dismissed by audio software experts who can recognize their source. And even those who have their own groups and record in the studio rarely have access to the best microphones, the best mastering, the best guitar-shredders in the business.

And finally, some composers will never use pop elements to pop fans' satisfaction because they're trying to do something else instead. What classical music, generally speaking, has to offer pop is a more global sense of structure, a reconceived relationship of detail to overall form. For those details to be as imagined by the composer, the performer can often not get carried away. You may set up some nested polyrhythms, or an interaction of two isorhythms, which would lose their rhythmic meaning were the drummer to play them imprecisely. Many composers, myself included, think music through notation, and there are limits to which the performer can interfere. What I listen for in music may be perfectly well satisfied by a composer using vernacular elements. But for most pop music fans, the points of comparison are sacred, and admit of no leeway.

Well, so what? I find it a little sad, because a tremendous amount of music that I find powerfully written and brilliantly conceived gets dismissed as worthless because of timbral and production-value reasons that have nothing to do with the music's intent. I trust that the state of affairs is temporary. It may be that a new generation coming along now will become so expert at studio techniques that they will be able to merge a classical sense of composition with the most timbre-oriented recording values. It may be that a future generation less in thrall to pop records than ours will return to the pop-influenced music of the last 20 years and hear all the wonderful things it had to offer without perceiving as a negative the things it wasn't trying to do. Whatever the case, I think we need to acknowledge that the sacredness of expectations based on pop music comparisons puts the would-be-pop-influenced composer in a difficult double bind. One can continue writing music that has nothing to do with pop, and resign yourself to endless facile charges of elitism no matter how transparent, pretty, or cogent your music is; or you can cross the line and try to draw on the other music you love listening to, and almost certainly draw yourself into a contest you are going to lose. I've become convinced: a pop-classical fusion may indeed be the eventual future of music, but given the way people are conditioned to listen today, there is no chance it will be the immediate future. I admire the people who try, but personally I wouldn't touch it with a ten-foot pole.


Patrick says: March 30, 2007 at 12:13 am - This is a great post. I'm 20 and only got really into classical music after discovering Messiaen, Branca, Chatham, Stravinsky etc through listening to Radiohead, Bjork, Sonic Youth, Boards of Canada… I'm now in my second year of an undergrad in music and find it hard to reconcile my tastes in music with the Mozart and Verdi fans surrounding me, but I think for anyone in my generation of musicians your points about production value and timbre are dead on. When I first heard Quick Thrust I couldn't stand it because of the production. Several months later I don't think a day passes where I don't listen to it. To me the most exciting thing I've heard in the last few months is the Nico Muhly album. The classical half of my ear is as in love with it as the part that loves Thom Yorke style bleeps and clicks is. It's the first ‘classical' record I've heard that seems to be just as in touch with recent developments in rock music. The next closest thing I can think of to reaching that mark are the Clogs albums.

DJA says: March 30, 2007 at 1:38 am - But god help you if your drummer plays those rhythms accurately and doesn't swing them, if they sound measured out rather than improvised in the heat of the moment.

Isn't this somewhat at odds with your hatred of overly fussy dynamics etc? You want performers to have the freedom to play pitches expressively, so what's wrong with also wanting performers to play rhythm expressively? (Of course, " expressively" doesn't necessarily equal the swimmy Romantic rubato that many classically-trained players use as a cop-out when they encounter a rhythm they can't nail.)

I also think it's a bit of a misnomer to pit " accuracy" against " swing" (or more broadly, " rhythmic authority"), as if they are mutually incompatible. They are not. Paul Motian, for example, plays almost superhumanly accurate and consistent time. So did Don Alias. But there's a big difference between someone like Paul or Don, someone who feels the time deeply, versus someone who is able to achieve superficial accuracy only by counting like hell.

(And again, not to cast aspersions or anything, but it's not like classically-trained musicians are generally noted for their unfailing rhythmic accuracy in the first place… though this is slowly (finally!) beginning to change, especially among younger players.

KG replies: Well Darcy, forgive me, but it looks like you're taking one thing I've said and so inflating its significance that I'm never allowed to say anything else. I like to give performers leeway in terms of dynamics in my own music – therefore I can never advocate for rhythmic precision under any circumstances? Nothing's wrong with wanting performers to play rhythm expressively – but does " expressively" invariably result in " rock style"? I didn't object to people playing expressively, I objected to people rejecting music for lacking a particular type of expressivity – and I'm not even sure " expressivity" is the right word for it. Isn't it obvious that some musical passages call for expressivity and some for precision? Actually I'm being very consistent: if I don't want my music tied down to specific dynamics, why should I have that imposed on me? And if someone else doesn't want his rhythmic structures obscured by being played with wild abandon, why should the listener impose that on him?

Adam Baratz says: March 30, 2007 at 9:36 am - Steve Reich had a good line about sticking an e. guitar + trap set in an orchestra, something like " same old exoticism trip." Might as well grab your cymbals and play some Janissary music. You didn't mention performance environment, which I think is one of the biggest factors in making pop infusions sound out of place. You can't rock out when there's a bust of Beethoven planted by the stage (he's such a buzzkill…). There's also a noted absence of cheap beer and smelly clothes. For my money, the stuff to take from pop music isn't literal sounds but attitudes. I've gotten a lot of mileage out of how pop songs treat tonality and phrase their melodic lines. Those aspects of that rep are totally distinct from classical music. I agree with Patrick that the Muhly album strikes a good balance between classical and pop instincts. It can't hurt that your producer worked on a bunch of Bjork albums, but it's not like you can just drop those beats on any old classical piece.

Michael Wittmann says: March 30, 2007 at 9:49 am - Hi, Kyle, I've commented on the timbre issue before, and am very interested in what you say here. I should point out that the biggest reaction I get from people listening to my radio show is exactly in the realm of timbre – they miss the rhythm, they don't necessarily hear the chaos (someone growing up on Sonic Youth or Radiohead doesn't necessarily have a problem with atonality or odd rhythmic patterns, though " metametric" is beyond their ken). The listeners who talk to me DO point out that Robert Ashley, to pick one example, is just right, and he is. Okay, Atalanta is a bit 80s synth-based (to make your point), but Dust, Perfect Lives, or Celestial Excursions are so uniquely timbred that you instantly recognize the source.

A second point I wish to make is that you conflate (as does my example) the role of performer and composition. The performer carries the timbre, the composition rarely does. I recognize Gidon Kremer's violin, even in a piece of music new to me. The issue in pop is that the performers are (usually) also the composers. Your point seems to be that you can't imbue your recordings with your " performer" imprint because you don't have the budget. But, Cold Blue has an ensemble of performers that stands out, and I'm starting to recognize Sarah Cahill on your pieces, for her specific touch on the piano.

Timbre is an unavoidable element of modern music, as you point out. Perhaps that will be the long-term effect of pop music on the world of composition: more composer-ensembles like Glass and Reich had already 40 years ago. It's still downtown, and it's kind of punk-DIY, too.

Which brings me to Patrick's post from earlier. I walked the same path he did (just 15+ years ago), from Sonic Youth and Einstuerzende Neubauten into this modern music. I find that my listeners (and fellow DJs) pay attention for the same reason. When I play Steve Roden (a piece based on cardboard tubes and tea cups played like a xylophone), they respond. They tone matters to them. And once they step out of the pop/rock/punk mindset, they're ready for more.

Steve Hicken says: March 30, 2007 at 10:48 am - Kyle– I just wanted to say that I think this is an outstanding post. It does for me what the best essays always do–bring up more questions than answers. I'm about your age, and my teachers didn't look down on pop, but they didn't bring it up if I didn't, either. It would seem that pop is reaching an ossification stage; what I mean is that if pop fans reject music because it doesn't sound a specific way in strict accordance with their expectations, then pop fans are becoming like certain kinds of classical music record collectors, who have to have their Beethoven a certain way. Is pop becoming the uptight, snobbish genre?

JS says: March 30, 2007 at 11:17 am - Music that borrows pop elements is rushed into an inevitable comparison with pop, and never to its advantage. … the second you insert an electric guitar or trap set, [you're screwed]."

As other commenters have suggested, there seems to be an unstated premise here that the only things worth borrowing from pop music is pop instrumentation. And that's… that's probably not true, right? Pop music has its own song forms, its own melodic tropes, its own relationship between the performer and songwriter, its own aesthetics, harmonic language, system of historical referents, attitudes about instrumental virtuosity, etc. etc. etc. And a classical composer could mine any of these. For the sake of argument, you could write a string quartet movement structured as a Grateful Dead song, where each instrument gets a chance to play a long, noodley, kind of self-indulgent solo over a repeating tonal/modal chord progression. It's kind of a boring structure by classical music standards, but I bet the mass audience would react well to it. Even if they didn't, I don't think anyone would say " this is bastardized pop music." KG replies: Well, that's true, and I think, for instance, David Garland has done well in removing himself from the field of pop competition by writing really arty pop songs that don't use (for the most part) pop instrumentation. There's a kind of clarity one can " borrow" from pop music whose theft may be difficult to identify for certain.

DJA says: March 30, 2007 at 12:20 pm - Nothing's wrong with wanting performers to play rhythm expressively – but does " expressively" invariably result in " rock style"?

No, of course not. It's not like there's even one rhythmic feel that you could pin down as " rock style" anyway. But, to my mind, playing rhythms expressively - which, again, is not in any way incompatible with playing them accurately - does require that the performers have an emotional connection to rhythm - to understand how the smallest nuances of accent and placement affect how a rhythm feels. Musicians who play credible jazz, rock, hip hop, salsa, samba, tango, afro-beat, flamenco, arabic music, Bulgarian music - just about any style you can name other than the Western Classical Tradition - put a very high premium on having a highly developed emotional connection to rhythm. (Just as musicians raised in the classical tradition tend to put a premium on having a highly developed emotional connection to melody and harmony.)

In other words, what most listeners in the world respond to first in music (myself included) is groove. So of course it is frustrating to listen to music that sounds like it is intended to groove (because there's, say, a steady underlying pulse and lots of polymetric rhythmic activity) played by performers who do not have any apparent emotional connection to rhythm.

You seem to be implying that playing with a groove is incompatible with conveying brilliant rhythmic structures, and that's a view I could not possibly disagree with more. To my mind, playing with a groove is exactly how you convey brilliant rhythmic structures. To cite a concrete example, this is what makes Alarm Will Sound's version of " Yo Shakespeare" so strong - everyone in the group has internalized Gordon's rhythms so strongly that they can make the piece groove. Of course, they play the rhythms extremely accurately - as they must, the piece does not work otherwise - but that's only the first hurdle to clear. Unlike some other groups, AWS can play the rhythms like they mean them.

Van Twee says: March 30, 2007 at 12:55 pm - I have to agree with Adam Baratz (& Steve Reich). Composers who borrow the trappings of pop without recreating its energy aren't doing it the favor they seem to think they are.

Why shouldn't I be embarrassed by a Steve Mackey concerto, or a Mikel Rouse rap? There's little point in appropriating vernacular music if it's not going to sound, well, vernacular. Otherwise, you're just slipping a miniskirt on old man Classical, and it becomes all too obvious that he's still the same fogey that he was in a tux.

It's not precision. Frank Zappa's band had no trouble rocking your socks off. And it's not money: although I'm sure Corey Dargel wouldn't mind having Abbey Road at his disposal, he records some excellent pop songs without it–the way struggling indie rockers and " laptop warriors" everywhere have been forced to do.

It's simply a question of style. When Billy Joel and Sir Paul McCartney try to write concert music, they're greeted with hoots of derision from the classical critics. Don't they know people stopped writing like that a hundred years ago? Why don't they keep up with the trends? Why don't they focus on something other than melody, like " real" classical composers do?

When Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore–immersed in the tradition of Chatham, Branca, and other composers who honest-to-goodness rock–unveils his latest opus, it's received far more warmly, because he's writing in a style that he approaches naturally and respectfully. Pop music, for all its limitations, deserves the same respect.

KG replies: Admittedly. But all the people we've mentioned have tremendous respect for pop music. What perplexes me is the common automatic assumption that musicians do *not* respect pop music, so that it needs to be endlessly and indignantly defended from every composer who admires it enough to incorporate its effects into his own music.

christopher sahar says: March 30, 2007 at 1:02 pm - Have any of you heard what Electric Company is doing? It is fascinating what influences you hear in the works they play written for them – their goal is contemporary music for rock quartet – but you WILL hear a little King crimson influence in one song, Public Enemy in another, Radiohead here or there etc. The one point in your post which I find very important is that since the mid 60 s popular music has shown the rise of the recording studio as an unusual musical instrument which creates its own acoustical space. The only slightly comparable instrument of the past to today's recording studio is the pipe/tracker organ AND the acoustical space it is in. For example, how you register a piece by Frank or Bach is dictated by the space, style and the performer's taste (or absence of). The recording studio engineer is lucky in that he does not have to work with the acoustical space given(or, to a degree, the talent of the performer!!) but can create the acoustical space. The challenge for much pop music is the portability of its performance. How would a song (a very bad one ) like Fergie's " My Hump" sound if performed straightforwardly live with a guitar and vocalist? On the other hand, a pretty tune such as Madonna's " Take A Bow" would fare better and the Beatle's " Something" when rendered with good singing and a good guitarist (UNAMPLIFIED)reveals more its rich harmony and subtle, durable form.

Galen H. Brown says: March 30, 2007 at 3:32 pm - Darcy - I think perhaps what Kyle is getting at is that drummers who don't understand how the music is supposed to work are in danger of imposing a _familiar_ but inappropriate expressive style, usually some flavor of rock style. It's not a mistake of playing " expressively" when non-expressive playing is called for, it's playing with the wrong _kind_ of expressivity - perfectly square, quantized rhythm is an expressive style too. Van Twee - The mistake would be borrowing popular music elements _because_ you think you're doing popular music a favor. If you think popular music needs that kind of " favor" then you don't understand pop music and you won't be accepted by its fans. Reich makes a great case-in-point, since he made that comment about exoticization but also uses pop-music tools such as samplers. He uses the tools he uses because he likes what he can do sonically with them, but he knows that writing an orchestra piece with a drumkit and an electric guitar would, for him, be writing only for the sake of incorporating those (for him exotic) instruments. At the same time, somebody like Michael Gordon can use electric guitar with orchestra and make it totally seamless because for him the guitar is just another instrument. The assumption by popular audiences that classical musicians disrespect popular music is mostly for historical socio-economic reasons. Classical has been set up as " superior" for so long that it's only natural for pop music fans to assume that classical musicians look down on them, and to see appropriation of pop music elements as some combination of pandering, exoticization, and condescention. This situation cuts both ways - a lot of the howls of derision for Billy Joel's classical music were heard before anybody had actually heard his music, because certain classical elitists assumed that a popular musician _couldn't possibly_ write classical music that was worth hearing. And in fact the music he wrote wasn't in a style that people stopped writing a hundred years ago - it's a style that elitist academics stopped writing a hundred years ago. Film composers write that sort of stuff all the time, and get so little respect for it in our elitist neck of the woods that we forget that they even exist as part of modern classical music. I hasten to add that I'm not saying that we're all elitists who disrespect film music, but that the classical music culture is so elitist by structure and default that we can easily be blind to the origins of our assumptions. In other words, I don't look down my nose at Billy Joel's classical music because I actually think it sucks, but rather because I was trained by our culture to assume that it sucks. My behaviors are elitist even though my beliefs on this issue are not.

andrea says: March 31, 2007 at 1:29 pm - the problem i have with the billy joel and paul mccartney stuff is that it doesn't sound like them; it sounds like they're trying to be somebody else. i've always enjoyed joe jackson's forays into orchestral writing, because there's still so much joe in it (is " will power" still in print? i have it on cassette…), and it also works as orchestral music. it's not super-adventurous, or anything, but it is rather lovely. i've said this before, but i think it's a point worth posing again: what about pop stuff that pretends to the classical throne? not billy joel and mccartney, but prog rock? are steely dan, blood sweat & tears, early chicago (not their horrendously smarmy 80s schlockola) rock bands or jazz bands? is animal collective really a rock band? is metal machine music really a rock record? where do such musical concoctions succeed or fail? how do folks feel about third stream? but ultimately, i think kyle is right: it's silly to assume in this day and age that classical folks are ‘condescending' to other musics. maybe they haven't practiced their groove stuff enough (in my own experience, i have discovered that just 'cause you listen to it, doesn't mean you can reproduce it on your instrument on the first try), which i suppose could be a sign of disrespect via hubris, but still… it frustrates me to no end how the media and often times the classical music industry itself, as galen points out, continues to disseminate this increasingly false notion of classical-as-elitist-music-for-rich-people. this kind of drivel results in things like the record store clerk who insisted that classical was bad because it was by and for rich white people and pretty much every other music was more " authentic." then there's this lovely review, which says, basically, " finally, some hipsters who are really authentic because they're playing that rich-peoples' classical music instead of pretending they're poor and punk": talk about condescending!

John Shaw says: March 31, 2007 at 3:21 pm - I think the rhythmic expressiveness that Darcy is talking about has to do with phrasing. Not " time distortion," not rhythmic inaccuracy, but an accentual sense of line. It's something I've noticed with notated drumming in some post-classical music: the drumming can be accent-less, which comes off as affekt-less. Historically, classical didn't only borrow tunes from the music called popular or folk (two words etymologically synonymous), but also dance rhythms. And in dance rhythms, accent and phrasing are basic. Classical approprations of pop have bad 20th century exemplars. I really do think that Stravinsky didn't respect the jazz and ragtime he travestied. Copland stated outright that jazz was emotionally simplistic. Not all the earlier 20th centurions felt that way, but the feeling had prominence. You're right, Kyle, that nowadays that isn't the case. But I am surprised to see you surrender the timbral quest to pop. Dane Rudhyar said it (and you know magnitudes more about him than I do): " the magic of tone." It's a primal musical element. And living classical composers have made myriad discoveries: Meredith Monk, Penderecki, Riley & Reich, to name a few. Replicating big-budget sounds may require a big budget; finding new sounds does not. Your post reminded me (and this probably says something lame about me) that I never liked Reich's "Electric Counterpoint" until I heard the pop-ified " bathed in reverb" version on " Reich ReMixed." Now I like the original more than the remix. Thanks for a rich and provocative post.

Juego De Casino says: May 24, 2007 at 2:36 pm - Wow! I am happy I read this post. Really. I am only 16, and I am trying to create my music taste.

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