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Why Are Classical Musicians So Reluctant to Talk About Pop Music?

Speaking out: pianist Michael Kieran Harvey. Image Credit: AMEB Website
Graham Strahle
| September 12, 2017

It is wonderful to hear classical musicians occasionally talking openly about popular music and sharing their views on this subject. It makes them more human. UK pianist Stephen Hough, who believes the format of classical concerts needs to be shaken up, has declared: “I love the Carpenters. [Karen Carpenter] had a beautiful voice. There’s room for everything — but that includes the late quartets of Beethoven.”

It might be no more than a profound disinterest in popular music that prevents more classical musicians expressing their opinions on the subject. However, one suspects Hough is not alone in admitting to a secret liking for at least some tiny area of pop music, rock or jazz. One wishes more had the courage to say so. Insignificant though it may seem, doing so might connect them more with the broader public mind. Even just recognising that this alternative musical world exists – irrespective of whether one happens to like it or not – could help in terms of creating dialogue and breaking down barriers.

Michael Kieran Harvey is virtually alone amongst classical pianists in this country to speak out like Hough has done. He candidly says he admires pop musicians for the way they carry visual the dimension when they perform, and is enamoured with the musicianship of a long list of rock, jazz and even trip-hop artists from Living Colour to John McLaughlin, John Zorn and DJ Spooky.

“With respect I don’t think I’m anywhere near unique in my interest in more histrionic forms of music,” he suggests. “The contemporary scene is exploding with an oversupply of extraordinary musicians all busily vying for attention. It’s an exhausting time to be alive, as every musical genre is bursting at the seams with people trying to make a living.”

The silence tends to be deafening from others, though, which is perhaps surprising given how the borders that used to almost entirely separate one musical genre from other are now much more permeable than before. If that’s a healthy state of affairs, so then must be talking about it. The continuum of time and memory that we call culture, as Anna Goldsworthy eloquently writes, is especially pertinent here: in cautioning us against being “holed up in our little music ghettoes”, she urges us consider how “jazz and rock and classical and pop have common roots”.

Composers generally have more to say, and offer creatively, on this question. Graeme Koehne broke new ground in the 1990s by incorporating elements of cartoon and pop music from his boyhood years (particularly Raymond Scott, Henry Mancini and Burt Bacharach) in his orchestral works Unchained Melody, Powerhouse, and Elevator Music. Elena Kats-Chernin is not afraid to admit her liking of popular genres either, including Michel Legrand and 1950s Russian pop music – “I sometimes like to try to reinvent that sound,” she says.

Nostalgia is one thing, but contemporary pop, rock and electronica is another. Carl Vine, Andrew Ford and especially Matthew Hindson are three of Australia’s most conspicuous users of these influences in their works. Vine has explained it comes from wanting to share “thousands of moments of delight and surprise” in his own musical experiences – which is quickly borne out on listening to such works as his String Quartet No. 3. He has explained that it is not the garb of style but creative honesty that motivates him:

“I’ve found something to enjoy in at least some examples of music in just about every genre I can think of, including Rock, Pop, Jazz and Country (even if examples in the last one are rare). The common element must be some honest and unique combination of invention and structure that reveals an intelligent and caring creator, or creative team, that shares my vision of the vital importance of sharing musical experiences with others.”

Hindson’s stylistic allegiances are even more direct, visceral and daring. He stirred up the classical concert scene no end with works such as Homage to Metallica and Rave-Elation earlier in his career, and has explained his purposes in equally open terms: “I use aspects of popular music in my own compositions, basically because (1) that is the sort of music I like to listen to a lot of the time, and (2) there is a real vibrancy in popular music performance that I would like to convey in my own music.”

Andrew Ford is no less reluctant to declare his colours. He says his recent concerto for electric guitar, Raga, recognises his decades-long admiration of prog-rock band the Grateful Dead.

Bravo to all of them for being so honest. The question is not that classical performers or composers should be expected to like contemporary popular music in its multifarious strands – that would be ridiculous. Maybe though, they could comment more freely on it: the sonic vocabulary it has contributed and the ubiquity it has come to occupy in the social landscape. To do any less might be to push classical music into a corner, or – worse – to assume it holds an elitist position.

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