A mule of a different color

Classical crossovers are supposed to sell to a non-classical audience. In time, they may do much more.

If you cross a horse with a donkey, you get a mule, a sterile beast of burden. If you cross classical music with anything else, you get . . . Yo Yo Ma fiddling away on Appalachian folk tunes, Bobby McFerrin tweedling Bach, Michael Bolton rasping Puccini, Placido Domingo gamely singing "Maria" from West Side Story . . .

To put it bluntly, you still get a mule, a sterile beast of burden designed to move the hardest sell in the music business: classical music and classical musicians.

It's not impossible to find good music in the "classical crossover" category—good music, after all, always transcends category. But it's pretty hard, because the primary motivation behind this category is marketing, pure and simple. And we all know what marketing sounds like. When a classical musician records something to "reach a wider audience," beware. It means that person is going to pour all of her considerable technique into a vessel that's ill-suited or even hostile to her talent. Listen to Kathleen Battle's album of spirituals and gospel, and you'll hear what I mean.

Crossovers in the opposite direction—pop musicians going classical—work a little better (except when it's Michael Bolton), because pop musicians tend to lift only the tunes, grafting the melody into the more forgiving formal context of popular music. This is why Paul Schwartz's Aria, which mixes dance tracks with sampled tunes from famous operas, has been selling like crazy all year.

This is also why his latest effort, Revolution (Astor Place), is doomed. This time, Schwartz moves in the opposite direction, taking pop tunes—Beatles songs—and forcing them into the compositional shapes of an 18th-century dance suite. One listen to "Let It Be" in this new form will make you think Muzak. Anyone out there want to do a polka version of "Smells Like Teen Spirit"?

As long as classical musicians bring only their technique into non-classical territory, and non-classical musicians borrow only the tunes of classical music, "classical crossover" generally provides safe—if unenlightening—listening. It's strictly brain candy, music to have conversations against.

The exceptions prove the rule. Violinist Vanessa Mae's 1995 album The Violin Player went quadruple-platinum for good reason: Her techno version of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor is a formidable and fun dance tune. To the classically trained ear, her version makes explicit what Bach's harmonic structures imply: that if the man were living today, he'd be the ultimate mixmaster. Bach knew how to fracture chords and bend notes into kaleidoscope arrangements—albeit neatly and through acoustic instruments.

The album's controversial cover didn't hurt sales either: a nymphet-sized Vanessa (she was 15 at the time) rising out of the surf with her violin, her wet dress plastered to her like lascivious seaweed. That dress is definitely alluded to on the cover of Mae's latest, Storm (Virgin). Her skin glows with a moist sheen; her slip dress is made of some delicate gauzy purple fabric. But this time, there's no violin in sight—a visual clue that Storm wades further out into techno-pop waters. Vanessa still plays the violin—amidst great humming waves of ambient synthesized noise—but she also sings—in a highly distorted soprano. Of the dozen arrangements and original songs, the best is "Bach Street Prelude," a rearranged version of the opening movement of the Partita in E.

There's a strange defensiveness in the liner notes. Writes Mae: "Andy and I have completely re-structured the Prelude so that it tracks along in a fantastical journey with voices and rhythms supplied on electronic instruments and dustbins even! [her exclamation point]. Anyone who thinks this is blasphemy is unlikely to be musically, intellectually or spiritually up there in the good company of a genius such as the pianist/composer Rachmaninov." (Rachmaninov rearranged the partita for piano.)

Classical composers have always cribbed off each other, quoted each other, and rearranged each other's music. I don't know who Mae imagines might find her version "blasphemous"—certainly not hardcore classical listeners. On the other hand, I don't know why she protests at all. As she herself insists, "Storm is a pop album."

Musical blasphemy—in the wake of postmodernism, that's a hard one to swallow. All genres are dissolving at the edges and cross-fertilizing. At the rate change is occurring, it's possible that "classical cross-over" may someday morph into an actual musical movement—one that's not the result of a forced mixed marriage.

But the most likely nexus for the next avant-garde front is probably not the fusion of classical and pop: The 18th century still sounds pretty familiar to our ears. I'm betting that the sound of classical music's future is going to come from all the current excavation going on into the 12th, 13th, and 14th centuries—and, strictly speaking, those eras don't fall into the "classical" rubric. All those Latin chants from obscure monks and abbesses—no one really knows for sure how they were supposed to be arranged anyway.

The technically buttressed chants offered in Industrial Monks' Magnificat, Jocelyn Montgomery's Lux Vivens (covers of Hildegard von Bingen), and Mediæval Bæbes' Salva Nos, offer a few possible directions this new old music can take. The Industrial Monks layer heavily, turning a Benedictine requiem into an electronic cathedral. Montgomery's voice and violin adorn the 12th-century tunes she arranges; the results can be intoxicating at best, boring at their weakest. The Mediæval Bæbes, a dozen lasses who chant in togas without underwear, remind us that however distracting new sonic territory might be, musicianship, or the lack thereof, still matters: The Bæbes can barely hold their notes, and you don't have to understand Latin to figure that one out.

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