‘More alternative rock musicians steeped in classical music than ever before’

‘More alternative rock musicians steeped in classical music than ever before’


norman lebrecht

February 22, 2014

That’s the view of Sony Classical Senior VP Chuck Mitchell, who’s pushing ahead with a prog-rock version of Rite of Spring.

It also seems to be the view at DG, where Bryce Dessner is cutting an album and Olafur Arnalds has scored a moody hit. And at Nonesuch, where Chris Thile had made hug numbers.

So what do we think of this latest kink? Short-term crossover or long-run fusion?

Read the New York Post, for starters.




    What we see here, is the attempt by the vulgar, commercial world of pop – which is trying to cover any corner of public space anyway – to get its dirty fingers on a precious art form that always wanted to create a space separated from the unavoidable pressures of daily life, offering something better and higher than the world of appetite and trivial pursuits. People like Muhly are merely little leafs floating on the mud stream of increasing populism that is, in these days, eroding Western civilization, and such ‘artists’ will disappear with it in the course of time. For many people, dropping the difficult efforts of aspiration is great relief, which is then sold as ‘transcending boundaries’. And the ‘big labels’, having grown much too big for the current financial crisis, grab ANYTHING that makes money, selling-out unconditionally, in an attempt to survive their money problems. And the prostitutes see their chance.

    I see material for a ‘Who Killed Classical Music, Volume II’.

    Anyway, the recommendation of a recording in the article: “A version of the antiwar piece that experts believe approximated the true terror of war”, seems to give information that will not inspire immediate purchase.

  • Halldor says:

    Emerson, Lake and Palmer, anyone?

  • Michael J. Stewart says:

    I believe the ‘prog-rock’ version of ‘The Rite of Spring’ that Sony Classical refer to and will be releasing is by ‘The Bad Plus’. You can hear it here:


  • WG says:

    What’s a “hug number”?

  • Paul Mann says:

    The version posted above has nothing to do with “prog rock”, or indeed any other kind of rock. It sounds more like some kind of jazz trio version to me, and on its own terms it’s highly skilful – and might be described as a transcription of the kind that Stravinsky himself did so inventively with other people’s music. (“You respect, but I love”.) Even if I’d still rather hear the original in this case, I don’t know why people get so worked up about this kind of thing. To me, all the huffing and puffing shows a lack of respect for musicians of other genres, and smacks of the old Mary Whitehouse arguments: “we must protect those who are less able to make a judgement about these things than we are.”

  • Michael B. says:

    Mr. Borstlap, whose opinion I value in many other contexts, is wrong, wrong, wrong here! Borrowings from popular music have enriched classical music for literally centuries, starting at least with the many parody masses written in the 16th century using as their cantus firmus the popular tune of the day,” L’Homme Armé” (the armed man). Clément Janequin wrote a famous chanson on the cries of Paris street merchants. Haydn and Zelenka used folk music from various parts of what was then the Austro-Hungarian empire. Also, it does not bother me in the least that composers such as Johnny Greenwood started out in rock. Please recall that Mel Powell, a composer of recondite twelve-tone music, started out as a jazz player; he was even in the Benny Goodman band. Milton Babbitt (yes, that Milton Babbitt), also started out in jazz; he played the clarinet and saxophone and led jazz bands in Mississippi as a teenager. Frank Zappa’s classical music, influenced by Edgard Varese, is not crossover in the least–it has been recorded by such conductors as Pierre Boulez and Kent Nagano, neither of whom has ever made a crossover recording (I cannot imagine Boulez ever doing so, even at gunpoint!). More recently, the Estonian composer Erkki-Sven Tüür also started out in rock, with the Estonian progressive rock group “In Spe.” As for Greenwood himself, his major influence is Penderecki, whose music is not exactly easy listening and figures in exactly zero crossover compilations. Regarding Nico Muhly, who was also trashed in the post referred to, he has recently had an opera performed at the Met, “Two Boys,” which is hardly a locus of crossover productions.

    Classical music has been unfairly accused by its detractors of being elitist, snooty, and snobbish. Attitudes like that of Mr. Borstlap actually provide support for that canard. We need all the potential listeners we can get, particularly young people. It doesn’t matter that these new listeners may approach classical music from an unfamiliar angle; they will get drawn in and begin to appreciate more and more music, particularly the traditional canon (or at least some of it–tastes always differ). We need not drive new listeners away with these attitudes.

    • The use of folk material in the (far away) past was a process of integration of simple material into a sophisticated, artful context. The subject of this article is the opposite: the intrusion of pop into already existing sophisticated art music. And when pop or rock musicians enter the field of classical / serious art music, obviously they have to leave lower standards behind, and no doubt some people succeed in that., cudos! Protecting professional standards is NOT elitism but common sense, we do expect that also from surgeons, dentists, lawyers, plumbers, etc. etc. It is only with classical music that the card of elitism is suddenly drawn from the pocket, and that is a pavlov reaction of an egalitarian world view.

      Imagine a patient entering a dentist operating room, who says on seeing the up-to-date machinery: ‘You old fogey, you want to do it in the elitist way don’t you!’

      Young people should be invited to understand classical music in all possible ways, but not by lying to them about the investment of some effort which is required to really enjoy its contribution to life.

  • In principle I agree with John Borstlap, who obviously shares my contempt of mindless commercial pop, much of which has the power to desensitise listeners, erode their intelligence, and contribute to the increasing trivialisation of society.

    However, at the risk of stating the obvious, shouldn’t we actually wait to HEAR this new rock version of The Rite of Spring before condemning it?

    Halldor cites Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and it’s worth remembering that Alberto Ginastera approved of the rock version of the finale of his First Piano Concerto which that band included on their 1973 album ‘Brain Salad Surgery’. ELP frequently showed invention and harmonic sophistication; they were in a completely different league to most rock bands.

    I’ll be intrigued to hear how rock musicians cope with the many time signature changes in the work, and hope the rhythms won’t be flattened out into moronic stamping 2/4 like most rock music. If they are, then it’s time to complain … but not until we’ve heard the arrangement.

    • Michael J. Stewart says:

      Raymond Clarke, you can hear it. I posted a link to a video of The Bad Plus performing it live (see above) They are the band that have been signed by Sony Classical. They have been described as a jazz-rock trio.

    • “However, at the risk of stating the obvious, shouldn’t we actually wait to HEAR this new rock version of The Rite of Spring before condemning it?”

      I think it is immoral to murder somebody. But I can only be SURE of that if I watch a murder in reality.

      • Michael J. Stewart says:

        Where do I say anywhere in my posts that I am condemning it?

      • Halldor says:

        Malcolm Arnold made the definitive statement on classical musicians who, convinced of their own unshakable position on the artistic high ground, patronise and condescend to equally serious musicians in different genres. It’s not suitable for repetition on a respectable blog but you can find an account of it here:


        • Alison says:

          To many in the rock world nothing else exists, and jazzers can be very dismissive.

          Malcolm Arnold said “We’re going to make history tonight ….”.

          Did they?

      • Michael Schaffer says:

        John Borstlap says:

        February 24, 2014 at 12:23 pm

        “However, at the risk of stating the obvious, shouldn’t we actually wait to HEAR this new rock version of The Rite of Spring before condemning it?”

        I think it is immoral to murder somebody. But I can only be SURE of that if I watch a murder in reality.

        That comparison totally doesnt’ make sense unless you think that any approach to “classical” works by “non-classical” artists is automatically “murdering” the music simply because there have been some low quality arrangements of “classical” works before – which no one doubts – which one could say “murdered” the music.

        So the concept that cheapening down or “murdering” music is a bad thing in itself doesn’t need to be proven in every single case. But just like with real murder, it has to be proven in every single case that the crime (or in the case of music, the “crime”) really was committed.

        You can’t say “this or that guy looks like a murderer so he probably is one” and you can’t say that about musicians until you have actually examined what they actually did.

        • rovert seivad says:

          For me rock music gives itself the strictures of its genre. It would be correct if these musicians did something original instead of the hurdy gurdy trite attempts they offer. Looking backwards to Stravinsky will not be good enough unless new musical invention and meaning is given.
          The Brahms/Hayden variations, The Bach Busoni arrangements, The Rachmaninov, Brahms, and Liszt compositions on the themes of Paganini are examples of looking back even if some are in questionable taste but to impose a banal overlay on a work such as The Rite is murder.
          It is like using the words and expressions of the ‘Dandy’ or the ‘Beano’ to try to write Tolstoy or Shakespeare . The means used by these ‘musicians’ is small and restricted. And yes one can be clever with drums, keyboard and guitar and it is possible to be creative. Being clever or difficult to play does not make it good and being creative or even original does not make great art as Stravinsky has done.
          If I have not yet stuck my neck out I would say it’s a matter of taste. Pop and its derivatives are for the common taste. You cannot make a silk purse out of a sows ear.

  • Any bridge between the empty dross of commercial pop, and quality music (including but not limited to classical music) should be supported. Provide access to those who seek something better, but can’t leap the river.

    Burning those bridges, as some suggest, would be a betrayal of music’s duty to enrich all lives.

    Crossover and experimental music is a supportive friend, not an enemy.

    Without experiment and innovation, classical music would not have evolved, we would still be banging rocks together. (The original rock music?)

  • John’s uncompromising stance concerning the protection of professional standards is mine too. Nevertheless, there is no artistic vandalism in this intriguing jazz-influenced arrangement, which merely uses Stravinsky’s score as a template to create a new composition in a different idiom. It shows more taste than has been evident in some of the debasement of classical music by other commercial musicians. Does anyone here remember the James Last versions of the classics in the 1970s, with the music forced within the straitjacket of a underlying drum beat? Such sonic drivel stunts the mind.

  • Paul Mann says:

    Thanks “Halidor” for referring to Sir Malcolm, who is indeed a hero. I subsequently played my own part in the Deep Purple/Jon Lord story, which is one reason I feel so strongly on this issue, but could not have done so without the path he cut out.

  • Paul Mann says:

    …and oh yes, Alison, they did make history. Just a tiny bit of it, but they did.