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Crossovers: A Musing on Composing in Different Genres

April 13, 2012

The 20th century saw the rise of a distinction made between composers of music for the concert hall and those of “popular” music — and never the twain would meet. The 21st century so far has exaggerated this distinction. We are surprised, surprised I tell you, when we discover that someone has been and can do more than one type of music and do it well. Yet anyone who has looked at the history of Western music could tell you that prior to this there was little or no such distinctions made at all.

Here are some cases in point. I give them first noting which genre they started with — unless they always did both from the beginning. Most are from the 20th century.

  • George Gershwin: Songwriter, who with his lyricist brother Ira wrote such now-standard songs as “Embraceable You”, “I Got Rhythm”, and countless others, mostly for the theater. But he was also quite the capable composer for the concert hall, albeit with some assistance at first (Rhapsody in Blue, with some help from Ferde Grofé). G.G. wrote a solid Concerto in F and probably would have written much more symphonic literature had he lived longer.
  • Leonard Bernstein: Equally at home in the concert hall and the dramatic stage, “Lenny” wrote symphonies and Broadway musicals. And when he was first starting out he was also one of the arrangers of piano-vocal sheet music for publishers, thereby giving him proper “pop” credentials as well.
  • (Sir) Paul McCartney: First (and, in many boomers’ minds, always) a Beatle, “the cute one” has always trying new things with the music he writes. There is evidence in his songwriting (check out “For No One” or his much-later playing with form in the title song from Band on the Run), but he was also composing electronic music back when it was all analog and tape recorders. Today his list of compositions include several for the concert hall and a ballet. Whether they have been successful or not is debatable — I don’t know those works well enough to even venture an opinion — but the fact is, he’s doing it. (And yes, with help, but I suspect it’s more from a combination of very mild insecurity and inertia. Of course I could be wrong.) In the meantime, I wind up using some of his songs as examples for teaching music theory and both classical composition and songwriting.
  • Paul Simon: Also a long-time consummate songwriter, P.S. has strikingly — but unsuccessfully — ventured into musical theater. It should have been a natural fit and still can be if he decides to write another show (I hope so). If his “Capeman” musical failed it wasn’t because of the music, but rather his conscious decision to take everything he knew about musical theater and, essentially, do the opposite. Most of the songs are written as “Paul Simon” songs and are wonderful (really!) apart from their intended context, but they don’t come off as theater. Perhaps the one thing that killed the show was having a protagonist for whom we couldn’t empathize or sympathize or support in some way. I’ll repeat what I said though: I hope he tries another musical.
  • Billy Joel: I believe that B.J. is tied with Paul McCartney as songwriters who have the highest ratio of really great songs to overall output. If I were stuck on that famously hypothetical desert island with only my musical memory for entertainment I would most likely remember Joel’s and McCartney’s songs. (Lennon’s, and Lennon/McCartney’s real collaborations as well.) Since he stopped writing new songs Mr. Joel has turned to writing concert music (and released one collection of solo piano works in print). There is also a “dance musical”, Movin’ Out, which features his songs, but nothing new was written for it. I for one think an original musical by WIlliam Joel could be incredible, and I would love to hear more of his other non-song works.
  • Garth Brooks: Not as much as songwriter (although he is a fine one) as a performer, G.B. isn’t the new-country purist (which isn’t as pure as a more-traditional country-and-western purist) we would assume. He even started out like metal bands, according to some sources. His attempt at the whole Chris Gaines persona for a proposed movie with him as the star failed less for the songs (all written by Nashville’s best, and some of the songs are great) but I think because of the recording itself. It sounds too… sterile is the only word I can think of. The music is a virtual history of rock, but with all of its soul missing.

Over the years I have had to compartmentalize in dealing with the music I want to create, whether as a composer, songwriter, writer of musical theater, or arranger. There was a time when I wrote arrangements for three different publishers because one had me pigeonholed as a “string and full orchestra guy” while another had me locked in as “the guitar guy” and a third as, well, anything else (at least that one gave me some variety). Similarly, I have had to keep my singer/songwriter aspects at bay so as to not confuse those interested in my concert music, and vice versa.

Thanks to musician friends who appreciate the “pop” in classical and the “classical” in pop like pianist Laura Leon, flutist Amy Ziegelbaum, and conductors Don Keller and David Leibowitz, I’ve gotten to allow all of the music I write to express itself. By that I mean that elements of pop music, and in some cases jazz (rather what I’d call “fake jazz” so as to not insult any real jazz musicians), have become integral to what I compose for the concert hall. Ms. Leon didn’t start it, but she brought things to the fore when she asked to write music for a multimedia work, for which she was to play live for a slide show of photography by Barry Rosenthal and Eric Jacobson. As I recall, she asked that the work, now called Pro*Ject (pronounced either way, PRAH-ject and pro-JECT) have more popular elements; the second movement, “Two True Blues”, is self-explanatory, and the third movement “Samba” is only a slight misnomer (it’s not a samba but a related dance form). I wrote other works before this with elements not often found in the concert hall (a 12-tone-theme swung fugue in Woodwind Quintet No.2), but this was the most overt. I guess I found it freeing on some level; since then I am unabashed in drawing on such things in my non-pop writing. In Accordances (Symphony No. 2) the third movement is flat-out ballad — a singer attending the premiere has asked, nay demanded, the lyrics — and the middle movement of my new Concerto for Trombone and Band is a blues in minor.

I know that several of my colleagues are equally at home in different genres, and some of my composition students over the years are doing just fine finding ways to meld their interests. All of this is to say that I think by mid-century we will have done more to reintegrate styles of music to a large extent.

©2012 Steven L. Rosenhaus

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