Rock Meets Classical, Part 1: Who Cares?

What is the future of music? After musicians in the 20th century broke down nearly every barrier, what is left to explore?


The answer I've found most satisfying is outlined in clarinetist and composer Evan Ziporyn's essay 'Who Listens If You Care?' from 1991, a response to serialist composer Milton Babbitt's 1958 essay 'Who Cares If You Listen?'. Babbitt's essay suggested that music could only advance by ignoring public reception and trying to create ‘serious’, academic music that is too complex and intellectual for the public to understand. Babbitt rejected the importance of having an audience and claimed the future of music laid solely in ‘advanced’ composition, as he made clear in his conclusion: “Admittedly, if this [serious] music is not supported, the whistling repertory of the man in the street will be little affected, the concert-going activity of the conspicuous consumer of musical culture will be little disturbed. But music will cease to evolve, and, in that important sense, will cease to live.”


Milton Babbitt

Milton Babbitt


Babbitt’s essay epitomized a growing elitism in the art music world which eventually led to a decline in the popularity of art/classical music. While classical music has historically been bankrolled by the aristocracy and consumed primarily by high-class audiences, new art music became such a fringe art form in the mid-20th century that it even alienated most of its aristocratic audience. In this sense, Babbitt’s prediction was correct - since the 1950s, the composition of new art music has remained an academic pursuit, highly intellectual and disconnected from the public. As a result of this segregation, the popular side of classical music has become a way of maintaining a tradition in the public eye, focused on preserving the past rather than looking forwards. How can a musical tradition which focuses on the past have a promising future?


Ziporyn's vision of the future of music is much more inclusive. ‘Who Listens If You Care?’ predicted a future dominated by crossover between different musical styles and forms - a sort of musical globalization. When applied to the creation of new art music, this philosophy tears down the elitist divide by creating an open dialogue with other forms. Ziporyn’s ideas may allow art music to survive, and thus far, they have yielded excellent musical results which are much more accessible and immediate than anything else coming out of the art music world.


Evan Ziporyn

Evan Ziporyn


Ziporyn’s focus lies in the integration of world music traditions and popular traditions with art music. He has explored the intersection of Balinese Gamelan and classical music with Gamelan Galak Tika and the Bang on a Can All-Stars, a subgroup of the adventurous contemporary classical organization Bang on a Can. The All Stars are a rock inspired sextet with unusual instrumentation - clarinet, electric guitar, cello, bass (both electric and acoustic), and drum kit. They recently premiered Steve Reich's "2x5", a piece written for double rock band in which a single band consisting of 2 electric guitars, piano, electric bass and drum kit plays to a pre-recorded tape of themselves (a common technique in Reich's music):

The studio recording of 2x5 features Ziporyn on piano and Bryce Dessner of The National on guitar, alongside other regular members of the All Stars. Reich has always been popular among rock musicians, probably because his minimalist art music, which was heavily influenced by West African drumming and jazz, shares a lot in common with rock in its use of traditional major and minor scales, its metronomic rhythmic pulse, and its repetition of small musical motives. Bands like Mogwai and Sonic Youth have cited Reich's "Music for 18 Musicians" as a large influence.


Reich continues his dialogue with rock music with his most recent work, "Radio Rewrite", which draws its musical material from two Radiohead songs, "Everything in its Right Place" and "Jigsaw Falling Into Place". Radiohead multi-instrumentalist Johnny Greenwood also composes contemporary classical music, and two of his pieces appeared alongside the music of his biggest influence, Krzysztof Penderecki, on the recently released CD Penderecki/Greenwood. This is not the first time that a rock musician trying his hand at composition has gained the approval of the classical world - Frank Zappa managed to get renowned serialist composer Pierre Boulez to conduct performances of his orchestral music for his 1981 record The Perfect Stranger. This was quite a feat, as Boulez was arguably the ringleader of Babbitt’s camp, and he did not give his approval easily.


In part 2, I will discuss my first experience at Bang on a Can’s yearly marathon and how it perfectly embodies what I believe to be the future of music.


Purchase links:

Steve Reich - Double Sextet / 2x5

Steve Reich - Music for 18 Musicians


Boulez Conducts Zappa: The Perfect Stranger


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