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Classical Looks To Pop For New Ideas

Eric Danton

December 11, 2011

Violinist Rob Moose was looking to perform outside the classical world when he connected with an indie-rock singer who had a classical project in mind. Pop, meet classical. Classical, say hi to pop.

Moose's collaboration in a string quartet with Shara Worden, leader of the band My Brightest Diamond, is just one instance of growing interaction between pop and classical music. A subset of indie-rockers are increasingly writing songs around classical elements, while some classical musicians and institutions — including the Hartford Symphony Orchestra — are looking to the pop realm for new ideas and, not coincidentally, to attract new audiences.

Representatives from each realm say cross-pollination is necessary, for reasons both creative and financial as classical audiences age and sales of recorded music decline.

"I've just noticed bands using more and more classical instrumentalists on their work, in an increasingly central way, and through their explorations of longer song forms and more diverse instrumentation, the classical world has taken notice of the interest on the other side of the aisle and has naturally reached over as well," says Moose, who grew up in Windsor and learned piano and violin at the Hartt School before his family moved to New Jersey after his sophomore year at Loomis Chaffee.

Classical and pop music have intersected before, of course. Composers for centuries have drawn on folk traditions in their music, and rock musicians often add orchestral elements to convey a sense of grandeur, or team with orchestras to reconfigure songs from their catalogs. (Surely you'll recall "Kiss Symphony: Alive IV." Anyone?)

"People have tried to combine those things forever, but usually it was sort of a generic string section tacked on to a rock song, or it would be comical, like a disco Beethoven track," says Peter Katis, a music producer in Bridgeport.

Katis frequently works with rock acts, including New York band the National and the Icelandic singer Jonsí, that employ classical elements in their music, working with contemporary composers including Nico Muhly to give those elements a more integrated role in their music.

"There used to be such a strong division between classical music and rock music, and as time goes by, the divisions are less stiff," Katis says. "People were just getting bored with both."

Moose wasn't bored, exactly, but he felt that pop artists didn't always know how to get the best out of the classical musicians they worked with.

"Me and other colleagues of mine have been playing with bands for years in these situations in which you'd be thrown in with a pool of freelancers who had never played together before and never played that music, and sometimes it would be great and sometimes it felt a little disorganized and chaotic," says Moose, who studied at the Manhattan School of Music and Columbia, and has since played with indie acts Sufjan Stevens, Antony & the Johnson, the National and Grammy-nominee Bon Iver. "We felt this music is more valuable than it's being treated, and we wanted to create a group that was designed for these situations, with members who are keenly interested in playing this music and approach it with the same level of integrity as they would playing with a string quartet at Alice Tully Hall."

They group they created in 2008 is yMusic, a sextet that straddles the classical and pop worlds, commissioning pieces to perform and also offering its services to pop musicians interested in adding a classical element to their songs. The group this fall released its recorded debut, "Beautiful Mechanical," an album of compositions by pop artists including Worden and Annie Clark of the band St. Vincent, and contemporary classical composers including Judd Greenstein and Sarah Kirkland Snider.

Inviting pop songwriters to contribute was in keeping with yMusic's desire to find a balance between pop and classical.

"It seems to me that songwriters are becoming empowered in a certain way to try different kinds of music, and one of the great things for the classical side is sort of re-thinking the way it kind of reaches audiences," Moose says.

Thinking about ways to reach different audiences is something Carolyn Kuan, music director of the Hartford Symphony, spends a lot of time doing. In addition to collaborating earlier this year with the pop-punk band Jack's Mannequin, HSO in January presents "Brahms and 'Beatboxing,'" pairing Johannes Brahms' Symphony No. 1 with Shodekeh, a Baltimore artist versed in beatboxing, a hip-hop form of vocal percussion at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts.

"It really challenges our perceptions of what classical music is and what pop music is," Kuan says. "I do think there is a convergence happening right now, more and more, and not just in repertoire, but in venue. You'll see a lot of classical musicians performing in cafes. It's part necessity, and part that some people want to hear it."

Also, why limit yourself to one or the other?

"Maybe it's just that one of those worlds doesn't give people all they need," Katis says. "If you said I could only listen to rock 'n' roll, or I could only listen to classical music, I wouldn't be happy with that. I think people are always looking for a broader palette of sounds or techniques to make their music different."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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