The Musical Divide

17 11 2011

Peter Gabriel straddles a familiar line in his latest release, New Blood, where he refits many of his songs to a classical setting. A large orchestra takes the place of the familiar rock trappings and gives the songs a different feel. They’re still the same songs with the same message and mostly the same impact, but the delivery has changed radically.

He’s a thoughtful artist and for the most part the refit works. Do classically based charts improve the old arrangements and instrumentation? No, but it’s enjoyable watching him stretch. This isn’t an attempt at a new respectability; it’s a sincere attempt to change the backdrop.

A recent David Brooks column touches on the path that Peter Gabriel doesn’t take — pandering to those who think serious music begins and ends with an orchestra.

“Cultural inequality is unacceptable. If you are the sort of person who attends opera or enjoys Ibsen plays, it is not acceptable to believe that you have a more refined sensibility than people who like Lady Gaga, Ke$ha or graffiti,” Brooks writes.

Which is to say the classical faithful won’t be wooed into the rock arena by grafting rock music onto an orchestra. It didn’t happen with Deep Purple and it’s not going to happen now. The divide between the two sides, who each take music very seriously, won’t close any time soon. Or most likely ever, not even by jazz.

European-based classical music and orchestration is the monied standard. Even New Yorker classical music writer Alex Ross, hailed as a hero for his insightful look into the transformation of this type of music during the past 100 years in The Rest is Noise, can’t resist gigging rock and jazz. The subtitle of the book is Listening to the Twentieth Century. Truth be told, even though Ross has an open fondness for Radiohead, the book’s tone is that the only music truly worth listening to in the 20th century is European-based and orchestral.

But Ross’s insightful book notes the occasional collision between pop and classical, like the anecdote he relates from a party at Harpo Marx’s house in the 1930s when ” … Fanny Brice walked up to Schoenberg and said, ‘C’mon, Professor, play us a tune.'”

That’s the spirit that spans the divide and puts all music on the same level. And that’s when we all win because in the end it’s all music, no matter what the format.

Would Stravinsky like what Yes did to open concerts in the ’70s by using a portion of Firebird to set the mood? Doesn’t matter because the blending of the two styles, classical and prog, are inseparable and a beautiful middle space with a beauty and complexity that doesn’t disappoint an open mind. The Firebird opening still gets the blood moving, especially when the mellotron picks up where the orchestra leaves off. The muscular mood Stravinsky set is elevated into what seemed at the time as the proper step forward. Still does. Yessongs captures the highlights from a tour and condenses them to a singular hard rocking show of tricky material fiercely played. It still sounds gripping some 40 years after its release.

Who on either side of the serious music divide wins with Yessongs? Everyone.