I ran into a somewhat intriguing article by Pierre Ruhe (who I presume is a classical music critic) on various attempts by popular musicians to write in “classical” styles. Ruhe claims that the pieces he thinks have failed (Paul McCartney’s, Billy Joel’s, and Elvis Costello’s) have done so because their composers have been unable to infuse their individuality into their classical attempts. He praises the work of Frank Zappa, Jonny Greenwood (of Radiohead), and Björk in successfully melding their distinctive musical personalities into classical (or, at any rate, non– pop-oriented) compositions. (I’m going to disagree on Ruhe’s claim that these musicians write “classical” music for prestige – first, because anyone who’d still be snooting McCartney’s obvious skills and accomplishment is unlikely to grant him prestige just because suddenly there’s a bassoon involved, and second because as dead as old-school classical structure is, old-school classical “prestige” is even deader.)
But what is this “personality”? It’s a notoriously fleeting and hard-to-define quality, certainly – but I think with these examples, at least, there’s an obvious aspect of the composers’ popular work that might predict how well other popular musicians might do in their attempts to broaden their musical palettes. The failed composers are all, in their “day jobs,” best known as songwriters. Their tools are lyrics, melody, and effective harmonic settings for those melodies. The more successful composers (according to Ruhe, at least) are not primarily songwriters; in fact, their music (with the possible exception of Zappa) is better known for its textural qualities than its tunefulness. That’s not to say those composers can’t write songs, when they try to (Radiohead is the most successful in that realm of the three – and of course Greenwood isn’t that band’s only writer), but that doing so doesn’t seem to be their primary musical interest. But it’s certainly true that it’s far easier to imagine the Costello’s, McCartney’s, or Joel’s songs performed by one singer with a guitar than to imagine Zappa’s or Björk’s songs done that way. The songs’ structure is more important than their externals (which can be changed like clothing), whereas in a sense the second group of musicians’ music is exoskeletal: held together and articulated by the sounds themselves on the surface, rather than an abstract, inaudible structure.
Given that another aspect of Ruhe’s complaint is that too often, popular musicians writing “serious” music tend to ignore anything composed in the past seventy-five years or so, that suggests another factor: the songwriters are used to working in a particular structure (that of the popular song). Classical music of the last seventy-five years rarely sticks to such traditional structures (such as sonata form, which is fairly close to that of popular song), and so these songwriters either flail about extending pretty tunes with no real sense of direction or variation, or fall back on outmoded styles and models and sound, instead, utterly clueless to an audience familiar with contemporary classical composition.
The texturalists, on the other hand, are in some cases already used to developing structure in a non-standard format, perhaps from within that sonic variety or (like Zappa) creating extended pieces in essentially episodic form but which avoid boredom through constant variety of texture, including orchestration, rhythm, density, etc. (In looking for alternate versions of Ruhe’s article – since it didn’t originate at the Journal Sentinel link I’ve used – I found that elsewhere he praises Autechre’s work – which, again, makes sense given that band’s interest in exploring sound rather than song.)
I suspect that songwriters would be more successful if, rather than trying to write symphonies, oratorios, or other long-form works, they confined at least their early efforts in the genre to smaller forms, since such forms would play to their existing strengths.