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TRUTH AND MATTER | The Great Divide Between Popular And Classical Music May Not Be As Wide As You Think

By William Beauvais on December 20, 2016

“…the black coal with its inner light.” — Linda Hogan

As a teenager, I had come to love the music of Bach, Rodrigo, and Britten. I bought a Black Sabbath record a few minutes after getting my first classical guitar. It was a pleasure to note that many progressive rockers had similar wide-ranging tastes. Jan Akkerman, guitarist for the Dutch group Focus, released a solo album, Tabernakel, featuring numerous arrangements of music by John Dowland. Blood Sweat and Tears 2 included variations on a theme by Eric Satie, locally, Lighthouse created a style that was dubbed symphonic rock. The band Yes covered an excerpt from Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite on their first live LP.

Many of the popular musicians I looked up to loved classical music, and reveled in the opportunity to create music from this enlarged choice of sounds. I discovered the marvelous big band music of Don Ellis who was studying Hindustani music, developing a quartertone trumpet and composing scores for string quartet, woodwind quartet, and big band. There seemed so many ideas about what music could be.

In recent decades the divisions between classical music and popular music have widened, and I pondered the reason for this great divide. At graduate school, we came across Noise, a book by Jacques Attali, who was a French economic and cultural advisor. He cited several edicts from the Roman Catholic Church that banned dancing on church property. These, dating from 1206–1227, forced the Saturday night community dances to take place away from church grounds, and it gave new meaning to the term Country Dance. Up to that point, many of the musicians played both the dance and the Sunday morning Church service. The probably played many of the same tunes as well, but on Sunday the words were changed, and the tempos were a good deal slower. 

At this point, I could conclude that part of the ideological divide came from church fathers, not from the musicians. This made me feel a little better about things.

One day, as I waited for my daughter to finish her day at kindergarten, a fellow parent told me of some test results for her son. He had been having difficulties at school [Grade 4], and tests were given to ascertain the nature of his problem. It turned out that he was very bad at organizing information orally. He found it difficult to follow verbal instructions, but things went very smoothly for him when instructions were written down.

This made me think further about the great divide between popular and classical music: perhaps those who organized written information best drifted into classical and those who organized information very well orally drifted into the popular stream. I had a friend in high school that was dyslexic and never got very good at reading music, but he is now a very successful film and television composer living in B.C. Perhaps our brain streams us toward the written or oral systems.

Recently, I was on my way to a gig with a man who taught both jazz and classical trumpet at a prominent university. I asked him about how the two cultures were developing at the school. He quipped that hormones were dealing with it quite well. He was confident that the relationships formed at school would help, creating mutual respect and that the barriers would eventually dissolve. 

More recently, after seeing a friend’s concert I asked the violinist about her education at my alma mater. She had graduated with a Master’s degree in performance, but was finding it difficult to get enough work as a classical musician. She proceeded to develop a couple of sidelines: mariachi music and jazz. This was an economic necessity, and between the three idioms, she was getting by.

From religious edicts that separated musical styles to economic ones that integrate them, the great musical divide is a continuing story.



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