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Bach to Basics

Greg Hart

About a year ago, a former girlfriend asked me why this town seemed so culture-less. She's from Los Angeles and is the sort of girl who likes to dress up and go to the ballet. "In L.A., people our age get dressed up and go to the symphony; you'll see as many young adults there as any other age group," she said (or something to that effect).

Although I never took her to the symphony, that stuck in my head. My parents made me study classical piano when I was young enough that my protests weren't sufficient to keep me from it. It was a good five years or so of classes and practicing and recitals, which I detested then but came to appreciate once I was older.

Because of that young exposure to classical music, I learned to read music, learned the terminology, and gained a better understanding of the mathematics of music than I would have without it. I know what a cadenza is (the portion of a classical work where a musician gets to improvise, though within classical music, you're expected to adhere to the composition pretty strictly).

It all sounds stuffy and tight-assed to adherents of popular music. You don't catch many punk rock dudes or hip-hop kids listening to the classical station (89.5 FM KBAQ, if you're curious). But people ought to pay more attention to classical music for a couple of reasons: It's the basis for just about every musical idea still employed in popular music, and its sheer durability dwarfs anything that's been written during your lifetime. I doubt that, in a hundred years, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" will be remembered or played.

If you don't believe that you're still hearing remnants of classical songs that are 300 years old, consider these examples: Green Day's "Basket Case" uses chords like those in Pachelbel's "Canon in D major," and Oasis bites some Pachelbel as well in "Don't Look Back in Anger." Shit, even My Chemical Romance sounds like Pachelbel's "Canon" on "Welcome to the Black Parade." Actually, you'll hear Pachelbel's "Canon" in lots of places; Coolio even uses it in "C U When U Get There." There are even more examples of rappers using quotes and ideas from classical pieces — LL Cool J's "Dear Mallika" is based on the opera Lakmé by Léo Delibes, and the Beastie Boys sample a version of Rachmaninoff's "Prelude in C# minor" in "Intergalactic." Tenacious D has used Bach, as has Xzibit. En Vogue set several songs off its Masterpiece Theatre album to classical tracks, and in a fit of obviousness, Bright Eyes' "Road to Joy" is based on Beethoven's "Ode to Joy."

Minutiae, like those examples, aren't what's important about classical music, though. Classical is really a higher form of music, both in its composition and its execution. It may sound boring to ears used to hearing Fall Out Boy, but with the complex interplay of the chords, and in a symphonic setting, the instruments produce sounds far beyond what pop groups are doing.

In that vein, we've got one of the best examples of classical music's intersection with popular music in what DJ Radar's done with the ASU Symphony Orchestra and at Carnegie Hall in New York, integrating turntablism with classical music in his "Concerto for Turntable." (If you're interested in learning more about Radar's classical endeavors, check my columns "Radar Love" from September 29, 2005, and October 12, 2006.)

If you don't think classical music's exciting enough to listen to, you ought to listen to Wagner's Ring Cycle, part of which is in the annihilation scene of Apocalypse Now, when Robert Duvall's character, Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore, wants to take a village so that he can surf the breaks there. Especially when it comes to operas like Wagner's, the shit can be as dramatic and dark as it can be soft and sweet.

I still haven't hit the symphony up except for seeing Radar's performances, but I don't share my ex's conviction that this is a cultural wasteland because the hipster kids don't dress up and go to Symphony Hall. Nor am I espousing the belief that you're culturally ignorant if you don't realize the impact of classical music on modern popular music, nor am I saying that if you play in a band, you ought to at least know the terminology. I think that most musicians would be greatly benefited by knowing some basics, but if you don't, that's cool with me.

I just think that if you haven't indulged yourself in some rudimentary knowledge of these compositions, some of which date to the 1400s, you're missing out on a fuller appreciation of music, as a whole. I listen to a wide variety of genres of music (pretty much a job requirement), but I wouldn't have the same appreciation for any of them if my parents hadn't embarrassed me by forcing me into half a decade of classical piano lessons.

I include myself when I think that younger generations ought to check out the symphonies, and ought to indulge in classical music more than we do. It may be a bit staid and stuffy, but if you truly love music, the rewards are there for the taking.


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