In Defense of Pure Music

I’m sorry if you’ve read this already. I posted it on my other blog over the weekend, but I think it’s an important point to be made, so I wanted to post it in a more high-traffic area. You all know I love both pop and classical music. I frequently inflict both upon you. I hate to be told that one of my loves is more essential than or superior to the other, as a blogger from Rosebrook Classical suggested last week. Let’s be clear (though most of you already know this), I am not choosing a side here. I am choosing both sides and neither side.

I feel as if I owe you all an apology. I’ve spent the last two weeks transcribing an interview I conducted in London several months ago and haven’t had time to post any reviews. Once you’ve read it, though, I think you’ll forgive me. At 7,500 words, it is rather epic, which is precisely why I am not apologising for the recent lack of activity. No, my sin was committed over a year ago, when I was given an hour with Shara Worden—one of the brightest lights in American music—yet failed to pursue the most interesting topic broached in our time together: the idea of pure music.

Immediately following our meeting, I thought I had done quite well, especially for my first ever interview. Of course, that was a long time ago, before I had fallen in with ne’er-do-wells like Greg Sandow and Anne Midgette and become a card-carrying member of the alt-classical movement. Then again, at the time, I didn’t expect to read something like this:

We estimate (complete speculation based on no fact) that 75% of “pop” musicians (not necessarily the songwriters) don’t read music, and an even larger percentage (even including pop songwriters) have never studied music theory. We say this not to seem snobby, but to bring up the next point.

Pop music is written in less musically complex manners due to the inability of pop musicians/songwriters to create music in a studied way.

~ Rosebrook Classical blog

Likewise, I never expected to hear such absurdist speculation called “intelligent” by people I respect and who (I think) respect me. (Actually, “absurdist speculation” implies a degree of self-awareness in the author. In this case, it’s more like polemical condescension.)

[If you need to take a moment to let off some steam, punch a pillow, or swear a bit, I completely understand. Just try to keep in mind, they don’t intend to “seem snobby”. We will reconvene momentarily.]

Now, if you’ve been brave enough to read the offending post from the beginning, you may have picked up on the author’s “reason” for launching an unwarranted attack on feckless simpletons like Emilie Simon (Medieval Music, La Sorbonne; Electronic Music, IRCAM), Owen Pallett (Composition, University of Toronto), and Dave Longstreth (Yale). (Hint: It’s money.) And, I will grant that the initial question of the “discussion” is an interesting one. Why any form of music be granted non-profit status or given the benefit of government funding? Unfortunately, rather than exploring the issue, the author (I don’t know his name, but I think I heard someone say “David”, so I’ll be using masculine pronouns) resorts to repeated rehashings of his thesis: “I’m not saying classical music is better, but, seriously, we all know it is…”.

Of course, had he conducted more (or any) thorough research, he probably would have noticed the myriad examples of national governments that support classical AND pop music, including Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Canada, and the UK. However, it appears that, for the kids at Rosebrook Classical, talent is a zero sum game and only one genre can lay claim to it. How fortunate we are, then, that their presticogitateur-in-residence has had the wherewithal to explain the inherent ineptitude in my choice to write about under-appreciated pop bands rather than the 186 recordings of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in D minor, K. 466 currently on the market.

It’s the creativity, don’t you see? Classical musicians have it. Pop musicians don’t, at least not in the high concentration classical musicians do. After all, as we learned earlier, “pop music is written in less musically complex manners due to the inability of pop musicians/songwriters to create music in a studied way”. He’s probably right, of course. I mean the Antarctic field recordings Emilie Simon sampled and modified for Marche de l’Empéreur were all naturally occurring, as were the plant and water sounds she used for Végétal (my pick for album of the decade). And that’s not creativity, that’s stealing! After all, “creativity must be learned and fostered as much as anything else”.

Wait. Creativity is learned? No one ever taught me that!

But didn’t Sir Ken Robinson once say “we are educating people out of their creative capacities….I believe this passionately, that we don’t grow into creativity, we grow out of it. Or rather we get educated out of it.”? (In case you’re wondering, yes, he did, in his legendary TED talk “Do Schools Kill Creativity”, which you can watch below or on the TED website). But seriously, who cares what a world-renowned expert on innovation and creativity thinks about creativity? After all, @RBClassical (the ultimate authority) knows quite well that assigning names and rules are the building blocks of creativity, not intuition. Surely you don’t require any further explanation, but indulge me for a moment.

I was speaking with a friend—a translator—this past week who was telling me about her first experiences in translating, a gloriously delicate art if ever there was one. She explained:

When I was doing my M. Phil, I joined a translation course…because I was already a translator…and I thought it would improve my skill. […] I found that [my colleagues] translated by dealing with words as things, …whereas I would come up with the apt word instinctively. […] The outcome of that course was that…I couldn’t translate for almost two years. It had made me…too self conscious to do anything.

Of course, I don’t mean to deride education. As many of you already know, I have an advanced music degree (which is apparently why I will never be accepted or appreciated by pop musicians) but there is a lot to be said for intuition—more, in fact, than can be said for rules and systematization. Intuition is the reason why, though we followed the same rules, J.S. Bach composed his magnificent Chaconne in D minor while all Bethel Schiefer and I could manage was Canticum graduum (read: absolute rubbish).

I am beginning to realise that if I actually try to address every one of my grievances, this post is going to run about 15,000 words, so I’ll leave things to Shara Worden, and a brief extract from the interview we did last year. You remember her from My Brightest Diamond. She’s one of those stultifying pop musicians who doesn’t think about anything, as evidenced by her comments about writing her most recent album, A Thousand Shark’s Teeth:

At the beginning of the writing process for Shark’s Teeth, I was listening to a lot of Boulez and so I was trying to write songs—more so trying not to be prescriptive of the songs, not dictating the form of the songs. Allowing the harmony to take it to a different place, or not having repeated choruses or kind of trying to find different ways of setting the text, so in a certain way the text was more important, the texts and the harmonies were the priorities. You can see that with songs like “Goodbye Forever” or “If I Were Queen”.


The thing I am interested in now is rhythm, and so I don’t know if there will be many strings appearing at all on the next record. I’ve been trying to define my harmonic language, so now I’m really excited about finding a rhythmical language.

If you haven’t yet, I suggest you read the interview. There’s a lot of that kind of thing in there. And afterward, if you’re still interested in what real pop musicians think about when writing music (rather than what defensive classical music bloggers think they’re not thinking about), read the Emilie Simon interview.

Division is the last thing I want from all of this. When I first pitched the idea for The Indie Handbook to Kristin, I did so with the expressed intent of addressing classical and pop music on equal terms, because there is no superior music. And the offending blogger gets one thing right: that “if the biggest reason for Arts subsidization is fostering creativity, then the advancement of the Arts themselves should be the most important creative endeavor to support as a society”. Unfortunately, the Arts are not advanced by defensive diatribes aimed at cementing one aesthetic preference firmly atop a pedestal. The higher you build your ivory tower, the further you’re carried from the Music of the Spheres.

Now, let the musicking begin.


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