When pop is as good as classical
Yesterday's blog post about "classical buzz," in which I suggested that pop music has excitement around it that classical could use more of, got me into moderately warm water with some of my classical musician friends. Unsurprisingly, they tend to see the kind of music they do as the best. As well they should; if they didn't, they probably wouldn't be very good at what they do. I put my own thoughts about whether classical is better than other music into words several posts ago. Brief quote: "Sometimes, but not always. And in some ways, but not in all ways."
Often, when "classical is better" advocates support their position, they choose examples that tilt the scales in their favor. "A Mahler Symphony," they might say, "has to be better than the mass-produced pablum on the radio, or than a scruffy band making a deafening racket to an audience of two dozen stoners." Well, of course it is. A Mahler Symphony is also better than 99% of other classical music. And there's also pop that's much, much better than the above truly frightening examples. So this argument doesn't tell me anything.
But let's compare apples with apples, or better put, one Himalaya vs. another. Is a new CD of a Mahler Symphony better than the Beatles' "White Album?" No question, the Mahler could be glorious. It's also the umpteenth recording of the same music, and even if done better than most of them, probably wouldn't add much that is new to the annals of music. Few recordings of the standard classical repertoire do, and those rare exceptions, such as Glenn Gould's "Goldberg Variations" are just that, exceptional.
The "White Album,"on the other hand, is completely different from anything before or since. It's the crowning statement by a unique team of artists who helped shape a generation, and I don't mean just their music. It's held up superbly for 40 years and counting, and can still be listened to with the greatest pleasure and admiration. And if I were forced to do so, I would say yes, it's as good as any recording of Mahler (flame shields UP!).
OK, that's how I hear things at the most exalted level. How about when it comes to everyday music? I get lots of CDs of new classical music, and try to honor each with at least a quick listen. Most of them, I have to say, are utterly mediocre. When something stands out from the pack — what a relief! The same goes with my peregrinations through the world of modern pop, mostly of the indie-rock variety. Since I'm listening more for pleasure than business, I can be more selective. Still, rare and precious is the CD that really tickles my fancy. As did the group Deerhoof's new "Breakup Song," which came out last week. Inventive, ingenious, crackling with energy, razor-sharp in execution and filled with personality, it's a fabulous recording. And yes, it's better than most of the crappy classical music I have to wade through to find the good stuff. As to whether I've unfairly tipped the scales by comparing a top-notch pop CD with mediocre classical pieces — if it helps to illustrate my point, two can play at that game!
P.S. Speaking of glorious new Mahler, the Symphony No. 1 with Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra will be broadcast Friday afternoon on WFCR.