I love classical music. It was my first musical vocabulary; I didn’t start listening to popular music until I was 14. When I grew up enough to notice that I was listening to a collection of museum pieces and not a living genre, that realization made me very sad.
But go listen to this: Michael Meets Mozart.
Now, if you’re a typical classical purist, you may be thinking something like this: “Big deal. It’s just a couple of guys posing like rock stars, even if there’s some Mozart in the DNA. Electric cello and a backbeat is just tacky. Feh.”
I’m here to argue that this attitude is tragically wrong – not only is it bad for what’s left of the classical-music tradition today, but that it’s false to the way classical music was conceived by its composers and received by its audiences back when it was a living genre.
Mozart didn’t think he was writing museum pieces…
…and neither should we. Once upon a time, classical music communicated with the popular music of its day. Composers mined the folk music they had grown up with for ideas. And ‘classical’ music was popular; adulation of its virtuosi and the electricity surrounding live performances was intense. By period accounts it is not hyperbole that Franz Liszt has been described as “the first rock star”.
The avant-gardists strangled classical music in the early 20th century precisely by driving away its popular audience, reducing it to a arid landscape of theory, manifesto, and demonstration (I have written about this before). New composition found a fragile refuge in film scores, while dwindling concert-hall audiences of the increasingly old and elite settled for museum exhibits. Some time back I wrote this:
My favorite piece of recent classical music is a particular section of Hans Zimmer’s Pirates of the Caribbean score. It combines kettledrums in 5/4 time, somewhat reminscent of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps with a wood flute being played microtonally.
I second Tom DeGisi’s recommendation of Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Their Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24 is a setting of a well-known Christmas carol that combines high-Romantic orchestration and electric guitars played with savage elegance.
Another standout from a few years back was the soundtrack for an otherwise forgettable movie called Hidalgo made as a Viggo Mortensen vehicle. Lovely classical music mixed with North African hand drums and what I think might have been griot singing.
If you notice a pattern here of co-opting modern instruments to achieve a wider tonal range, good. I have a personal fondness for polyrhythmic hand drumming. But more generally, this is what “classical” sounds like as a living genre willing to experiment rather than a dead set of museum pieces!
And this is what the Piano Guys give us in in Michael meets Mozart – straight up, not a film score but standalone music that dares us to take it on its own terms as boldly as a pop album and co-opts the language of modern popular music for its own ends. This is the sound of classical music climbing out of its grave, spitting out the goddamned embalming fluid, and kicking ass.
A while back I wrote about how moving I found Ravel’s Bolero played in a train station. The Piano Guys give me the same feeling of hope and pride. The nihilists and the downshouters and the politically-correct multi-culti zombies haven’t done for Western civilization yet, not while we can regenerate ourselves like this. And that, as much as the music itself, is something to celebrate.