What Pop and Jazz Do Classical Listeners Like?

Dear Ben,

People tend to listen to various kinds of music over the course of the day: rock at the gym, jazz on the drive home, maybe a little Vivaldi while waiting at the dentist’s office for the root canal. There’s a long tradition of mixed-genre listening in American culture: As Joseph Horowitz notes in his book Classical Music in America, opera houses in the 19th century would offer Don Giovanni together with “Ethiopian songs, choruses, solos, duets, jigs, fancy dances, etc.” Yet conversations about music always seem to take place within a particular genre. Our concept in this Slate Dialogue is to converse for a day or two across the walls of specialized taste. I write mostly about classical music for TheNew Yorker, though I’ve touched on pop. You write about various kinds of music for the New York Times, with an emphasis on jazz. You have an excellent new book on John Coltrane, telling the story of his sound and analyzing his complex place in the wider culture.

We’ll probably end up discussing the curiously parallel histories of classical music and jazz in the 20th century—in particular, the nagging problem of modernist experiment vs. audience taste. But let’s begin by switching roles. How do you and I listen to music that we don’t review regularly? What pieces in the “outside” genres seem to matter most to those on the “inside”? What in classical music, say, interests jazz people, and what in jazz or pop interests classical people?

I’m a freakish case in that I started paying serious attention to nonclassical music only in college. While all my friends were listening to Pink Floyd, I rocked out to Schubert and Brahms. Then, during a prolonged immersion in the classical avant-garde—at my college radio station, I subjected a minuscule audience to György Ligeti’s Poème Symphonique for 100 metronomes and John Cage’s Imaginary Landscape No. 4 for 12 radiosfriends instructed me to listen to Cecil Taylor and Sonic Youth, which is where my “pop” collection started. For years I steered clear of hummable tunes and polished production; I bought into the punk-modernist notion that any band selling over a thousand or so CDs was worthless. By age 25, though, I’d expanded my horizons to accommodate the Beatles and Bob Dylan.

Classical types have a reputation for being snobbish toward pop. You can find plenty of evidence to back up that characterization, but also plenty of counterexamples. In 1932, the maverick Australian-born composer-pianist Percy Grainger was teaching a music course at New York University, and one day he said to his class, “The greatest composers who ever lived are Bach, Delius, and Duke Ellington. Unfortunately Bach is dead, Delius is very ill, but we are happy to have with us today the Duke.” And Ellington and his band came in to play. In the 1950s, Gunther Schuller began campaigning for a “third stream” fusion of jazz and classical modernisms. In the ‘60s, there was much learned praise of the Beatles; the British critic William Mann proclaimed Lennon and McCartney “the outstanding English composers of 1963.” In recent years, Radiohead and Björk have won plaudits from the pince-nez galleries.

What do classical listeners cherish in jazz and pop? Invariably, a little harmonic complexity seems to get people excited: those velvety ninth, 11th, and 13th chords in Ellington; the Beatles’ habit of darkening the mood by changing major triads to minor (especially on the fourth degree of the scale); Radiohead’s way of spinning through a rich sequence of chords along a pivot tone (i.e., holding one tone steady through a series of changes). Tricky rhythms also have appeal. You’ll find younger composers studying the scratching rhythms on, say, Eric B. and Rakim’s Paid in Full—if you wrote them down on music paper, they might look like Stravinsky.

This is an eccentric canon, of course. It skirts around what makes pop pop—the kind of straight-ahead, swaggering music that has topped the charts from the Original Dixieland Jazz Band onward. Classical listeners may have an ear for a wider range of styles—I’m an unashamed fan of early Oasis as well as Radiohead—but we seem to single out the ones that overlap with classical composition. In a way, we’re looking for allies, hoping to attract fans in neighboring listenerships. Classical music keeps getting marginalized in American culture, and, like the nerd standing against the wall at the cool kids’ party, it’s always making awkward attempts to strike up a conversation. Either that or it holds itself aloof (“Who wants to go to that stupid party when we can stay home and play Risk?”). Classical snobbery and classical populism may be two sides of the same coin—the melancholy sense of not belonging. But that can also be a kind of freedom.