Lest We Forget
Date: Wed, 28 Aug 1996 11:18:54 +1000
From: Jeff Gower
Now this is a really interesting point, and one that I've wondered about too (being something of a classical music fan myself). At times I've wondered which late-twentieth century composers will be played by the orchestras of the 21st century, in the way that today's orchestras play Brahms and Wagner and Mahler from the late 19th. My money is on the film composers - after all, that's where the classical composers are actually earning their crust these days, writing for film. I mentioned the Richard Harvey guitar concerto a while ago - Harvey's a film composer. One could also think of Michael Nyman, Ennio Morricone, John Barry, John Williams (Star Wars etc.), James Horner, Danny Elfman, etc.
That may seem sacrilegious, but today we listen to scores for stage plays written by 19th century classical names like Mendelssohn and Sibelius, so why not film scores? And, yes, today's Broadway musical could become tomorrow's opera - Puccini, after all, was looked down upon in his day much as Lloyd Webber is by some today (I prefer Puccini, BTW).
I wouldn't assume that composers like Glass and Reich will be listened to a hundred years hence just because they've spent a lifetime doing 'serious' work; that's no guarantee. They may be remembered, sure, but then it might just be for one piece, just as there are many 19th century composers remembered (sometimes unjustly, given their lifetime of composing) for basically one piece. And Morricone has as good a chance of being remembered for The Mission as Glass has for - well, what's everyone's bet? Koyaanisqatsi? And - just maybe - as Mike has for... The Killing Fields!
Outrage! Scandal! Well, maybe it's possible, maybe not. What I do think is that if Mike really did want to write for posterity, the odds could be better as a film composer (and if TSODE really had been a film soundtrack, it might have sold better).
That said, I've always wondered what might happen if some truly gifted classical composer took to scoring some of Mike's best work for orchestra - would the work survive as part of the classical repertoire? I think some of it could, particularly from what I've heard of 'The Orchestral Hergest Ridge'. I wouldn't rate OTB's chances highly - I don't like Bedford's score much - but I'd be extremely interested to hear an orchestral version of 'The Lake', which I think would translate extremely well, as would much of Incantations. Unfortunately, I don't think either Ommadawn or Amarok would translate particularly well.
But even if Mike's 'classical' output consisted of nothing more than an orchestral HR, The Lake, and a suite from the Killing Fields, I'd say that would be a pretty impressive legacy - comparable to an Elgar or Vaughan Williams, at least. When people like Gorecki look set to be played for many years on the strength of one work, there should be no reason why Mike couldn't be (before anyone thinks I'm slighting Gorecki, I love his 3rd symphony). And that, in turn, could be enough to keep the back-catalogue of Mike's own recordings alive long after he was gone.
Enough of this pipe-dreaming. Any classical composition students (or actual composers) reading this, get to work!
Date: Fri Aug 30 12:44:59 1996
From: Richard Wentk
Not from me. What I said was said in the context of a brief aside about classical music. I don't listen to classical music alone - it constitutes about 15 to 20 percent of my (large) CD collection. If I listen to anything above all else these days, it's alternative/indie rock, preferably Australian or British (with a few American honourable mentions, e.g. Luna). However, I do love a lot of classical music too, and ninety-five percent of rock music can't provide the particular kind of uplifting and awesome moments that a full orchestra belting out a Sibelius or Brahms symphony can. (Of course, the five percent of rock music that can provide such uplifting moments includes just about all of Mike's best work.) Rock music can do other good things, naturally enough, most of which an orchestra can't match (just as a full orchestra can't do what a string quartet can).
Obviously I disagree with this.
Obviously I do to.
What's the point? It has a legitimacy all its own which doesn't need any further cultural propping up.
The point is this: it doesn't need propping up now, while Mike is alive and still producing new music to keep drawing in new fans (as he certainly did with TBII, and with the occasional hit single like MS). It doesn't need propping up while there are still plenty of people around who remember when it was a huge hit. But in fifty or a hundred years' time, there is absolutely no guarantee that people will be listening to Mike's original recording of TB, let alone the more obscure works like Amarok (much as I hate to call my favourite single piece of music 'obscure'). I doubt that many original recordings from our day will still be played a hundred years from now - not widely, anyway. Not even the Beatles. (Think of how exceptional the continuing high sales of their records are - and this is only thirty years on.)
What I don't doubt is that much of today's music will persist - played by others. Why are cover versions so popular? One may prefer Smokey Robinson's 'Sitting on the Dock of the Bay' to Michael Bolton's (I sure do), but which would you really have expected to be the bigger hit in the late 1980s? And what about all these new dance versions of 1970s disco hits? Upcoming generations of young music-listeners don't all want to go back to the original; they'll appreciate a good tune, sure, but they want to hear it in their own musical language.
Which is where orchestral music comes in. It's almost all cover-versions: interpretations and reinterpretations of music that's been played for a century or more. And the advent of recordings hasn't substantially changed people's will to reinterpret anew. Just because I can listen to Karajan's 1960s cycle of Beethoven symphonies doesn't stop me from listening to Norrington's take on them today.
I'll take a punt and say that cover versions are in fact the best hope for most of today's composers (rock, classical, whoever) to be remembered in the long term. (There will be exceptions, I'm sure - and I hope so, because I hate to think that the Beatles' recording of 'A Day in the Life' won't live forever - but I'm talking in overall terms, and given Mike's fairly low profile I'd have to include him.) Now, if you were to predict what kind of people would cover Mike's music in the future, what would you guess?
I'd say that some of his songs and shorter pieces will (or at least could) be covered by small bands or solo artists - much as we have seen already (take a look at the discographies, and what do you see? Moonlight Shadow, Foreign Affair, and the first few minutes of Tubular Bells). But his longer pieces won't be - no way. What four-piece band would release a cover of Incantations in its entirety? Or even Crises or The Wind Chimes? Would a gifted solo instrumentalist reproduce Amarok? If they were that gifted, surely they'd prefer to do something of their own. No, the best hope for the longer pieces is to be played by a large orchestra - because large orchestras exist, on the whole, to play longer, more complex pieces of music (written by someone else, because you're hardly likely to get a successful collaboration out of 100 composers).
I make no judgement about what the orchestras of the 21st century will be like. I'm sure they'll contain instruments that aren't familiar to us today (or aren't accepted as orchestral instruments today), just as Bach would be surprised to hear his work played on a grand piano. But I'm prepared to repeat my claim (or my guess, if you like, which is what any prediction is) that if Mike's longer pieces are being listened to in a hundred years' time, it's more likely to be in an orchestral concert of some kind than in their original recordings.
I can appreciate the genius of Stravinsky, Shostakovich, and many others, but it's worth remembering that for every outstanding piece of music they created, there are maybe ten which sound like treading water and rarely get played. I suspect this is true for all composers.
That's exactly the point I was making in other parts of my post, and it's as true of Mike as anybody. I really don't believe that people will be cranking up 'Bones' in 2057, unless they're doing a search through an archive...
Date: Tue, 3 Sep 1996 09:20:10 +1000
Sigh. Looks like it's me carrying on my thread of one, with one or two brave souls chipping in. Oh well, I guess it doesn't really matter whether future generations listen to Mike or not, but it's still diverting to wonder if they will...
From: James Kirkhope
I suspect your Elvis estimate is a tad generous for people outside the US, but yes, I agree about the Beatles - they're the exception that proves the rule, up to a point. But remember that we're still only thirty years on from those recordings, and I was wondering about a hundred years on (and the 99.9 percent of music not recorded by giants like the Beatles and Presley).
Going back another 10-20 years and you've got George Gershwin and Irving Berlin (here in the States anyway) and chances are many would have heard variations on these popular composer/song-writers as well.
Read my post again, Jim, and you'll see that that was exactly my point. Listened to any George Gershwin original recordings lately? If you have, you're in an extreme minority. However, the chances that you have listened to his compositions (i.e., his writing, not his performance) are much greater. That was my whole point.
Even the 'pop' ie popular music format prevalent for at least 60 years now is pretty well established.
The music is now popular culture and the musical canon.
Therefore, short pop songs by their format alone will not fade from musical or cultural history.
Not in a hurry, no.
As long as Muzak, jazz and "traditional minded" composers remain, themes from popular music will be drawn upon for great "classical style" music for centuries to come.
I know. That's what I was discussing.
I hope so, but I wouldn't bet large sums of money on it.
Arguably his repetitive, minimalist style intro to TB influenced a generation of film scores to tie in with an earlier post and will likely by lifted, adapted, and/or arranged in a variety of classical pieces composed from this era or in the future by composer trying to catch a certain mood that was utilized so well by MO.
For those who still aren't with me, put music to one side a moment and think of stories. Anyone read Jonathon Swift's 'Gulliver's Travels' lately? No? I'm not surprised. On the other hand, you might well have seen the mini-series adaptation with Ted Danson in it - just as you're more likely to have seen the recent Hollywood version of 'Diabolique' than the brilliant 1950s original by Clouzot. The originals may be superior, but in most cases the audience demands a fresh-looking product. Most cases, not all - there will always be some classics that stand so tall that they persist (but Jesus, they've even colorized 'Casablanca'!). And the originals are still there - hell, there's all sorts of obscure centuries-old books in the libraries of the world, but how many people read them today?
Likewise, how many people in 2096 will be cranking up 'New Women of Ireland', the storming dance-floor remix of Voyager's stand-out track? (I haven't heard it, I'm just being sarcastic.) Not many, I'll bet. And not many will be listening to much original Beatles music, either - by which I mean original recordings by the Beatles. (Lennon-McCartney compositions, on the other hand, could be a different matter entirely.)
Is this really so outrageous a thesis? We don't listen to ragtime much these days, do we? Or those hits from the Second World War? And yet they're fifty to a hundred years old, the exact time scale I'm speculating about. Sure, we're familiar with them - we know what they are - but they're not widely listened to in their original form, unless it's via the soundtrack of a period film. I'd say the same is true of an awful lot of music from the 1960s and 1970s as well. Yes, there are die-hard Jefferson Airplane fans out there, but I don't hear 'White Rabbit' on my radio too often these days.
However, Beethoven, Brahms, Vivaldi - their compositions are alive in a way that many pop composers' no longer are. They're still listened to, via contemporary performances. And that's what I hope can happen with Mike's music - that others like it enough to keep reinterpreting it. We may all go on about how 'timeless' Mike's recorded ouevre is, but I listened to 'The Wind Chimes' last night, and it's already sounding dated to me - it's got the 1980s written all over it, because he was using 1980s instruments. On the other hand, this morning I listened to 'Ommadawn' again, and it still sounds fresh (although 'On Horseback' sounds as hippie as it gets). So maybe there's hope for some of Mike's original recordings to be revived in the future. But then, I don't see 'Ommadawn' breaking any long-term sales records these days, do you? In order for something to last, a lot of people have to know about it and value it. I know we do, but five hundred on a mailing list is hardly a Kiss Army, now is it?
I'm giving this a rest now, folks; I don't want to bore you to death with it all. But neither do I think it's a waste of time to give these matters some passing thought. We can't spend our whole time on the list analysing 'Incantations' down to the last note and bagging 'Voyager'!
Date: Tue, 3 Sep 1996 10:14:11 +1000
From: Richard Wentk
Glad to hear it! I'll happily take all the credit!
I feel I'd better provide just a little more justification for my statement above (just a little... I promise... no, keep away with that straightjacket...). It probably comes from my longstanding research interest (and the subject of my Ph.D) in tradition, and culture generally - how it's transmitted, how it's passed down.
Music was originally something that could only happen live. Then people started 'recording' it by writing it down. Then they started making it by writing it down before it was performed. Now we have mechanical systems for recording, creation and playback (multitracking and MIDI), which mean that people (like Mike) can make music they couldn't make before.
While I believe that systems of storage and recording do complicate the process of the transmission of tradition/culture more than in societies where they don't exist (not that there are any of those any more), I don't believe that they change the basic fact that societies continually reinvent themselves, and in the process shed a lot of their old culture, keeping only a 'core' (tradition), which also changes but rather more slowly.
The books/films discussion in my last post will have illustrated this a bit more. Books are of course a very old storage medium, and we have access to many old books, but that doesn't mean we surround ourselves with 12th, 15th, or 19th century culture. We might access parts of that old knowledge from time to time, but it hardly makes up the bulk of what we read. I believe that the same happens with music - we can see this effect already in the 20th century (as I said, we don't listen to much ragtime these days), and I see no reason why the people of the late 21st century will all be on a retro 1960s-1990s kick. The kids of today aren't reading Oscar Wilde and sipping absinthe, are they? Sure, some people will listen to some of our music - I just think it'll be highly selective, and certainly theirs will be a musical environment we wouldn't, on the whole, recognise.
So increasingly music is being made with the help of technology. And unless we have an attack of Luddite mania, I can't see that changing any time soon.
I hope you're not assuming that anything I'm saying is a Luddite reaction to technology, because it's not (I don't think you are, Richard, but I just say that to make my position clear).
So I'm not convinced by the orchestral cover idea. That's partly because of the economics of it. It takes a lot of time and money to get an orchestra together, rehearse, hire a hall, and so on, and I can't see music which wasn't orchestral to start with being transcribed into an orchestral form because of it.
Um... yeah.. but then why do we have any orchestras at all, if they're so prohibitively expensive? And a lot of non-orchestral music has been transcribed into orchestral form before. Plenty of 19th century composers wrote orchestral arrangements of their national folktunes. (And people like David Palmer today make a career out of conducting orchestral arrangements of rock music - Pink Floyd, Queen, etc.) If people think the music is worth it, it can happen.
It may well be that no-one thinks Mike's music is worth adapting for orchestra, in which case I don't think his longer pieces would be played in the future, full stop - for the reasons I gave earlier (i.e., what solo artist or small band would cover 'Amarok'?).
But it's also because my guess is that recordings will end up being archived on the net, so anyone can download them, both as recordings and as the equivalent of MIDI files.
Sure, why not. And in a hundred years the Net will contain 1,000 googolbytes of recorded music that anyone can listen to, and no one will have the slightest idea where to start when listening to it all, so they'll start with what's popular at the time (their time, 2057 or whenever) and branch off from there, listening to music at the same old boring and predictable rate of 60 minutes' worth per hour, and in a lifetime's listening they may never end up working their way back to the original recording of 'The Lake', even if they might have liked it if they'd found it.
Yes, recordings do add an extra element to the transmission of musical culture, but the basic process is the same - culture keeps changing, and stops for no one and no thing, and most people take the culture of their day as their starting point - they don't go back to first principles all the time, ploughing through archives and trying to recreate the past. If you doubt that, think about how most of us learn history. Where did your knowledge of the events of the First World War come from?
And so on. Yes, you know something about the First World War. But you know practically nothing compared with someone who lived through it. And for most people, that's no big deal. Sure, some will want to know more, and will become historians, and will plough through archives and try to really know what it was like - but most won't. As a society, we're never going to relive that time. Similarly, as a musical society, we're never going to relive the 1960s or 1970s (and if you think Golden Oldies radio stations disprove that, tell it to the kids at any rave).
Rant over. You can put those straightjackets down. (Now, doctor, about the padded walls in this room... I think I'd like them painted a nicer shade of green, please... and I don't like the soothing music on the P.A. Can you change it to 'Afghan' on permanent loop?)
Date: Wed, 4 Sep 1996 10:05:38 +1000
From: Richard Wentk
To an extent I'd agree, but I wouldn't discount the musical reasons entirely!
Here in the UK the Covent Garden opera house is a place to flaunt your money - the tickets are far too expensive for the peasants to afford.
I'm not sure if this is quite as true elsewhere, but they're certainly a minority taste, sure.
Now obviously this doesn't apply to film music, and I think what's happened there is the way that people have been taught to associate orchestras with 'serious important' music from an early age. So an orchestral score carries more weight by default, as it were, even if the music itself isn't particularly interesting. (Which sometimes it isn't.)
I'm sure you've got something there, too. But if so, will this perception change in a hurry? Such traditions can be remarkably persistent (one like this would be self-reinforcing). Western-style orchestras will be around for a long while yet, I suspect - just as Indians will keep playing the tabla.
People will learn as they do now, by personal recommendation.
Yes, precisely. And what others are recommending to them will mostly depend on what the prevailing musical tastes of the day are - which I've been saying all along.
And anyway - how is this different to the situation now, where you go into a big record store and there are kerzillions of CDs from people you've never heard of?
Not very different. And do you plonk down your cold hard cash for any of those CDs? Every now and then I do (on the basis of a review, or a sideways mention from somewhere) and more often than not I'm disappointed. And so, yep, I rely mostly on radio and personal recommendations - i.e. the prevailing tastes of the day.
I love this diversity, and I hope it continues. It's a lot of fun watching music reinventing itself all the time.
I couldn't agree more.
Studio and production skills are now just as important as being able to arrange a string section.
Ok - so we won't have lots of orchestras in the future then? :-)
I'll readily admit that the orchestras of the future may look pretty strange to our 20th century eyes, with all sorts of new instruments supplementing the standard strings etc. But it could just as easily be the reverse, with orchestras remaining overly conservative - John Williams has spoken about how the acoustic guitar is still only grudgingly accepted as a 'proper' orchestral instrument by certain stiff-necked types.
Date: Fri, 6 Sep 1996 12:07:12 +1000
Oh, now come on :) - are you saying that it's not an extreme minority taste? You'd have to accept that only a minority of music listeners are Gershwin listeners - and only a minority of those would listen to the remastered-from-78s recordings of the man himself (or, yes, 'Gershwin: The Piano Rolls', which I own and listen to once in a while). Or do you hear the boyz 'n' the hood playing 'An American in Paris' on their ghetto-blasters?
What's so disturbing about the thought of being part of a minority that you have to try and convince yourself that it's not really a minority? I feel damn pleased to be part of the extreme minority of all music listeners that appreciates 'Amarok'.
>Anyone read Jonathon Swift's 'Gulliver's Travels', lately?
Sure, much of it is - of course I wouldn't argue against that. As I've said, I'd take the B&W 'Casablanca' over the colorized version any day - and I absolutely refuse to even watch the Hollywood version of the brilliant Dutch film 'The Vanishing', for fear that they've ruined the ending! But that doesn't mean that more people aren't familiar with the Hollywood version than the original.
(BTW, I guess that you prefer TB over TBII ;)
I think there is a quiet but powerful group of people who are open-minded enough to appreciate the the sheer brilliance of original work in any medium, and who will always look beyond the surface for the content. Who is this "the audience" anyway?
Everyone who isn't part of that minority of 'quiet but powerful' people. There's a quiet (maybe not so powerful) group of people who prefer cordon bleu cooking over fast food, too, but I don't see a worldwide chain of French restaurants crowding out the golden arches. So what? Again, what's so hard about accepting that one's tastes are minority tastes?
>And not many will be listening to much original Beatles music, either.
Who on earth can predict what the tastes of the future will be? The reasons why you love the Beatles' music could be exactly the reasons why others hate it - as we have seen in our list-members' many conflicting opinions over just about everything Mike's ever done. As for no cover version coming close to the original, if we applied that as a hard and fast rule we'd have to refuse to listen to half the music the Beatles recorded before 1965. I refuse to accept that their versions of any of their recordings are the 'last word' - as I think has been brilliantly demonstrated by their own Anthologies, there's always another possible take on anything. We just don't know what lies in store. There might be a band out there right now recording what will become known as the definitive version of 'Taxman'. There might not. Who knows?
>We don't listen to ragtime much these days, do we? Or those hits from the Second World War?
Yes, I must admit that I'm amazed by the enduring popularity of Glenn Miller and the Andrews Sister with the under-16s. And you just can't walk down the street these days without tripping over some baggy-trousered student jiving to Vera Lynn's 'We'll Meet Again'. But what really gets me is that the pundits haven't acknowledged Harry James's incredible unbroken run of 2500 weeks on the Billboard charts. I reckon it's all those Pink Floyd fans rigging the numbers so that 'Dark Side of the Moon' stays on top. ;)