My haphazard introduction to Western art music (also known as classical music) came outside my childhood home, where such music was alien.
My fifth-grade teacher, Mr. Sellers, was a fan. He played Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Dvorak and other 19th-century Europeans on the classroom phonograph during study and quiet time.
Most of my classmates ignored it, but this strange, dark music spoke to me, somehow. I started spending my allowance on the 99-cent classic LPs on a little rack near the checkout at the local Ben Franklin store.
I remember hearing dime-store Tchaikovsky, “Rhapsody in Blue,” Music from the Royal Fireworks and a sort of easy-listening version of Liszt favorites through the four-inch speaker on our Westinghouse portable in the basement.
Thus began, in 1958, a lifelong adventure with a musical tradition of inexhaustible breadth and beauty.
I’d recommend that tradition to anyone. It’s good for your ear, it’s good for your brain, and it’s good for the soul. But how would a kid—or for that matter, an uninitiated adult—find a way into this tradition today? Where would one begin?
At least since I was a kid, music educators tried to interest their indifferent charges with vividly orchestrated narrative or pictorial works: the “William Tell” Overture (You know, the “Lone Ranger” theme); von Suppe’s “Light Cavalry” Overture (Chaaaarge! ); “Scheherazade”(Pirates! Genies! Shipwrecks! Harem girls!); the “1812 Overture” (Cannons!); and the like.
I like that stuff, but why not start with music that isn’t so old?
With music that is rooted in the tradition but also connects at least a little with modern popular culture?
My idea is to sell art music not so much as a grand tradition at which we must kneel, but as a wildly varied, living thing that is busily absorbing life in the third millennium.
Toward that end, here are some selections that relate to modern culture but also point to roots in music history.
Amy X Neuburg: “Residue” album. Neuburg is a composer, electronics wizard and an extraordinary singer.
Hear samples: www.amyxneuburg.com
Pop-culture reference points: stand-up comedy, punk rock, electronica, jazz
Where to go from here in music history: Baroque opera (Monteverdi); Mozart’s operas; Renaissance vocal counterpoint (Dufay, Ockegem, Gesualdo); post-modern European music (Louis Andriessen, Arvo Paert)
Steve Reich: “City Life,” especially section 1, “Check It Out.” Consonance and pulsation, which most people regard as key ingredients of music, fell out of fashion in art-music circles for 50 years. Reich was a key figure in bringing them back. He likes to record the speech of ordinary people and loop it to create rhythm patterns.
Hear samples: www.stevereich.com
Pop-culture reference points: rap, African drumming, jazz
Where to go from here: Late medieval mensural music; post-moderns (Terry Riley, Philip Glass, John Adams, Michael Torke)
Astor Piazzolla: (1929-1992) grew up with the tango in Argentina, went off to study in Paris and returned to Buenos Aires to bring new levels of passion and technique to the national dance music.
Hear samples: www.amazon.com (try his “Soul of the Tango: Greatest Hits)
Pop-culture reference points: TV’s “Dancing with the Stars,” the pan-Latin bolero song style
Where to go from here: the passionate 19th-century Romantics, e.g., the violin music of Nicolo Paganini and Eugene Ysaye, the chamber music of Johannes Brahms, Beethoven’s piano sonatas. Outbursts of counterpoint in these tangos also point to the fugues of Johann Sebastian Bach.
Kamran Ince: “Arches”. This Turkish-American composer, based in Memphis, is a favorite of Milwaukee’s Present Music. Most of his work alternates between outrageously raucous and achingly beautiful. “Arches” leans toward beauty.
Hear samples: www.kamranince.com
Pop-culture reference: Ince is a fan of the film composer Ennio Morricone, and the influence of the scores for “A Fistful of Dollars” and other spaghetti westerns is plain to hear.
Where to go from here: The sensual sonority of “Arches” is a great lead-in for the French Impressionists, starting with Debussy and Ravel.
George Gershwin: “Rhapsody in Blue”
Hear samples: www.amazon.com
Pop-culture reference: “Rhapsody in Blue” spearheads Gershwin’s agenda of blending jazz language into the classical tradition (and vice-versa). It also points toward many practices and precedents in the Western art-music tradition.
Where to go from here: Liszt and Brahms borrowed from local musical vernacular, as Gershwin borrowed from jazz, for their Hungarian dances; see also Bartok, Kodaly, Enesco.