Art, Music, Kennedy & Commerce

Art and commerce are butting heads once again, now that England's popular Brit Awards include a category for classical music. Last month's inaugural nominees included some highbrow names (Rachmaninoff, Bryn Terfel), but leaned heavily on such "crossover" artists as Paul McCartney for his orchestral forays, and classical violinist Kennedy (formerly known as Nigel Kennedy) for The Kennedy Experience, his CD inspired by Jimi Hendrix. Classical sales are still down, and record companies, one suspects, are latching onto quasi-classical popular works to boost the sector's profile. For traditionalists, of course, this shows that classical music is falling further into the cultural black hole of all things Madonna, Spice Girls, and McDonald's. They're pissed—in the American sense, that is.

Take classical music critic Cosmo Landesmann's comments about The Kennedy Experience (Sony Classical SK 61687): "The point of Jimi Hendrix and that kind of music is not to find inner depth. You cannot transform the Hendrix sound upon a violin, you end up with a terrible mush." What kind of "inner depth" is Landesmann looking for? Is it really absent from popular music? Are pop and classical two separate worlds of music, complete with different kinds of feeling, intelligence, and depth?

It's easy to be a snob (writes the audiophile), but don't do it Landesmann's way. If "that kind of music" couldn't possibly have the musical depth and integrity of Bach's or Mozart's, that could only be because Hendrix and other pop artists lived and worked in the late 20th century, a time far removed and isolated from the golden age of classical music. As a product and expression of his times (what artist isn't?), Hendrix wouldn't have noticed the value of classical music if it bit his arse through his velvet bell-bottoms.

That's not true, of course—Hendrix reportedly listened regularly to Bach, Mozart, and Handel. But even if you grant the premise, it would follow that all popular musicians are trapped in these times without hope of appreciating or participating in the great classical tradition. One problem: As long as Landesmann and other critics of popular music live and breathe, they, too, are trapped in the here and now. One can pretend to be an emissary from the past, in touch with higher musical values and standards, but Landesmann's own argument says that's just posturing. Either we're all hopelessly trapped in these shallow artistic times, or Hendrix might indeed have made a mark in the grand tradition, and Landesmann just doesn't see it.

Of course, music critics didn't invent this notion of a "golden age" of art, or the complaint that present times don't measure up. The classical renaissance and rise of humanism in 15th-century Europe were all about recapturing the (supposedly) lost wisdom, art, and technology of Antiquity. Judeo-Christian traditions share beliefs about Eden and the decline of humanity, and new-age devotees have a thing or two (or three) to say about ancient, forgotten truths they claim to have rediscovered. The myth of the golden age dies hard.

Things would be less muddled in this debate if those who are aghast over the Classical Brit Awards could travel in time and visit the pasts whose art and culture they so adore. For when you get past the nostalgia and wishful thinking, the splendor of past times usually evaporates. Yes, the ancient Greeks invented science and astronomy, architecture and epic poetry; and they left us graceful buildings and statues (suitably dilapidated in our own time) to instruct us about all they had achieved. But were you there at the time, any historian will say, you'd be shocked at the slavery, brutality, and rigid class distinctions. As for those pristine, white statues that symbolize for us a highly developed (and very "deep") love of form and composition, in their own time they were covered in paint—skin, eyes, clothes, the whole bit. To the modern eye, they would have looked...cheesy.

In some ways, the golden ages of classical music were similar to our own "popular" times. Those who patronized Bach and enjoyed his music, for instance, were élites—members of royal courts. Of course, with radio, LPs, and 45s, far more people heard "Purple Haze" in the late '60s than the Brandenburg Concertos in the early 1700s. But Hendrix's patrons—those who bought the LPs and concert tickets, who had the luxury to tune in and drop out for a few days at Max Yasgur's farm, who made "that kind" of music commercially viable—they were élites, too.

"Oh, that's just sociology," traditionalists will say. "We're talking about the music. Unlike 20th-century pop stars, the great masters crafted layers of meaning and structure into their compositions—they're deeper, to be listened to carefully." But did your typical 17th- or 18th-century courtier sit quietly, rapt in the music like today's highbrow audiophiles or critics, and murmur "Ah, 'tis indeed the golden age!"?

Take Alain Corneau's film about the early music composers Sainte Colombe and Marin Marais, Tous les matins du monde. I heard Jordi Savall's soundtrack first—a wonderful-sounding recording (Travelling/Auvidis 4640) that was Stereophile's "Recording of the Month" for May 1993. The music is simpler and less gymnastic than most Baroque concertos, for instance—some pieces have a militaristic beat pounded out by an actual drummer. Still, you can hear embryos of the forms and techniques that the great German and Italian composers later developed. It's compelling and, yes, deep.

But in the film (which I assume is historically accurate) you'll see courtiers dancing, drinking, flirting, and having a grand old time to this profound music—good luck trying to complain that the guy next to you is coughing or snoring during your favorite movement. Replace the wine with Heineken and the fashions with euro-black, and you could mistake these 17th-century scenes for an A-list party in the Hamptons. These classical music lovers were partying! Were the year 1969, a turntable might have been spinning Are You Experienced?

So what? Landesmann would say. If audiences of the 17th and 18th centuries didn't conform to our modern conventions, that doesn't reduce the depth and integrity of the music in question. No, it doesn't. But it shows that the solemn and serious attitudes we invest in classical music are our own. The epic that defines the tradition—its apotheosis in Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, its decline (if only a little) in the 19th and 20th centuries (who, after all, would give Copland the nod over Bach, or Bartók over Beethoven?), and these perilous times when Yanni or the Classical Brit Awards may smother it all—that's our story, not the music's own.

By itself, the history of classical music is a huge mess. Uncountable performers and creators did their own things in their own times and places. Our epic story, on the other hand, was written mainly by musicologists and historians who stood on the sidelines of all this activity. They parsed it into categories, styles, techniques, and trends that enable them to do their thing—to discuss, criticize, analyze and (hopefully) understand music and culture. There's nothing wrong with that, except when critics demand that music conform to these abstractions and after-the-fact narratives, instead of the other way around.

Time usually rectifies this mistake. Hendrix's performance of "The Star-Spangled Banner" at Woodstock may seem trivial to the classical purist. It has no real place, one might say, in the history of Art with a capital "A." But in 50 or 100 years, I bet, it will seem no more out of place than John Cage's famous piece from 1952, "4 Minutes and 33 Seconds," which consists of nothing but silence, or at least whatever sounds occur in the performance space during for that length of time. Hendrix's performance will be in the music-history books too, if only because it sounds better.

It's not that the lines between classical and popular music are blurry. It's that these lines are our own. They exist in our heads to help us organize and understand centuries of musical activity. Composers and performers know that. They're the first to transgress these boundaries and, like Ralph Vaughan Williams or Aaron Copland, draw on folk or popular melodies. Yo-Yo Ma and, from the popular side, Elvis Costello have also been bending genres recently.

Reenter Kennedy. After taking the classical world by storm with his playing and his punk haircut, he's put together an ensemble with bass, oboe, cellos, flute, and acoustic guitar to play Hendrix. But The Kennedy Experience isn't just arrangements of Hendrix's songs à la the Kronos Quartet's version of "Purple Haze." These compositions are only loosely based on the originals (though Hendrix, oddly, gets the composer credit). Unless you know Hendrix pretty well, you might not even hear his ghost floating within some of them.

Kennedy's violin is his 21st-century reply to Hendrix's Fender Stratocaster. It does suggest the erotic intensity of Hendrix's guitar-playing, but no matter how impressive and fiery Kennedy is, something's not right. Like an accountant who puts on shiny new leather clothes to drive his Harley-Davidson around town on weekends, Kennedy is posing. His stiff, formal precision, impressive though it is, doesn't absorb and embody his inspiration. He's square.

But when I practice what I've just preached to Landesmann and put away my preconceptions about what Hendrix's music should sound like, the CD makes more sense. It actually sounds better, too. Kennedy seems to be asking, "What would have happened had Hendrix's melodies bounced around in Brahms's head the day before Brahms wrote his Violin Concerto?" Some of his answers are striking, and Kennedy's take on "Little Wing" is beautiful. The sighs, wonder, and longing for Hendrix's psychedelic angel emerge from entirely new sounds. "Third Stone from the Sun" sounds like Ravel's Boléro as Hendrix might have written it. It rocks.

This CD replies to Landesmann far better than I can. By making kernels and themes of Hendrix's songs sound natural in these quasi-classical compositions, the disc has an ecumenically Aquarian feeling that Hendrix would have loved. It speaks to that moment some 30 years ago when Hendrix (not Clapton, thank you) was God, heaven was full of astronauts (as Joni Mitchell put it), and magazines brimmed with the first photographs of our big, blue stone drifting through space.

From that point of view, Kennedy's project is hardly brazen or iconoclastic. Nor does it seem terribly wrong that music like this, or even traditional classical music, should be fêted with a popular awards ceremony. For you can see, literally, that our blue stone doesn't show any of the divisions between musical styles and traditions that fuel this debate. The different kinds of music we've invented are so obviously crammed together on that little planet that they have no choice but to live, evolve, and interact with each other. There may seem to be a world of difference between Hendrix and the great masters, but there's really just one world.