Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal



composer's corner

grooves

April 23, 2007

Dear readers,
back to one of my favorite musical subjects: rhythms originating in Jazz, Funk, Rock & Roll, Pop, World Music, Electronica etc. – in short, grooves! Due to my musical background as a jazz musician I love them and, for my money, why shouldn’t everyone else? But before I say more in their favor, let’s first take a look at a larger aspect of our musical reality.

I think that all of us involved in the concert music world (audiences, conductors, performers, composers, orchestra managers etc.) can agree that there is one demographic segment that we’d like to see more of at concerts: the so-called “younger generation”.

The question we eternally seem to ask ourselves is: “How can we make our product (classical and contemporary concert music) more attractive to young listeners?” To pave the ground to an answer to this, let me quote from my article The Power of Groove:

“Let’s first see which kinds of music are popular with young audiences. Pop, rock & roll, electronic dance music and to a certain degree jazz and world music seem to be the winners. What is it that is so attractive about these musical styles? Could it be the melodies? In many cases yes, but if you take out melodies you still have styles like Drums & Bass or Ambient which many young people love. Could it be the lyrics? Also a partial yes, but there are many examples of very popular instrumental tunes. How about attractive harmonies? Yes again, as proven by the Beatles or Sting, but there is much successful one-chord work being done, particularly in the world of Techno.

After all, could it be the rhythms? Ballads aside, try taking the groove out of, say, an up-tempo Top-40 hit and see what you’re left with. Nothing!! Much of the music described above simply doesn’t work without the power of the groove that drives it! Without groove this music collapses. Try Guns & Roses without the backbeat, Charlie Parker without the swing, Tito Puente without the clave – instant failure! And this, to me, indicates that rhythm, in the form of grooves, is the most powerful component of what draws young audiences to their favorite music!”

I’m convinced that a good groove is the #1 musical attractor of young audiences, whether they’re aware of it or not. Therefore, as part of a solution to our present problem, wouldn’t it be logical to make the integration of grooves in our concert music world a priority? (And no, I’m not talking about Pops!).

Sadly, classical music is the only major kind of music in Western culture to have avoided dealing with rhythm seriously (rhythm equaling grooves, not complex 5-over-13 constructions). Pop, rock & roll, electronica, jazz and related musical styles have all embraced grooves and are being rewarded for it. The classical education system so far has not provided for groove-training, neither for performers nor composers (not every rhythm works as a groove…). Classical performers who are able to groove have acquired this skill “on their own time”, so to speak, by practicing out of interest or by being exposed to groove-oriented music in recording studios.

In my ideal view of the future somebody graduating from one of the respected conservatories would have the skills to have an equal shot at getting work with the New York Philharmonic, Chick Corea’s Elektrik Band or Sting.

And how, in my opinion, should concert music of the future sound? Again, a quote from The Power of Groove:

“I’d like to think of it as Lutoslawski having a chat with the members of Weather Report, Schoenberg being an honorary member of the Buena Vista Social Club, or maybe Elliot Carter sporting a BT T-Shirt!”

If that happens, let’s see if young people start showing up at classical concerts!
GW

4 comments

What a groovy essay, Gernot. You're right of course. But Orchestras can't swing as an ensemble. John Adams once asked for the orchestra to swing in Century Rolls - and took out the instruction after the first performance. The back beat is the focus of evil in modern music. The Devil In Music not the tritone as you and I were taught in school. Far too many people in our culture can only identify with music if it has that heavy Thump Thump Thump.

Thanks for your comment, David! I agree with you on the subject of swing. It doesn't work in orchestral settings. In chamber music it can work under certain circumstances, but even then I don't like it for aesthetic reasons, it sounds too much like imitation. The grooves that I'm after are straight eight- or sixteenth- notes ones, and those work really well in chamber music settings - as long as the idioms of the specific instruments are taken into account! They also have a very good chance of succeeding in orchestra situations, especially since most percussionists these days are at home both in the classical and the groove- oriented musical worlds. In defense of the Thump Thump Thump - I respond to it as well I like listening to Metropolis on KCRW, but my hope is that future concert music will be able to provide a sophisticated environment for it... there is much more to say. Look forward to your response.

  • —Gernot Wolfgang, May 01, 2007 11:43 am

Interesting essay, but I personally don't go to a classical music concert to hear grooves. I enjoy all the grooves you mention, which is why I prefer to hear something different from classical, especially in orchestral music. It would be a very boring musical world if ALL music were based on rhythmic grooves. Classical music explores so much amazing sonic territory -- the melodic and harmonic textures, the development of themes and variations, etc. I feel sorry for people who can't open their ears to such beauty because it doesn't go "thump thump thump." Let's teach kids how to HEAR classical music on its own terms, instead of trying to change the music.

  • —Anonymous, May 11, 2007 06:38 pm

Dear Anonymous, thank you for your comment! When I talk about grooves, I am certainly NOT advocating underlaying all musical activities with them ... I agree with you that this would be boring. What I'm after is to add grooves to the list of compositional devices already established in contemporary concert music, and to give them equal standing among the elements that you mentioned. A groove section following a slow contrapuntal passage, for instance, might be a welcome and attractive change of pace within a piece. To address the issue of "thump thump thump - when translated into the concert music these kind of rhythms always turn up more subtle and varied than the original that's what I'm looking for, anyway. This has to do with the available instrumentation - a duo for bassoon and cello just isn't as powerful as a rhythm section with bass and drums - and also with the idioms of the specific instruments. What sounds good on an electric bass doesn't necessarily work well on a bassoon. Some adaption is necessary, but if done well the original rhythm will be present by implication, with the added sophistication of the chamber music genre. The percussion section of a full orchestra would certainly measure up in terms of power, but again the translation, if done idiomatically, that's the key! will wield colorful results and - I'm pretty certain of that - satisfy the ear of the classically trained listener. Anyway, my point in all of this is that by adding grooves none of the beautiful and sophisticated elements of classical music would have to go out the window. GW

  • —Gernot Wolfgang, May 13, 2007 07:47 pm

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