Classical Pop

Jonathan Bellman

Apologies for the lack of blogging.  It was an extremely active year, and the summer is continuing in the same vein—after the wonderful Hawaiian idyll, another trip to California, teaching a class, more book-related stuff, pre-concert lectures, and (to be honest) before too long there is going to be the saddest of return visits to California.  It’s the price we pay for being here.

Not sure about the future of the blog, to be honest.  We’ll let you know.

Last Chanuka, I was given an Ion turntable—a very nice little gadget that converts vinyl tracks to .mp3s.  So I’m starting with the oddities from my record collection: “Gwin” by the Ship (a Champaign, IL band), “Lakeshore Drive” by Aliotta, Haynes, and Jeremiah (Chicagoland stuff—a couple of other tracks too), other weirdness.  This evening, I started on my old Classical Pop archives—the late sixties’ classical-rock, experimental bands, from the pre-ELO, pre-ELP, pre-stadium grandeur era.  So here’s Ars Nova, here’s the Left Banke (“Pretty Ballerina,” Walk Away Renée” plus the lesser-known “Barterers and their Wives” and “Something on my Mind”), and—real obscurity now—here’s Montage (“I Shall Call Her Mary” and “Grand Pianist”), the post-Left Banke project of Michael Brown.  I mean, who except me and ten other people even knows about Montage, for God’s sake?  I was borderline obsessed with this kind of music when I was a junior and senior in high school, some years after it was recorded.  This was the seventies, remember; anything that suggested musical creativity was like water to a parched man.

So I’m listening to this material again.  My first realization is that these things were recorded very crudely, rather like old Beatles records: different instruments and voices in the different stereo channels.  So you initially think you’ve lost hearing in one ear, and then the other half of the texture comes in, you have all the instruments but no depth.  Forget the texture and recording depth, then; what do we have?

Harmonic changes and vocal ensemble writing that did not remain in the pop music vocabulary, for a start; the sorts of meta-Beatles, meta-Association vocal ensemble writing that soon became too interesting for the pop charts.  Clear attempts to capture, even for a couple of moments, soundworlds from the art music repertories: pseudo-Baroque harpsichord clinking, Rachmaninov piano thundering, and so forth.  (The Montage album even has what I think is an attempt at a twelve-tone melody in the song “She’s Alone,” which is less than successful, at least in my opinion.)  Both “Pretty Ballerina” and “Walk Away Renée” have chamber-music interludes, and the first of these even has a Lydian melody.

This was deep stuff to me at the time.  Not so much, now; it’s far less mysterious.  Blame the music major curriculum for sharpening my aural skills and historical awareness to the point that I could understand what such bands were doing.  Is it any wonder, though, that I basically didn’t want to devote time to anything else, ever?  This is Unveiling the Mystery, a peek behind the curtain.

Heaven knows what other Mysteries my vinyl collection will yield up.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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5 Responses to Classical Pop

  1. Kip W says:

    I love the 60s-70s art pop too, though I never heard of Montage before. I was at a speech meet years ago with Bob Ostertag, and as we were waiting for our event in a room with a piano in it, he showed me a twelve-tone rag he’d been thinking about. The only times I ever saw him were at speech meets, so it’s no surprise that I didn’t keep up. I wonder if he’d remember the piece today.
    I recently ripped my noisy LP of Jon Lord’s Concerto for Group (Deep Purple) and Orchestra (LSO, off the top of my head). It’s kind of fun — hokey in places, interesting in others. For some reason, the second movement fades out during vocals, which strikes me as a meathead way of doing it. I corrected this as best I could, and if I got it wrong, who’s going to know?
    Every now and then, I get a yen for some group I used to listen to on a six-transistor radio, pressed up against my head, and am surprised by things like the arrangement and the actual lyrics. Offhand, it seems I was less aware then of those electric harpsichords that gave so much brightness to the ditties and jingles. I hadn’t thought of these as classical — except in things like “In My Life,” where the solo is in a consciously baroque style — but I can see it now as part of a striving toward Art.

  2. jonathan says:

    *Concerto for Group*. Which I don’t know. I can’t even recall hearing the Electric Prunes’ *Mass in F Minor*, which I must have heard sometime. I actually owned a Baldwin Electric harpsichord for many years, though I finally sold it on eBay at my parents’ desperate behest. The Classical Rock career never happened to me, I guess–a fun dream, but I’m infinitely better suited to what I ended up doing.
    Now, I wonder if I still have my old Curved Air album . . .

  3. Lisa Hirsch says:

    I had some weirdass 60s & 70s rock LPs in the distant past, but I expect they are gone – all of the LPs at my mom’s house, which she sold a couple of years ago, got trashed. I ought to have gone through them more carefully than I did.
    Jonathan, I’m sorry to hear about the anticipated sad visit to CA.

  4. Ted Matula says:

    I broke down and bought the LSD mp3 this year, along with “Lincoln Park Pirates”–another chicagoland fave. My 3 yr old liked the latter and not the former, but I’m still hoping that he will grow up with a chicago heart despite living in SF.

  5. I wonder if these albums were done by multitracking with 2-track recorders.

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