After his bestseller, “The Rest Is Noise”, Ross’s second book “Listen to This” gives “an introduction to crucial figures and ideas in classical music, and also provides an alternative perspective on modern pop”.
Triggered by reading one of the book’s chapters, “Listen to This: Crossing the border from Classical to Pop”, 200% spoke with Ross in London to understand what he considers to be the greatest examples of where Pop meets the Classics (Björk – “An Echo, A Stain”, Radiohead – “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” and The Beatles – “A Day in the Life”) and where the Classics meets Pop (Steve Reich’s minimalistic music and Igor Stravinsky – “The Rite of Spring”).
Rhythmically, it is very complicated; there are cycles of patterns happening that are constantly spilling outside of the frame over a very regular one, two, three, four beat and the multiple cycles fall on top of each other. It’s very tricky as it keeps slipping out of your grasp, but it also never breaks the mood completely either. In their music there is always this constant flux and unease and I think this is also a very significant achievement as Radiohead – whilst they are a rock band with a huge commercial career, sell-out arenas wherever it goes – they seem never contented to do the same thing over and over again. Within each song they are thinking; “ok, this has gone on long enough in a particular pattern, but let’s throw in a new element, whether it’s a rhythm or harmony, so it is constantly changing.
After the Second World War, many composers were affected by Bebop and modern jazz. In the 60s and 70s, the strongest example you had were the American minimalist composers who grew up with Bebop and Rock and Roll and wanted to find a new kind of American contemporary classical music that reflected their world. Steve Reich created pieces that didn’t sound like anything else, but when you go below the surface, you realize he is picking up an idea from John Coltrane [American Jazz saxophonist and composer] taking a very short motive, repeating it insistently and then starting to vary it. Reich also makes reference to West African music, such as rhythmic ideas. The fascinating thing is that Reich immediately had this enormous influence on pop music, on Brian Eno, David Bowie and Sonic Youth, who were definitely affected by the New York minimalist music scene and so you had this great back and forth. I think minimalist music remains incredibly influential to this day as there is a lot of electronic dance music where you hear this sort of pattern starting and you think, “Oh that’s Steve Reich”. It’s important to have a contemporary composer who grew up with pop music, listened to it, incorporated ideas from it, and then affected it, influenced it, progressing from there. For me, that’s one of the most exciting moments in all of twentieth century music – the series of influences that took place in, and around, American minimalism.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, Stravinsky felt the need for this rhythmic dynamism, to reject a romantic grandiosity, and find an energy that came much more from the ground, from the earth in a sense, and he put that into the world. That piece has gone on to have a strong effect on Jazz and Rock musicians. They may not be directly influenced but there is something uncannily familiar about it, where it feels like a progenitor of Rock and Roll or Bebop. It’s a classical piece, but it seems like a prophecy of things to come in the popular music world as well.