Can Today\’s Rock Become Tomorrow\’s Classical?

Preface: For the following article I have chosen The Hampton String Quartet® as the premier example of a classical string quartet that plays arrangements of rock. There are other chamber groups who have, at one time or another, played covers and/or arrangements of rock music, but The Hampton String Quartet is the only group and certainly the first to have made a career of exclusively playing rock music with a repertoire that spans Led Zeppelin to The Beach Boys, Hendrix to Jethro Tull and The Beatles to The Who. Kronos (an arrangement of “Purple Haze”), Apocalyptica (four cellists who play arrangements of Metallica), the Balanescu Quartet (interpretations of Kraftwerk tunes), The London Symphony Orchestra’s “Symphonic Music of the Rolling Stones”, The London Philharmonic Orchestra’s “Symphonic Led Zeppelin” and the more recent “String Tribute to Tool: Third Eye Open” – Piotyr Jandula (who has also contributed to the two CDs “The String Quartet Tribute to Led Zeppelin, Vols 1 and 2) are examples of other classically trained groups who have, on occasion, ventured into rock.The Hampton String Quartet® (HSQ®) is fond of saying, or explaining (as the case may be), that it is doing just what classical composers such as Bach and Beethoven did – borrowing from the folk music of the day and integrating that folk music into new, larger works.

What is the folk music of our day? The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition defines Folk Music as “originating among the common people of a nation or region and spread about or passed down orally, often with considerable variation.” Perhaps a little updating is in order as technology has rendered the “…passed down orally…” part unnecessary. The folk music of our day is passed down via CD, TV, radio, and the Internet, etc. The part of greater import of the definition is “originating among the common people.” When HSQ arranges and performs a Led Zeppelin tune, where is the folk music? In an article written by Susan Fast (Listening to Led Zeppelin: Ritual, Otherness and Body in the Music [forthcoming] and published in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 2nd edition), she reports, “In addition to blues and folk music, traditional Arabic and Indian music were important influences [in Led Zeppelin], found in such works as Friends, In the Light, Four Sticks and especially Kashmir, which pushed musical boundaries….” Although re-inventing Led Zeppelin for classical string quartet is twice removed from the music’s more traditional folk music origins, it no less captures the contemporary music of our day – rock – just as Bach and Beethoven did in their day (Ode To Joy from the ninth symphony, for example).

Now for the big question – will HSQ’s rock/classical compositions be studied and performed one hundred years from now as we do Brahms? Certainly the students in the future will instantly recognize the origins of each work (HSQ gives credit to the underlying works – something Beethoven didn’t have to do). Absolutely, the students of the future will have recordings of the music actually being played to aid in interpretation, but will it garner the studious affections of academicians and journeymen such as they now bestow upon Stravinsky? The answer to this question is, of course, who knows? Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps got a pretty bad reception on first hearing and many notable great works have also fared less than favorably at their premiers. Similarly, the Tool tribute album, the all-cello Apocalyptica endeavors and the London Symphonic’s Rolling Stones’ interpretations received less than stellar reviews. Now, let us not mistake these observations as a suggestion that a popular arrangement of California Girls (HSQ after The Beach Boys) might someday rival Beethoven’s Ninth – I won’t even go there – but I do suggest that the trained embodiment of tried and true folk (rock) songs can legitimately bolster the great archives of classical compositions and further the development of new artistic modes of expression. In much simpler language, some rock is here to stay.

The Dirty “R” [rock] Word

How about publishing these works for posterity and offering them for sale along side of Haydn’s string quartets? Walking the unpopular road always takes courage – enter Mona Lisa Sound (MLS) – the publishing arm of HSQ – and others who want to risk being looked down upon by the classical cognoscenti. HSQ and MLS have gone one step further than just playing rock by publishing HSQ’s arrangements as sheet music for all to play. On a recent foray into a prestigious and well known classical retail sheet music dealer in NYC (by appointment), MLS spoke to a representative there about stocking MLS scores and got the quintessential classical response to any sentence uttered that contained the word, “rock”: “No, goodbye – not interested”. “Perhaps you would like to look at the score I hold in my hands here two inches from you before rendering judgment.” “No thanks, goodbye – ain’t gonna do it – not gonna happen.” The Juilliard School Bookstore manager wouldn’t even grace MLS with his presence (after several phone calls and an impromptu visit). Now, if you have ever been in The Juilliard School Bookstore, you know that it is so small, the manager had to be hiding under a table. This, even though he was aware that I had spent 10 years in Juilliard prep, that the other three members of HSQ are all Juilliard graduates and that the composers/arrangers are members of one of the largest selling string quartets in history (over 1 million CDs sold on RCA) – not to mention having been nominated for a Grammy. Goodness – such power this word “rock” can wield! Can you imagine if the military got hold of it?

All sarcasm aside, the songs of (most notably) Led Zeppelin and Hendrix, The Beatles, Stones, Kansas, Jethro Tull, and The Who do have lasting power in their own right. Having been authenticated by the touch of the classically trained hand, these tunes come into their own in a fresh and newly accessible way. They certainly strike a chord at HSQ concerts – standing ovations always prevail and, interestingly, for some very different reasons. The audience member of eight years old may see instruments he or she doesn’t recognize (i.e., not guitars or drums) playing music he or she recognizes and conversely, the audience member of eighty years old sees instruments he or she recognizes (violins, etc.), playing music he or she doesn’t recognize.

Some critics have likened this music to Bartok; HSQ’s arrangement of Black Dog by Led Zeppelin has no less than 96 metric changes. The Battle of Evermore is played with guitar picks on cello, viola and violin, raising some eyebrows when the cellist cradles his cello across his knee like a guitar (HSQ likes to explain to the audience that this is a good way to make a $200,000 Vuillaume sound like a $100 guitar). Similar reactions occur when Kronos uses feedback in live performances of Purple Haze.

Schubert vs. McCartney

One case in point is my arrangement of The Beatles’ extremely lighthearted work, Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da (see illustration). Above all arrangements I have written for HSQ to date, this one most exemplifies what HSQ is all about, i.e. – the meeting of Rock and Classical styles. What better contrast and challenge than to combine the Beatles tune with one of the heaviest and darkest of classical works, Schubert’s Erlkönig. After stating the Schubert theme, I give the McCartney/Lennon melody equal billing and gradually move them until they are both vertically superimposed in a duel. I inject a little Beethoven (6 bars from his ninth) for good measure which becomes a false bridge allowing the music to move seamlessly back into the Schubert – two very different musical periods flowing one into the other. After both wreak havoc on the other in a rhythmic juxtaposition of the syncopations in the first with the triplets of the second, I allow Schubert to win (by a slim margin) in deference to the great composer. Although, if the tag is chosen in performance, the Beatles get the last laugh.

What’s Wrong with Enjoying the Concert?

Concertgoers to this music have a great time, simply put and always true for over 15 years. No programs to study and no 1st and 2nd movements you dare not clap after. The evenings are fun and challenging and Led Zeppelin never sounded so good (how’s that for snobbism?). Upon closer scrutiny, most (but not all) of HSQ’s works are not just fun – you must go beyond that – they are substantive and passionate (let me be the first to admit, a few are more like covers). For illustrations of rock transformed into classical music, take a look and listen to HSQ’s versions (published by Mona Lisa Sound) of Babe I’m Gonna Leave You, Dazed and Confused, Friends (instruments in this one are detuned), Over the Hills and Far Away, Stairway to Heaven, Blackbird, Black Dog, The Battle of Evermore, I Will (theme and variations), Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da (with added Schubert’s Erlkönig), Jingle Bells (con Berlioz), Silent Night, God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen (complete with Fugue), Bach Chorale #21 (a/k/a American Tune) and Scarborough Fair/Canticle (enter Vivaldi). One other work, and the only one not arranged by a member of HSQ, is a beautiful arrangement of White Rabbit (Jefferson Airplane) from HSQ’s third RCA release, What if Mozart Wrote “Born To Be Wild”, and which was featured in a film of the life of Baba Ram Das.

End Note

Broadening one’s artistic palette often involves some risk – but such is growth. All new ventures by their very definition involve charting uncharted waters. In the words of one such folk hero, the challenge is “…to boldly go where no man has gone before….” Perhaps HSQ and MLS are the Star Trekkers of today – maybe yes – maybe no – only time will tell.

Mona Lisa Sound, Inc.
1-877-787-9505 (toll free)
© 2003 John Reed

[Photos and ilustrations, from top to bottom: 1) The Hampton String Quartet®, 2) Led Zeppelin circa 1968, 3) Brahms, 4) Jethro Tull in the 1970s, 5) Schubert.]