On “Going Classical”: Popular Music Played With Orchestras

by Thomas Brett

It seems as if there always comes a time in the life of a rock band or pop artist to team up with a symphony orchestra. Usually this involves re-arranging songs for strings, winds, and percussion. Move over electric guitar, bass and drums: we’re going classical.

Recently I saw Peter Gabriel perform with an orchestra on David Letterman. Gabriel was singing an old hit “Red Rain” (1986) and as I listened I tried to find something in this new version that improved on the old. The original track, by the way, had been meticulously assembled in the studio with top flight musicians to create a dense soundscape that was unusual for pop music at the time. The new orchestral arrangement seems a little stiff in comparison.

Here’s the original song:

Here’s the orchestral remake:

Sting has also had some of his songs arranged for orchestra:

And the hard rock group Metallica dialed down its volume a little for performances with the San Francisco symphony:

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These kinds of rock/pop-orchestral collaborations highlight two musical facts. First, pop melodies are generally different beasts from classical ones. They tend to be short and simple in structure, and rely on insistent repetition to achieve their affect. Also, they’re not usually polyphonic or lushly harmonized. This means that the orchestra’s vast instrumental resources are often wasted on pop melody’s more austere demands. Second, the orchestra and the pop music outfit are entirely different timbral beasts as well. The sonic profile of say, a string section playing unison long tones of fourths and fifths is different from an electric guitarist playing a “power chord” of fourths and fifths through a distortion pedal and an amplifier. And so timbre is not merely a musical parameter: the same notes played on different instruments can make us feel very differently. Maybe this is why pop music played by orchestras can sound limp.

So, here’s a question: why do popular artists keep returning to the orchestra–especially at later stages of their careers? Is the orchestra just a novel soundscape waiting to be explored? Or are some popular musicians on a (secret) quest for high culture legitimacy, trying to situate their songs alongside the canon of works by the classical greats? In a 2011 interview, Gabriel acknowledges the cliché of the pop musician gravitating towards the orchestra. He also thoughtfully describes the challenging process of working with one:

“The most difficult part of the orchestral project is to get it funky. You don’t have a natural James Brown rhythm section. [The orchestra] has a certain gravity to it and you’ve got to (a) nail the arrangement, and (b) nail the conducting and the playing to get it to groove in a way that I’m used to underlying my songs.”

Here is the full interview:

What we come away with after listening to these pop-classical encounters is that, whatever the musicians’ motivations, it can only be a good thing for the popular and classical idioms to continue to get to know one another, revealing each other’s sound tendencies, aesthetics, constraints and ability to make us feel something.

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