Bridging the gap between classical and pop

April 6, 2015

You’ve heard Chilly Gonzales before. Whether his video masterclasses explaining the hooks behind catchy pop songs have cropped up on your Facebook feed, or his song “Never Stop” was stuck in your head as the theme song from Apple’s 2010 iPad commercials, or you’ve listened to his collaborations with Daft Punk and Drake, Gonzales (born Jason Charles Beck) has probably brought his pop-classical fusion style into your life.

Gonzales recently released “Chambers,” an album that integrates contemporary pop with Romantic-era style chamber music composed for piano and string quartet. The album’s style is part of his grander scheme to bring down the barriers between musical genres – or at least the pretentiousness behind those barriers. Regardless of genre, he’s a fan of interesting music with a verse-chorus structure.

“Chamber music foretold the music of today – it WAS pop music,” he said. “Couldn’t it be again?”

The classically trained Canadian pianist won a Grammy for his collaboration with Daft Punk on their latest album “Random Access Memories,” but he has difficulty attributing the award to his famous key change between a song in B minor and the next in A minor. “I am not alone in knowing how to negotiate a key change,” Gonzales said. “Maybe the difference is that I understand classical and pop.”

There’s a fine line between the worlds of classical and pop music. And when you straddle it, neither audience ends up satisfied. “Chambers” is guilty of exactly that: reaching too high for pop audiences who miss out on the theoretical eccentricities, but ending up dismissed by the classical world as “pure pop,” Gonzales admits. But through his video masterclasses and live performances, he hopes to turn pop listeners into classical appreciators. And maybe along the way, he could change the boundaries that we’ve instated between the two genres.

In his video masterclasses, Gonzales studies a piece of pop music and dissects it for its unique quality. In Germany, Gonzales tells his audience, these pop songs are called “earworms.” In each song exists an alluring component of genius, often derived from classical theory.

“Whether it’s in the context of a bubblegum princess you secretly want to hate, or whether it carries the official stamp that it was in some German textbook, both of those are irrelevant,” Gonzales said in a Q&A with Stereogum. “It’s not high art or low art to begin with. It’s that music that’s considered low art and music that’s considered high art are very similar and use the same tools. That’s my message.”

Gonzales harps on the point that listeners should never feel averse to or intimidated by classical music. It’s a societal distinction – not a musical one – that keeps younger generations at bay. “It must be some childhood reaction to the fact that we were told this was high art,” he told the Leader-Post. “It’s the reason we’re all nervous when we go to a concert hall. It’s a feeling of too much respect. We can’t take it on its own terms.”

Take Taylor Swift: she’s a perfect example of that “bubblegum princess you secretly want to hate,” someone an indie snob or a classical aficionado would see as void of talent and saccharine-sweet. But Gonzales reassures listeners that there are always going to be more similarities with music and culture than there will ever be differences. “Sometimes [audiences] say, ‘Yeah, but it’s not like Taylor Swift knows what music symmetry is.’ I’m like, ‘But that’s the point! It’s universal!'”

Gonzales believes the same basic methods of music writing have been reinvented for centuries, and surely they’ll stick around for centuries to come. If that means Taylor Swift’s bubblegum pop is here to stay, so be it – it’s really not that different from the classics, after all.

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