Is rock's roll shifting to a brand-new sound? It's too early to say. But there is evidence that new "classical" values have begun to invade the pop world. Tomorrow's disco could throb to music that has stonger roots in the conservatory than in the nightclub or the jukebox.
The trend has already begun, sparked by "new music" enthusiasts on both sides of the musicological sense. It gathered steam when Terry Riley (classically trained) and John Cale (of rock's Velvet Underground) made "Church of Anthrax," an album that sounded abrasive years ago, but now sounds full of energy and good ideas. more recently, Brian Eno has made fascinating recorded experiments -- his work with David Bowie on "Low" has strong echoes of classicist Steve Reich, while his "Music for Films" is simialar in structure to Philip Glass's musically sophisticated "North Star."
And now the momentum is picking up even more, with "serious" composers of "new music" addressing themselves directly -- yet without compromise -- to potential listeners in the pop world.
Not long ago, for example, at a Manhattan disco called Hurrah, a new group called Polyrock took the stand. Their style has things in common with the "punk" and New Wave sensiblities that have played an influential part in recent rock. Yet their mentor and producer is none other than Philip Glass, the renowned composer of such avant-garde works as "Music in Twelve Parts" and the opera "Einstain on the Beach."
After the Polyrock set, Glass's own ensemble held sway -- "Einstein at the Disco," you might have called it. And just a few weeks later, in a similar sort of space-warp, the great structuralist composer Steve Reich presented a fabulous evening at the Bottom Line, known as a major rock showplace.
In some ways, it's surprising to find composers usually labeled with such ponderous words as "structuralist" and "minimalist" holding forth in clubs usually reserved for rock 'n' roll. Yet there's a logic to the phenomenon. Glass and Reich both write music with a regular pulse, a high energy level, a lot of repetition, and a beat that can only be described as rock-steady. All these traits are commonly associated with rock in all its forms, from rhythm-and-blues to New Wave.
Glass and his colleague Kurt Munkacsi are the producers of Polyrock's first album (RCA AFL 1-3714), and Glass plays piano and other keyboards with the group. It's a good record, with consistent energy and strong harmonic notions. But most fascinating is Glass's subtlety in blending his own musical idioms with the rock format of the disc.
Consider the vocal work of Catherine Oblasney, for example. Her wordless passages have a breathtaking spareness, and yet are as forceful as anything else on the album. Airy, mysterious, used only when the time is absolutely right, her minimal vocals provide a perfect interface for Glass's rarefied tastes and the crashing strength of Polyrock's own style.
It seems clear that the rock world is just a detour for eminently serious Glass, who continues to compose largescale works and perform solo organ recitals. Yet his explorations with Polyrock are producing some mighty engaging music. And his own ensemble sounded perfectly at home in Hurrah, too, though Glass compositions generally sound best in a larger and more resonant hall. For Glass music at its most serious and sensous, his latest record -- "Dance Nos. 1 and 3" -- is highly recommended (Tomato TOM-8029).
Steve Reich's music has sounded superb to me wherever I have heard it, from Carnegie Hall to a small university auditorium. The rock-oriented Bottom Line made another excellent location, and Reich rose to the occasion with his sprightly "Octet," the more mysterous "Music for a Large Ensemble," and the shimmering "Music for Mallet instruments, Voices, and Percussion." (Two of these , the octet and large-ensemble pieces, are available on Reich's splending new disc, ECM 1-1168, which also includes the earlier and more academic "Violin Phase.") There was an engaging visual dimension to the show, too: watching all the musicians of "Music for a Large Ensemble" squeeze onto the small stage was like seeing a surreal scene from an old Marx Brothers movie.
Given his rock-oriented surrounding, Reich was wise to begin the evening with Part 1 of the astonishing "Drumming," which features percussion instruments combining dazzling rhythmic patterns. The explosive energy of jazz, rock, and "new music" mesh into an inseparable whole in this piece. As the thrilling result indicates, there could well come a time when popular and "serious" musicians all rally together, under a single -- and musicologically sophisticated -- banner.