Ryan Lott is a classically trained composer and pianist who has brought the orchestration of minimalism and chant to a new stage: a dingy TriBeCa rock venue’s basement room, where the symphony is formed electronically, and melds seamlessly to hip-hop breakdowns with the backing of a live rock band. This project is Son Lux, and the record recently released under that moniker, titled At War with Walls and Mazes, explores the possibilities of chant and meditation. At the Knitting Factory (the dingy TriBeCa rock venue in question) Lott builds on loops from his collection of sound fragments with piano, violin, and other instruments, and the repeated, fractured phrases he sings gradually pull the listener in. The eleven tracks, whose assigned titles are bookended with “Prologue” and “Epilogue,” are structurally more like motets than pop songs. “The soul of each song is merely a simple chant,” Lott explains later. He eschews the verse–chorus model “so none of the songs are actually songs in the definitive sense, in that they are not binary forms.” The live set draws from the same material, but introduces variations in tone, depending on the venue, freeing Son Lux “to explore alternate applications of these simple chants.” At the Knitting Factory, strings were replaced by heavy beats, and Lott played conductor to his laptop, then hit the spacebar and grooved like a DJ. The scene was part college dance party and part teen-idol rock concert; with the sound-responsive animation projections, it also hinted at a multi-disciplinary art happening.
The large-scale ensemble Alarm Will Sound is a semi-related case that provides some background to a persisting quandary. Their latest project situated original classical arrangements of well-known pop songs alongside straight recitations of twentieth-century classical and avant-garde compositions. To illustrate, the program of 1969’s March 22 performance at the Kitchen opened with a Stockhausen excerpt, then breezed through a few of Luciano Berio’s Beatles Songs, staged an original arrangement of Bernstein’s Mass Epistle: The Word of the Lord, returned from the intermission with an original Chamber Symphony, some Stravinsky, an arrangement of the Beatles’ “Revolution 9,” then left us with more Stockhausen. The series of earnest gimmicks is intended to remind us that the rage and excitement over contemporary composers’ use of electronic sounds and pop influences is an extension of trends that began in the mid–twentieth century, when classical composers and pop musicians became interested in what one another were doing, in the face of Schoenberg’s insistence that art not be for all.
Ryan Lott’s interest in chant and early music developed from the choral compositions of Henryk Górecki and Arvo Pärt: “Minimalist and post-minimalist music and chant were made for each other,” he says, “and well-crafted pop music often has a lot in common with post-minimalist music.” Indeed, certain works of those two composers have topped the European charts over the past couple of decades. When Górecki’s Symphony No. 3 was completed in 1976, it was a major break from the modern forms of serialism and dissonance, and the Polish music establishment dismissed him, citing intellectual weakness and indulgence of emotion. The work was largely forgotten until 1992, when Elektra produced a recording of it that went on to sell over 700,000 copies worldwide. The orchestration’s slow, haunting beauty was a reminder of whatever we once believed about the eternity of souls. The composer himself suggested, when asked about the symphony’s appeal, that perhaps he had hit upon something people were missing. But it’s the simplicity of Pärt, the Estonian composer, with works such as Spiegel im Spiegel, that actually sounds a little like pop music. And listening again to the Son Lux record, I notice that on the second track, “Break,” the piano accompaniment bears a remarkable resemblance to Pärt, with its sparse, pleasing repetition. In contrast, my initial thought about it was that the vocals reminded me of a Bright Eyes song. The next track, “Weapons,” sounded more classical—kind of like Bach—though it’s played with a synthesizer and backed by a drop beat. So here we have two composers who represent neoclassical purity and saw major success in the late twentieth century, and now influence a twenty-nine-year-old composer who claims to love hip-hop just as much as classical.
Some months ago I witnessed a lecture given by Miles Hoffman, the musician, author, and former NPR classical-music guru. The talk was incredibly lucid and informative, and just as alarming. His utter disregard for modernism, as well as his dismissal of young composers who pick and choose what they play rather than following the path of an old master—a theoretical rather than empirical approach, as he called it—were arguments he used to support the claim that the human race’s cultural peak occurred in the seventeenth century. (He also insisted we could name no better writer than Shakespeare.) One point he kept repeating, that I felt rang true in some way, was that “music gives meaning to the passage of time.” But can this only be applied to western classical and early music? And, now that we’re at it, should our art really ignore the human experience of the modern age?
It’s interesting that Lott draws from these sorts of age-old traditions rather than modernism itself, as one of Górecki’s listeners who has keyed in to something we’ve lost. And his process of plugging these modes into a mix of contemporary sounds has sparked comparisons to Nico Muhly. But because his performance and recordings have less of an acoustic element, he seems closer to Icelandic composer Valgeir Sigurðsson, who also draws extensively from Portishead. Both Muhly and Sigurðsson have participated in Lincoln Center’s Wordless Music series (which intends to build and enliven the classical audience by varying their programs with indie rock and electronica, a project that Hoffman would surely abhor). But ultimately Lott has little to do with Sigurðsson, whose sound fields are less measured, and whose forays into pop, with vocals from Will Oldham, go further than Son Lux. For Ryan Lott, listening to “Dido’s Death” from Henry Purcell’s early opera was “a spiritual experience,” and he even prefers Bach to Mozart, that outlaw poster-boy of the classical age. More interesting is the fact that his divergent creative course was partially directed from his training itself. “My first forays into pop were my lessons,” he told me. “I got heavy into studying classical music and writing concert music in middle school. But at the beginning of high school I started studying with a different teacher. I played him a bunch of my fancy compositions and he basically said, ‘I bet you can’t write a pop song.’” Lott couldn’t, at first, but he learned, and then he started a high school rock band.
In preparation for this essay, I listened all the way through the English Chamber Orchestra’s 1961 recording of Dido and Aeneas, and found it mesmerizing from the first notes. Next, I put on some of Bach’s motets, and only made it through two before I needed to shift gears and put on an old Replacements record. Think about it: In the twenty-first century, no one should listen to classical music all day. But it sure enhances the appeal of the drum machine and epic phased guitar of a song like “Within Your Reach,” and offers a hint at what these young composers might feel: the excitement of touching down from the lofty clouds of the classical age for the saccharine and vitriol of pop music. Son Lux’s hints of bass-heavy soul, hip-hop, and the ambitious/accessible Radiohead seem less like an attempt to elevate pop music (à la Alarm will Sound) than a way to have fun with what we like in the process of exploring new possibilities with classical music. “Stand,” the ninth track on At War (and the highlight for me), begins with a low-octave piano accompanying Lott’s fuzzy vocals, then adds strings and electronic sounds, building to a crescendo that is topped by an aria, followed by an electric piano that tickles cleanly over the mix, as Lott repeats a phrase over and over. The pieces on At War are themselves recognizable, but essentially it’s a new puzzle. As Rimbaud said in his dismissal of Baudelaire, whom he also drew from immensely: “The invention of the unknown demands new forms.” Listening to the Replacements’ punk, I can still hear Dido’s desperate plea to “remember me.”
DAVID VARNO's writing has appeared in BOMB, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Electric Literature, Paste, Tin House, Words Without Borders, and elsewhere.