Pop music has an image problem.
It faces claims it’s devoid of heart and skill, a vapid product of greed rather than love of art. They’re probably correct – studies show a decline in musical complexity as a genre becomes more successful. That makes sense, right? You’ll never see Schoenberg in the Top 40.
Some claim “real” music is extinct or on the brink. Pop musicians are supposedly talentless hacks appealing to the broadest of dull emotions; true musicianship in modern artists is drowned out by melodic drugs without substance.
I don’t find this argument convincing. The quality of modern pop is a frequent point of contention, but music as a whole is far from dead. Never before have we had such wide platforms for new music and the ability to discover niche interests so effortlessly. Taylor Swift and David Guetta may dominate YouTube viewing figures, but for those who wish to find it, music of all styles and complexities takes up the space between. The Complete History of the Soviet Union, Arranged to the Melody of Tetris would never have been possible pre-internet, and new artists publish their own work every day to a potential audience of millions (shameless plug).
There’s clearly a divide between the perceptions of those who create popular and “proper” music. Ludovico Einaudi presents an intriguing exploration of both perspectives.
The Rift in Opinion
The Italian composer Einaudi achieved global fame as a composer of simplistic piano pieces. His name may be unfamiliar, but his music won’t be. It’s featured in films, TV and advertising. Top Gear uses his lilting melodies as accompaniment for car reviews, the BBC features one of his pieces in an advert for their culture programming, and his albums top classical music charts.
He’s kind of a big deal. His eyebrows also do the Mexican Wave.
Einaudi’s appeal is his ability to craft sparse but expressive atmospheres. Some hail him as a genius for his evocation of profundity through sound, a modern Chopin painting hypnotic pictures of love and loss with a piano. These opinions aren’t baseless – he’s received multiple awards, notably an Oscar nomination for one of his soundtracks. In an era when the public’s perception of classical music appears to be waning, Einaudi is often worshipped as a saviour.
But even the barest examination of his style will leave you wondering why. Owing much to pop and folk, it’s built around repetitive chord sequences with modulation and variation sometimes nowhere to be seen. Many pieces share the same progressions. Stylistically it’s difficult to be less complex.
A vocal minority despise Einaudi. Classical music aficionados will gladly cast him in the same mould as pop musicians, along with the (in their opinion) monotonous modern classical music of Hans Zimmer and Yiruma. This post alone displays every criticism of his, ‘Dreadful meandering nothingness’ with, ‘No development, no emotions, just empty repetitive drivel’. ‘He’s a pop star. End of.’
The rift in opinion is staggering: some revere him as a deity, others take righteous pleasure in dismantling his godly pedestal. Why?
I’ll admit it: I’m a massive Einaudi fan.
The echo chamber of the internet shielded me from negative opinions until recently. As far as I was concerned, everyone accepted his status as a genius.
Notable exceptions were opponents of classical music as a whole. To many, the thought implies boring, outdated pastimes for old people, in the same way the elderly think all electronic music is for antisocial yobs with no appreciation for art. My grandfather, a former music teacher who listens to nothing but classical, is fully supportive of my compositional efforts, though I think he’s a little disappointed by my reliance on synthesizers.
Reviews for Einaudi’s album Islands were my first glimpse into a less optimistic world. Buried within the five star ratings were a few signs of dissent. One iTunes reviewer wrote, ‘This album is an exploration into the monotonous twangy tracks that have a common bond of being exceptionally dull.’ Another described it as, ‘Quite the most depressingly boring stuff I have yet to hear. Looking at some of the other reviews makes me wonder if they’ve been looking at the Emperor’s new clothes!’
This review is the pinnacle of such criticism. Whether legitimate in its denunciation, it’s mired by a condescending tone arising from a frustration at others’ seemingly baseless infatuation with Einaudi.
I have a close connection with Einaudi. I’ve briefly mentioned my piano performances in posts of yore, but my first was Einaudi’s I Giorni. Two truncated rounds of applause when the audience thought I’d finished in the piece’s middle cadences were followed by a standing ovation when I had actually finished. Pretty well received.
I Giorni is my favourite piece of music in any genre. Einaudi wrote it after a trip to Mali, inspired by a folk song mourning a murdered hippopotamus. The piece ebbs and flows through beauteous states, a river gliding forward in glistening struck piano strings, a serene evocation of the wonderful state of existence until reaching its final ethereal summit.
Or, if you’re not an Einaudi fan, it’s a predictable bore pretentiously disguising a pop song as something mysterious and important. Its structure in pseudo-song-like, the bass arpeggios frequently play the same degrees of the scale, and the chord sequence of the “chorus” is so ubiquitous in modern music it’s spawned parodies. In a word, it’s simple.
Simple has oddly contrasting connotations. For some, simplicity in music suggests a lack of effort and creativity, whereas others take it to mean a departure from bombastic naval gazing. Perhaps the snobs should be ignored: complexity shouldn’t be the driving force of appreciation, emotion should. Or is that leaving the door open for lazy, derivative drivel?
There’s a difference between simplicity and laziness, and minimalism highlights it.
Classical music in the 1950s and early 1960s was in dire straits. The first half of the twentieth century saw popular forms like jazz, blues and rock steal its audience, while classical musicians were dead set on extracting even more obscurity and complexity from their work. This was the age of classical avant-garde, an era of disconnection from reality and pursuit of the pure art initiated by the rise of expressionism. The canonical classics of Mozart and Beethoven were still popular, but contemporary classical had lost its marbles. John Cage’s 4’33” from 1952, a piece of music famous for not being a piece of music, stands as testament to how ridiculous it all got. Classical music had gone underground.
This was until the arrival of Steve Reich. At first glance, Reich’s music sounds just as aloof as his predecessors. A piece consisting of two people clapping? An hour-long pulsing pattern with a blandly self-descriptive title? Surely this is just the same nonsense all over again?
But Reich appreciated something other avant-garde musicians did not: simplicity. Cage sometimes found himself in the same boat, but more often than not he was the deranged captain ordering piano strings to be hit with dead fish or tubas to be worn over someone’s head. Reich was still exploring the possibilities of music but without the obscure baggage.
Piano Phase, while taking a non-conventional route, is easy to follow. Electric Counterpoint, a load of recorded guitars playing the same phrases out of time, has the evocative progression and emotion of a symphony.
As an aside, Reich was one of the first to experiment with sampling. The Beatles and others took this idea, made some of the other avant-garde tendencies more palatable, then spearheaded a revolution in popular music. Sampling went on to spawn entire genres like hip-hop, as far removed from stuffy elitism as you can imagine. Classical invaded pop from the inside.
Few can dispute the monolithic importance of minimalism, but it’s still by definition simple. Take an idea – the drifting in and out of time of two short piano phases – apply it to something, and that’s it. Several minutes coloured by not much. The obvious response is that the consideration of the idea in the first place is the revolutionary part, the execution little more than its demonstration.
Minimalism continued to grow, encompassing work identified by its sparseness rather than its revolutionary nature. Philip Glass and Arvo Pärt are placed in this category despite having little to do with the intellectual considerations which inspired Reich. Minimalism today implies a drive to delve into the deepest human emotions with as few notes as possible, typified by Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel.
Einaudi is described as minimalist, irritating many. His work has the hallmarks of minimalism but is assumed not to involve the same effort to create. Legends of Pärt say he spends hours at the piano playing a single note to get exactly the right feel. Is it Einaudi’s fame that erases any similar opinion of intellectual devotion, or something else?
The core reason for the hate might not be Einaudi’s style, nor his fame. Maybe anyone who praises Einaudi is engaging in some sort of cultural appropriation. Do I actually enjoy listening to what is essentially pop dressed up as something respectable, or is it really a subconscious need to feel superior that drives me to buy his albums? Below his YouTube videos you’ll find commenters decrying the state of popular music and the rest of the world’s unwillingness to engage with such beauty, creating their own faux-snobbery around him. It’s elitism all the way down.
He’s a fraud then. His music’s value as music is irrelevant because its popularity is solely due to fake emotion. He reuses structures and harmonies out of laziness. The only reason anybody listens is to experience the superiority of a non-popular genre. Those who says otherwise are making an excuse, even subconsciously.
So how can I defend this scoundrel and his explorations on a theme of blandness?
Beneath the Surface
I quite like Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht. It’s one of his earlier pieces, closer in style to Mahler than the later work he’s famous for. It foreshadows his movement towards the ordered chaos of expressionism, but it’s not complete sonic lunacy. Why did he and other composers abandon this style? Some were likely spurred on by innate desires for rebellion and scandal, but these grew from the opinion that conventional music had exhausted all possibilities.
Arvo Pärt began his career following in Schoenberg’s footsteps. Given the output he’s famous for, this may come as a surprise. Pärt became frustrated with all music and abandoned it altogether for several years, seeking salvation in the Orthodox Church studying plainsong, a primitive choral form. Plainsong is known for being hauntingly beautiful, even with the limited theoretical understanding of medieval composers. When Pärt returned to composition, he eschewed the dissonance, the chaos, the frustration, in favour of serene beauty, simplicity. The Estonian rejected music steeped in intellectual grandeur in favour of unadulterated emotion, achieving not just fame, but a spiritual connection with listeners.
A surprise to some, Einaudi has a similar story. He studied under Luciano Berio and Pierre Boulez, pioneers of electronic music and proponents of serialism. Berio encouraged Einaudi to listen to all forms of music, nurturing a love of rock and pop (including The Beatles’ sound experiments).
Out of this melting pot came not ultra-experimental explorations of musical minutiae, not awkwardly unlistenable voyages into the avant-garde, but ‘Dreadful meandering nothingness’. I find it poignant that these composers went to the edge of musical intellectualism and decided pure human emotion was a more rewarding avenue.
Einaudi was influenced by his teacher’s attitudes. Repetitive piano ballads are his most popular export, but when you examine his musical output there’s more than meets the eye.
He achieved stardom with Le Onde for solo piano. He followed up with Eden Roc. Most pieces fit the stereotype, but on occasion more exotic flourishes appear, such as the traditional Armenian instrumentation of Yerevan. By 2011, he’d developed his current reputation, not helped by the release of Islands, a compilation album shunning his more exotic moments and exemplifying the “trite” piano and strings pieces.
2013 saw a shift in direction with the release of In a Time Lapse, adding electronic soundscapes. 2015’s Taranta Project is an album of works composed for La Notte Della Taranta (The Night of the Tarantula), a festival celebrating Mediterranean folk music. Created in collaboration with several Mediterranean, African and Arabian musicians, it displays significant contrast with his usual style in some places. Pianos still abound in the spider-inspired soundtrack, but they’re interwoven seamlessly with tribal percussion, choirs, electric guitars, Arabian strings and plenty more. Yes, there are sections of solo piano typical of his mould, but there’s also an aura of experimentation many would have you believe Einaudi doesn’t possess.
Critics might argue he’s therefore wasting his potential, chasing fame through crowd-pleasing simplicity. This question partially answers itself – crowd-pleasers are popular purely because they’re crowd-pleasers.
That’s a slight cheat. The true intent of this argument is harder to refute. Unless we can look inside Einaudi’s head, we won’t know his motivations for abandoning the intellectually stimulating and embracing the repetitive.
What’s Music Good for, Anyway?
Einaudi isn’t alone. Hans Zimmer, Yiruma and others come under fire from classical elitists for the same reasons. All of pop music can have the same argument levelled against it. What happened to its heyday, when The Beatles expanded the mould of music as a whole while still selling millions? Why has invention been relegated to the side-lines?
Short answer: music can be experienced in different contexts.
For some, there needs to be a degree of complexity. These are generally those with an understanding of the mechanics of music and listen as an activity in and of itself. Prog rock is notorious for having a ceremony around individual consumption, a creation of personal listening space without distractions where the subtle intricacies of sound hold focus. Such activities birthed the concept album.
Rock and hip-hop get the blood flowing. Pop is their condensed essence, the perfect exploration of melody and production without any complicated baggage. Many can’t understand pop’s ubiquity because it contrasts directly with their context of reception. If you listen to pop to hear its genius in creation, you’re going to be disappointed. If you can turn off the judgemental part of your brain and let the melody take you, it can be enjoyable. The lyrics are often cheesy, but sometimes you need a little cheesy, a little frankness and clarity without the lyricism.
Pop is suited to come contexts above all others. David Guetta fills the dancefloor in a way no prog rock song ever could (with one notable exception). And when you’re not wholly engaged with it, you don’t notice its lack of innovation. Pop changes with the times, reflecting developments and tastes elsewhere for a mainstream audience. Innovation in music is essential, but these days pop is content to incorporate the innovations of other genres.
As this video puts it: ‘A pop song needs to provoke quick mood, stick into your head and fit anticipation and pay off into a fairly regular amount of time. There are only so many ways to do that…Criticizing popular music for all sounding the same ignores the sameness of every pop song’s goal.’
Classical consumption, on the other hand, fragments into two categories. On one level, it’s an intellectual stimulant. Composers train for years to develop an interesting, ground-breaking style to appeal to listeners seeking originality and thoughtful minutiae.
It also serves as a relaxation tool. The British radio station Classic FM gets a lot of flak from “proper” classical enthusiasts for being tame in its choice of composers. Schoenberg never appears. The more aggressive movements of Beethoven are avoided. Howard Goodall once had to pre-emptively apologise for a Reich piece since it, ‘isn’t the type of music we usually play’. And that’s ok in my book, because classical music’s role in society has changed. In the years of the avant-garde, the public reverted to Vivaldi, Mozart and Bach for their listening pleasures, because they filled an emotional niche other genres rarely approached. Classical elitists have no one to blame but themselves for their beloved genre’s new reputation.
This TED talk about Chopin expands on classical music’s role in a chaotic world. Strip away all prejudices, and simple music can take you on an inner journey like nothing else. It’s why Pärt changed style. With the existentialist chaos of modern existence, sometimes you need to forget it all in primal, simplistic human emotions.
So what of Einaudi in all this?
Even at his simplest, Chopin edges out Einaudi for complexity, but the emotional impact can’t be ignored.
Unashamedly appealing to base sensations shouldn’t be seen as inferior, because they’re what define us. Resistance arises when people assume the emotion isn’t genuine, an excuse for corporate greed. I won’t deny much of pop is a result of exploitation by the music industry (often exploitation of the artists themselves – any resentment towards artists should be directed at the business surrounding them) but not all.
Popular music can evoke emotions. It can make the whole world dance, laugh or cry, an entire society sharing experiences. Einaudi is a pop star, but in my view that’s not an insult.
On a calm night, listen to I Giorni and forget every prejudice as you watch the sky. Stars, spheres of violent nuclear fire light years away, reach your eyes no more than twinkling dots. Around some there may exist beings with their own culture, technology and music. They may have delved deep into the minutiae of their own musical system, but to them even the simplest of human music will be exciting and fascinating, for it presents that purest of substances that defines our culture and shared identity: human emotion.
They will see that a monotonous piano piece about a dead hippopotamus in Mali has the power to unite us in entrancement. No amount of snobbery will detract from that.