Music Is Like Language(s)

This is not about Andrea Bocelli.

This is about music: classical music, pop music, and crossover music.

This article, however, is about Andrea Bocelli.

From Preston Jones (Fort Worth Star-Telegram, dfw.com):

Andrea Bocelli’s tenor, smooth as amaretto liqueur and potent as grappa, is arguably one of the world’s most famous voices.

Ha ha! It's relevant because he's Italian. That is some lazy rhetoric with which to open an article. Surely the man bearing "arguably one of the world's most famous voices" needs no introduction...

He has sold more than 65 million albums, lugged home dozens of industry awards in Europe and endeared himself to an adoring fan base while nonetheless incurring the wrath of numerous classical-music critics.

...or, uh, you know, that'll do. We all know who you're talking about. (Also, vis-a-vis this discussion about hyphens, "classical-music?")

Most people probably know of Bocelli either from his appearances on PBS stations (he has released 11 concerts on DVD, most of which have been aired on public television) or his lone smash single, Time to Say Goodbye (Con Te Partiro), the duet performed with fellow superstar Sarah Brightman.

Yeah, that's the guy. Let's move on.


Those who simply file him under the "pop" heading might be surprised to learn that, more than most artists who enjoy crossover success (such as Brightman or even Josh Groban), the 50-year-old Bocelli is intent on staking a claim as one of Italy’s premier operatic tenors, fighting for a place alongside the all-time greats like Enrico Caruso and Luciano Pavarotti.

I don't think those people (real or imaginary) would be surprised, per se, to learn of his aspirations. They may suspect his ability to reach those goals, but that's different.

That's because Bocelli has staked himself out a very successful career in the crossover market. This is a hard thing to pin down; some crossover admits freely and simultaneously both genres it claims to bridge (classical and pop/Italian song, in this instance). Some crossover artists dabble in both (or more) areas more or less independently. Both Bocelli's percieved shortcomings and talents have been discussed at length by critics; I'm not interested in that right now.

"I very much like the idea of keeping [pop and opera] separate because they’re like two languages that need to keep their own purity," Bocelli said.

Hm. This is, then, not the mixed, simultaneous kind of crossover.

Moreover, this "purity" seems like a false construct, sort of a nostalgia for an imaginary time when pop music and art music did not intersect. Both Caruso and Pavarotti (who were mentioned above) more than dabbled in popular music, too.

However, the idea of languages as a metaphor (couched as a simile) for genres of music is intriguing. Where will it lead?

"When you sing opera or pop, the beauty in either of those is like speaking two different languages."

Yeah, I got that part. How?

"The great attraction is being able to speak both of those languages with the right accent."

I like this extension of the argument. In order to sound convincing (say, like a native speaker) in both languages it's not enough to know the words (metaphorically the notes, melodies) and syntax of both languages, but to pronounce them idiomatically. This makes sense in the context of the construction.

His determination to be fluent in two distinct musical tongues is reflected in his attitude toward preparation.

The extension of the language metaphor would seem to be that both languages require intensive study and preparation, as both have their own traditions, performance practice, and so forth.

But no. No?

"There’s a difference. If one is approaching a classical piece of music, a score, for a classical piece you have to have very rigorous preparation," he said.

That's what people say, yes. But not...

"With pop songs, it’s quite the opposite. And really, instinct is the best way of approaching that sort of music."

Yikes, wow. Metaphor effectively shattered, and it was a nice construction, too.

Could it be resurrected? What is the musical equivalent of intuitive language? Slang? Or is it more akin to learning by immersion versus academic study? It seems like both are important to classical and pop music alike.

Unfortunately, the implication seems to be the opposite. Pop music "comes from the heart" or some nebulous nonsense like that, unlike classical music, which is far more academic and technical, and by extension, not "from the heart."

Figure 1: Enrico Caruso as Pagliacci, 1908 (Library of Congress)

Locating the difference between the genres in this way is unhelpful. When locating their different identities along the axis hard preparation/instinctive-intuitive, Bocelli's explanation does a disservice to both facets of musical art.

Is there another way we can distinguish between pop and classical music, and their intersection(s)? How would a more helpful delineation look?

Shit. This was about Bocelli. Sort of.


Strini said...

Thanks for taking a look at this. Bocelli, Groban and the rest of the crossover types invariably annoy me. I think it's because they pile operatic pretension and grandiosity onto helpless pop tunes. It just sounds wrong to me, but their naive fans feel the uplift of High Art in it without the stress and confusion of dealing with high art. They're getting the worst of both worlds, to my ear, but they don't hear it that way.
Bocelli's comment about doing any old thing with pop tunes took me aback. For three years, now, I've been working on playing (guitar) and singing the jazz-inflected American Songbook. It's lots of fun, but it's also harder than hell to do it right. -- Strini

AnthonyS said...

... pile operatic pretension and grandiosity onto helpless pop tunes.

Just wow. Strini's awesomeness strikes again.

Hmm, I'm thinking about the language metaphor. All I can think about is learning Latin vs. speaking in tongues.

Sator Arepo said...

I was trying very hard to steer away from any evaluation of Bocelli or the other artists in this meta-genre for fear of distracting from the argument, which should be considered on its own merits.

That said, Michael Bolton's rendition "Nessun Dorma" is...something to behold. One could even characterize it as "extraordinary rendition."

Sator Arepo said...

also, "...of...".