Zoom In: The Classical Mashup

Kate Nottage, one of our NEC Fellows, wrote this fabulous post on A Far Cry's "Zoom In" program and what it meant to her. Enjoy! 

This month, I spent a week rehearsing and performing with A Far Cry on their Zoom In program. I found myself immediately transfixed by the choice of repertoire, admiring its variety. It’s so common as a classical musician to attend and partake in concerts that are monothematic and flat in musical style. We often go to concerts that feature multiple works from one composer or one classical era. I loved the Zoom In repertoire for its musical diversity. As the works by Dutilleux, Webern, Muffat, and O’Connor were played one by one, their differences were illuminated. One of the most magnificent characteristics of classical music is its arc through time – how it’s changed through hundreds of years and especially how it continues to do so right now. It’s incredible when this is illustrated through repertoire choice.

My love for musical age and diversity extends beyond the classical realm. As someone who believes it takes every genre to create a well-balanced musical world, I take great pride in my mental investment in popular music. I’m sometimes guilty of having a short attention span for music, and for this reason I think every so often pop is more suited for my taste than something like an hour-long Bruckner symphony. Sometimes, listening to a three-minute long song that I can sing, dance, tap my foot, and bang my head to is just what I need. My favorite type of non-classical music remains always the same: mash-up. For those of you who aren’t familiar with mash-up, it is basically an electronic layering and synchronization of vocal and instrumental tracks of different popular songs. Though made of recycled music, the product is careful and innovative and its creator, an artist. Mash-up is incessantly captivating. There’s something about the tune of a catchy folk song being set to an R&B beat with guitar riffs from a 2015 billboard hit that is so artistically fresh and undeniably enjoyable. It’s sophisticated, it’s fast-paced, it’s smart. The dichotomy is rich.  

During my week with A Far Cry, I didn’t immediately understand the depth of my fascination with the program. It consisted of, in order, works by Henri Dutilleux, Anton Webern, Georg Muffat, and Mark O’Connor. It was obvious to me even before hearing the music that, because of these composers’ artistic reputations, it would greatly vary in musical style. The Dutilleux was spacious, weightless, and full of flight. Webern was heavy, longing, and thickly pleading. Muffat was joyous, careful, and precious. O’Connor was fun, groovy, and freeing.

I soon realized that to combine these pieces into one cohesive program was only one thing: mash-up. Whether intentional or not, it’s genius. For the hyper-in-thought, eager-for-the-next-thing listener like I sometimes am, this combination of pieces was absolutely perfect.

The order and pacing of the music was incredibly captivating. We started with Dutilleux. Hypnotically translucent, Ainsi la Nuit was a mash-up in and of itself. The piece consists of seven movements, each unmistakably distinct in character. Since there were more movements than the typical string quartet, each was considerably brief, and characters seemed to exit as quickly as they entered. I couldn’t help but notice the brisk developments within the piece and how they mirrored the mellifluous passing of melodies in my favorite work of mash-up.

Next up was Langsamer Satz by Anton Webern. This piece, though monothematic, served its purpose in the classical mash-up by insisting its distinct personality. Mahlerian and dramatic, the short piece explored the depths and heights of emotion – the pains and joys of love.

Moving quickly along, the Muffat was next. The inclusion of baroque music at this point in the program was a cheerful change. The Ciacona was pleasant and with constant motion; a tasteful turnaround from the comparably static Webern.

Following this was the Mark O’Connor Quartet No. 3. It was the most perfect piece to play the role of the last piece. Although technically challenging for the musicians, for the listener this music is care-free. It exhibits a well-balanced combination between the freedom of fiddle music and the structure of traditional classical music. Another fitting dichotomy.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized a deeper reason why I love mash-up. There’s something so similar in what I do as an artist to what the mash-up creator does as an artist. I love to take music that’s already been written and interpret it myself. I love to make it my own, to put my stamp on it and make my mark. And isn’t this what the mash-up artist does? He takes preconceived, prenotated, prerecorded music and makes it his own. He puts his stamp on it and makes it the best version it could possibly be, and isn’t that what I do? We infuse our artistry with variations of creativity. We take advantage of changing characters, tempi, rhythm, and harmony. We embrace the differences between melodies within the same piece. We embrace the differences between composers born a hundred years apart. We find beauty in what makes art different.