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The Modern Symphony

By Tyler VanValkenburg

Can you imagine being there on the night of that first performance? The atmosphere? The build-up? The payoff! When for the first time—the first time in the history of the world—that music is being played, that artist’s vision being expressed. I’m not talking about the debut of today’s virtuosos Tiesto or Skrillex, either. No, I’m referring to the first performances from the likes of Mozart, or Beethoven, or Rachmaninoff. Maybe not technically the first times they performed, but the first times they truly performed to potential, the first times their audiences recognized them as greats.

I’m referring to classical rock stars, not modern ones—people of musical talent who were revered during their times just as our current icons are today. But the fact that similar language can describe the opening nights for either of these, for yesterday’s classical or today’s electronic, is very telling. Indeed, it only supports a wider truth I have come to know over the last few months: Electronic dance music is the new classical.

As ludicrous as this proposition may seem at first, give it a chance. It might grow on you. For example, have you taken into account the fact that, from a purely technical standpoint, both these genres engage their audiences with equally huge varieties of sounds? Rock and roll has its electric guitar, rap its thumping bass. But classical has its orchestra, and EDM its synthesizer, both of which represent a much wider collection of instruments and sounds. The only real difference is that while classical music requires a live orchestra, electronic music requires only its synthetic counterpart. Think of the synthesizer—the primary tool of EDM musicians—then, as a sort of modernized orchestra, a collection of digitized instruments and their distortions.

But the parallels existing between electronic and classical go even further than their varied selection of sounds. Both also stand, for instance, as arguably the most diverse groupings of music. They are less like individual genres and more like umbrellas, encompassing many sub-genres underneath. This comparison can be taken a step further when one realizes that many of the sub-genres of EDM directly reflect those of classical.

At an artist-specific level, this isn’t too hard to see. Take Skrillex: With his chaotic and unpredictable melodies, he’s like a dubstep version of Stravinsky—stunning, offending, but then ultimately winning over his audiences. But Deadmau5, with his minimal melodies and patience-testing (but worth-the-wait) buildups, reflects the repetitious yet emotionally moving style of composers like Philip Glass or Frédéric Chopin.

In a more general sense, both these genres tend to rely on melodies that are repeated and overlaid onto each other, building up the fullness and intensity of sound as the work progresses, until finally resolving it all in harmony. So while the characteristic, in-your-face “drop” of an electronic song might be lacking in classical pieces, its underlying concept remains.

Beyond their actual composition, the role these genres play(ed) in their respective cultures is also surprisingly similar. Young people today might see classical works as out of touch or stale, but when those works were first being composed (and performed), nothing could have been further from the truth. Just as today the fans of EDM stars live for the next performance, the fans of classical composers once lived for their next performances. And just as modern EDM figures continually push the boundaries of what we consider musically appropriate, so too did classical composers push the musical boundaries of their respective eras. Through the genres’ best artists, culture has been shifted—forced forward—by classical and electronic music in much the same way.

In the end, realizing the parallels that can be drawn between classical and EDM should only lead to a deeper appreciation of both. Here we have what at first seem to represent opposite ends of the musical spectrum: the wild and young electronic versus the stuffy and refined classical. Yet once this oversimplified and quite inaccurate differentiation is put aside, the connections between both musical forms become apparent. While the outward styles of music might have changed significantly over time—I doubt many senior citizens enjoy Skrillex—the core remains in many ways the same.

So the next time you find yourself fist-pumping and head-bobbing to an electronica bass line, take a step back and realize that the catchy synth melody accompanying it isn’t all that different from those classical melodies of yore.

Tyler VanValkenburg ’16, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Canaday Hall

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