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MUSIC : Crossing Over, Way Over : The latest revolution has Kiri singing Kern, the Kronos playing the blues, Philip Glass writing a Bowie symphony and Gorecki going from a little-known Polish composer to a mispronounced global sensation

September 26, 1993|MARK SWED

A new recording of music by an obscure Baroque composer, Carl Friedrich Abel, written for the obsolete viola da gamba, a predecessor of the modern cello, also happens to include some new music written pretty much in the style of the Baroque. There is, of course, nothing particularly eyebrow-raising about that. A generation ago--when Baroque music was a newer rage and fancifully costumed, recorder-tooting hippies flocked to the Renaissance Faire--this would have been something perfectly suitable for the nerdy Society for Creative Anachronism.

But these are more sophisticated times, and there are some modern peculiarities to this recording, titled "Galax," and featuring gambist Roy Whelden and American Baroque.

For one thing, Whelden's original compositions really are creative anachronisms, employing both minimalist and 12-tone techniques, and he has written a set of variations on the Beatles' "She's So Heavy" for solo gamba that sounds closer to Marin Marais than Lennon & McCartney.

For another thing, many readers will not need to have Marin Marais identified, as they surely would have a year ago. One of the best-selling records of the past season, a huge international crossover hit, happened to be a recording of the haunting, somber gamba music of Marais, since it was the soundtrack for a sentimental hit French film "Tous les Matins du Monde," which starred Gerard Depardieu as the French Baroque composer and gamba player.

And finally, "Galax" is released on New Albion, a San Francisco label that specializes in West Coast new music, the label more identified with the gamelan-tinged music of Lou Harrison or the transcendental electronic transformations of Carl Stone. On "Galax," old and new, pop and classical, high and low are--depending upon your point of view--either entirely confused or beyond the point altogether.

Welcome to the startling and complex new world of crossover, which has become a network of interlinking musics that seems to indicate that Marshall McLuhan's global village has arrived in more artistically profound ways, as well as a couple of commercially ominous ones, than the mere electronic babble on computer bulletin boards. Economically, crossover, whether it is opera stars singing '50s Broadway musicals or the turning of modern composers, such as Philip Glass and Henryk-Mikolaj Gorecki, into pop icons, is driving the classical recording industry of the '90s. But it is also a movement wide open with possibilities that is fueling a musical revolution that shows every sign of becoming the dominant musical style of the era, just as minimalism had been for the previous generation, and serialism was before that.

Crossover, before it was crossover, used to be called "light classics" or "pops" and was as easy to identify as a copy of Reader's Digest. In the '50s, it was Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops, or Carmen Dragon and his symphonies under the stars at Hollywood Bowl, playing the least demanding, best known, most melodically memorable bits of Romantic repertory, along with syrupy orchestrations of Broadway tunes. The idea was to make the classics comfortable by removing all the disturbing elements that real art can convey.

It was Muzak before its time, but its place was clear. Everyone knew Fiedler was no Furtwangler conducting philosophically overpowering accounts of Beethoven or Bruckner. And everyone knew that a little lightly done Delibes or Saint-Saens or Richard Rodgers was a universe away from the cutting edge at a time when John Cage was exploring the extreme limits of chance composition, when Pierre Boulez was dictating that every element in music must be serially determined, and when Karlheinz Stockhausen was pioneering futuristic electronic music.

Pops did not mean pop, either. It was also a cozy escape from the early stirrings of rock 'n' roll and the experimental ones of jazz. Fiedler, Stockhausen, Karajan, Miles, Elvis. The names jar; there are no possible connectives. There was no question about who was highbrow, and who low.

Consider, now, some of the most successful and most interesting CD releases of the past year or so. The Kronos Quartet, a classically trained string quartet, on a recent Nonesuch compilation, "Short Stories," plays an eclectic range of works that include a Willie Dixon blues tune from 1960 in a raucous string quartet arrangement by Steven Mackey, a composer and electric guitarist who is on the faculty of Princeton, once the American bastion of forbidding serial music.

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