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So You Think You're Popular, Playlist

August 1, 2013

Ever since the music industry emerged as a mass commercial enterprise, musicians have waded between that "popular" music and classical (mostly uncommercial) music. Many of the greatest, most popular works for classical ensembles over the past century have come directly out of this fertile marshland. In today’s mix, we sample music by musicians who have been at the top of the music industry but have refused to be defined by it.

  1. “Mambo,” Symphonic Dances from West Side Story (Bernstein); New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein, conductor.
    Track back to a classic Broadway with a score that easily made it into the orchestral canon, mostly because it’s great music, but also because it’s composer was the music director of the NY Philharmonic.
  2. “Isfahan,” from Far East Suite (Duke Ellington); Duke Ellington Orchestra.
    Racism often prevented African-American and other musicians from ethnic minorities from appearing with, or composing for, classical ensembles. That history has been slow to clear. Duke Ellington successfully navigated around that problem because he had his own orchestra.
  3. “Oil” from the soundtrack to There Will Be Blood (Jonny Greenwood)
    Hard core fans (that is, passionate, intelligent, obsessives) have loved the band Radiohead ever since its first album in 1993. The band’s great composer, Jonny Greenwood, was originally a violist before he became famous for his lead guitar. In 2005 he came out with the magical Popcorn Superhet Receiver (find it; listen to it). Scores for two Paul Thomas Anderson films followed. Here’s a representative track.
  4. Main Theme from Batman (Danny Elfman)
    Steven Spielberg has John Williams and Tim Burton has former Oingo Boingo bandleader Danny Elfman. This tune has become as iconic, surely, as the main title theme to Star Wars.
  5. “Moon Dance” from the soundtrack to The Corpse Bride.
    Here’s another Danny Elfman tune, in quite a different mood.
  6. Believing (Julia Wolfe); album: Renegade Heaven, Bang on a Can All-Stars.
    Bang on a Can is now an institution in American musical life, but it was founded by three composers, at least two of whom turned out to be superstars. Julia Wolfe’s piece shows the influence of rock in a new way, in that it is part of the music, without standing out as a kind of foreign import.
  7. “Strictly Genteel” (Frank Zappa), London Symphony Orchestra, Vol. 2.
    Avant-garde rocker Frank Zappa reportedly didn’t enjoy his sessions with the London Symphony Orchestra, but some of the arrangements have become popular anyway and were re-released as the album Strictly Genteel. Look up “Dupree’s Paradise” if you like this track.
  8. “Isorhythmic Night” (Movement VI) from BQE (Sufjan Stevens)
    Singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens, originally from Michigan, but absorbed into the musical ferment of Brooklyn, created this ode to the world’s most unloveable highway, the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. This highly original tune references a medieval formal technique, but there’s a lot more to it.
  9. BONUS: “April in Harlem” from A Harlem Symphony (James P. Johnson), on Victory Stride: The Symphonic Music of James P. Johnson, Concordia Orchestra, Marin Alsop, conductor.
    Now the music director of the Cabrillo Festival, opening this week, and the Baltimore Symphony, among other groups, Marin Alsop founded and headed the Concordia Orchestra back when she was less famous. This album, from 1994, explores the symphonic music of early jazz pianist James P. Johnson. Little of it was performed in his lifetime, but the beauty of this track should convince you that that has nothing to do with the music’s quality.

Michael Zwiebach is the senior editor/ content manager for SFCV. He assigns all articles and content, manages the writing staff and does editing. A member of SFCV from the beginning, Michael holds a Ph.D. in music history from the University of California, Berkeley.