Pop and Classical Played Together in “Art song, etc.” Show


Photo courtesy of Catherine Robinson

Double-degree second-year Kenji Anderson will play the piano accompaniment to Conservatory second-year Julia Alexander’s vocals in their Sunday recital “Art song, etc.”

At “Art song, etc.” this upcoming Sunday at 3:00 p.m. in Stull Recital Hall, “Eleanor Rigby” by The Beatles will be performed alongside the 1913 art song “À Chloris” composed by Reynaldo Hahn — and it works.

Double-degree second-year Kenji Anderson and Conservatory second-year Julia Alexander are the duo behind every cover and performance. Anderson is a Piano and English major, while Alexander is majoring in Vocal Performance.

“Art song, etc.” celebrates both students’ favorite songs across a variety of genres and is set to classical piano and voice arrangements. Alexander and Anderson met during first-year orientation and, after discovering shared interests in Broadway and pop music, began brainstorming ways to feature non-classical music in a formal recital setting at the Oberlin Conservatory. Their idea finally manifested as a Winter Term project this January.

Since “Art song, etc.” focuses on both students’ personal favorite songs, Anderson and Alexander began the project by creating Spotify playlists, searching for available arrangements, and finding tonally consistent songs across genres. Anderson cites specific covers that radically altered the sound and mood of a song, as part of his realization that his favorite pop songs could be transposed to classical instruments.

“I remember specifically listening to the band HAIM’s cover of ‘XO’ by Beyonce, and I remember I was listening to that and I was really struck by how a cover could be so different from the original,” Anderson explained. “You can hear it in a different light in a cover.”

While pop music is often criticized and dismissed for its mainstream appeal, Anderson and Alexander acknowledge that pop music is meant to be just that — wide-reaching and catchy.

“I think what really drove it was [that] we just think this is really good music,” Anderson said. “I definitely don’t think that the classical pieces we’re doing on the program are better than the pop songs. We really chose some of our favorite songs.”

Conservatory second-year and Composition major Michelle Li took on the challenge of transposing a pop song for piano while still respecting the original pop sound. In the end, Li emulated composer Philip Glass after watching his opera Akhenaten in New York City over fall break, deciding to uniquely blend several styles of music.

“I consulted a good friend and colleague of mine, Benjamin Martin, and he gave me some tips and tricks for how he approaches arrangements, especially harmonically, and it helped me brainstorm some ideas,” Li explained in an email to the Review. “Ultimately, I decided to use Philip Glass as inspiration for how I would manipulate the material. Rather than focus on how to stay true to the song, I decided to take ideas from Glass’s piano etudes for the piano writing, and then try to keep the defining elements of the song intact for the actual vocal line.”

Still, Alexander and Anderson want to respect both the songs’ pop origins and the classical sound of their own instruments and vocal training. By not forcing the pop songs to conform to a classical and more “high-brow” sound, they aim to acknowledge both Broadway and pop as art forms.

Alexander noted how pop songs can be traced back to art songs, or songs composed by classical composers that set poetry to music. For example, she was drawn to the rich lyrical storytelling in “Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman.

“The story of it is what I think we loved,” Alexander said. “The music is beautiful too, but it’s pretty repetitive. It’s the text that changes and it goes from hopeful to pretty sad by the end. It’s really a whole journey in that song, so that really is what sparked our interest in doing that in a recital setting because it is an amazing story, and the text is very human.”

Above all, Alexander and Anderson hope not only to share a selection of their favorite songs in “Art song, etc.,” but to introduce audiences to different music genres and demonstrate the interconnectedness of music.

“We want to be able to give the audience space to hear these songs in a way they hadn’t heard them before… — specifically through the context of presenting them by music of what is normally viewed as different genres with maybe similar themes,” Anderson said. “And so placing all of that side by side will allow the audience to hear it differently.”

Similarly, Alexander seeks for their recital to help break down barriers separating pop, Broadway, and classical music.

“It sounds cliche, but it’s all music at the end of the day,” Alexander said. “And my main hope for this recital is that we’ll have people there who maybe mostly listen to pop music, and we’ll also have people there who mostly listen to classical music and art song, but that they both can come out of the recital feeling like, ‘Oh, like I found a new song that I love’ or ‘I heard something that I didn’t expect to hear and I kind of love it,’ or even ‘I kind of didn’t love it, and here’s why.’”

Exposure to new genres doesn’t have to start and end at recitals like “Art song, etc.” Music is a form of human expression, and different styles, from classical to rap to electronic, can resonate with anyone, as Alexander attests.

“Listen to music that you don’t think you’ll like, because I think you’ll be surprised,” Alexander said. “I’m constantly surprised by music that I think I’ll hate and then I ended up really enjoying. Listen to a new Spotify playlist every once in a while!”