Different Heroes

How pop music has influenced classical composers.

Adverts for the Victoria and Albert Museum’s 2013 David Bowie exhibition. Shared under Creative Commons License. Cropped from original by Eiimeon here.
By Bobby Jewell

There’s a plethora of articles online about the influence of classical music on pop, whether it’s the sampling of Mozart in Hop Hop or Beethoven in Disco, rock band legal disputes over Bach plagiarisms, or the use of baroque orchestral instrumentation. Less talked about though is the influence of contemporary music on classical, where avant-garde pop and rock acts slowly came to impact composers during the later half of the 20th century and into the 21st.

In 1992 minimalist giant Philip Glass created his Symphony No. 1, an homage to David Bowie’s 1977 album Low, itself a bleak and sonically adventurous work by the singer-songwriter and producer Brian Eno that pushed the boundaries of conventional pop music. Glass’s Symphony broke down the album, focusing on several themes within the music, creating a slow, sombre orchestral work that relied on relatively little of Glass’s regular techniques and tropes.

Glass would later revisit the concept in 1996 with his more direct Symphony No.4, taking on Bowie’s album Heroes in a similar vein, the second in Bowie’s famous ‘Berlin Trilogy’.

Fellow minimalist titan Steve Reich also looked to contemporary music in 2012 with Radio Rewrite, a reworking of two songs by the English band Radiohead (Everything in Its Right Place from Kid A, and In Rainbows Jigsaw Falling Into Place). Having previously shown the influence of African and Indonesian Gamelan in his music, Reich admittedly came late to discover the band in 2010. Radio Rewrite coincidentally works similarly to Glass’s Symphony in that it only hints at its inspirations rather than mimicking them fully. Reich was quoted as saying ‘the piece is a mixture of moments where you will hear Radiohead, but most moments where you won’t’.

This cross-disciplinary collaboration owes a lot to the New York art scene of the 50s and 60s, where composers like Glass and Reich would be interacting with dancers, performance artists, painters and musicians. One key act of the period was the Andy Warhol-managed Velvet Underground, who experimented with minimalism, tape loops, distortion and psychedelia. Hugely influential on rock music both then and now, their influence has also spread to classical music. For example David Lang – an American composer and co-founder of the ensemble Bang On A Can – put together an arrangement of their 1967 song Heroin for tenor and cello, which was released on his album Pierced in 2010.

After the Velvet Underground disbanded, lead singer Lou Reed would go on to have an adventurous and acclaimed career of his own. One infamous piece, the 1975 double album Metal Machine Music, was a free-form assault of harsh noise that lasted over 65 minutes. Although totally bizarre and heavily derided at the time, the album has gone on to be seen as pioneer of the noise, industrial and heavy metal genres and was arranged for orchestra by Ulrich Krieger for German ensemble Zeitkratzer in 2007.

Apart from reinterpretations and arrangements, some composers used their own styles to craft tributes to pop musicians. Take for example Lukas Foss’s Night Music (For John Lennon) released in 1983. Though it was originally meant to be a new commission for the Northwood Symphonette, Foss began working on the piece on the day of John Lennon’s death and soon began crafting the work from that inspiration. While not stylistically linked to any of The Beatles’ work, Night Music plays with contrasting melodic and harsh elements. The use of an electric guitar and colourful switching of tones creates a work that doesn’t seem too far removed from the personality of a Stockhausen aficionado like Lennon.

With the breaking down of musical barriers in the 20th century there’s a reciprocal element to what modern composers have drawn on. Contemporary artists such as Max Richter and A Winged Victory For the Sullen cite minimalists like Glass and Reich equally with the ambient music created by Brian Eno, other pop musicians and traditional classical composers.

Collaborative live performances such as Techno legend Jeff Mill’s Light From The Outside World with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, and electronic producer Actress’s recent show at the Barbican with the London Contemporary Orchestra again show the continued blurring of dichotomies with traditional genres, and the willingness of audiences to follow the results.

Read more about 20th-century classical music on Corymbus:

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Bobby Jewell is an arts and music writer based in London and has written for This Is Tomorrow, O Fluxo, and Perfect Wave. He makes monthly ambient/classical mixes which can be found at He tweets at @bobby_jewell.