Populism as High Art: 100 Greatest Dance Hits

One can easily hear what makes the baroque, classical and romantic musical styles distinct. It is more difficult to discern a dominant style that represents classical music in the early 21st century. Every composer seems to have a style that is unique to himself or herself. 

There are, however, a group of composers who have embraced postmodernism, at least in some of their works. Postmodernism is marked by eclecticism, irony, and a breaking down of the distinction between high and low. 

American composer and theorist Jonathan Kramer asserts that postmodernism is more an attitude than a particular style. This attitude does not necessarily reject modernism, but extends it to embrace multifarious styles, eras and global influences. Value is found as much in so-called low art as high art.

Pop-Culture as Muse

Michael Daugherty
Michael Daugherty

Another contemporary composer with a postmodern flavor is Michael Daugherty (b. 1954). He has composed many works that draw on pop culture, like his Metropolis Symphony, which takes inspiration from the Superman comics or Dead Elvis for Solo Bassoon and the chamber opera Jackie O

Paul Schoenfield is an American composer who can write profound music about topics like the Holocaust but also has a strong postmodern streak. Schoenfield often draws on Tin Pan Alley and Klezmer to create unique and delightful music.

Aaron Jay Kernis was born in Philadelphia in 1960. He began playing violin and piano as a child, composed his first music at 13, and won three BMI Foundation Student Composers Awards during his student years.

Aaron J. Kernis

Kernis would go on to study with composers like John Adams, Charles Wuorinen, and Morton Subotnick at the San Francisco Conservatory, the Manhattan School of Music, and Yale. Working with such varied teachers at different music schools helped Kernis develop his eclectic style, often combining minimalism and neo-romanticism.

Kernis first made his mark as a composer when he was 23 with Dream of the Morning Sky, which was first performed in 1983 by the New York Philharmonic conducted by Zubin Mehta. He has written over 30 other works for orchestra and 30 more for chamber ensemble, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Musica Instrumentalis for string quartet.

From Traditionalist to K-Tel

K-tel Country's Hits
A K-Tel Album Cover from the 1980’s

Much of Kernis’ music has a traditionalist, neo-romantic sound. But certain of his works, like 100 Greatest Dance Hits, capture post-modernism’s fun, irony, and high/low aesthetic. Composed in 1993, 100 Greatest Dance Hits for guitar quintet evokes pop music of the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Kernis explains: “I borrowed the title from those old K-Tel advertisements on late-night TV for 100 Greatest Motown Hits or 100 Greatest Soul Hits.” Each of its four movements evokes a popular genre. For example, the final movement, Disco Party on the Disco Motorboat, is Kernis’ tribute to Soul Train. An earlier movement, MOR * Easy-Listening Slow Dance Ballad, is a nod to Muzak.

Although postmodern classical music’s appropriation of pop culture might seem hip or trendy, baroque composers like Bach and Handel drew regular inspiration from the popular dances of their day, like the gigue and courante.

Whether baroque or postmodern, great composers have always recognized the vitality in music loved by the masses.

Be sure to catch NEXUS Chamber Music’s performance of 100 Greatest Dance Hits by Aaron Jay Kernis, at Guarneri Hall during the NEXUS Chamber Music Festival on August 30th at 6:30 PM.

Aaron Jay Kernis — 100 Greatest Dance Hits

1.  Introduction to the Dance Party
2.  Salsa Pasada
3.  MOR Easy Listening Slow Dance Ballad
4.  Dance Party on the Disco Motorboat

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