Is putting a disco beat really a good way to appreciate a symphony?
I don’t know if you have this tucked away in your memory like I do, but back when I was in high school there was a particular kind of contraband that quietly circulated among students. You never quite knew who had one unless you happened to catch a glimpse at a friend’s locker or hanging out of a notebook. “Don’t tell anyone,” was the panicked response if someone saw yours.
I’m talking about those little yellow and black booklets that were the key to not having to read all those ponderous novels and plays in English class. They were called “Cliffs Notes” and if you were caught with them, you were in trouble. But we thought the risk worth it: in just a few pages they gave you all you needed to know about the
plot and characters of any novel or play. Our teachers knew they were out there and inveighed against them with an intimidating vehemence. we never really saw the harm in them.
But Cutting corners like this rarely made us more interested in the original. Quite the contrary: it usually blunted our curiosity and by the end of a few pages convinced us we knew enough about Macbeth. It was only later that it occurred to some of us that we might actually be missing something by taking a shortcut to a great work of literature.
Another kind of cultural shorthand took the music industry by storm back in 1981. It was an album by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra called “Hooked on Classics.” I remember listening to it then, marveling how it made highbrow music catchy and accessible. Recently I looked and to my surprise found it on iTunes. I didn’t buy it, but I listened to some excerpts thinking it would jog my memory.
Did it ever. I don’t know if you’re familiar with this cultural oddity, but it’s basically the Cliffs Notes of classical music set to — and it’s hard to type this — a disco drum beat. The first track on the album begins with Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and then within five minutes has plowed through the memorable parts of “Flight of the Bumblebee,” the first movement of Mozart’s 40th Symphony, “Rhapsody in Blue,” and 13 more classic works. The album also featured similar smash-ups like “Hooked on Mozart,” “Hooked on Bach,” “Hooked on a Can-Can” and more. You will have heard all these tunes, I feel certain, but you will never have heard them like this.
Whether we should file this under Good Thing or Bad Thing we can talk about next week.