It’s always interesting to see how musical genres cross paths. I like the way Albinoni’s Adagio in G was interpreted for electric guitar in Oliver Stone’s movie on The Doors, for example. Of course, these days, cross-genre interpretations often go the other way, putting a Baroque or other classical music spin on rock music, like the way the Gregorian Chant people do with Metallica’s “Unforgiven.”
One rock band that gets the Baroque treatment a lot is Rush, which was just inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Most people probably know the band from its radio hits like “Tom Sawyer” and “The Spirit of Radio,” but the group’s songwriting is even more interesting than those songs suggest. Indeed, for its first 10 years, many of its pieces were these long conceptual compositions that spun out moralistic, fable-like story lines.
In any case, academics and critics have tended to put a Baroque label on the band’s music, not because it sounds Baroque but because its “artifactual” as opposed to natural. That is to say, while a lot of rock is considered cool because it has a naturalness or spontaneity to it, Rush’s music is considered square or nerdy because there’s little that’s natural about it. Rather, it’s highly composed, like an artifact, and takes a lot of practice to play, and there’s very little room for improvising.
Rush: Red Barchetta
To be sure, the band’s cool factor has increased quite a bit in recent years. For much of its 40-year history, it was considered a cult band for nerds, not worthy of serious treatment by mainstream rock critics, but in the last 10 years or so, with all those nerds now grown up and heading up tech companies, producing TV shows, and making laws (Rand Paul of Kentucky and John Kasich of Ohio are two examples),the band has become cool even as its three members have become senior citizens. (They’re all about 60 now.)
What’s interesting from a Baroque music standpoint is that no fewer than half a dozen tribute albums of Rush’s music have been released in the Baroque style. To be perfectly honest with you, the tributes are a mixed bag. Part of the problem is that several of them are arranged and produced by the same person, so there’s a bland uniformity to them. But the bigger issue is that some of the pieces just aren’t arranged that well and the production quality could be better. (The two recordings above are pretty good.)
The one album that is arranged in an interesting way and has high production values is a tribute album by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London, but that album puts a classical, even romantic, spin on the music, not a Baroque spin.
Having said all this, it’s still enjoyable to listen to these many Baroque versions of Rush, and it serves as a reminder that music transcends time periods and we’re better off if we separate music from labels that try to freeze music in time. Yes, Baroque music is “ancient” music, but each generation discovers the music anew and, to these new ears, it’s as fresh, dynamic, and important as it was when it was first written. For all their faults, these Baroque-styled Rush tributes at least have the virtue of showing that old and new music is interchangeable. To the extent they help us to stop talking about music in time periods, they’ve done something important.—Nabob, On Baroque