Classifying Rufus

The year I moved to Vancouver, I arrived in the middle of November. It was dark and gloomy and dreary and rainy. I did a lot of walking that month, to get to know my new neighbourhood and my new city, and my constant companion was Rufus Wainwright.

I know not everyone likes Rufus Wainwright. But I fell in love with his music on those damp wanderings through Vancouver’s West End, my headphones blocking out the pitter patter of the rain.

I’ve listened and re-listened to all my favourite Rufus songs dozens of times over the years, and I’ve gradually come to realize what it is about his music that I find so satisfying.

It’s that I can’t figure it out. His music is a mystery to me: I can’t imagine how anyone could conceive of those melodies, those harmonies, those orchestrations, and make those creative choices. It’s music I can’t dissect intellectually –in much the same way as does the music of Puccini or Debussy or Beethoven, it leaves me breathless and awestruck.

I think his music has as much depth, as much to discover, as classical song. Perhaps for that reason it came as no surprise to me when Rufus Wainwright decided to “cross over”, as they say, to the world of classical music with his opera Prima Donna or with his 2009 album All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu.

Say what you will about pop musicians going classical – and say what you will about Rufus’s voice or his persona or whatever it is that might rub you the wrong way, if you’re one of those people who hasn’t been able to get into his music – I’m here to tell you to give him a chance, if you aren’t already a convert.

His work has somehow tapped into the uncertainty of our times and has captured the imagination of millions – including mezzo-soprano Wallis Giunta (pictured above), who gave the premiere performance of All Days Are Nights as a classical song cycle in March in Toronto.

I’m chuffed to be able to share that concert with you today on CBC Radio 2’s In Concert. And if you miss the show today, you can listen to Wallis’s performance anytime you like at CBC’s excellent Concerts on Demand website.

What makes something classical or popular? I’m not sure it’s a question we should even be asking anymore. But if you’re intent on classification, I’ll wager you’ll have a hard time placing All Days Are Nights. Some songs sound like “pop”, others sound much more like “Broadway”, others have a “classical” ring. But does it really matter, in a world that shuffles through music the way ours does?

Back in Mozart’s day, I imagine that music was just music. I imagine people thought about what kind of music it was (if they did think about it in that way at all) based on where they heard it rather than by genre the way we do today. Because back then you couldn’t divorce music from the place in which it was being performed, of course. Salon music. After dinner with the family at the piano music. Concert hall music. Tavern music.

Applying those categories to music today, a lot of songs we think of as being in different genres would end up as new bedfellows. But not, I think, as strange bedfellows.

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