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Arts Desk

Hearing David Bowie at the BBC Proms

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The famous BBC Proms concerts typically showcase the world's greatest classical artists in broadcasts from Royal Albert Hall. This summer, an entire concert was devoted to recently deceased rock start David Bowie. The Philadelphia Inquirer's David Patrick Stearns asks if this makes sense.

David Patrick Stearns: That is music by David Bowie?  Yes. the 1977 song  "Always Crashing in the Same Car" is reimagined by American composer David Lang and the French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky almost like a 17th-century John Dowland lute song. The original is...rather different.

So is there hope—or dread—that David Bowie's music will live beyond David Bowie in the world's concert halls? The host at Royal Albert Hall seemed to think so.

Host: All week I've been watching these wonderful musicians here put together a show that really has poured heart, soul, blood, sweat, and tears showing another side of David Bowie, and I'm so glad that so many of you came out tonight to enjoy and celebrate that side of him.

DPS: In theory, there's no reason why Bowie's thoughtful music can't somehow evolve into classical status.  Composers of all periods wrote popular music that survived them—look at Erik Satie.

But at the BBC Proms, making Bowie meaningful came hard. Without his personality, songs like "Life on Mars" lost the original crucial subtext that life on Earth isn't so good. Other artists deconstructed songs like "Let's Dance" almost beyond recognition, but without becoming something that stood well on its own. The barrier is this: In modern pop music, the piece and the performer are often the same thing.  

In previous ages when a composer reached a wider public through sheet music, all of the important musical information was there on the page. Among modern classical composers, listeners can love the music and not need to know what the composer even looks like. 

David Bowie, in particular, went beyond notes. Bowie the performer could not only shade and inflect his music, but frame it in a larger culture with his hair, makeup, and clothes that redefined basic notions of gender and identity. That's why his music translates so haphazardly to other performers. Bowie was his best and possibly only advocate.

But with Bowie gone not even a year, this is not the final word. As long as there's fascination with Bowie's originals, there will always be musicians trying to take the basic idea to places that Bowie, his fans, or even his old buddy Mick Jagger never imagined.