In 1967 Leonard Bernstein was the musical director of the New York Philharmonic and was considered to be America’s foremost conductor and composer. While known for his musical range–he conducted, interpreted, and wrote symphonic and orchestral music, ballet, film, and choral music, opera, and chamber music–he represented the classical tradition.
Here is Leonard Bernstein confronting the massive musical disruption that challenged music in the mid-’60s:
“Many parents do try to escape this music, and even try to forbid it, on the grounds that it is noisy, unintelligible, or morally corruptive. … I think this music has something terribly important to tell us adults, and we would be wise not to behave like ostriches about it. Besides, I like it. Of course, what I like is maybe 5 percent of the whole output, which pours over this country like the two oceans from both coasts. But that good 5 percent is so exciting and vital–and, may I say, significant–it claims the attention of every thinking person.
“I like the eclecticism of it, the freedom to absorb any and all musical styles and elements. ... I like the international and interracial way it ranges over the world. … Then I like some of the new sounds, purely as sounds, that are coming out of pop music. The arresting impact of a consort of amplified guitars. I like the astonishing force of those hyped up baselines and the outrageously cool utterances of that inhuman electric organ.
“Now, don’t get me wrong. I said I liked some of those sounds. There’s a good deal I don’t like and wouldn’t dream of defending. I don’t like volume for its own sake, or the way the words are often drowned out by drums and amplifiers. I don’t like the amateur quality of some of the writing and the out-of-tune singing. This music can be course, faddish, a victim of its own sameness. And yet when it’s good, it’s irresistible.”
Take a look at the first half of this 1967 CBS special (about 20 minutes). Bernstein creates a path between the generations. He lends his credibility to the musical challengers and shows how the best of pop innovation draws from the classical traditions he represents, but turns them on their ear. Watch his genuine wonder and excitement at the discovery. While many of his contemporaries were dismissing the new music, Bernstein allowed himself to be excited by it. (And you get to hear him deconstruct some songs–mostly from the Beatles–that have become pop classics. No benefit of hindsight here.)
Bernstein is a model for how to view disruption: Put your unease aside long enough to find the good stuff, the 5 percent, and be clear about why it is the good stuff. Bernstein stood atop America’s classical institutions and yet found ways to learn something from Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison, Frank Zappa, Janis Ian (at age 15), Brian Wilson, Tandyn Almer, and so many others.
I’ll give Bernstein the last word: “What does it all mean? I think this is part of an historic revolution, one that has been going on for 50 years, only now these young people have gotten control of a mass medium, the phonograph record. And the music on the record, with its noise and its cool messages, may make us uneasy, but we must take it seriously, as both a symptom and a generator of this revolution. We must listen to it and to its makers–this new breed of young people with long hair and fanciful clothing.”