Greg Anderson and Elizabeth Joy Roe are rising stars in the classical music world. Only a few years after graduating from the Juilliard School of Music, they have albums on a major label and a large following on YouTube. They perform classical masterworks about 80% of the time and their own arrangements of popular songs 20% of the time. Anderson is a wildly creative cinematographer; their film of The Rite of Spring has to be seen to be believed. I first heard this rendition of "Billie Jean" on their 2011 album When Words Fade. It's not often that a cover song blows my mind and shakes me to my core, but this one sure did, from the first moment it entered my consciousness. This performance helped me re-orient my own musical direction towards writing & performing rock arrangements which blend the best of popular and classical music-making.
The introduction has Greg Anderson playing a rumbly groove in the lowest range of the piano; it is not based on the recording, but takes the place of the iconic drumbeat which opens Michael Jackson's track. We hear a few finger snaps; the music video makes clear that this is Elizabeth Joy Roe walking on the scene, preparing to take the piano's high range. At 0:30, rising staccato chords lead us into the song itself: Anderson plays the riff with his right hand, the original bass line with his left. Roe plays the melody - and the way she plays it will absoutely take your breath away.
Is this still pop music? Well, you can sing along AND you can dance to it. Is this classical music? They sure play like a pair of hotshot young pianists. This is a shining example of the best of both worlds. The performance is stunning (with fire, passion and relentless accuracy), but it is only so because the ARRANGEMENT is a work of genius. If the same pianists played a boring, obvious arrangement, there would be nothing to react to. Anderson and Roe work as a team to write all of their arrangements, and in each one, they combine a love for the pop song with a deep knowledge of virtuoso piano music, creating something which is literally unprecedented in the piano duet repertoire.
Getting back to "Billie Jean," the Pre-Chorus begins at 1:15 ("People always told me, be careful what you do") and presents a quieter dynamic for contrast. A quick glissando builds into a turbulent chorus in the same vein as the verse. All the familiar elements of the song are present (the vocal lines, riff, and bass line), but they have each been fully reimagined for the piano, with embellishments and creative redesigning.
All arrangers of rock/pop songs have to begin with a fundamental choice. Do you perform each verse the same way, or do you make each verse different? This is also a question which pop singers, rock bands and record producers have to decide for every recording and every performance. In Michael Jackson's original recording, verse 2 sounds identical to verse 1 but for different lyrics and an added synth melody line. The choruses each sound exactly the same until the final choruses where the vocal layers get thicker and the improvised exclamations ("Whoo! Yeah! No no no!") get more prominent. Arrangers of virtuoso rock tend to go for more extreme contrasts between sections, both to create variety (in the absence of lyrics) and to shape the architecture of an arrangement.
Anderson + Roe's second verse (2:00) adds some harmonic twists and textural strangeness, with the melody alternating between halftempo and regular speed but the bass line continuing at a fast pace. An unexpected modulation and eerie third verse follows, the melody nearly getting lost in the mix of Stravinskian chords and winding accompanimental lines. Pre-Chorus 2 (2:49) jumps in a bar too soon and quickly deviates from the material, transforming into a more late-romantic piano sound (almost the Development section of a sonata form, really!) and providing a huge build into the next Chorus.
In the second Chorus (3:26), the roles have been reversed; Anderson takes the melody in a middle octave while Roe plays high pounding accompanimental lines (which shift surprisingly from Major to minor mode). This is followed with a return to the initial roles (high melody/low accompaniment) and then a slow disintegration of the texture; the pauses between ideas become more and more frequent, so that we know the end is near but couldn't put a finger on exactly how or when it will come.
I strongly believe that in the future, we'll look back on the 21st century as the point where the walls fell down, when classical musicians gave up the notion of their music being separate and embraced the idea of joining the same continuum as all other music. Anderson & Roe's "Billie Jean" is a landmark in this journey, a leap off the cliff, a bold experiment that not only succeeds, but points to a new path which must be explored. In the six years since the release of this album, the duo has continued to explore this fusion of classical and rock/pop music. If this review has piqued your curiosity, you must check out their website and YouTube channel for more...
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