Instant Classic

Norway's Sissel mixes classical songs with pop trappings. And it works.

See Sissel sing (say that five times fast)

Sheldon Concert Hall

It might be Jeff Lynne of ELO's fault, what with his electric lights and his orchestra. Cocaine may have played a role too. At the very onset of the Reagan years, some brilliant thinker at RCA Records (sniff) was inspired to believe that breathing new life into classical music would be a masterstroke of marketing prowess, that it was just the sort of thing the world needed. The executives at RCA took a leap of faith and did something unprecedented, perhaps even noble, depending on your perspective: They humored that brilliant thinker.

The result of all that think-tank high-fiving was a bewildering medley of classical favorites, arranged with a monotonous disco backbeat and performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. In 1981 "Hooked on Classics" enjoyed a few months in regular rotation and became a hit single, spawning an entire series of novelty recordings in the same vein (including "Hooked on Swing," because the people of the '80s couldn't figure out how to dance to big band). Soon, Polovtsian dances joined the Bump on club floors, and classical fusion was not just for burnouts anymore.

These early forays into genre-bending of this sort yielded some questionable outcomes. But there are those who thought it was all just wonderful, as if a gap had been bridged between worlds and intellectual commerce between strangers could begin in earnest.

The genie has not returned to the bottle, but since those early days, some of the motives and clunky, simplistic concepts that gave us the "Hooked on Classics" series have smoothed to become "classical crossover." Not content with simply plopping incongruous beats onto traditionally orchestrated recordings, classical crossover artists and producers seem more interested in exploring the middle ground between pop and classical, working with modern instruments and sensibilities to infuse timeless symphonic vintages and the mindsets that created them with a new spirit. The results of these explorations aren't nearly as questionable as the "pioneering" of the '80s.

Currently, the leader of the pack in this strange new world is Sissel Kyrkjebø (known to the world by her nom-de-Cher, Sissel), the vocalist whose ethereally tidal vocals on the 1997 Titanic score gave us another reason to question Celine Dion's validity. With her latest release on Sony Classical, My Heart, Sissel mixes things up in fine fashion, turning in deeply personal, modern renderings of sacred and secular classics alongside new compositions, all in a voice with the prismatic brilliance and clarity of Waterford crystal.

"When we started working on [My Heart], we worked with different producers, and I felt like it was very much what I wanted it to be like," says the charmingly talkative Norwegian, who's been a pop-folk favorite in her homeland since early youth. "I felt very much comfortable trying out different styles I've always done. I really got the chance to do [on the record] what I've always been doing. Suddenly, it was okay to do that. I started as a sixteen-year-old singer professionally. When I released my first album, I was mixing all kinds of music. I was doing a little bit of classical and a little bit of pop, so I've always done that. Actually, I had a big problem; record companies didn't know where to put me because there was nothing called 'classical crossover' in '86, so I was put on a pop label.

"I don't look at myself as a classical singer or a pop singer -- I just sing the music that I like. For me, when this style called 'classical crossover' suddenly came up, I thought, wow, this is perfect for me, because now I can do whatever I want. As long as I do a classical song every now and then, I can do whatever I want in between. And I love classical music. I've always been singing it at home. I think it's very good that there is this 'crossover' feel. It opens it up for everybody. Everybody can take part and everybody can listen."

They don't come more "everybody" than Sissel's 1997 collaboration with Warren G for the tag-team rendition of Alexander Borodin's nineteenth-century masterpiece "Prince Igor." The track appeared on The Rapsody Overture, a compilation of (yep!) rap versions of classical compositions, and enjoyed hit-status on the east side of the Atlantic thanks to MTV Europe. "Hooked on Classics" it was not. An excerpt from Warren G's verse proclaims:

"And you know what I discover/ What they keep sayin'/Keep your mind and your money, motherfuckers/And shake busters."

From there, Sissel takes over in the original Russian:

"Fly on the wings of the wind/To the homeland, our home song/Where we sang, freely loving/Where me and you felt so freely."

Sissel's undeniable cool might rock the kids drinking forties of Pilsner Urquell in European ghettos, but what about those wack-ass haters in the classical world?

"[Classical] people have really liked my music and liked what I've done with it," says Sissel. "I've really gotten a lot of good feedback about how I've sold it as an artist and a singer and, of course, I'm very happy for that. But these songs mean a lot to me. I don't do them just to do them -- I do them because I like them and they're important for me, because I have something to tell.

"I know that when I'm doing 'Mon cæur s'ouvre à la voix' from [Saint-Saëns' 1877 opera] Samson et Dalila, there are some classical people saying, 'Oh, but this is terrible because it takes away too much of it; they've played around with it.' Really, it's another way of using a beautiful song. When classical people play pop and rock songs, I guess they also do it with a great respect for the music, but they do it their way. The important thing is to do it with respect on a level that you can manage as a musician. I think [experimentation] is wonderful. That's what music is. It's freedom."

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