Thursday, 2 February 2017

Classical music — the definition

Continuing from my last post, about how to define classical music…

My students — in my Juilliard course on classical music's future — came up with a definition that I think works. It happens to be the definition I worked out years ago for myself, but I didn't lead the students to it. They found it on their own.

It's in two parts.

First, classical music is the music of the European tradition. Both the art and entertainment music, it's important to say. Because we have the idea that classical music is, by nature, high art. But in past centuries, music in Europe was created and performed all over the artistic map, maybe more often for entertainment than for any higher purpose.

So, the music of the European tradition. Nothing more than that, nothing less. Note, though, that more than a third of my class is Asian, four students out of 11. I had to be careful not to say or imply that the European tradition is the most important in the world. But certainly it's important! Contributes strongly to the cultural mix we have now.

Going on with the definition

So now the second — and I think crucial — part of what I think classical music is. It's music laid out in advance by a composer, typically in full detail. By which I mean that the composer writes out — using musical notation — exactly what notes the musicians should play. We know that in past centuries musicians added improvisations to what the composer wrote, but still they were playing notated music. I think that's unique, or almost unique, among all the musical traditions of the world.

There's a refinement to this. Ever since John Cage (approximately), we've also had music where the composer, rather than writing out all the notes, sets a process in motion. Once the process is going, the music might generate itself automatically. As in Alvin Lucier's Music on a Long Thin Wire, in which the long, thin wire is set vibrating in a resonant space, and over many hours the sounds it makes change quite strikingly.

Or else, once the process is going, the musicians decide what to play, within the composer's framework. As in John Cage's Variations IV, where musicians are given a transparent plastic sheet, with marks on it. They place the sheet over a map of the performance space, and do things in the places on the map where the marks fall. (This is a simplified description, but that's essentially what happens.) So you're still in Cage's orbit, when you play this piece.

Why this matters

This definition works wonders when you want to say why classical music is valuable.

First, it tells you that classical music gives you a window into European culture and history. Which can be compelling — if we approach it, not from a classical music perspective, but from an historical one. Starting from a classical music perspective (which is what I think we usually do) goes something like this: "Here's a Beethoven masterpiece. When he wrote it, XYZ was going on in his life, and the history of music than changed in XYZ ways because of what Beethoven wrote."

To care about that, you have to care about Beethoven. Which our new audience doesn't, not yet. To approach from a historical perspective would work much better, in my view. "Here's Europe in the early 19th century. A lot of excitement, a lot of new things. Industry developing, political revolutions. All of this of course was reflected in the art of the time, and here's how it changed music." Start with something inherently interesting, and let the music flow out of that.

But with part two of the definition things get really cool. If the composer lays out the path to follow, well, if the composer is a great artist, following the path isn't easy to do. You need focus and discipline. And you need to mobilize yourself! When Beethoven reaches the heights, you have to reach them with him. You have to give everything in you to get where Beethoven got, in a way so strong that we hear instantly where Beethoven went.

Not the easiest thing in the world. Really a great accomplishment, to do this well. I wouldn't hesitate for a moment to introduce new people to classical music in this way. Remembering, too, that sometimes the challenges are light-hearted. To be funny when Haydn is funny. Or they're technical.

Once, when I was working with the Pittsburgh Symphony, helping to create and then hosting a concert series, we had a violinist playing the Sarasate Carmen Fantasy. Before he played, he showed the audience what the hardest passages were, and explained why they're hard to play. (We even projected the musical notation, for those who read music.)

Then, when he played the piece, the audience was ready for him. Knew what his great challenges were, and could listen with marvelous expectation to see how he'd meet them. And then share his triumph, when he succeeded brilliantly.

In class I used a personal example — singing large parts of the role of Iago, in Verdi's Otello, when I was a voice student. I'd also sung Scarpia, and that was fun. I could play with the music, make it work many ways.

But Iago was different. Here Verdi had done great things, before I ever came on the scene. No matter how much I sang the music, I felt that Verdi had something deeper, more specific, more telling in mind that anything I'd thought of. And that my job was finding what that was, and bringing it alive in my performance.

That wasn't a restriction. It was a great kind of liberation. It took me into something greater than myself.

How we got here

I'll finish by saying how we got to those definitions. We first rejected definitions of classical music that I've found in dictionaries. For details, see my last post.

These dictionary definitions don't in fact define classical music. They don't tell you anything objective about it, which you could then use to decide what's a classical piece and what isn't.

Instead they point at the music, telling us it's symphonies, operas, chamber music. Or they point at what it isn't, saying it's not pop music, folk music, or jazz.

Or they evaluate it, saying it's "educated" or "sophisticated."

They might as well define mammals as "superior  animals, like cows or dogs, as distinct from reptiles and birds" Without saying the crucial things, which are that mammals are warm-blooded, give birth to live babies, and then nurse them.

We rejected all that…

…and looked at connotations of classical music, things that might not be part of its objective nature, but which people think are central to understanding it. That it's "serious music," for instance, or "art music," terms that used to be in frequent use.

But if that's what classical music is, then other kinds of music aren't serious, and aren't art. Usually when people think that, they're thinking of pop music. But whatever pop might be (a long discussion), if only classical music is serious or art, what are we saying about jazz? And what are we saying about music from other cultures? Is western classical music more serious, more art than Indian classical music? Let's not go there. That way lies arrogance. (And colonialism.)

So then is classical music calm, as many people quite sincerely say? (That's why they say they listen to it.) Is it a refuge from a noisy, troubled world?

Some people think this, with passionate sincerity. But when you define something as calm, or as a refuge, then it really isn't art anymore. Art is more varied than that, can be rougher, even confrontational. Or so it's been throughout its history. Classical music included! Did Beethoven's music seem calm, when he was alive? Some of it frightened people. Even a composer as harmless, we might think, as Rossini had a powerful effect. People fainted during the prayer from his opera Mosé in Egitto, and were also overcome by what they heard as a powerful eroticism, in a duet from Armida.

So how about the complexity of classical music? Many people think classical music is defined, or at least is notable for its complexity, as opposed to other kinds of music.

But of course some classical music isn't complex. And other kinds of music have complexities of their own. African drumming, for instance, has rhythms classical musicians never dreamed of. (And can't hear or play.) Musicologists have analyzed pop in recent decades, and found complexities there. (See, for instance, Robert Walser's classic book, Running with the Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music.)

After we'd reject3d all these things as definitions of classical music, the students went deeper, and suggested the definition we ended with. A definition that, for me and for them, really tells us something.

Original Content: Classical music — the definition

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