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The Most Bizarre Musical Category: "Classical"

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Title : The Most Bizarre Musical Category: "Classical"
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The Most Bizarre Musical Category: "Classical"

The most embarrassing moment, for some composers at least, is when they have to answer the question: "what kind of music do you write?" It is embarrassing for so many reasons: first, because if you had any public profile at all the question would not need to be asked; it is embarrassing because you don't know how to answer it in fewer than 1,000 words; it is embarrassing because if this were after a concert of your music the question would also be unnecessary; but most of all, it is embarrassing because we really don't have a suitable name for what we do.

It sounds weird saying you write "classical music" because, as Frank Zappa pointed out, that was all written by dead white guys in wigs. I usually default to "contemporary classical" but that just has the wrong resonances and I don't really know what it means. "Classical music" as a genre term is hopelessly vague and general. What comes to mind is either Beethoven V or Mozart Eine Kleine and neither is anything like what I write. A popular term used to be "new music" but I think the juggernaut of commercial pop music has run that one over.

I think the truth is that classical music, especially that being composed today, is either a kind of fringe category of experimental pop music or it is simply an embarrassment to the musical world and probably racist and sexist. This is likely because the only way to really understand the category "classical" is through aesthetics and judgements of quality and we don't do that any more. From the perspective of the music business it is embarrassing that classical music even exists as its earnings are shamefully tiny. It seems like an archaic holdover from another era when it mattered. Ok, yeah, it is still something of a tourist attraction in Europe, like beer fests and dirndls, but as a viable and dynamic musical genre? Probably not.

And contemporary classical? Embarrassingly tiny earnings even compared to classical generally. Really, there is no point in even bothering with any of it. So, it makes perfect sense to start shoehorning in experimental pop and jazz pieces into the "classical category" at the Grammys. It is probably just a matter of time before the category is dropped altogether, after all it has no commercial importance.

Mind you, if you want to understand music from an historical and aesthetic point of view, well that is a whole other story. The truth is that "classical" music just does not fit into the modern commercial music categories.

The True Nature of Classical Music

That whole self-deprecating exercise was to show, I hope, that the usual approaches, trying to describe the qualities of classical music, trying to fit it into contemporary commercial music categories, defining it by the fact of notation and so on, really miss the mark. What classical music is, is a tradition and the only real function of the name is to alert us to the historical continuity of the tradition. We could call it art music or concert music or whatever, as long as we stipulate that whatever term we use it is simply a marker to refer to the music that originated in Western Europe during the dark ages in the form of Gregorian and other forms of chant and was elaborately developed through notation, counterpoint, harmony, voice-leading and many other devices, also mainly in Western Europe from the 12th century especially, and continues to this day.

Each composer creates or invents their own approach to the tradition, taking part of it, rejecting other parts, developing certain aspects and neglecting others. John Cage, for example, rejected just about the entire content of the tradition, and that was his relationship to the tradition. Steve Reich took one dimension of the tradition and developed it almost exclusively. Composers in the tradition can also absorb influences from outside the tradition: Bartók folk music of central and eastern Europe, Stravinsky Russian folk traditions, Haydn Hungarian folk musics, Steve Reich again, African drumming structures, Debussy Asian traditions. Someone like Toru Takemitsu is a fascinating blend of traditions: Japanese traditional music, obviously, but also American jazz and European classical traditions.

There is a great deal of music, probably most music created today, that really does not come from this tradition, essentially ignores this tradition, which is fine. But that music should not be called "classical music" and no disrespect intended. It just owes its allegiance to other traditions. Popular music around the world has taken certain elements from the classical tradition, but it has altered them to the extent that it is safe to say that nothing is owed now to that particular tradition.

The great clanging dissonance comes from trying to fit classical music into modern commercial categories. If classical music has commercial or economic dimensions, and certainly in some places it does, the Salzburg Tourist Bureau, for example, that is really incidental to its actual nature and character.

So please, let's just drop the classical category from the Grammys entirely and if necessary, set up a separate institution just for it.

Here is a performance that is an excellent demonstration of classical music best understood. The Norwegian Chamber Orchestra with Verklärte Nacht by Arnold Schoenberg.

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