Wednesday, July 14, 2010

In defence of "classical"

Elissa Milne reports on the Classical Music Futures Summit, where keynote speaker Greg Sandow and a number of other participants expressed their frustration with the label "classical," and suggested that the term be banned "from advocacy, advertising and conversation". The idea is that the term has institutional and social overtones that turn people away. "Classical" doesn't indicate something significant about the music - its only content is social snobbery and smug elitism. A persuasive advocate for this position is Alex Ross, in his classic (heh) essay "Listen to This":
I hate “classical music”: not the thing but the name. It traps a tenaciously living art in a theme park of the past. It cancels out the possibility that music in the spirit of Beethoven could still be created today. It banishes into limbo the work of thousands of active composers who have to explain to otherwise well-informed people what it is they do for a living. The phrase is a masterpiece of negative publicity, a tour de force of anti-hype.

I wonder, though, if our eagerness to ditch the "classical" label isn't misplaced? As a young, callow student, I was fond of reminding people that "classical" only means the music of the late eighteenth century, and shouldn't be applied to the Western literate tradition in general. Now, older and somewhat less callow, I realize that this was wrong - the term "classical" is applied to eighteenth-century European music only by analogy with the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome, whose ideals the Enlightenment musicians tried to emulate. And the Greeks and Romans themselves were classic because later civilizations considered them to be classicus (that is, "of the highest class"). When we say that the Iliad is a "classic," we mean that, although it may be old, its quality sets it apart as still worth reading today. This is presumably also what we mean when we define a particular historic repertory as "classical."

There's another sense in which my younger self was wrong, though; to draw distinctions unnecessarily can be a form of intellectual one-upmanship. Your average person knows what he means when he says "classical music" - he means a work from the past, played on acoustic instruments by trained performers reading off notation. He may associate the term with various unpleasant aspects of the orchestral concert experience - sitting quietly in an uncomfortable seat with no legroom, surrounded by elderly people in suits who glare at him when he coughs or claps at the wrong time - but those aspects are not inseparable from the word "classical". That is, an informal concert of Beethoven in a park would still be "classical," but a U2 concert in Symphony Hall under the conditions I've just described is clearly not "classical." The essential, non-negotiable elements of "classical music," for our man-on-the-street, are its use of particular acoustic instruments and vocal styles, the fact that it's written in notation, and the fact that the work is being performed many years after the fact by a person other than the composer. One might quibble with this definition - it excludes improvised music, and much experimental and electronic composition of the last century - but there's no denying that these characteristics constitute a workable description of the literate Western tradition of classical music, from Palestrina to Ferneyhough. To turn to our hypothetical gentleman and tell him that, actually, we don't like the term "classical," and we'd like to use a different word of our own choosing that tells people just what we're all about, is to condescend to him, and he's likely to resent it.

The broader point, perhaps, is one of humility. No-one gets to pick his own nickname, and least of all does an artistic movement have the privilege of doing so. When you think about it, in fact, all of the terms we use to periodicize music history are factually incorrect. The Middle Ages are only "middle" if you believe they were an tiresome period of misery in which people twiddled their thumbs in between the ancient Roman Empire and the Renaissance; the "rebirth" of the Renaissance, meanwhile, was itself really just the culmination of a period of intellectual vibrancy in the late medieval period. "Baroque," "Rococo" and "Impressionist" were all terms of critical opprobrium, bitterly resented the artists who worked in those periods. The "Classical" period was really "Neo-Classical," and the Romantic period included many other intellectual strands besides Romanticism. "Modernism," meanwhile, is getting less and less modern with every passing minute. Yet all of these terms are useful in casual discourse to define a particular area of artistic endeavour. More experienced musicians quickly discover the limits of these terms - the lines between them are blurry, the specific traits they define difficult to pin down - but they provide a useful way of communicating quickly with others.

What is the real problem with the word "classical"? It's not that the connotations of the term "classical" fail to describe the works performed by "classical" musicians. If John Cage and Pauline Oliveros are difficult to reconcile with this Everyman's definition of "classical", that's to be expected - the point of their work was precisely to challenge musical conventions and stretch conventional barriers. If many contemporary composers fail to fit into the "classical" mould, that's probably just as well for them - they'll probably get more listeners without it. But in terms of the mainstream of performance practice, the repertoire that is taught at conservatories and university music departments, the music that is studied in music history and theory classes, there is very little music that stretches the average person's definition of the term "classical music".

No, the problem has more to do with the nature of the word itself. The words "classical" and "classic" are terms of approbation - they signify a work from the past that is of proven quality and value. But one doesn't have to be a particularly astute observer of modern life to observe that contemporaneity is valued more than permanence, current relevance more than past success. With an infinity of new entertainment options on the television and computer, what could Beethoven's Ninth have to say to me? It's not so much that anyone disagrees with the implicit endorsement implied by the term "classical"; rather, it's simply considered as irrelevant. This chronological bias is combined with a certain lingering antinomianism: can we trust the authority that deemed this symphony to be of lasting value? Isn't the idea of hierarchy inherently elitist?

The fact is, though, that old books and old music do still have much to say to us today. Their longevity is not a proof of irrelevance, but rather the opposite: an indication that they were found relevant in times and places far removed from the ones where they were written. But if we are to make a case for music written hundreds of years ago, surely the first order of business is to rehabilitate terms like "classical"? People aren't stupid - if they think that music from the past means music that is irrelevant and boring, they're going to stay away from your concert of Mozart piano trios whether you put "classical" on the poster or not.

The challenge, then, is not to come up with a new, snazzy name for music of the Western literate tradition. Instead, we need creativity in performance, marketing and concert programming. We need to show how music from the past can be related to today's realities, and we also need to show how it can be relevant in and of itself. It's not enough just to stress the "contemporary relevance" of Mozart operas without building a long-term audience that appreciates the music on its own terms; neither is it enough to simply present the operas as though they were self-explanatory without any further context or attempts at education. What we need, in short, is an Aristotleian mean between the extremes of ivory-tower insularity and pandering hucksterism, combined with the absolute highest standards of excellence in performance and scholarship. Attempting to rename the "classical" genre may be an interesting exercise, but in the long run it is likely to be neither possible nor desirable.


cnb said...

Exactly so. The challenge is to cultivate interest in and understanding of the music, not tinker with the name. Personally I don't think that the "classical" term is itself a turn-off for most people.

The greater problem is that the music, its conventions - and therefore its way of communicating -- are so unfamiliar that people don't understand it. It "all sounds the same" -- which, to be fair, is a pretty good description of most classical radio. Or it sounds like "one damn thing after another" -- which is how I felt when I first began listening to large-scale compositions and didn't understand about subjects, counter-subjects, development, etc. The music just seemed chaotic. Or, "it's irritating", which could just mean that it demands one's attention when it is heard, or it could have to do with adventurous harmonies and unfamiliar aural textures.

Anyway, none of these issues has anything to do with what the music is called, and changing the name will change nothing of consequence.

Andrew W. said...

Osbert, yes yes and yes!

Am I nuts to think that a big problem with institutional classical music right now is the fact that Greg Sandow is a keynote speaker on the future of classical msuic in North America?

Is there someone more full of self-loathing, of guilt around the very thing he is trying to save? I don't know if you read his recent posts on the Pulitzer, but it seems to me that he won't stop "saving" classical (or whatever he wants to call it now) music until none of the institutions that actually support classical music have disappeared.

He functions as a kind of avatar for the management class within the classical music industry - he is all about the manufactured crisis of classical music.

I have more to say about this but I feel I should write my own post!

By the way Osbert, I hope you're having a great summer!

Osbert Parsley said...

I think Sandow's efforts to "save" classical music are perfectly sincere. The problem is that he, like most of the people who now run our major institutions, was brought up in the 1970s and still thinks in those terms. Classical music is thus blamed for being the elitist preserve of a fading bourgeois class who use their power and influence to crush the genuine artistic expression of the people (ie: popular music). From this viewpoint, "saving" classical music means finding a way to reconcile its value with the leftist cultural criticism of forty years ago. The problem is that the youth culture is not the same as it was forty years ago - where students in the Vietnam War-era were often idealistic, politically engaged and anti-authoritarian, students today tend to be pragmatic careerists with little use for ideology. They avoid classical music, not as a way of "speaking truth to power", but because it seems irrelevant, superfluous, and difficult to understand. This is part of Craig's point above, I think - that many people simply can't make any sense out of classical music as a listening experience, and thus don't perceive any content in it, bourgeois or otherwise. If the average person were really able to discern postcolonial or patriarchal subtexts in a Beethoven symphony, it'd be an improvement, because it'd indicate an ability to parse the meaning of a musical score, even in a simplistic manner.

Unfortunately, this sort of thinking is becoming increasingly prevalent as aging hippies take over our major institutions, armed with visionary solutions to problems that no longer exist. Yesterday's radical critique of society has become today's managerial orthodoxy.

Anyway. It's been a good summer so far - miserably hot, which makes practicing the organ a bit of a chore, but I've had some successful performances this summer, and the usual wandering around to conferences, festivals, and so on. I hope you're doing well, and that I'll be seeing a new post from you in the feed reader before long!

Anne said...

You are right on the money.