“Classical” music: Ah, you’re Indians!

Dinner parties with strangers are notoriously dangerous ground for me, and, I think, for most composers. Inevitably, as the group deals with the appropriate small talk, someone asks “what kind of music do you write?” This question seems innocuous to them; they really only mean it as a way of getting to know me better. They really don’t understand how difficult something like that is to answer. When answering that question, one has to judge not only how much or how little that person knows about music in general, but also how much or how little they actually want to learn about MY music.

My answer should probably be something like this: “I write texture-based chamber, choral, band, and orchestral music that often equally integrates both electronic instruments and acoustic instruments and which is informed by all of the compositional techniques and languages from the last century; the goal of which is to capture a moment, express an idea or emotion, and generally to cause an audience member or listener to have an experience of some kind.”

But that’s a lot.

Maybe I’m underestimating the strangers with whom I attend dinner parties, but I’ve always assumed that’s more than someone wants to hear as an answer to that question. My real answer is this: “I write avant-garde classical music.” It’s short, it’s to the point, and it does, in some way, actually give a person an idea of what my music is like. Moreover, it leaves some openness for more questioning, if someone is actually interested in going down that rabbit hole with me.

Some people would have a problem with my usage of the term “classical” to describe my music. The technical definition of “classical music” is music that was written in Western Europe from about 1750-1850. That’s not my music. In fact, that’s not anyone’s music that has been alive for the last 150 years. But this means that there are several generations of composers who have no words to describe their music. The music that we write isn’t pop music, it isn’t jazz, it’s not rock, and if it isn’t “classical,” then what the hell is it? How should we describe it to potential listeners? What can we say that will give them some idea of what we do and also allow them the option of learning more without feeling intellectually alienated by an incomprehensible stream of music-specific terminology?

Several terms have been proposed or used over the years in an effort to remedy this situation. Some call this music “art music,” some “serious music,” even “legitimate music.” The rather offensive implication of these terms is that other genres are “not art,” “not serious,” or “not legitimate.” Some call it “concert music,” which, of course, absurdly means that no other music has ever or will ever be performed in a concert. “Orchestral music” is an attractive candidate, but implies a specific ensemble and excludes others. Can one really say that a piece written for string quartet is “orchestral?” Furthermore, the term “orchestral” tells us very little about what the music sounds like. Composers like Philip Glass and Arnold Schoenberg have both written for, recorded with, and performed with orchestras, but so have Ray Charles and Metallica.

The two most recent candidate terms that I have seen are “notated music” and “composed music.” These two terms came to me via blogs that were mentioned to me by colleagues. They certainly seem attractive at first, but I believe that, just like all the other terms mentioned above, neither actually does an effective job of telling us about the music they are attempting to describe.

“Composed music” comes from music journalist and radio producer Craig Havighurst. You can read his blog on the subject here. “Notated music” ultimately comes from Steve Reich, but is brought up again by Ethan Hein whose blog you should read here.

For those of you who are too lazy to do that (no judgement), here’s the abridged version: Havighurst likes “composed music” because it venerates the composer again. He says it implies music that comes from “a singular mind, fixed and promulgated in written form” as well as a particular restraint and “composure” that is expected of us when we listen to this music. Hein, whose blog is actually an excellent critique of Havighurst’s term, points out the reek of exclusionist privilege that permeates Havighurst’s concept of “composed” music. He also draws attention to the fact that, really, all music is composed in one way or another. Lastly, Hein proposes Reich’s “notated music” as an alternative. There’s actually a lot more to be said here, but it’s not entirely pertinent to this particular conversation, so it will have to wait until another time.

The creators behind these two terms are forgetting, or perhaps ignoring, two extremely important things about genre terminology. The first really has to do with the nature of language. Language is a means of expressing or describing something in the absence of that thing. In other words, the only reason that we use the word “chair” is because at some point in time someone had to refer to a chair without being able to point to one and say “this.” The word “chair” creates in us a series of definitions that we understand about chairs. Probably “a place for sitting” is number one on that list for most of us. But those definitions aren’t inherent to the word itself; they had to be taught to us over time. This is why if I say “chair” to someone who doesn’t speak English, it doesn’t mean anything to them, and similarly why if I say “get off the chair” to my cat, he does absolutely nothing.

This same concept should be applied to genre terminology. We create words to define the differences between different kinds of music. But the terms we create only have meaning if there is a common understanding of their definition. “Composed music” is meaningless to the layperson; as is “notated music.” If I have to explain the definition of the terminology I’m using then I’m back to square one. Why would I waste time doing that, when I could just as easily actually explain my music itself to them? In fact, the only people to whom “classical music” is not an effective descriptor are those with enough musical knowledge that other preexisting musical terminology, like “minimalist” or “post-serial,” is already meaningful and serves as a better descriptor.  These are academic words that only academics are arguing over.

To the layperson, the word “classical” doesn’t mean “music written by Western European men between 1750 and 1850.” It means “music typically composed for acoustic instruments from the orchestral families and/or voices and performed in a particular kind of concert setting.” The proof of this is the fact that the vast majority of people consider contemporary film scores to be “classical” music. Frankly, that description is pretty close to what I do. Adding the words “chamber,” or “electroacoustic,” or “avant-garde” gets the definition close enough that someone will actually know what I’m describing to them and that’s the only point of having words to explain genre.

The second point that those focused on creating new terms for music are forgetting is a product of the first. It is this: we don’t actually get to decide what our music is called. Debussy famously railed against the idea that his music would be classified as “impressionism,” yet every music history textbook that I have ever seen places him in that movement. In fact, John Adams, Arnold Schoenberg and Steve Reich have all attempted to reject the genre labels that have ended up being applied to them. Yet three quick searches for these composers’ names on iTunes reveal this gem:
UntitledIt’s probably also worth mentioning that Josquin Des Prez, and Gerard Grisey both come up under this same genre in iTunes.

Louis CK makes this point well as he discusses how white people ruined America.

CK’s remark, “ah! You’re Indians!” has come to be my mantra when discussing new terminology for “classical” music. No matter what terms we invent to try and better define what we do, people are still going to call it classical music. People aren’t concerned with the start and end dates of a particular aesthetic movement when they ask what kind of music you write. To correct them about their terminology, or to try and teach them some new definition, is fundamentally disrespectful to the fact that someone just expressed an interest in what you do! If we ever want to make our music relevant to the world at large we need to meet people where they are by describing what we do in ways that actually mean something to them. We have enough battles to fight as living composers without fighting people about the name they call our music.

I don’t care if people call it classical music, as long as they call it something.

For more from Stephen Bailey, you can visit his website here.

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