Classical Music is Dead*

””””””’Classical””””””’Music

Posted in music, our shallow deep thoughts by Sugar Vendil on 01/23/2011

My curiosity was sparked…no, ignited! after reading Classical Resolutions: Missy Mazzoli Defies Dogma, Demands Diversity on NPR’s Deceptive Cadence blog regarding ‘acceptance within the increasingly isolated, grumpy and dogmatic world of “classical music.”‘ Mazzoli writes about the struggle of composers to be taken seriously as classical musicians, including her own:

Some critics have claimed my recent album Cathedral City is not classical music, even though it is fully notated, uses several instruments straight out of the orchestra, harmonies straight out of Stravinsky and was written by a composer straight out of music school. Huh?

What’s interesting about this is that even after the final product, which is the sound, the fact that it is ‘fully notated,’ the fact that there are sophisticated elements involved, and that the composer came ‘straight out of music school’ are what is supposed to imply serious classical music. The album received a positive review from Pitchfork, yet the ‘classical’ label is desired. About Monk and Britelle’s albums, listed under the world and pop genres on iTunes, respectively, she asks:

Why is the classical music world not clambering to claim this excellent music for its own? Because its creators use repetition as a compositional tool? Because they write triads? Is it the electric guitars? The drums? Is it that the composers don’t look or act like the “composers” we read about in music history class? Let it go!

First off, I always thought Britelle listed his albums under pop because they would reach bigger audiences that way, and perhaps Monk’s label could have been thinking the same thing. Anyway, this is intriguing because 1) we would think one would find it liberating to not be considered ‘classical’; 2) it seems important for one to be considered ‘classical,’ or one step above pop music (totally understandable, considering the exorbitant amount of money we’ve spent on music lessons our whole lives); 3) this post is about not worrying that one’s music is smart enough, yet a concern is expressed about being considered classical enough.

I can completely understand this contradiction. For example, I’ve never gone to conservatory and sometimes I want to audition for something academic or ‘respectable,’ (such as Ensemble ACJW or BANFF)  or apply for a doctorate (even though I don’t want to be a professor) while we are overloaded with work at NCP, which is one of my life’s passions. The classical world is a world I’m a part of and of course how I’m perceived as a musician matters to me. Sometimes, however, I sit back and think, ‘Whatever. I do what I want!’ and try not to care about how good I seem to others. Because everyone’s too busy worrying about themselves, right?

I empathize with the desire to be taken seriously. But I really want to know–composers! Thoughts? So I’ve emailed a couple of composers and hopefully they’ll send me their input. This post will be updated as I receive responses, which will appear below. And I want to hear yours too…hello, comments section!

Composer Feedback

Ryan Manchester:

I agree with the idea of composers writing the music they truly want to hear regardless of who accepts it. The problem now is, and has always been, authenticity. In the academy, that is more apparent because how can one be truly authentic when writing such esoteric music? Today, many genres are mixed together in a single piece and creates many layers that can serve as distractions from a personal voice. Not to pick on New Amsterdam Records because I like the idea of mixing many different influences, but some of the albums still need work. The compositional technique is there and strong, but the feeling is lost and many times feels and sounds stale.  Conversely, Matt Marks’s The Little Death Vol. 1 is music for crazy people, but each track is successful in revealing the composer’s intent.  It is a very fine, subjective line when innovations in new music start to catch on because the composers are still experimenting with ways to successfully write.  It will be exciting to see the developments in successful genre blending. Regardless of opinion, successfully challenging the notion of style such as New Amsterdam has done, should be encouraging for all composers no matter what style.

Izzi Ramkissoon:

The fear of traditions falling have prevalent since the times of Copernicus who discovered the earth is not the center of the universe and then he was persecuted for being thoughtful, deeply interested or serious about astronomy.

Who cares about being a labeled as a classical composer or being intelligent?  The term classical composer is a conservative old fashioned point of view and in a subtle way an oppressive term, used to control and alienate people from elitist circles.  If any music is to survive it is necessary not to alienate people with the smug attitude of fear but to communicate relevant ideas to both large and small communities.  The implications of being a classical composer has severe limitations that relate to a different generation and attitude of musicians.  Is classical music still for the aristocracy? or is it for a wider audience.  Things change.  Things change like slavery in the United States, women’s rights, systems for social organization etc.. if things never changed we all might still be slaves and peasants with dukes and arch bishops.

An intelligent composition is that one that requires the capacity to use abstract thought, understanding, communication, reasoning, learning, planning, learning from past experiences and problem solving, that’s just the Wiki of intelligence.  So, using that as a reference point an intelligent composition is any piece of music created utilizing these abilities.  I would also add creativity, individuality, expression, since intelligence does not always communicate musical emotion and the performance art aspect of music.  Some individuals think the only way to produce an intelligent composition is through classical methods, but there are other ways to make something sound intelligent other than notation.  For example Miles Davis, a jazz artist, sounds intelligent with his music and so does electronic artist Squarepusher in his approach to editing.  Are they any less intelligent in their composition techniques than Philip Glass?

In regards to the term serious: I do believe everyone would like to be taken seriously in their life, so would composers.  That shows respect for the amount of time, effort, thought and work put into any given piece of music.  The time and effort spent on creating an electro-acoustic multimedia composition is very different than the time spent on a classical piece of music.  A different set of skills for a different era of music.  Music must be relevant to the time in which it was created.  I would say classical performers are allowed preserve the tradition of music because we love to hear them, but composers of today write music that is relevant, thoughtful, and imaginative and captures the feeling of today.  Also, if a performer chooses to be a part of history, rather than play it, and play new works, be aware of modern musical practices. This has also been an obstacle for modern composers.  They deal with the same persecution Copernicus dealt with.

I wrote a lot more about this subject.  But, I’m really just ranting about newly graduated young musicians who only know Bach, Beethoven, or Bartok.  Nothing wrong with that I learned about them too, but learn about Earl Brown, John Cage, Alvin Lucier, Jimi Hendrix, Aphex Twin, Morton Subotnick, etc.. and have an open mind.  There’s so much more to music as an art form.  Music is a performance art.  Love classical, love hip-hop, love russian folk song, love music, stop the discrimination.

Brooks Frederickson:

The difference between a “serious” composer and a “not-serious” composer is the same difference as calling something a “song” or a “piece of music” – nothing more than just a way for people to categorize music.

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3 Responses

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  1. […] see people blogging everywhere about the future of classical music (the Nouveau Classical Project, Eric Edberg, Greg Sandow, etc.)  and whether it lies in crossover, new medias, new venues, etc. […]

  2. Ashalen Sims said, on 02/10/2011 at 11:20 am

    Hey! I thought of you guys when I saw this:
    http://www.bso.org/bso/mods/content1_no_title.jsp?id=42800026


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