Primary tabs

Just Don't Call it Classical

October 17, 2011

Peter Tchaikovsky and Steven ReichMy SFCV colleague Matt Cmiel is also an enterprising composer who, while still a teenager, founded a new-music ensemble called Formerly Known as Classical. Its latest incarnation is the After Everything Ensemble. In a remarkably short time, in other words, he and his mates have gone from questioning the relevance of the “C-word” for the music they make to adopting a “postlabeling” stance.

They’re not the only ones. The PostClassical Ensemble in Washington, D.C., bills itself as an “experimental musical laboratory,” whose programming this season includes a flamenco-studded reimagining of Manuel de Falla’s El amor brujo, a “recontextualization” of late works of Schubert newly arranged for bass trombone, and a series of cabaret evenings by “artists that transcend boundaries of style.” You could pile example on example of these events, artists, and ensembles, beginning, perhaps, with the Bang on a Can All-Stars — really, a rock rhythm section plus electric guitar, amplified cello, and clarinet/reeds. (“Freely crossing the boundaries between classical, jazz, rock, world and experimental music, this amplified ensemble has consistently forged a distinct category-defying identity, taking music into uncharted territories,” they say of themselves.)

So, what comes out of this attempt to relabel or retire the word classical from the music made by classically trained and influenced contemporary musicians? Is it merely an attempt to avoid association with a term that seems to turn off large segments of potential audience?

Those changes add up to a classical vs. “formerly known as classical” divide that artists are constantly bridging in innovative ways.

Actually, the opposite is more likely true. These artists — a huge number of them by now — do love classical music, but they are naturally exploring the ways in which that music has meaning to contemporary society and to what they do. In the process, as artists always do, they are leading us to a better understanding of what classical music meant in history and why it is still valuable. All of us who think and write about the arts, and those who just love music, owe them a debt of gratitude.

We all know that the sweeping changes that have transformed Earth and its human population over the past century and a quarter had to be expressed in human art. And though the change from year to year is balanced by much that stays the same, cumulatively those changes add up to a classical vs. “formerly known as classical” divide that artists are constantly bridging in innovative ways.

To simplify (probably a bit too much), classical music composition was for many centuries based on the mastery of counterpoint. Josquin des Prez as a choirboy in the 15th-century Netherlands, J.S. Bach in his uncle’s study in the 1690s, Hector Berlioz at the Paris Conservatoire in 19th-century France — all were studying a slightly different variant of that art. And for years, in most cases, not just a semester or two. Richard Wagner, who had a couple of years of this training with Theodor Weinlig, a cantor in Leipzig, counts as practically self-taught in this tradition.

One result of this training, of course, was the legendary speed and facility of nearly all those masters. Mahler wrote all his massive symphonies on short summer holidays. Tchaikovsky wrote the three-hour opera Queen of Spades in 44 days. Handel wrote Messiah faster than his copyists could churn out the parts. Another result was the prominence of beautiful melody, for which the classical greats are justly celebrated. If you write enough melody-against-bass exercises, pulling a fantastic Ave Maria melody out of thin air seems a bit less like an act of God and more like homework.

[Composers today] think in much more detailed ways about theory and cultural meanings than did their classical predecessors.

Another result of that training was an identifiable European tradition, which has certain continuities through the changes of style. Despite the differences, Bach’s keyboard concertos and Schumann’s Piano Concerto are recognizably from the same tradition. Edgard Varese’s Ameriques, not so much.

Contemporary musicians arguably have the more difficult job. Counterpoint hasn’t been jettisoned (at least not by everybody), so if you’re classically trained you have to learn it. But you’re also going to consider a mass of significant compositional variants of it, ranging from “neoclassical” to serialist to the style of individuals like György Ligeti.

Yet that’s only the tip of the iceberg of a huge variety of experimental styles, non-Western musics, popular musics, and more. If you’re a musician today, you’ve likely taken account of Louis Armstrong and The Beatles, even if their sound isn’t apparent in your music. Are there any comparable figures in 18th-century musical history? I don’t know of any.

Today, composers have to come up with ideas for music. It’s not simply a question of writing “good” music; modern composers continually consider their individual voice and what basic approach they should take for a piece. They think in much more detailed ways about theory and cultural meanings than did their classical predecessors. Rossini, for example, never had to explain what he did the way a composer would now.

No wonder musicians are sensitive to labeling these days. They obviously want an open-ended term that will allow for the limitless combinations and collaborations that are now the norm. Just don’t call it classical.

Michael Zwiebach is the senior editor/ content manager for SFCV. He assigns all articles and content, manages the writing staff and does editing. A member of SFCV from the beginning, Michael holds a Ph.D. in music history from the University of California, Berkeley.


I suppose this editorial is in response to anybody who wondered what an article about George Harrison was doing in SFCV.

True, classical musicians today can be influenced by the Beatles, and the Beatles were influenced by (among others) Varese, but that doesn't make the Beatles classical. Nor are outside influences on classical art a new thing. In the 1920s it was jazz, and in the 18th and 19th centuries, folk music. (Pointing out that classical music wasn't influenced by 18th century pop stars the way it's been by 20th century pop stars is a little disingenuous. Who were the 18th century's pop stars?)

Classical music has been, as you point out, a particular tradition. Over the last century that tradition has widened, but it doesn't encompass everything. I'm pleased that you're not arguing that we should simply pursue "good" music wherever it may lead: good music can be good of different kinds, and we need to judge each individually to decide whether it's good in this particular, though widened, tradition.

I'm interested in music of other kinds than classical, and so, I presume, are many readers. But I'm not interested in all of them, and they're not what I come here to read. Space is limited, even online, because of budgetary and authors' and editors' time constraints, and if we broaden our coverage too much, it will cut into the space of what we came here to read.

As yet another classical composer trying to break thru the 4th wall, I've been thinking lately the central issue is the tension between "art" and "entertainment". We want to serve our art to our highest abilities, but we also want to serve a large, YOUNGER public thirsty for artistic entertainment. Esp. considering that only some 8% of Americans care to attend classical music events, it would seem to be theoretically possible to entice a mass audience if we simply repackage (relabel) art as entertainment. Just don't call it "dumbing down"... but rather a much needed "warming up" for curious music lovers.

I have started calling it "concert music", or maybe some times even "serious music", which implies a performance/event in which the audience listens and concentrates on what the music is doing and saying...and are engaged in listening and hearing what the composer and performers have to offer without talking, texting, or having mental distractions and giving the music the full respect it deserves. (Even if you hate it, you will have some basis for the judgement.)

This definition can cover lots of kinds of music from various eras and cultural traditions. It can be entertaining, pure music with or without mental constructs, or physically energizing and emotional moving.

As a music writer, I stopped using the word "classical" some years ago. So much of the popular press, including San Francisco's weeklies, has not just marginalized great music, it has obliterated the music, even the term. In my writing, I just use "music." The context usually tells the reader what I'm talking about. If pressed, I use the term "fine art music." I don't use "art music" for a couple of reasons. It sounds pretentious. "Fine art music" is like painting, a fine art. Also, if we accept the thumbnail definition of art as something that survives and remains popular for 50 years, then the Beatles' music is art (and I agree for so many of their songs).

Clearly this article has struck a chord, as it were, as those who create, perform, appreciate, and enjoy classical music want it to be an ever more living art form that touches more of us. By exchanging thoughts about what moves us and what distinguishes fine art music, or whatever we end up calling it, we engage actively with the music and actually contribute to it.

I look forward to seeing what more SFCVers have to say!

What should we call it?

I think to understand the situation of classical music today, we need to understand history a bit better. I think we all know exactly what classical music is--as the article and all the comments demonstrate. Changing the label is just, uh, changing the label. It is important to realize that the term 'classical' music is a retronym. For all of history, guitars were called guitars. But as soon as the electric guitar was invented a term for non-electric guitars became necessary. Hence the phrase 'acoustic guitar'. Similarly with classical music. Before the rise of popular music as an economic force, all music was just music. Some was played by orchestras in concert halls, some by bands outside and some by rustic fiddlers. As one commentor noted, there were no 18th century pop stars.

The article above seems to depict the question as merely one of marketing. I don't think this really handles the issue. I get into this and some other inconvenient truths in this blog post:

One of the things I hate about classical music (and I play it for a living) is SAYING the 5 clunky syllables. Compared to rock, jazz, or bluegrass, "classical music" just falls to the floor under its own weight. Because we accent the first syllable and the first word, we actually LOWER our pitch slightly, which implies subconciously that we are not so enthusiastic about. I often think we should drop one word or the other or try somthing new age like "clasica" or "the classics". It's the same problem with the words symphony and orchestra and sonata. These Greek and Latin words are quite difficult to pronouncable to new audiences and even worse to spell.

And worse than that is that very few people know WHY it's called "classical" to begin with and why that term refers to a specific era around Haydn & Mozart. It would be worth explaining to newbies as well as reminding (or more likely debating) ourselves.

I remember learning a (simplified) story that Voltaire and the Age of Enlightment thinkers who studied ancient Greek democracy as model for egalitarianism, also looked to the classical period for a model of new art and music. They found the Greeks believed music should reflect a natural flow of inner emotions, which 18th-Century composers subsequently began to adopt in the form of music with two contrasting themes, modulations and "sturm und drang" (literary). The quality of DIALOGUE was very important to changes during the Enlightenment, no? The classical period was responsible for classical music.

I'm sure many will disagree or want to fill in the blanks here.

Any one who thinks that classical music has not changed in our time is completely out of touch with it ! In fact, it's vastly different. There is a certain core repertoire of popular works from the past which are still performed widely, but there is absolutely no lack of new classical music, and a vast amount of long-neglected music has been revived.
The HIP movement,for better or worse, has changed the way much of the music of the past is performed , and there is greater diversity of repertoire being performed and recorded than ever before in the history of Western Classical Music. And the mainstream symphony orchestra, for all the problems which it faces, is very much alive and kicking .
Ensembles performing the music of Palestrina, Josquin, Monteverdi and other composers of centuries ago co-exist with ones for new music , which is good !

We can sit here and debate what is or isn't "Classical" music, but we're missing the real issue entirely. "Classical" music has been and always will be influenced by "popular" music surrounding the composers creating it, whether you're talking Beethoven, Bartok or Bates. The central issue (negative connotations associated) with "Classical" music are derived not from the music, but from the way it's packaged and presented.

Think about ensembles such as Pink Martini, The Knights, or A Far Cry Orchestra in Boston. Rather than trying to re-define the music they perform as "anything but Classical," they are transforming the concert-going experience. No more tuxedos, less formality, and more fun. While Pink Martini fuses classical music with other genres (beautifully, I might add), The Knights and A Far Cry both perform music that is by and large traditional "Classical" music.

What you'll find at their concerts are NOT people grumbling about how boring and outdated the music they perform is. You'll instead find hip musicians, smartly dressed, performing in more casual, yet respectable, settings (not bars) for a younger crowd enjoying the same beautiful music that many traditional concert goers enjoy.

We should be proud of classical music, not ashamed of it.

Classical music can be fresh, light, and fun...while still being passionate, deep, and moving. The problem is that the presenters of this music are stuck in centuries-old traditions.

Cannot agree more with Forster's comment - I think he gets the central issue absolutely right. To my view, this very problem - i.e. associations to come first to a casual listener on hearing such term as classical music, - has its direct imprint on musicians who are trying to describe what they perform in a different way ("anything but classical," right). You see, it is the path of least resistance. Of course, we should be proud of classical music, however for a musician it is simpler to tell outright he or she doesn't have to deal with the scene, associated, as of lately, with snobbery and conservatism. Different term means different connotations - for this reason many musicians decide not to do a thankless task of renewing the concept of classical music and they file their own [music] under a different sauce, that's it.

Talking about musicians who transform the concert-going experience (without trying to re-define the music they perform as "anything but Classical"), James Rhodes immediately comes to mind. It's always a pleasure to read his thoughts on performing live, where he says "one day he is going to ask for someone from the audience to come up on stage and see if they’ve got the guts to play their party piece" or something else of that sort. Check the References section in a Wikipedia article about him - lots of good read there!

Remember when we called current music "20th Century Music"? Now that was a mouthful. It seems we've all had the wisdom not to transition into "21st Century Music". So, if we're calling contemporary music "New Music" as of now, maybe we should just call the other stuff "Old Music" and be done with it.

Seriously though, I agree with Michael that the multitude and breadth of influences that are going into the music that's being made and heard on the concert stage today are defining a new multi/anti-genre. Because the music is living in lots of other places too: clubs/alternative spaces/festivals.... I played a Classical Revolution benefit last week in SF, and I mentioned that what is wonderful about the move out of the concert hall is that it enables a move back into the concert hall with a new energy and a new audience. The deconstructing of performance practices is really opening up new possibilities for this music to thrive.

Another development that has really done away with the fixation on labeling is the demise of the record store, with its inherent compartmentalizing. Now the browsing and finding of music is completely fluid in the online sphere, so that one search can lead to another in a really lovely way.

What we need is a label for this music that just leads the way, gently, to the concert hall (and, by extension, all the places and spaces that the concert hall is now feeding into). I guess "Concert Music" is the best solution we've come up with so far in meeting that goal.

I think the most important message in this piece (which is really thoughtful and well written, thank you Michael) is about the attitudes of the people who are making and presenting the music. If we just change the conventions and preconceptions around the music, maybe we won't have to worry so much about the connotations of whatever we choose to call it. Ellington said it so well: "There are two kinds of music. Good music, and the other kind."