Peter Tchaikovsky and Steven Reich

Just Don't Call it Classical

Michael Zwiebach on October 17, 2011
Peter Tchaikovsky and Steven Reich

My 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.