Ban the word “Classical”

Part 2 of my report on the Classical Music Futures Summit.

Greg Sandow, our keynote speaker, touched on this idea in his speech, and it resonated throughout the day from a number of participants: Ban the word ‘classical’ from advocacy, advertising and conversation when referring to what we are talking about.

Whenever this point was made a murmur of support rippled through the crowd.

The past 15 years has seen a rash of books published querying and exploring the value of “Classical Music”, with titles along the lines of Who Needs Classical Music (Julian Johnson, OUP, 2002) and Why Classical Music Still Matters (Lawrence Kramer, University of California Press, 2007) as well as Who Killed Classical Music (Norman Lebrecht, Birch Lane Press, 1997). Greg Sandow’s forthcoming book Rebirth carries the subtitle The Future of Classical Music, and Alex Ross (of The Rest is Noise fame) has spoken widely about the death of classical music.

In short, there has been much writing and conversation about classical music with a particular emphasis and discussion of its value and decline. Let’s face it: I’m writing about a Classical Music Futures Summit. Hello.

Kramer defines classical music both through the modes of listening that it develops in the listener/musician, and via the modes of discourse that it uses to explore emotion through sound. And I think this is a useful starting point: knowing what makes classical music not other kinds of music, knowing what unique contribution classical music makes.

Meantime, there is the issue of general usage of the word classical in the community: I would suggest that most Australians would define classical music by medium (orchestra) or genre (opera) or venue (concert hall), all very public kinds of classical, in fact, almost equating the word classical with institutional. In addition to this institutional kind of music-making we need to add an institutional kind of music-consuming: classical music requires a specific kind of physical discipline in order to listen to it (particular kinds of seating, no movement, the audience member being inaudible throughout).

Now I think that when the participants of the summit murmured in agreement with banning the word classical they were almost exclusively expressing a desire to redefine the media, the genres, the venues, the behaviours popularly associated with ‘classical’ music. And I’m quite certain they had no intention of redefining the modes of discourse and listening that Kramer outlines.

And that’s interesting, because many of the points explicitly made by Greg Sandow in his keynote speech talked about how classical music is changing from the inside: how modes of musical argument being used by composers are no longer the ‘classical’ modes of discourse (Kramer’s descriptions of musical discourse look nothing like the musical strategies Sandow references), how modes of presentation being utilised by performers in the 21st century redefine appropriate listening strategies.

What we have is a desire emerging from the summit to subtract classical from the public imagination, and reports from the field that classical modes of musical behaviour are no seen as valuable.

So if we as a cultural cohort don’t want to be seen as classical, and if what we are doing in terms of presentation of new music is in practice no longer classical, what in reality are we?

That’s an interesting question, because the use of the word we presumes all experience of what we are hoping to no longer call classical music takes place in a public sphere. The discussion at the summit on Monday thoroughly excluded any kind of private classical music experience: someone playing through a Chopin Mazurka, a Bach Prelude and Fugue, a Bartok Bulgarian Dance or a William Bolcom Rag on their piano at home, for instance. And it flailed when confronted with 21st century-specific modes of private music making and listening: YouTube uploads and downloads, composition for fun (think GarageBand), live streaming, viral listening, the self-curation that is the iPod.

These 21st century modes of music experience have already rendered much of what the term classical communicates obsolete, while our 21st century institutionalised thinking about what the term classical connotes has completely elided any kind of personal musical practice.

So to me it seems that in banning the word classical we need to have some kind of agreement as to what we think it is we do that we wish to describe differently. “Classical” clearly fails in 2010 as an a term of aggregation. “Classical” succeeds in maintaining a now elderly participant base for concert presentation, but fails in nearly other aspect of differentiation.

Is there a coherent (though divergent) ‘classical’ music practice that could be better described with a single other word/phrase? Or is the suggestion that the discrepant musical discourses and modes of presentation would be better served through the disaggregation that the abandonment of the term classical would afford?

These are both deeply philosophical and deeply practical questions.

9 thoughts on “Ban the word “Classical”

  1. Hi Elissa,

    Could you please explain to me in more laymen terms why on earth they would bother discussing this at all? It seems like a waste of energy to me – as there will always be a million different points of view, and you can never change the past, or predict the future, or change how the ‘public’ (with their vastly varied knowledge/ideas surrounding ‘Classical’ music all jumbled together) view us and our music and the ‘classical’ music medium.

    And just wanted to also mention that there are plenty of 21st century composers who still use the ‘classical’ medium in its original form – in terms of structure, harmonic language, melodic development, orchestration, etc.

    But maybe this symposium was only meant for more ‘modern’ (not-so-‘classical’) composers????? I have no idea!

    • Well….. The idea is, I suppose, that maybe with a concerted effort we can change how the public think about ‘classical’ music. Culture can be changed (not necessarily predictably!), and maybe more to the point the things we do have an impact on what the culture actually is.

      And…. Doesn’t everyone feel it’s a bit odd calling all of western art music “Classical” when the classical period is only a tiny part of the story?!

      But more fundamental than that is whether a deliberate use of the word classical actually conveys anything positive when used to describe current musical activity. And there seems to be a pervasive view that there must be a better way.

      Classical might be a term best left to another time and place, and I’ll be blogging about that in few days too….

  2. Hi Elissa, I completely sympathize that the word ‘classical’ has been used very loosely for far too long. For those who understand what this term means (as you have noted being a short period in time) is probably not so much of an issue, but when we wonder why so many people do not understand or even come close to appreciating western music (‘classical’) it might be worth asking that maybe it’s because there is a slight misrepresentation to what it actually entails.

    I sort of perceive the culture of performing arts similar to religion in the sense that there are professed conservatives and professed liberals (yes quite a bold comparison!)….with its traditions, norms & practices that sometimes the most sincerest person has no idea why they even exist but they just do! (regardless of whether these are right or wrong). In this case those who do not understand the unspoken rules & practices of ‘classical’ concerts are sometimes put-off and never really given a chance to appreciate the western art music. While it might seem like a waste of time to discuss some of these issues, in a way I think it’s important the arts consider the implications in keeping to the elite with conservative attitudes or whether this culture feels it has room for improvement – however it may be.

    In other words I do not see how the belief that ‘ignorance is bliss’ is of any advantage to the arts 🙂

    (oh dear! now I’m concerned that I have not MISUSED the words ‘arts’, ‘western’ or ‘classical’!!)

  3. This is very interesting – many thanks for your report, and for your thoughtful comments.

    I’m interested in the idea of redefining the “classical” genre, but I’m ultimately skeptical. I started out writing a longish comment on this, but ended up reworking it into a post on my own blog: hopefully it will be interesting, even if you disagree with my conclusion!

    • I don’t think I do disagree with your conclusion – or your discursive strategies!! I also think that there is much to be gained from the use of the word ‘classical’….. But I think it really does stop having any descriptive relevance pretty early on in 20th century art music practice…. Hmmm.

      • There is a risk of getting bogged down in academic irrelevancies here. We do not discuss at length what “modern art” means in the context of, say MOMA in New York, or “contemporary art” as in Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney. We know instinctively what we will get, and the difference to be had at the Metropolitan Museum of Art or at AGNSW. In the music arena people go to see the celebrity play, hear the “Symphony”, listen to the ACO, Andre Rieu or James Morrison and the 12 (?) trumpeters. No one mentions “classical” in this context, neither consumer nor marketer. Listeners to ABC Classic FM know that they will also hear jazz and brass bands (well, perhaps not the latter any more but that’s another story), while listeners to the MBS group of stations know well what they will find. There used to be only three sorts of music, pop, jazz and classical. With broad coverage, “pop” has been refined into many genres and is rarely seen any more. Audiences for the classical genre will develop the same way. Indeed they already have. Audiences for the Brandenburg Orchestra know very well what they will be getting and it is clearly not all from Brandenburg. Their program notes will alert them to the refinements of Baroque and Classical periods, but I am sure they have no problem with those who say they are lovers of classical music.

        I suspect it is not the word but the attitudes that are the problem. If certain events are perceived as elitist, or boring or otherwise uninteresting it is not the term classical at fault. It is the way they are presented, and the lack of communication between audience and performer. Nigel Kennedy is a consummate communicator and performer. You cannot encapsulate him in the term classical performer. Andre Rieu communicates with thousands, playing good music that many supporters of a so called “classical” genre decry as almost a form of blasphemy. Their commonality? An ability to communicate with their constituencies. If what we currently please to call ‘classical”, be it old or contemporary, is to have a future, it matters not what it is called, but how it is performed, communicated and made available to 21st century audiences. After all, “a rose by any other name…….

  4. Thanks Elissa for your thoughtful article and Osbert and Johno for your insightful comments. (I enjoyed your article as well Osbert). Sorry to be 5 years late in responding!!

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