Sunday, April 08, 2007


As I've written here before, I profoundly disagree with the notion of a "death of classical music". This is largely because "classical music" is a moving target, always changing its nature, extent, and limits. It always has been and always will be. Likewise, there is no singular and fixed audience for art music. This is a story well told in the change, in Europe, from courtly to private to popular patronage, or in the relationship between emigration patterns and classical music institutions in the United States, or in the association of western classical music with industrialization in many parts of the world (East Asian countries and Venezuela offer the examples of the moment). Further, hidden by our lament for lost ages inhabited by giants of composers and their heroic interpretors, we tend to lose the perspective that there has never been so much activity in terms of both composition and interpretation as there is today, that there has never been such a diversity of activity, and as difficult as a life as a composer or performer may now be, has it ever been really any easier?.

That said, I agree that -- as wrong as it is -- the "death of classical music" trope is widespread, and that spread is a phenomenon that should undergo some sociological and ethnographic study. In particular, we need to ask who are the individuals and institutions declaring it dead? and what are the individual and institutional needs that are fulfilled by declaring it dead? A death certificate is the first step in an assertion of inheritance and there are plenty of interests with a strong interest and potential for profit in making such a claim.

Declaring the death of a repertoire puts a clear boundary around that repertoire, and the (usual) suspects with a motive for closure and implicit control over that repertoire are clear. (There's nothing more controlling than an embalming, and musical embalming is always done best in a conservatory, or in a recording firm that has grown so large that it no longer has the flexibility to react to the most rapid changes in music or the musical marketplace).

While it's clear that much of 20th century classical musical life can be characterized by the active rejection of new composition in favor of the interpretation of older work, we desperately need some smarter ideas about the ways in which repertoires integrate or reject innovation, and perhaps we can get some ideas from religious and literary scholarship about the ways in which communities for whom the canon has been closed still maintain a creative life.

We still understand very little about the impact of the various technologies for "fixing" a music -- from oral transmission, to notation, and onto sound recording in its changing modes of exchange. A bit of music may or may not have some platonic ideal behind it which these various technologies reproduce to a greater or lesser degree of accuracy, but these technologies raise all sorts of questions about both liveliness and morbidity and further questions about how to distinguish between these two states in an environment in which a parasitic attachment to past liveliness is -- for better or worse -- a substitute for getting on with real change.


David Ocker said...

(My apologies for running on and on about this subject, but I've been thinking about it a lot. Your post moved me to my high verbosity mode.)

Although I agree with some of your observations, I cannot agree with your conclusion. I think classical music is quite dead. It's easy to overlook this fact because many people still enjoy listening to it and there are many healthy organizations providing performances and recordings. I would argue that's not enough for the music itself to be "living".

Classical music has had defined, unchanging, largely immovable boundaries for many decades. Allowable performance practices have a small acceptable range. When you talk about "classical music" I, and everyone, know exactly what you are referring to. Since the advent of authentic baroque and renaissance performance decades ago not much has changed. Oh, there's more flash and more marketing these days. "Classical" music isn't changing. There's a lot of "new" music asking to be let in. The audiences are not terribly thrilled by it. Chilled would be a better description. Exceptions are so rare you cannot claim they are a revitalizing influence.

You point out that an active academia codifies the practice. Absolutely. Music schools are filled with people who have devoted their lives to finding newer and newer things about a fixed body of knowledge. They teach the "proper" way of playing. Teachers and students may know history but they are still being forced to repeat it.

You point out that other parts of the world have growing classical music "scenes". Doesn't this mean that people are still finding the meaning and elegance which the classics has always provided to anyone who cares to partake? More cynically, it also might mean that other societies are attempting to find some equality with the European musical homeland. There is still class distinction in classical music.

Of course composers continue to suggest paths for a possible future of classical music. They (we) attempt mostly to evolve from what was there before. The performing and recording companies promote a painfully small subsection of these possibilities, based, in my opinion, more on importance than on talent. But few pieces have been accepted by the general audience. Most of the audience prefer to pay to hear their old friends Beethoven or Schumann or Wagner or Brahms again and again. And it's not clear if any of the new "pledges" to the composer pantheon will be allowed to really join the "fraternity". Who since Bartok has really been awarded decades of repeated performances?

I suggest that we would be better off to accept that musics have lifespans - they come and go, they are born, they flower and then they die. We can still enjoy the dead ones, preserved for us in elegant museum-like concert halls. But the formative, creative, socially relevant periods of dead musics have passed. We can honor the fact that they've had a huge influence on our culture and provided great beauty and meaning and challenges to anyone who cares to take advantage of them. As a culture we have concluded that these musics should be preserved and that knowing them is an essential experience of our time. So is experiencing Shakespeare, but I hope no one would suggest Elizabethan theater is not dead.

We should all look to the future with the realization that something new is coming, something that will reflect our present without a restrictive obeisance to the past, something that will mirror the hopes and dreams and fears of a whole lot of living people, who will anxiously wait to find out if their most wonderful dreams or most horrible fears come to pass, who don't have much time to think about music but will know absolutely which organized sounds resonate with their thoughts and hopes and feelings. And which don't.

Those of us who appreciate and revere what came before may not like the new stuff. That's too bad, but there's nothing forcing us to listen to anything in particular. Everyone seems to listen to something. And everyone seems to know what they like.

Finally, the search for new metaphors to describe the death or life of this or that music is itself a living art. Newer and stranger comparisons and analogies are regularly found to prove the same points over and over. The problem is that any music - whether classical, jazz, rock, hip-hop, take your pick - encompasses a vast sweep of society, a long history and varied aspects of culture as to be indescribable as a whole in any simple manner. You could say classical music is an elephant beset by countless blind men and women, each trying to describe their small corner of the beast and each finding a unique descriptor. Yes, that's another metaphor. Oops, I did it again.

fredösphere said...

"[P]erhaps we can get some ideas from religious and literary scholarship about the ways in which communities for whom the canon has been closed still maintain a creative life."

Daniel, would you care to develop this idea a bit more?

Daniel Wolf said...

Fred --

The example I was thinking of most immediately was Gershom Scholem's description of the Kabbala, but certainly Christian mysticism (Meister Eckhart, for example) offers further examples of creative work dones despite the fact that the orthodoxy has decided that the texts are complete.

Unlike many of my colleagues, I have no hesitation to identify myself as a classical composer, without any post-s or neo-s added. For one, this is an identification with a particular kind of discipline and clarity, and it is mighty suggestive, but not definitive about the repertoire intended. But once you've got a label like that on the table, it is also an open invitation to consider -- and reconsider -- the potential of that identity, especially the potential to say: "wait a minute, if you've heard the news that classical music is a closed case, that message was decidedly premature.

David -- I've written before that "not all music needs to be renewed", and, indeed, most music shouldn't. But the further we get away from the notion that "classical music" started in the last half of the 18th and ended in the last half of the 19th century, the more elastic that concept becomes and we can really start to cherry-pick across institutionally hardened repertoire divides.

A decade ago, I saw the future of the orchestra in its division into a small baroque/early classical group, a big romantic orchestra, and the contemporary chamber ensemble. But nowadays, it seems that even that model is too rigid, and all of these ensemble possibilities are moving in the direction of greater flexibility and experiment with repertoire and performance practice. (I.e. it is no longer enough for an early music group to play "without vibrato"; instead, they have to be able to control the use of vibrato, a much more subtle and musical idea).

However, the greatest present deficit is, I believe, in amateur music making, especially solo and chamber music playing in informal settings. Too much of our discussion is focused on the larger insitutions and not upon opportunities for integrating music making into everyday life.

My apologies for only a brief and rapid response to your well-thought out comments!

paul bailey said...

fred, david, and daniel,

is it possible that the definition of "classical music" is more of a description of an musical social status?

i think the space between "art music" and "classical music" has never been wider, maybe "classical music" became dead when because the words lost their meaning in the wider culture.

interested in your thoughts,