The term “Classical Music”

The excellent compilation of music news delivered by the Jacobs School of Music’s Project Jumpstart curated by Alain Barker came today with an intriguing piece by music journalist Craig Havighurst. It is  titled “Classical Music Needs a New Name.” Havighurst’s interesting post reminded  me that I should finally write into an article the lecture I gave upon receiving the Tracy M. Sonneborn Award at Indiana University in 2010. With some guilt, I will share some of its ideas here.

The discussion of  “classical music” in my lecture was part of a longer discussion of the new roles that conductors need to embrace in the 21st century.  I started by asserting that the term “classical music” actually refers to many different things for different people, (more on this in another post,) and I proposed that conductors had to use the term “art music” instead. In short, technical virtuosity and the expression of the most profound concerns of mankind define “classical music” as art, and not just the external garb of concert halls and symphony orchestras.   Second, I debated that, as much as it is  sought after by contemporary “classical” composers, great music of lasting value  still can  emerge in the form of a pop song, in rap, or in film music. It certainly has emerged in anonymous traditional folk, sacred or ritual music of the past.  Great music that endures the test of time happens when the alchemy of soulful creativity and supremely crafted delivery takes place.

In a TEDx talk two years ago I went on to say that music is completed in our minds, as we embed our personal associations onto it. When a piece of music achieves the status of “art music” it seems to allow for inexhaustible associations that get richer or more intense with each listening experience, as if a beautiful door leads to an infinite universe, rather than to a pretty room. Of course, this depends on the listener’s perception as a central component in the musical equation, forming a trinity with the masterful composer and the virtuosic performer.  I conclude that in  our crowded and overstimulated times, the  conductor must open a space where  the audience can engage in deep listening. In our day and age, this space sometimes needs to be something other than a concert hall. Behaving more like an interdisciplinary artist,  the conductor may reveal the content embedded in the music, displaying the interactions of the composition with the contextual culture and other arts through innovative, immersive, interactive, and occasionally disruptive modes of presentation.

Art music should  not depend on any particular style or language, but rather,  on the imaginative and ambitious use of any language for a particular expressive purpose. This language can even be the fashionable dance rhythms or formulas that may dominate commercial music at a particular time. It is possibly true that an erudite “classical” music composer will have the richest tools at his or her disposal, and will tend to reject commercial and entertainment concerns outright in his or her quest for the artistic manifestation; but it does not follow that the greatest “classical” composers in history never had entertainment as a goal, or that a composer working in a commercial environment today will never reach true art in a specific piece.

We may be at the verge of the dissolution of the “classical versus popular/high and low” music paradigm. Maybe we can finally put it to rest, because for a while now,  younger generations of erudite composers seem to navigate easily between the languages of art and popular music; and composer/performers in the popular music world  seem to reach out  towards achieving highly artistic work, especially after their first stage of commercial success has been accomplished.

It is a complex issue and I was delighted to see a take on it by Havighurst. More to come, surely!


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