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.