- One commentator argued for an essentialist definition that associates classical music with the characteristic features of its traditions: music for certain ensembles like orchestras and string quartets and the formality of the classical concert
- Another commentator argued for the characteristic sound of classical music saying that even when used in the context of a video game, that sound made it, for all intents and purposes, classical
- I was arguing that I would like to define as "classical" all that music that had a certain approach to creativity. It comes out of the Western European traditions of music, but extends to other forms and genres. As an example of this, I cited the Kronos performance of "Purple Haze" by Jimi Hendrix. By reinterpreting the piece, the quartet have transformed it, in my view, into a piece of classical music.
- Other typical definitions of "classical" include music that has stood the test of time or music by primarily Viennese-based composers written between, roughly, 1760 and 1827, i.e. music by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven (the subject of the book by Charles Rosen, The Classical Style)
The comments were very illuminating because they, so to speak, struck sparks off the original post and shed more light on the question. Now I am starting to think that what I am coming to believe is that the most fundamental fact about classical music is that it has a certain kind of attitude towards music. One commentator referred to it as "cold indifference", but this was not intended to be negative. I would rather express this as an objectivity about the materials. A classical musician, by training and inclination, sits down to work with a kind of aesthetic disinterestedness. Note that this does not mean "uninterested", but rather neutral. What I mean is that I am trying to create a piece of music (or an interpretation). I am willing to use whatever is going to do the job. If using a Bulgarian folksong (or imitation of one) is what is needed, then that's what I will use (think Bartók). If I am looking for a killer encore to end a program of new music, then I might go all wild and make an arrangement of a tune by Jimi Hendrix! If I am writing my culminating work as a composer for symphony orchestra and for the last movement I just need something more, maybe I will, as Beethoven did in his 9th Symphony, add a chorus and vocal soloists. I could go on and on and on citing more examples.
My point is that there is a certain attitude that is not shared by genre musicians (I am making up a term to describe musicians who really stick to a particular genre like blues, ragtime, be-bop, hip-hop or pop) that is not always present in classical musicians, but that I think is fundamental to good classical music. I'm afraid that what I am doing here is creating a definition of classical music that is rather post-modernist as it seems to both include and encourage the diversity that seems characteristic of post-modernism.
But I think that the way I am looking at classical music is actually age-old. When Léonin and Perotin invented organum at Notre Dame in Paris back in the 12th century, what they were displaying was exactly this same kind of attitude to the materials that I am calling fundamental. In simple terms, it is saying to yourself, "hmmm, now what are the possibilities here?" It is a kind of objective weighing of possibilities that leads you to slow down one voice so that each syllable of the text might take up a page of music while the other voice dances around that with many, many notes. Or it might lead you to say, ok, in my piece for two guitars tuned in quarter-tones I am going to add a part for cowbell, because, well, it works. I am thinking of a piece by Jō Kondo here.
The contrasting attitude, one that I associate more with genre musicians, is the need to be true to the limits and essential characteristics of the genre. It is what leads people to say things like, "that's not blues!" or "if you really knew what flamenco is, you would play that differently".
I want to put up two musical examples. Two songs, one of which would certainly be called classical and the other of which would not be called classical:
But both of these songs display a similar aesthetic method: they distill the music down to a fundamental essence in order to achieve an aesthetic goal.