This book is simply updated research and information on the most important non-Western music, what we used to call "ethnomusicology". But now it is good marketing to call them the "other" classical musics and this theme is thrust into the book throughout. It is obviously an editorial diktat. A successful one, as it is probably why they are sold out. But make no mistake, as far as the information in the book, it is exactly what I was reading in the 70s, updated with recent research and written and recorded sources. But each writer (different sections are written by different experts) bows to the idea that there is "classical" music in Thailand, Java, India, Japan and so on. Most of the authors, when they get down to discussing the different genres in detail note that there are more popular genres and more elite genres existing in most cultures. It tends to come out that what is meant by an "elite" genre or style, such as the long tradition of the music for the Chinese qin, is that some styles or genres are more subtle, requiring more understanding and exposure to appreciate. Yep.
To give you a sense of how the book is promoted, here is part of the blurb from Amazon:
What is classical music? This book answers the question in a manner never before attempted, by presenting the history of fifteen parallel traditions, of which Western classical music is just one. Each music is analysed in terms of its modes, scales, and theory; its instruments, forms, and aesthetic goals; its historical development, golden age, and condition today; and the conventions governing its performance. The writers are leading ethnomusicologists, and their approach is based on the belief that music is best understood in the context of the culture which gave rise to it . By including Mande and Uzbek-Tajik music - plus North American jazz - in addition to the better-known styles of the Middle East, the Indian sub-continent, the Far East, and South-East Asia, this book offers challenging new perspectives on the word 'classical'. It shows the extent to which most classical traditions are underpinned by improvisation, and reveals the cognate origins of seemingly unrelated musics; it reflects the multifarious ways in which colonialism, migration, and new technology have affected musical development, and continue to do today.With specialist language kept to a minimum, it's designed to help both students and general readers to appreciate musical traditions which may be unfamiliar to them, and to encounter the reality which lies behind that lazy adjective 'exotic'."Challenging"? Yes, in the sense that this is ideologically multicultural: Western classical music must be dethroned from its privileged position and put on a par with as many non-Western traditions as possible. This is the ideological imperative and as such, it is highly questionable. But it does make us try, once again, to come to grips with the whole concept of what "classical" music might be. And once again, it makes one want to toss out the word "classical" in favor of either "concert" music or "art" music. But, of course, those words come with their own set of problems and issues. In any case, the objectionable aspect here is that by referring to all these other traditions as "classical" it enables the editors to disparage Western classical music. Like I say, it's a war on classical.
I have always tried to focus on the use of the word "classical" as relating, somehow, to aesthetic quality and have run into my own set of problems by so doing. For example, as far as I'm concerned, the Beatles have attained the status of "classical" in some sense through the quality and longevity of their music. I equally have no problem accepting high-quality, long-standing music traditions of other cultures as also "classical" in the same sense. But all of these examples are "classical" in a different sense than the music of Western Europe (and descended cultures) which is, finally and perhaps definitively, based on a tradition of literacy, a tradition of a highly-developed musical notation that preserves and reveals what is going on in pieces of music written over the last thousand years.
As every chapter in the book reveals, all the non-Western traditions (and Western traditions such as blues, pop and some jazz) are hampered by a lack of an adequate notation, so they rely heavily on oral tradition, which is, in my book, an indicator of a folk tradition rather than a high art tradition. These distinctions are pretty fuzzy in most cultures. There are notations from the Tang Dynasty for qin, dating back to the 7th century. Mind you, these are cryptic at best and lack any notation for rhythm, but still... Western music from a similar vintage is also pretty iffy when it comes to rhythm.
But perhaps we can get at least a foggy, if not entirely clear, definition of classical by means of books like this, plus some objective analysis.
At the end of the day, using the word "classical" in this very wide sense, tends to empty it of specific meaning and if we want to refer to that music that we usually call "classical" we have to say "notated music of Western Europe and related cultures." OK, whatever.
Here is a sample of music for qin, the Chinese zither, played by Master Rushan:
And here is a sample of some Western classical music of a similar aesthetic realm:
If the Chinese music sounds rather simple, especially harmonically, it might help to know that some masters of the qin distinguished forty-two different kinds of vibrato! You can see Master Rushan doing a lot of interesting vibrato in his left hand, but due to the poor recording, we can't actually hear it.