Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Definitions of "Classical"

My post on Substance and Accident got a lot of passionate commentary so I would like to try and approach the issue from a different angle. I suppose the basic question or problem is how to define "classical" music. Let me put down some possibilities:

  • 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.


Nathan Shirley said...

My personal definition of classical music is fairly similar to yours Bryan. Except I prefer an even more simplistic/vague definition. And as you said, it's certainly not how most people define classical music.

As a "classical" composer, I've spent a lot of time considering the term. I have to say that I've come to dislike it. But unfortunately there doesn't seem to be a decent alternative. It's a little pretentious to call oneself a "classical" composer, after all, who is to say their music will be able to stand next to Beethoven's, or Chopin's? Only time will tell. That is why I favor the definition- "Music that stands the test of time."

What are the characteristics of this type of music? That is an impossible question. For the same reason we cannot fully define what makes something a masterpiece. The only thing that's sure is that if it becomes classic, it will have transcended the culture it was born into.

Classical music is not a genre, and it is certainly not a style (the classical period of Mozart and Haydn aside). There are a huge number styles within classical music. I would argue any style could be classical, be it romantic, baroque, pop, jazz, traditional music of Azerbaijan, of Venezuela, etc. But again, it must remain relevant even after having been removed from its time/culture.

Think of how literature is organized. You have sci-fi, horror, etc, etc, and then you have classics. In 100 years some of the books in various genres will have migrated to the classics. The others will simply disappear.

Bridge said...

Strongly disagree with you Nathan. You seem to be conflating classicism with the state of being classic which is erroneous. A classic is, according to Merriam Webster, a work which serves as a standard of excellence, whereas a Classical work is in this context a work written during the Western Classical period of music. It may be a classic, as most of the works that have endured are, but that is not a prerequisite. For example, are not the works that Mozart was supposedly parodying in his Musical Joke also Classical works, even though they are dreadful and certainly did not stand the test of time? And even though it is perhaps too early to truly say, there are many 20th century works that have become classics and will undoubtedly be remembered as fondly as the Classical works.

On the subject of literature, one could hardly say that books can be categorized into "classics" and "everything else". There are various kinds of classics for every genre. One could say Shakespeare's works are classics in the tragedy or comedy genres, and Asimov's novels are classics in the sci-fi genre and while you could call both examples "classics" that doesn't necessarily mean that they belong to the same genre, at least that's not how I perceive it.

I would agree that it is possible for any style to have a period of classicism (even non-Classical styles) but again, you fall into the trap of ignoring what Classical actually refers to, which is Western European classical music during the latter half of the 18th century (approx.) In this case, it is certainly not possible for everything to be called Classical because then it is a useless term that refers to nothing except good art.

Here are Leonard Bernstein's two cents on the issue which while not earth-shattering are insightful. I agree with him that what we refer to as classical (not only Classical period) music is "exact music". It's not possible to say that it is music that uses notation because most styles nowadays do that to some extent, but to the already initiated this definition mostly holds true I think. Exact notation, disciplined manipulation of the elements, a strong sense of continuity and yet possibly the genre with the most radical innovation. This is what classical music is to me. Anyway, check it out:


(don't let the kids theme fool you, he speaks to them almost as freely as he would music students. Sometimes he may emphasize a point that we all know but he is remarkably non-condescending.

Bridge said...

However, I do agree that referring to all "classical music" as "classical" is problematic. I think it does work though and as long as all of its fans agree on what music should be called classical I don't think it is too bad. I would like to add do this point a bit:

" … you fall into the trap of ignoring what Classical actually refers to, which is Western European classical music during the latter half of the 18th century (approx.) "

While this is true I of course also allow that the term is used for derivative forms and ancestor forms as well (up to a certain point), but the main point was emphasizing the fact that "classical music" refers to a specific type of classical music, not any and all classical music.

Bryan Townsend said...

I think Nathan and I, as composers, have both run into the problem of describing what we do. Someone at a cocktail party asks "what kind of music do you write?" I put up a post once of satirical answers to that question" At one point I decided that I would always answer "I'm an amiable miniaturist." But that just gets you funny looks. I realize that the "correct" answer in terms of what people will best understand is to answer "contemporary classical" or "neo-romantic" as that is how what many composers do is described in the mainstream media. But I always have the fear that they are going to think that you write songs for the Captain and Tenille or something!

The dilemma of the composer has come about because of the 19th century creation of a canon of classical works, that began with the Viennese classicists, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, and added to this foundation by first tacking on the predecessor Bach and later, more of the pre-Classical composers. Of course we end up with the somewhat absurd situation now where composers like Josquin and Dowland are thought of as "classical". Composers were also added in the other direction as newer composers such as Schubert, Schumann, Berlioz, Chopin and later on Wagner and Brahms were added to the "classical canon". Taruskin described the dilemma of a composer like Brahms who strove to get on the list of classics and correspondingly felt the burden of Beethoven. The other strategy is be a modernist, innovating like Liszt or Wagner and later on Schoenberg, Stravinsky or Cage, which is in essence to say that "my music is newer and improved, therefore better than those old classics."

Unfortunately, that particular strategy seems to have failed at the box office and composers now are back to the old Brahms dilemma of trying to write music that will somehow be comprehensible and pleasing to listeners. Think Philip Glass.

But let's not revive the debate between the nominalists and the realists. Like all composers, I really don't care what you call what I do: just buy my CDs, my scores and come to concerts of my music. You can call it jug-band revival if you want!

Bridge said...

Well, I have never heard any respectable composer put down the music that preceded them, but I realize it was a paraphrase. I personally do not find it very important that one's music be accessible to a wide audience. Not that one should deliberately confuse people and write music that is intentionally repulsive, but I don't believe in pandering. If the composer doesn't first and foremost write music that he believes very strongly in, well… there is no art. Let's be real here, classical music is esoteric. It may at one point have been relatively mainstream, but there has always "high art" and more lowbrow stuff. You showed that only about 8% of the proletariat attended Mozart's concerts, and if I may be I would wager a guess that most of the so-called nobility wasn't there purely for the music. Instead of cursing its lack of popularity, I find it of greater service to everybody to write music for the people who will really be consuming it. You don't need to speak down and the net result is higher quality art. Smaller paycheck, but hey, such is the life of an artist. Certain countries, like mine for example (Iceland) contribute quite a lot of the national budget to artistic endeavors which means that artists who are active in the artistic community and produce something of worth (I don't know how this is determined) can apply for government subsidies. This type of socialism would make many people vomit but I think that it is a pretty wonderful thing since it directly combats the effect I mentioned (of having to produce only music that is economically viable.) Obviously, it's not a fortune but it's perfectly livable (about the same as college professors get.)

Nathan Shirley said...


Bryan Townsend said...

Iceland is a kind of interesting case. I don't know how it works there, but in Canada there is significant government funding for the arts, but it tends to be captured by an insider's club. An awful lot of mediocre music by mediocrities with the right name has been commissioned.

No, I don't think you should pander to the audience, but someone like Mozart, for example, was very concerned to write music that would be both stirring and pleasurable to the audience. But he was dealing, mostly, with an audience of cognoscenti.

Yes, classical music can be esoteric, but I also think it can have a wide appeal. I guess what puzzles me is how bad a lot of the seemingly very popular music is. How much of the popularity of commercial music is carefully engineered and how much is just popularity? You can make some songs very familiar by just pushing them a lot. You can make other kinds of music seem strange and unpopular by keeping them out of the public space.

Bridge said...

I am by no means an elitist. It's not as if I want classical music all for myself and I want it to be as unintelligible as possible. But as I have already said somewhere else on this blog a lot of people really are not interested in art as a serious form of expression. I find it highly detrimental to try and "win over" those kinds of people by making the music artificially more approachable. I don't mean to sound condescending here, but I imagine that "normal" listeners mostly just hear the outer voices, rhythm and have a vague sense of harmony. In the case of Mozart or Beethoven, their music almost always has approachable melodies and straight-forward harmony which appeals to non-classical listeners and yet it is also full of substance which appeals to more discerning listeners. This isn't a bad thing, but to actively strive for it as if it were somehow the peak of music is in my opinion misguided. Classical music is complicated music which strives to say much more than other more plebeian styles, and to curb this expression is in my opinion a horrible injustice. It's a bit like saying that scientific journals should be more colloquial and relatable to non-scientists because why can't they be part of the fun? I'm sorry, but that really isn't how it works. Scientific journals are a forum for those truly interested in whatever the discipline in question is and the people who read it are expected to know the lingo and how things go. If you have to be constantly dumbing down your speech just so absolutely everybody can get it, getting some actual work done is going to be much harder. Because really, even if the average listener will find such a work pleasurable to listen to, chances are he will go home and turn on some pop music anyway.

Bryan Townsend said...

Bridge, whether or not you want to think of yourself as an elitist, and I don't like that term either as it is usually just used as a club, your views on the nature of music harmonize very closely with those of Milton Babbitt. I'm sure you know his essay "Who Cares If You Listen?" which was published in the February 1958 issue of High Fidelity. The title was not Babbitt's own, but added by an editor. Still, this essay, which has its own Wikipedia entry (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Who_Cares_if_You_Listen), represents the pinnacle of that aspect of the modernist project that has been termed "maximizing" the complexity of music. Here is a bit of the article summarized:


This very analogy of serious music to articles in scientific journals is one that Babbitt makes. The academic avant-garde, of whom Babbitt was the foremost representative, has largely faded. I think it is simply a kind of category error: music is not serious in the way that mathematical formulae are serious. Music can be anything you want, of course. But composers have, by and large, decided that what they want is for people, not just three or four, but hundreds or thousands of people, to actually listen to their music and enjoy it. That is certainly what I would prefer.

Bryan Townsend said...

Something I did caused my quote from the Wikipedia article on the Babbitt essay to just disappear. Here it is:

Babbitt goes on to maintain, however, that music cannot "evolve" if it only attempts to appeal to "the public". "And so, I dare suggest that the composer would do himself and his music an immediate and eventual service by total, resolute, and voluntary withdrawal from this public world to one of private performance and electronic media, with its very real possibility of complete elimination of the public and social aspects of musical composition." He recognizes the practical problems for the composer of "advanced" music not patronized by the concert-going public: "But how, it may be asked, will this serve to secure the means of survival for the composer and his music? One answer is that after all such a private life is what the university provides the scholar and the scientist." He concludes: "if this [advanced] music is not supported, the whistling repertory of the man in the street will be little affected... But music will cease to evolve, and, in that important sense, will cease to live."

Bridge said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bridge said...

Thanks for recommending the article, very interesting read. I had not heard of it but I have read some of Babbitt's other works and I do respect the man. Anyway, I basically agree with his main points.* I reiterate: I don't think that music should intentionally be unintelligible or divorced from its worldly context, but I don't think it should be compromised either. Without seeming like I'm bragging, because I'm not, I like consuming art which is challenging, which makes me think and which elicits more than one type of shallow emotion at any given time. I don't consider myself a part of the general population in that sense because most people in their spare time choose to engage in meaningless activities in an intentional effort not to engage themselves in any way. I can't relate to that because my idea of light-hearted fun is something like Abbott and Costello - certainly light-hearted but not vacuous. I am literally incapable of "leaving my brain at the door" for anything. I like to experience new things and am constantly searching for something elusive which I cannot put down into words.

It is for no reasons of pedantry or elitism that I liken the musical academia to the scientific - music is very important to me and I take it very seriously. To me it's not something one simply enjoys, it's something one lives by. Whether somebody who perceives music in black-and-white terms enjoys one's work is of no consequence. It is unfortunate that "serious" music is not appreciated but hardly surprising. After all, do the same people really appreciate great works of art from other forms, which are respected, or do they simply as Babbitt says regurgitate what they have heard from authorities? The difference is negligible - if the general audience passively acknowledges great cinema or literature and yet doesn't understand why then that is hardly different from the situation we are talking about now. The end result is that they have no significant effect on the development of either.

Here's an interesting question: Would you rather superficially affect the lives of a million people or significantly enrich the life of just one? Personally I would choose the latter.

Bridge said...

* However, I don't agree with his idea of composers needing to be completely isolated or that electronic performance is preferable in any way. Perfection is in my opinion overrated, and if the music is so precious that it becomes meaningless if it is interpreted any other way than precisely notated in the score, it may not be that good, if it was even good to begin with. Besides, I have heard Babbit's works for synthesizers and so on and find them just dreadful. I like his string quartets, what I've heard anyway, if they are well performed even though I am not crazy about them but the electronic stuff is just too mathematical and lifeless.

Bryan Townsend said...

Speaking as a composer, Bridge, I wish there were a lot more listeners like yourself! When one creates music for others to enjoy, either as a composer or as a performer, I'm not sure you can really make the choice of how many people you are going to reach. I think you always hope it will be more than one! But you certainly can't count on millions. I think that for many composers and performers, they simply try to write or perform the best music they can and let the chips fall where they may. This is a kind of naive approach to artistry and I'm sure that lots of people in the "biz" would laugh at it. But there are also other composers and musicians who are more market-driven, who set out to put together exactly that combination of "smoke and mirrors" that will catch the fancy of the crowd this week. Like you, I reject that approach.

The "correct" approach is probably impossible to put in words. No-one has put it better than the composer who once said to me that "I just put down the notes that sound good". But there are a lot of ways of going wrong aesthetically and we can put some of them into words: as you just mentioned, sterile perfection is not a virtue. Neither is the mindless thumping of a lot of pop music.

Nathan Shirley said...

"I don't consider myself a part of the general population in that sense because most people in their spare time choose to engage in meaningless activities in an intentional effort not to engage themselves in any way."

That is pure elitism.

Bridge said...

How can it be if it is by their own admission? I have literally heard many people say that they don't like to engage their minds when consuming entertainment. It can only be considered elitism if art appreciation is the only axis by which a person's merits are evaluated - which is patently untrue, clearly. Somebody who is more experienced and more passionate in the field of classical music is more qualified to truly judge a classical work than somebody who is not, in the same sense that a trained geologist is more qualified to judge the contents of a geology study than a layman. For this analogy to make sense you have to acknowledge that different genres of music are analogous to different human languages. Instead of stubbornly insisting that "it's just sounds" and that somebody who doesn't speak say Japanese is exactly as qualified to understand it as a resident of Japan is ludicrous. After all, music is not just sounds, it is the organization thereof into a recognizable form, which has its own semantics distinct at least in some way from all other forms. In order to understand the music, you need to be familiar with it. Whether you achieve this through academic study or a lifetime of playing by ear and intuition is unimportant, the main point is that you need to earn the right to be called an "authority". I may consider myself different from the majority of the population, but so in kind are most people in some way different from the majority, rendering the term majority entirely meaningless. Everybody has some kind of passion which at the very least separates them from some people. For me, it's art. For some other people it may be sports, or nuclear science, or computer science, or business, or cartography, or any of the other near-innumerable passions. I would quite easily admit that a learned architect is more capable than myself to construct a house that will not collapse in on itself, but that doesn't necessarily mean he is part of the elite and I the disposable plebeian class, does it?

Nathan Shirley said...

Again- "... most people in their spare time choose to engage in meaningless activities in an intentional effort not to engage themselves in any way."

You might very well know many people who would admit to this, but I'm not so sure the majority of the seven billion people on earth would agree.

I'm not about to cast judgement on your elitism, just saying perhaps you should embrace it rather than deny it? This is all part of the reason why over the years I've come to dislike the term classical music...

Two things to consider-

One does not have to understand nuclear fusion or how photons behave in Earth's atmosphere in order to appreciate the setting sun's beauty. It is also not necessary to understand how dopamine is released in the brain to appreciate love. Neither is it necessary to understand how microwaves excite molecules in order to appreciate the convenience of having your cold food heated quickly. And, it is not necessary to understand masculine vs feminine cadences in order to appreciate a Beethoven symphony.

The Beatles' "Michelle" has far more musically in common with any given song of Schubert than Schubert's songs have in common with a Bach fugue, or Stravinsky's Rite of Spring.

Elitism has more than one definition, just like the word classical. How about this, I'll let you keep your definition of elitism if you let me keep my definition of classical music?

Bryan Townsend said...

That proved to be a very interesting discussion! I have a post germinating about the nature of contemporary elitism that might have something to add. In the meantime, just two thoughts: why don't we call the music that we are interested in "concert" music instead of classical music? I think that we keep stumbling over definitions because of the history of the use of the word "classical" in regard to music and because of the problem of finding a term that will be understood clearly by people with little or no understanding or exposure to the music. I'm not even sure that is possible!

Also, Nathan, what was the point you were making when you mentioned the Beatles' song and Schubert?

Nathan Shirley said...

Oh right, this thread has grown so long I should have realized I needed to state the point there!

So the music of Bach, Schubert and Stravinsky are all classical music. Musically, a Schubert song has much more in common with the song "Michelle" than almost anything composed by Bach or Stravinsky. If it's able to stick around another 50 years or so, why not include it alongside the music of Bach, Schubert and Stravinsky instead of some forgotten trash by Babbitt (which musically has more in common with the gum I just scrapped off my shoe)?

How's that for a point!

Bryan Townsend said...

Ah, yes, of course. Well this is the point that I have tried to make a dozen times: music that has stood the test of time and that shows some exceptional or unique characteristics could all be called "classical" in my book. The song "Michelle" is looking more likely than some pieces by Milton Babbitt, I would agree. I also think that it is ahead of some of the more dull Baroque pieces as well. If you call some music by Johann Friedrich Fasch classical and not anything by the Beatles, then you are basing it on purely historical considerations. And that might well mean that classical music is "over" as is sometimes said. No music by the living need apply. So in doing what you and I suggest, I think we are building into the definition some aesthetic criteria to the effect that good music must involve some appeal to the audience. You can't just write for the extremes of esotericism as does Pierre Boulez.

Nathan Shirley said...

Well said.

Bridge said...

@Nathan: Sorry, I didn't notice your post until now. I would indeed say the majority of seven billion people agree with it considering the popularity of the adage "leave your brain at the door" and the use of the term "pop-corn action flick" in a positive light. The difference is that I don't consider people who consume entertainment mindlessly to be objectively inferior, simply that they are uninitiated and therefore their opinion doesn't carry the same weight - there is a subtle difference. Why do you insist on all music being accessible to everybody? To draw the language parallel again, everybody has personal experience in producing and interpreting sound waves as intelligible speech, but that does not mean they are qualified to interpret all sound waves. Speaking from personal experience, one's perception of a language does change considerably after one has studied it. Exact same sounds, but the context is different and so you interpret it in a different way. Why do you insist that this same phenomenon is not applicable to music?

Nathan Shirley said...

I'm not insisting on anything.

I actually like the metaphor "music is a universal language." A metaphor because music obviously isn't a language in the strict sense. Also, I'm not trying to say anyone can easily and immediately "get" music from any foreign culture. I wouldn't call Persian music and Venezuelan music different languages however, just different dialects. With an attentive ear, an open mind, and a little time, it's easy to understand these dialects. Classical music tends to be more complex, and so less accessible, but not to any extreme.

And of course it is true that the more you become familiar with something the more you are likely to"get" it. However this does not mean it is necessary to study harmony and counterpoint in order to appreciate J S Bach on a deep level.

While modern pop music might make you believe the majority of people have terrible taste, I think reality is heavily distorted by mass media and the music industry. There are obviously tons of people listening to pop garbage, but remember most of them are youth, eating what commercials feed them. As humans mature their tastes also tend to mature and expand.

Here in the States we're especially disadvantaged by having a serious lack of arts education (compared to many countries in the developed world) and yet most adults still seem to have a fairly strong interest in at least some good music.

I'll stop there. Hopefully that clarifies some of my earlier statements.