Thursday, January 7, 2016

The War on "Classical"

I've been reading a recent book titled The Other Classical Musics: Fifteen Great Traditions. It was just published in October and is currently sold out in hardcover at Amazon, so that counts as a success. It is an excellent book in many ways, informative and wide-ranging. It is a more detailed and more serious book than many recent books on Western classical music in that it features musical examples in score. My education in non-Western musical traditions began in the 1970s when I studied, on my own, the music of Java and Bali. I have also done some independent study of the music of Africa, particularly the drumming of Ghana. And, along the way, I have read about and listened to the music of India, Japan and many other cultures. So it is safe to say that I not only respect the music of non-Western cultures, but I also have some familiarity with it.

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.


Damián López-de Jesús said...

I will have to agree with you on your main argument on this post. While I greatly appreciate the book's intention of exposing Western readers to other forms of high-quality music from other parts of the world, to call them "classical" would confuse the word's original meaning or connotations, or worse belittle the Western classical tradition that is part of our history and culture.

We should not feel ashamed of thinking of the music of Bach, Mozart, Debussy, etc. as being "high art" or having a great sense of "aesthetic value" compared to other types of Western music - heck, if anything, we need more of that than ever in our everyday lives. If we want to appreciate high quality art from other places, we should also give just as much appreciation for the high-quality art that we've inherited in our home turf.

Bryan Townsend said...

Damian, I wish I had put it as clearly and succinctly as you have!

David said...

I appreciate and endorse the balance in Damian's comment. It is instructive to observe the apparent approach of other cultures to the "notated music of Western Europe and related cultures". A snapshot of developments in China can be seen here:

Could it be that the West is missing the inherent value in its musical heritage?


Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks for that great link, David.

I think it is safe to say that in this corner of the blogosphere we are not neglecting to appreciate the value of the musical heritage of the West!

Anonymous said...

I am sorry to say I am missing your point. You write of the book approvingly and even tell us of your personal interest in non-Western musics. How else would you have written the blurb? Is it just the word "challenging" that bothers you? Or the use of the adjective "classical"? If so, it seems such a minor offense. Sounds like a pretty good book. I don't see what's ideological about it (from your description at least).

Bryan Townsend said...

In order to be scrupulously fair, I beat around the bush a bit in this post. But Damián's comment hit the nail on the head. What I am objecting to is the whole line of argument expressed in the blurb. Not just the non-existent "challenging new perspectives" but the nonsense that this book is offering something "never before attempted", that Western Classical is just another tradition, that like all the others, it is "underpinned by improvisation" while perhaps the defining difference is Western staff notation. In other words, the way the book is promoted and presented is based on a subtle lie.

As I said in a previous comment, Damián's comment expresses it very clearly.

./MiS said...

Interesting discussion but I'm inclined to chime in with Anonymous. My reading of the promotional blurb of the book is quite different. Mind you, I don't know much about the scope, depth and breadth of previous literature written in the field of ethnomusicology but said blurb, enhanced by Brian's comment that it presents known and updated musicological research and particularly the fact, that the book covers so many cultures (and subcultures) at once, makes me wonder if this book does address the "classical" music across the cultures in a "manner never before attempted". Maybe I'm naïve, but it seems to me that presenting ethnomusicological research on case-by-case basis in the context of a particular culture, most likely in an academic setting, is different from presenting, to a more general audience, a larger scope of ethnomusicological research where different cultures juxtapose around the theme of their "classical" music and what it represents. I understand that the word "classical" is the linguistic hiccup in this discussion because for a westerner it refers to greco-roman culture and to the European tradition of music making. The online Merriam-Webster dictionary does provide, under the heading "simple definition of CLASSICAL", the following definition: "of a kind that has been respected for a long time" and I have seen this term employed in reference to other cultures' music that has been respected for a long time.

Once again, I have not read the book, but reading the promo text, I don't get the feeling that the western classical music should be dethroned or is being belittled. I don't get the vibe that the book's purpose is to make us ashamed of the western tradition. I gather that it simply sheds more light on "long respected" musics of other cultures. I suppose there are plenty of books that praise the western musical heritage from many different angles. I don't have an issue with the fact that its vocabulary is diluted to suit mere mortals who do not have linguistic chops to read scholarly research on the subject, either.

Paradoxically, however, Damián's comment does seem to prove the point of "challenging new perspective on the word 'classical'".

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks for the comment! Maybe I am over-reacting a bit. The book itself and the way it is being promoted are two different things. But one thing I notice is that in each chapter there seem to be inserted brief attempts to justify the music as "classical" in some way. This is what I was thinking of when I mentioned an editorial diktat. So the editorial function has been not only to assemble a number of different traditions and label them classical for the purposes of promotion, but also to some of the content of the chapters themselves.

Oh yes, the word "classical" as I mentioned, comes with a number of problems! What I think the sticking point is for me, and some commentators, is the hidden assumption that lies behind these kinds of projects: that of a kind of aesthetic egalitarianism. The use of the word "colonialism" is an indicator as that brings with it a penumbra of implications.

Anonymous said...

"classical music". That's a good description for how "that" music is performed today.
It is being preserved and museum-ized. It is an objectification. It's analyzable, sterile and boring. It conforms to protocol.

Bloody "classical music": I hate those performances so much.

Bryan Townsend said...

Plainly you have wandered in here by mistake.