I came to Western Classical music (art music, concert music, “serious” music if you like) late. And despite edging my way deeper into the classical vortex in the last few years, I’ve always had an uneasy relationship with the whole thing. But recently I found a way of looking at it which I think both humbles and redeems the tradition for me. It requires letting go of some shaky foundations for classical advocacy, and embracing an attribute of the tradition which we don’t usually talk about.
Some of my most important and musically formative years were spent putting on noisy, scummy shows in an underground warehouse. Some friends and I put on around 2 shows a month for a few years, until the increasing audiences and noise complaints forced us to shut down. We put on a lot of post-rock, drone, experimental electronic and indie rock music, and all played in bands ourselves, played in each other’s bands, and generally built a community around music. The ethos of the whole thing was participation, inclusivity, and a DIY approach. We had some really excellent and masterful bands play there, but perhaps more importantly, we had some really terrible bands. We tried hard not to be elitist - embodying an ethos where experiencing music was about more than just making an assessment of its quality.
Cut to 2014 and I am nearing the end of a composition PhD, in which I’ve had a foot in both the indie/electronic/post-rock world, and the high art music world. I’ve had a lot of time to think about what separates the two. I’ve spent a lot of time angsting over entrenched classical elitism, but also puzzling over the seemingly arbitrary indie hipster canon.
Classical music to me often seems like the opposite of what we were doing with the warehouse shows. The kind of bands we booked had often taught themselves how to play their instrument, know how to set up and work a PA, and write all their own music (with varying degrees of originality of course). Bands that rock up with a box of burnt CDRs of music they had recorded themselves in their bedrooms, packaged by hand, with artwork by whoever in the band is most artistically inclined.
Compare that with a musical culture which self-identifies as “high” and “serious.” Training is paramount, separations between composer, performer, and audience are strictly enforced, and press shots (where they exist) are very glossy indeed. Of course we are in a period of change, a lot of classical folks are beginning to really embrace pluralism, and take down the fences which kept out the great unwashed. But the snobbery still runs pretty deep in some circles, and as a outsider coming in, I’ve observed it fairly clearly.
I’ve come to a belief that music isn’t something that you stand back from and assess. The true experience of music is social, cultural, and about so much more than its actual sounds. For almost every culture in human history, music has been about togetherness, participation and community; the anomaly is the last 500 years or so of Western civilisation, in which we’ve managed to turn the most effective human social adhesive into an elite and often divisive intellectual pursuit. Or so goes my usual beef with Classical music.
The misconceived defence of Classical music
So what sets Western classical music apart from everything else, and in particular, recorded “pop” music? The answers to that question rarely convince me. Here’s a few common ones:
1) It’s better/more complex/more sophisticated.
Nope. Goodness and badness are cultural, contextual, subjective. As for more complex or sophisticated, this is only so if you consider it using a framework that is unique to it - where complexity is judged by the discrete notes on the page and the finite relationships between them. The very discreteness of notated music in the Western tradition renders it quite blunt and simple in comparison the continuous and nuanced music of oral cultures. What often misleads people on this point is that they use the only assessment criteria they know - the Western classical paradigm - to compare all the different music of the world and… surprise! Western classical comes out on top! Alas, against the infinity of alternative criteria, no such result.
2) It has a sense of its own history.
This is a slightly better answer, but still very tenuous. It denies that tradition can be important regardless of whether it is put into words and written down. And the unbroken and uncontaminated lineage of Western classical music is a fiction anyway. Culture is messy and interwoven; any line you choose to draw onto that mess is purely to help you understand it, and doesn’t represent some absolute truth. Every other kind of music has an equally rich history, but their proponents just doesn’t obsess over it as much as those in Western Classical music. And besides, how do you logically justify that a longer lineage equals better or more meaningful music anyway? You just as easily argue that it makes music stale.
3) It is a pure and timeless intellectual pursuit, whereas popular music is a commodity to be sold.
Not really. I agree that there exists a spectrum between formulaic music for the market, and truly ambitious music which is made for art rather than commercial success. However, if you think that Western Classical music has a monopoly over the latter, then I suggest you might be fooling yourself. Within the classical tradition, both ends of the spectrum exist, and always have. Just because it’s notated and played by someone in a tuxedo doesn’t automatically mean it isn’t faff written for a buck. Likewise in the pop music realm, there are artists who pursue highly challenging and sophisticated music with no hope of turning much of a profit.
What actually is good about classical?
I’ve found it difficult to distill the essential qualities that set classical music apart from other music in Western culture. So I’ve come back to a more practical distinction: notation. The Western classical tradition is one where the definitive version of a piece is written down, and can be distributed on paper to anyone who would like to play it. With the necessary training, anyone can bring it to life in their living room, classroom or concert hall. You can listen to a recording of it, but it’s kind of secondary - a bonus. It’s essentially written down.
A lot of other music in our culture, by contrast (academics might call it “pop” music but I’m going to try to avoid that misleading term), is primarily recorded. The definitive version exists as a mixed and mastered recording. The recording can be just as easily given away for free as sold, proving that the recorded format isn’t essentially about commerce - it’s just a particular way of doing things. Recorded music is often performed live, and live performance is obviously still really important, but (aside from many notable exceptions) it is subordinate to the definitive recording.
Freedom™ vs. Bunnings™
So, stripped of all of its tenuously constructed airs, Classical music is only really different because it’s written down and interpreted. In a way, recorded music is like a ready-made coffee table bought from a furniture store, and classical scores are like a bunch of wood and screws from a hardware store, ready to be turned into whatever version of a coffee table you have the skills and desire to construct. Notated music is DIY, that’s where it’s value is.
In a time when campfire sing-alongs are increasingly difficult to conduct due to the intense fragmentation of tastes (hey let’s sing some Tegan and Sara! Oh you guys don’t know it. Death Cab? What about Neutral Milk Hotel?), four friends can still sit in a living room with a couple of violins, a viola and cello, and pick up a piece of music none of them have heard before, and assemble it. In the process, they connect with each other, share it, hear it, and experience it together. It may start with a score, but the actual music is in the playing. Since I’ve started doing chamber music, I’ve found this process of reading through a new piece to be really magical, and it’s as connective a musical experience as singing Beatles songs around a campfire.
It’s hard to see the similarities between classically trained musicians and the scummy noise-making punks of DIY culture. I’m sure Steve Albini and Pierre Boulez wouldn’t have that much to talk about if they met. But there is something in the fact that a notated composition can be created and sent to anyone in the world, who may then enjoy the experience of bringing it to life. We’ve inherited a shared system of communicating music, and I think the greatest consequence of that is not in its sophistication, but in its scope for participation. If we can just get over these elitist attitudes of complexity and progress and assessment, then that, at its core, is what is good about the classical tradition. Participation. You don’t need a pulitzer prize, a huge respectful audience, or a trained appreciation of atonality to embrace that. Nor do you need a privileged education or an instrument that cost you more than your car.
I think the most obvious point about this (which shouldn’t even need to be stated) is that different kinds of music aren’t better, they’re just different. You can buy a piece of crap chipboard coffee table for $15 or you can buy an incredible mahogany antique. You can also knock together a shoddy table in a few minutes, or spend some time honing your fine woodworking skills to build something you’ll be really proud of.
From this point of view, the “death of classical music” that everyone keeps talking about is just the death of aspects of classical music that aren’t necessary or enjoyable anyway. It’s the death of huge concert halls, packed out with hushed and uncomfortable people watching one single pianist exhibiting a skillset gained by a lifetime of strictness and stress, probably a huge monetary outlay on the part of their parents, and possibly a few nervous breakdowns. It’s the death of buying packaged recordings of classical music - a medium which it was only ever borrowing anyway. It’s the death of thinking that classical music is better than other music, and I for one welcome that enthusiastically. There will always be a place for weekend carpentry, just as there will always be a place for the Western classical music tradition.