Monday, October 24, 2011

From the Front: One Writer's Views on "Classical" Labeling

The article "Just Don't Call it Classical" by Micahel Zwiebach appeared on ArtsJournal's recently featured music articles. In the article, Zwiebach focuses on the phenomenon of classically trained musicians who avoid the "classical" label, instead focusing on experimenting with genres and styles. Though performing or composing works that push genre boundaries and take influence from non-classical sources, these musicians are still inevitably informed by their classical training. An example of a venue for such non-classically-labeled music is the SONiC Festival we discussed last week. Most of the composers and performers featured were classically trained, but the festival's music was not marketed as new "classical" music. Instead, the festival's musical offerings were frequently of the genre-crossing kind.

Zwiebach asks two questions about the trend:

So, what comes out of this attempt to relabel or retire the word classical from the music made by classically trained and influenced contemporary musicians? Is it merely an attempt to avoid association with a term that seems to turn off large segments of potential audience?
Zwiebach does not believe the answer to the latter questions is a "yes." In fact, he thinks the avoidance of classical labeling may be a good thing for contemporary classical music.

Zwiebach attempts to define what makes music "classical" by pointing out a unifying compositional thread found throughout the classical music canon. In Zwiebach's view, the primary factor that determined the classical canon was the study of counterpoint on the part of classical composers. Those that were most adept at utilizing their counterpoint training were able to create numerous works in short periods of time with beautiful, well-structured melodies and voice leading. Those composers are the ones considered masters in the classical canon. In Zwiebach's view, their rigorous training in counterpoint united them all into one tradition. "Another result of that training," according to Zwiebach, "was an identifiable European tradition, which has certain continuities through the changes of style. Despite the differences, Bach’s keyboard concertos and Schumann’s Piano Concerto are recognizably from the same tradition. Edgard Varese’s Ameriques, not so much." Therefore, even contemporary composers of what is unarguably "art music" may not entirely fit the classical label.

Today, classically-trained composers are not presented with counterpoint studies as the primary compositional training tool. Instead, they are presented with various contemporary styles in addition to traditional counterpoint. Also, their music will most likely be influenced by the West's greater awareness of non-Western musical traditions, as well as the influence of popular music (Zwiebach mentions Louis Armstrong and The Beatles).

In conclusion, Zwiebach's view is that contemporary musicians and composers who are experimenting with crossing genre boundaries are not doing a disservice to the classical tradition, but are instead displaying their respect for it. Through combining styles and avoiding the classical label, Zwiebach claims that "they are naturally exploring the ways in which [classical] music has meaning to contemporary society and to what they do. In the process, as artists always do, they are leading us to a better understanding of what classical music meant in history and why it is still valuable."

Zwiebach's perspective on the current classical music landscape is perhaps somewhat simplified, but valuable to consider. With the multiplicity of styles available to up-and-coming classically trained composers and performers today, is the avoidance of a strictly "classical" label merely a concession to the way things are, an actual benefit to the promotion of the classical tradition and new music, or a combination of both? Zwiebach seems to think the answer may be "both." In his words, today's musicians "obviously want an open-ended term that will allow for the limitless combinations and collaborations that are now the norm."

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