Monday, October 15, 2012

Experiential Western Music

I have been struck recently by the experiential factors of Western classical music, and it’s ability to transcend boundaries of race, gender, and age among others. In many ways, Western classical music, while a product of European creation, really is an amorphous conglomerate of musical sounds that are taken from many traditions. Factors such as early modality, quarter tones, and even certain intervals that are hallmarks of other styles, have frequently been adopted by classical music. Many have called Western classical music elitist, and stuffy, but in reality, as an artform today, it makes use of traditions borrowed from many parts of the world, and is quickly becoming a music of unity and collaboration. At one time these negative labels were correct in their descriptions of classical music. However, I am noticing a change in that mentality as we become more open-minded as artists.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is the traditional music of scattered people groups. The music of an indigenous people is very specific to the people it comes from. They have a special connection to the music, its sounds, and its rhythms. I enjoy listening to the musics of other peoples, but sadly I will never experience it the same way they do. I do not share the shared cultural knowledge of that people, and simply cannot receive the same meaning out of the music as they do. I am left to force my own cultural knowledge into the performance of their music, but in the process I am really doing a disservice to it. By not being able to experience the music as intended, I almost feel an unwelcome listener to foreign sounds that are seemingly greater than me. I have to imagine that this is how one of these indigenous peoples would feel of my classical music. They don’t share the connection with it that I do. 

Before I continue, let me make it clear that I am not elevating any musical genre, or specific world music, above the other. I believe that regardless of the genre or locale, every music is important. 

Yet, in recent history I believe we have seen an expansion of Western classical music to incorporate the sounds of other musical cultures. In a sense, we have syncretized our own musical palates and made our craft more accessible to others. I would certainly hope that this trend continues into the future as we aim to promote the life of our art in society. Especially in the melting pot we call America, we are almost required to do this. It is a reflection of the tides of our societal norms. 

In light of all the apparent syncretism in Western classical music, we have witnessed the artform’s ability to transcend boundaries. All over the world, in many different ethnic groups, Western classical music has taken hold and become a commodity. Think of Japan where the musical culture has been recently enamored with the music of Bach. In terms of cultural identity and history, they have no tangible connection to each other. Yet, they earnestly study his music. In an earlier post I mentioned my skepticism in regards to music’s transcendental properties. I am obliged to point out that my concern from that article is not refuted by my arguments here. In that post, I was voicing concern about Bono’s attempt to bridge political divides caused by war. What I am arguing here is that Western classical music is approachable by other people groups, and therefore can transcend the societal divides it faces. In my opinion it is often more approachable than unfamiliar indigenous music is to us. 

I have already alluded to the idea of music as experiential. I would like to cite a very specific experience in my own life, where the ideas I have mentioned thus far were presented in a tangible way. This was a time when Western classical music was shared with people of another musical culture to great effect. 

In the middle of my junior year, I was fortunate enough to participate in a brief study-abroad trip. Not only was this to be a study-abroad course (I was taking a world music credit), but members of my college choir attended and an international choir tour was conjoined to the trip. Our destination was Israel. In addition to the readings and assignments for class credit, we rehearsed and prepared a full repertoire to perform overseas. In addition to the life-changing trip, we performed in amazing, yet humble, venues. From an impromptu song in a Roman amphitheater, to singing with and for Palestinians in the West Bank, we shared our music with people of every walk of life and religion imaginable. Granted, Israel is an advanced nation to whom classical music is not foreign. Despite this, the peoples of that country have their own, very unique, musical idioms that are distinctly different from classical music. We performed for enthusiastic audiences who enjoyed our music, and despite any cultural dissimilarity, enjoyed what they heard. 

What struck me, in a musical sense, was the unity music provided during this time. Despite the vast cultural divide between me and a Palestinian citizen, for two hours we were connected through music. It did not matter that I was Christian, and they might be Muslim, we shared the experience of music. There was no hint of the stuffiness people attribute to Western classical music during this time. I believe that that stuffiness is slowing ebbing away in our artform. We are learning and changing the perceptions that surround classical music. This is a good thing and isn’t a choice. This we must do if we want our music to continue to flourish. 
For a fun anecdote, as a composer, this trip was also inspiring in a compositional sense. Upon returning I wrote a five movement suite for Bb clarinet, harp, and strings which evokes various regions and experiences in the country. So in closing, here is an experiential piece of Western classical music which is directly tied to the sights and sounds of my experience. My hope with this piece was to make it meaningful not only to myself, but to anyone who might listen, whether they be American, Israeli, or Palestinian. 


1 comment:

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