A proposal for progress in the western classical world
Western classical music is characterized by some as a genre that is stagnant, a genre of music unwilling to break itself out of the shell of ancient writing practices like counterpoint and harmony. Certain music conservatories (none of which I will name, as I really don’t want to make a bunch of enemies with my very first blog post) rigidly train their students to think like 17th Century composers and musicians, disregarding the current postmodern interaction of cultures throughout the world. What results from this is philharmonic orchestras being known for one thing, ancient western music styles, as many insist on predominantly playing works from the composers of the past (there are of course exceptions to this rule, as the Los Angeles Philharmonic , for instance, is known for playing progressive music). Although there is nothing wrong with this, I feel that the classical world is in need of a renaissance of its own, one that totally re-invigorates the genre.
What would have to happen is a total re-evaluation of what music is understood to be, throwing away the Euro-centric notions that have pervaded a great deal of western music education. This means educating on the music of other cultures, from the classical Hindustani music of North India, to the Silk and Bamboo ensemble music of China. This means understanding music from a perspective that includes varied positions, one that does not state that Palestrina and Bach are the sole authority on music, but rather places emphasis on the masters of traditions from all around the world. Such masters would include Ravi Shankar (although known by many in the west as the “guy who played sitar with the Beatles,” his true genius is found in the ancient and complex ragas (scales) of India), Um Kulthum (arguably the greatest singer to emerge from Egypt), Salif Keita (Mali pop singer in the Jali tradition of West Africa), and so many others that have contributed to the constantly shifting force of music.
There are some signs of this desire to change in the classical world. Yo-yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble (part of the Silk Road Project) plays music from all of the nations along the Silk Road, featuring instruments such as the pipa (Chinese plucked pear-shaped lute found in traditional Jiangnan Silk and Bamboo ensembles (properly known as Jiangnan sizhu)) ensembles, oud (plucked fretless lute similar to the guitar found all over the Near East, I actually play this instrument), and the kayagum (Korean zither found in traditional music of South Korea). Furthermore, the composer Philip Glass (one of my biggest personal composition influences) has produced many works that draw on various regions of the world. Most notably, he composed the score for Martin Scorsese’s film Kundun, drawing heavily on traditional Tibetan musical techniques, chants of Tibetan Buddhist monks, and Tibetan instruments like the dungchen (long trumpet).
What I ultimately hope results from this revamping of how western music education and orchestral performance is conducted is a deeper understanding for all parties involved. A deeper understanding of what music is (as it varies from culture to culture), a greater knowledge of how music should be approached, and finally a greater advancement in cultural relations. The barriers to such a movement are great, but in order for the next stage in western classical music to occur, it is vital that such seeds are planted in the minds of those who control the institutions that produce this music. Only time will tell if such a thing can come to pass, but it is worth the wait. Music must, as all art must, change and move forward, for without progress, it cannot truly be considered art.