music is life, music is breath, music is us

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.

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9 responses

  1. Hi Derek and thanks for following my blog. I agree with what you say about music education’s needing change. But….. and this is the thing with me….. I don’t think it’s simply a question of looking for differing “methods” or “styles” or indeed anything to do with instrumentation, orchestration and the “formal” elements of music. That, too, is important but, what is most important, is that musicians and music educators change their approach to how they see music. We need to decide what, precisely, music is. And therein lies my own blog. Keep writing and thanks again for visiting my blog. Geraldine

    July 7, 2012 at 9:49 am

  2. Yeah I totally agree Geraldine, and I actually hinted at that very point when I said “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.” I appreciate the comment and I welcome discussion here any time :).-Derek

    July 7, 2012 at 7:55 pm

  3. Suzanne

    What fascinating ideas. The world be a richer place if the kind of musical fusions you write about came to be.

    July 19, 2012 at 3:48 am

  4. I tend to agree 🙂

    July 19, 2012 at 6:15 am

  5. Richard

    first of all, Derek, thank you so much for visiting my
    site, enjoying it, I take great pride in what I do there

    however I must take exception to your evaluation of
    the state of Classical Music, it is not at all closed to
    newer matter, more inclusive content, it is in the very
    nature of music to steadily burst its confines and grow
    unpredictably, unexpectedly, like children, or magic

    we’ve come a long way from that 17th Century that
    you decry, that set the groundwork for the music that
    has become our heritage in the West, we got what
    there was there to work with, the cult of personality
    had taken hold for painters at the time of the
    Renaissance, in the 18th Century it became the turn
    of composers to outshine, dominate our cultural
    consciousness, art doesn’t regain its predominance
    until a good century later with the Impressionists

    but the Age of Reason had transpired at the
    emancipation of our Western music, mathematics
    would rule, see Johann Sebastian Bach, anything of
    his rigorously mathematically argued, see his sublime
    “Goldberg Variations”, for instance, not only for
    meticulously calculated music, like very clockwork,
    but for its experience ever of transcendence

    however people got tired of that, it had become
    too conventional – “Man even grows accustomed
    to the sun”, G.K. Chesterton famously pronounced,
    and with good reason, it would appear – and
    Mozart came around conveniently to deliver fun
    according to what he’d been given, see the piano
    ditties in the page you read – embedding tonality
    meanwhile and rhythm into our musical DNA

    it took Beethoven to start hammering away at all
    that, pushing away at the boundaries, catching the
    spirit of the Revolution, he wrote of course the
    “Hammerklavier”, the Bible of Western Music, its
    very “Iliad”, composers have been exploring those
    areas of investigation ever since, even your
    Philip Glass

    Schonberg of course established atonality as not
    only viable but essential to reflect the disorder of
    the early 20th Century, for many that hasn’t been
    an easy grind

    but see Messiaen for what remains of tonality and
    rhythm, I like his “Et exspecto resurrectionem
    mortuorum”

    Tan Dun famously combines Asian and Western
    music in his celebrated compositions, hear a
    truncated version here unfortunately of his
    Water Concerto

    I’m afraid, Derek, the fault is in the audience, who
    mostly aren’t quite ready to culturally abide
    contemporary music at $150.00 dollars a ticket,
    they will only respond to what’s safe and proven,
    therefore Bach, Beethoven, or Brahms

    they could do a lot worse

    cheers

    Richard

    July 26, 2012 at 1:41 am

  6. Richard

    the links I set up in my response for you to access, Derek, didn’t come
    up, sorry, try to access these titles with Google videos, the Water Concerto
    (http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-8277196859502376813)
    especially will be instructive

    July 26, 2012 at 1:50 am

  7. Hey Richard,

    I really appreciate your response, I’m one of those people that loves when people take an opposing view, and I set up this blog to stimulate these types of discussions. I suppose our disagreement really lies with the interpretation of the article (which could in some ways be my fault for not being more direct), as I was more taking aim at the academic side of western classical music, specifically in the first paragraph where I stated “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.” My issue is really with these academic institutions, as there is no denying that many are stuck in a very euro-centric view (Miles Davis famously dropped out of Juilliard because they played too much “white people music”). These conservatories force-feed their students a lopsided view of music in my opinion, and I actually elaborate on my philosophy of western/international integration in modern academia with my other post on Chinese Music Theory. Once again, thanks for taking the time to leave an elaborate comment, it means my work is engaging you.

    All the best,
    Derek

    July 26, 2012 at 2:18 am

  8. Richard

    the manner in which you received my comment, Derek,
    is the way in which it was intended, I am also ravenous
    for probing commentary on the history of music, indeed
    on all the arts, on anything, but I suspect we are, those
    who reach for meaning, you are here included, indeed
    the teachers, for we’re better able to ferret out
    meaningful answers with those very questions

    philosophy is the art of asking such questions

    I’ve come to wait for no reply to my investigations –
    you’ll find these on my blog (richibi.wordpress.com) –
    but move on doggedly inspired by my Sisyphean
    even task

    you are an unusual visitor to my literary garden and
    as such ever so heartily welcome

    having read your text on Chinese music I tried to supply
    some reply to it as well as the text to which I properly
    responded, therefore you’ll find there the Tan Dun
    recommendation – I’ll include website addresses
    heretofore – which challenge your perception, the East
    has already met the West, it was inevitable, there is no
    longer a polarized cultural East and West, the world is
    now global, and music, painting, the arts, are the first
    ones to reflect that, the audience takes a while,
    sometimes generations, to follow

    it also seems to me that the Chinese notion of notes
    reflecting “ties to nature”, though wonderfully poetic,
    becomes its own prison too, nor would it be easy to
    condition an entire people to think of a particular
    note as specifically conjoined to a defined event,
    that would take centuries

    your aspiration towards a more “metaphysical”
    understanding of music sounds to me like Beauty
    trying to overcome Truth, as represented by the
    more pragmatic and, yes, maybe even soulless
    West, the Age of Reason, the death of God,
    existentialism, science and mathematics, and
    yes indeed, the slow devaluation of all art in
    the quest for merely money, but Truth and
    Beauty are irreducible, one needs the other,
    and both wisdoms, I agree with you on that
    point, need to be harmonized, East needs to
    meet West, the twain will find an
    accommodation

    lets see what the arts tell

    Richard

    psst: for a taste of Western concerns with nature
    check out Lizst’s “Années de pèlerinage”,
    year 1 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zt5n7H2AgnY&feature=related),
    year 2 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iRKDIUjvUbY),
    year 3 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y2lOirYhVNk),

    or either of Beethoven’s “Pastorales”,
    the symphony (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5juEqNvTzYw)

    note the movement titles

    1 – Awakening of Cheerful Feelings upon Arrival in the Country
    2 – Scene by the Brook
    3 – Merry Gathering of Country Folk
    4 – Thunderstorm
    5 – Sheperd’s Song: Happy and Thankful Feelings after the Storm

    the sonata (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qkxf2zrTpZY)

    July 26, 2012 at 5:57 pm

  9. I will be sure to check everything out, and I agree, Truth and Beauty need eachother, I do not advocate totally eliminating the mathematical side of music theory, but rather adding the metaphysical element as well. Thanks for being a great discussion starter-Derek

    July 26, 2012 at 7:17 pm

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