Classical Music is alive because it’s constantly evolving

In a recent piece by Bill Zuckerman, which is ostensibly a defense of the state of Classical Music not being so dire as some Crisis folks are saying, we get the explanation that many of the types of values taught are the focus of music school instruction.  While I don’t necessarily disagree with that, I do take some issue with Zuckerman’s examples of “new values” used by younger and newer musicians.

Zuckerman opens up the section explaining the change and takes as his reference point Jim Faber’s Daily News piece, Classical music explodes, both in sales and in expanding boundaries, from February of 2014. It ends up reading like the classic dichotomy of Pop Music Culture vs. Classical Music Culture in that the focus seems to be on the hip and younger generation of musicians who have made some success doing crossover work. Not that there’s anything wrong with the musicians doing that–and that they have gotten some attention and some financial success doing so only shows us that there’s not so neat a boundary between the two music cultures.

However, part of the dichotomy is so dependent on understanding Classical Music as this big hegemonous behemoth which hasn’t evolved since, well, the 1950s of so–and Zuckerman’s piece helps maintain that view of Classical Music continuing to be something old and “out of touch” with current culture even if he’s just referring to the education of musicians.

Let’s set aside what’s problematic with making this sharp distinction between old/out of touch/no relevant and new/in touch with culture/relevant and just look at some of things I’ve been tracking over the years at this blog. I posted a comment in Zuckerman’s piece which sums it up well enough and quote it below for ease reference.

Bill, It should also be pointed out that what constitutes an orchestra didn’t end with the mid 1950s giants that we generally recognize today as traditional ensembles. There are now Laptop and Mobile phone orchestras; Telematic Orchestras, Soundpainting Orchestras, Film-to-Projection and Video Game Music Orchestras (you can find a number of them listed here: https://silpayamanant.wordpres… ), as well as various ethnic orchestras being formed by immigrant and ethnic communities in the US (e.g. Chinese Traditional Orchestras, Arab Orchestras, Latin-American Orchestras https://silpayamanant.wordpres… ).

I think we get so caught up with the traditional ensembles that we forget that the art form, as you’re saying, has evolved well beyond what the music institutions and the traditional audiences and ensembles/musicians, have been able to imagine.

And even looking at the traditional ensembles–I’ve been compiling a list of New Opera Organizations formed since 2000 in the US. I’ve come across over 250 so far (here’s the list: https://silpayamanant.wordpres… ). All the talk about the institutions (e.g. NYC Opera) in trouble or shutting down don’t seem stop folks from forming new groups.

For those of us who are active in these areas, the whole “Classical Music is Dying” debate seems rather silly.

As long as people keep associating Classical Music simply as the trope of stodgy, highly trained musicians playing in concert halls on centuries old musical instruments, then we’ll continue to have these disingenuous conversations about the field as a whole. We’ll keep re-iterating the same old arguments that was commonplace in early colonial views of non-Western music as being timeless, out of touch with civilization, throw-backs that have nothing to do with modern societies (anyone who’s familiar with early ethnomusicology texts know the sentiment well) that show a naive view of the complexity and constantly evolving field that any musical genre/style/culture truly is.

This is convenient if you want to create a strawman for arguments, but as we now know from more healthy and open studies of non-Western musics, is a lie to think things can ever be as static and monolithic as “experts” would have us believe.

While all these new forms and constantly formed organizations show how much the field has evolved, so has the number of crossover artists and their work, as well as the work of musicians engaging with new technologies, improvisation, non-Classical and non-Western genres. The whole field has opened up in ways that those of us in the trenches making music know, but media and experts rarely understand because they rarely have first hand experience with making it in this wonderfully diverse musical world in which we currently live.


Top image, still from a video of Jon Silpayamanant performing with his interactive video, cello, electronics project, Camera Lucida, for the Blue Moves Modern Dance Company in Nashville, Tennessee.



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