1 Nov 2011
Inside the Classics

I spend lots of time, much more than I’d like, talking about nomenclature — the terms we use for various elements of the musical universe I inhabit. Very often, these terms are highly charged and nearly political in their implication. (So when I say “talking about nomenclature” I often mean “being yelled at for using certain nomenclature”.) Is this group of musicians a “band” or an “ensemble“? (How do they see themselves? But how do they actually sound?) Is this collection of songs an LP or an EP? Are you a “composer“? Are you a “songwriter“? In what style do you sing? What are your influences and how do you refer to them? Something about “minimalism“. Something about “modernism“. Something about “popular music“. And then, of course, the Great Question (That Isn’t Actually Important) Of Our Time: are you “classical”? “Post-classical”? “Indie Classical”? (“alt-classical”? “non-classical”? “post-genre”? “genreless”?)

If you’re a sensible person, you probably think that these questions are pretty strange, and possibly even a little silly. After all, who cares what things are called? Music is music and individuals or groups who come make music should be accepted on their own terms, not clumped together in arbitrary ways. Why are we even thinking about genre, or about names-to-call-groups-of-musicians? Why should you care how someone refers to you, or worse, to you-and-your-friends?

Most musicians would agree with the sentiment expressed in the above paragraph, and largely, so do I. It’s pretty rare for musicians, or any artists, to give what they do a name; that’s left to journalists and historians, and the artists are expected to complain, in turn, about these limiting, reductive terms. The reason I wind up engaging with these dirty, dirty words, despite being an artist myself, is that I spend most of my non-art-making time engaged in various efforts to bring new music to audiences that have little or no reference point for that music. Specifically, I try (along with my colleagues at New Amsterdam Records/New Amsterdam Presents) to increase the audience for music that draws from many different worlds and genres, made by artists who embrace the full diversity of their listening and playing and writing backgrounds. This music, being drawn from many different points of musical origin, also borrows terms from those worlds, and often suggests the need for new terms that can be used to describe music that is hybrid by its very nature.

When you’re trying to reach a new audience, it helps to have some familiar point of reference. Simply saying “it’s great” isn’t really enough, and descriptive terms often wind up feeling hand-wavy and imprecise. The temptation, then, is to describe things in terms of other things, which can be brutal and artless (“it’s like Beethoven meets Johnny Cash!”) or somewhat subtle and sophisticated (“borrowing from Jazz in a manner most reminiscent of late Ravel…”), but is always, like using genre terminology, reductive. One benefit of advertising in the Internet age is that it’s more possible than ever to use music clips, writing excerpts, and videos to demonstrate The Thing Itself, or a close proxy, in lieu of these descriptions, and yet you still have to entice someone to click on the link to that Thing. If you want to bring audiences to new work, you have to get them there somehow, and for the vast majority of audiences, that will be by using some familiar element.

For my MicroCommission work, I’ve been wrestling with a question of nomenclature that feels similar in some ways to my usual battles, and yet this question is quite specific to the orchestra: I’m trying to decide whether to call this work a “Symphony”. I wouldn’t normally bring the audience into such a personal question (titling is very, very personal), but you’re not a normal audience, and this isn’t a normal commission.

Once again, this seems like a meaningless question. Why should I care, and why should you, whether I call this big orchestra piece a “Symphony”? If you’re going to ask that, though, you have to take a step back and ask why we should care what this, or ANY piece is titled. The word “Symphony” is historically loaded — more on that in a minute. But aren’t most titles “loaded” in some way? Thought experiment: if I called this piece “Untitled”, or “Composition Number 77″, or “Large Work for Orchestra No. 1″, would those titles actually be “neutral” in any meaningful sense? When I see those titles, I bring specific and unspecific connotations to them; the piece they represent is framed in a particular way. “Untitled” is still a title. “Large Work for Orchestra” gives me a lot of information — true or false, it doesn’t really matter — about how the composer sees himself or herself in the context of musical history, as well as his or her relationship to the audience. When you try to negate history, you dig yourself deeper into it. Some of the least neutral pieces of all-time, in terms of their place in musical history, have seemingly “neutral” titles — “Two Pages” or “Répons” or “Music for 18 Musicians”. Because of the success of those works, similar titles no longer feel neutral, but are deeply tied to the traditions those works emblematized (or perhaps even began).

Then there’s a whole other category of “neutral” names, tied specifically to the Western Classical tradition. These names are familiar to anyone with even a passing knowledge of the music of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, and the other Canonical Giants. Some of the names are descriptive in the specific form of a work (“Prelude and Fugue”,”Rondo”, “Passacaglia”), while others are more descriptive of the character (“Scherzo”, “Étude”). Most imposing, and most seemingly-neutral, are the terms that are tied to a specific instrumentation, and therefore to the great works written for that set of sounds. Here, we think of the great String Quartets, Concertos, Piano Sonatas, Symphonies and even Operas (although operas are pretty much never called “Opera”, I promise that my colleagues wrestle frequently with the appropriateness of that term for their various voice-and-ensemble works), the terms that are tied to the cornerstone works of Western music from the 18th through early 20th centuries, and still are a force through the present day (for example, my friend Jefferson Friedman has two great String Quartets that stand up to measurement against the canon, and every Major Composer seems to be writing a “Concerto for Orchestra” these days). These names, then, are neutral in the sense that they offer little information about the work that you’re going to hear, especially since they’ve been used by composers from across the sound-spectrum (Elliott Carter and Philip Glass are both well-known for their String Quartets. Say no more). But they are also far from neutral in assuming a direct connection to the other works that share those names; it is the history of Classical Music expressed through nomenclature, with all the weight and baggage that implies.

Perhaps none of these terms is quite so loaded as “Symphony”. It’s the major figure in any story of The History of Classical Music, right? The simplistic version of Classical Music History could be roughly broken up into “Early Music” (read: before the Symphony), “Classical and Romantic Music” (read: Symphonies!), and “New Music” (read: after those fool composers decided to stop writing Symphonies, or at least, listenable ones). By some accounts, all of the 19th century was a response to the Beethoven Symphonies. Certainly, for a long period of time, composers were largely judged on their ability to write Great Symphonies, and these works form the backbone of our Classical Music canon, and are what one studies in composer school when one is indoctrinating oneself into the world of being a Real Composer.

If I were to call my work a Symphony, it seems to me that I would be implying two things: first, I would be identifying this as a work of special significance in my compositional output (using the classic meaning of the term), and second, I would be entering it into a specific dialogue with all the Symphonies that have come before. The latter would carry a further implication that the work dealt with large-scale structural issues, as all major Symphonies since Beethoven have done. I would probably be further implying a desire to write more Symphonies, each articulating a change in my compositional approach to large-scale form and orchestration, spanning over the course of my career.

Interestingly, both of those implications are more or less true. (I say “interestingly” because I didn’t expect that to be the case when I started writing the paragraph!) Obviously, it’s a work of significance in my output — it’s my largest orchestral work, written for a community that funded the work themselves (yourselves). I should hope this would be personally and musically significant. (What kind of cad would I be if it weren’t?) And yes, it’s a work that deals with large-scale structural issues, and one that I hope can hold up to a conversation with orchestral works that come before. I would argue, though, that this is true of any orchestral work; the very nature of the orchestra is to be a beautiful anachronism, and one of the major points of interest when writing for this instrument is to open one’s memory to past orchestral experiences (for me, mostly the concert hall, but also the Great Lawn of Tanglewood, and the headphone, and the movie theater) and to engage with that memory, and thus, with the history of orchestral music. It’s unavoidable, to a point. At the end of the day, whatever the calculus, this is a 30-minute (or so) work that has multiple levels of formal and thematic integration, it’s written for a huge orchestra, and I was thinking a lot about my past experiences with orchestral works, mostly Symphonies, when I was writing it.

For a Classical audience, there’s a way in which naming this a “Symphony” draws one closer to the work, contextualizing it in a way that makes sense, and which feels safe and appropriate for the concert hall. It’s a way of saying, yes, we’re all on the same page. I remember when I was a student at Tanglewood, a number of us had had a nasty argument with one of the resident composers. A few days later, I found myself standing in the back of Ozawa Hall, deeply enjoying a Schumann quartet, when I noticed the composer standing across the hall. We made eye contact, smiled and nodded in recognition of the beauty of the piece, and went back to listening. I cherish that memory. Whatever our disagreements, forever more, we were united by the shared recognition of our predecessor’s brilliance. History can be a powerful tool for bringing people together.

It’s tempting, for all these reasons, to plunge into History, and to call this work Symphony No. 1. Even writing those words give me chills. I could have a “Symphony No. 1″? There’s a small voice in my head that says yes, this would validate you as a composer. You can never really make those old voices disappear.

On the other hand, there’s something to be said for working against the assumptions of Classical Music if it can bring people closer to the experience, people who are unfamiliar with the norms of the Classical world. While a Classical audience might be intrigued to hear what a modern-day take on the Symphony sounds like, for a non-Classical person who might hear of my work, calling it a Symphony might create a suggestion that one should be historically informed before listening. What if you’ve never heard a Symphony before? Is this piece not “for you”, then? If I called the piece “Giant Rock Song” (the thought crossed my mind. for a second.), that would carry its own assumptions with it. If I gave it an overtly religious or political title, that would impact who decided to come hear it, and/or how they listened. I know that the normal Inside the Classics audience is going to be interested to hear what I am writing — you guys paid for the piece! (And thanks again!) — but what about everyone else?

I love Classical Music, and I love fans of Classical Music. I love the quiet of the concert hall, the weird rituals of bowing and clapping, the attentiveness to detail, the respect for age and history and legacy. At it’s best, there’s a particular relationship between performers and audience members at a Classical concert that goes beyond anything I’ve experienced elsewhere; it’s a selflessness, a disembodied relationship that performers can have with the sets of notes they are playing, wherein no one present, not even the composer if they are there, can claim sole responsibility for the incredible thing that is happening, and so it is perceived as a collective experience alone, without anyone truly taking responsibility. This is incredible. While I think there’s much that the institutions of Classical Music can and should learn from the wider world of music they’ve mostly been ignoring for, well, forever, there are also things that shouldn’t be disturbed, and which other musical scenes and venues and institutions would do well to borrow, at times.

And yet I do not believe in the primacy of the Classical tradition. For me, it’s a construct, a fortress that’s been erected to keep some things in and other things out. I traverse the border, sometimes on the inside but mostly out in the wider world of music, where there are very few Symphonies. Out there, there are hundreds of terms for styles of music, almost all ephemeral, and none dealing with History, but instead with the ever-churning Present. For most music, a work’s title is about its affective conceit, its emotional space, the imagery and content of the story it tells. It sets up an immediate relationship between the title and the work and the prospective listeners, helping to guide them into a place of interest, or of wondering, or even of confusion. These titles do just as much work as does “Symphony”, but it’s work of a different, more specific kind. It doesn’t assume a prior relationship with any particular history, but asks that a listener be open to the story that is about to be told, to the information that is about to be conveyed, wherever they’re coming from. As Rakim famously said, “It ain’t where you’re from, it’s where you’re at”. This is advice that the world of Classical music could stand to heed, or at least, to incorporate into the way we interact with new audiences.

To that end, while this piece is a Symphony, in all the ways I described above, and even though I may think of it as my “first Symphony”, I don’t want the work to wear that title on its sleeve. Whatever I’m giving up in my relationship to the Classical audience who might like the idea of a contemporary work proclaiming its adherence to the norms of the tradition, I think I’m gaining more in my potential relationship with audiences who might be subtly put off by a title that seems not to be “for them”, that is referencing a history of which they are ignorant, that is implying connections to works they don’t know and may not care to know. I hope that people will want to come to hear my commissioned work who are not particularly interested in Beethoven (such people exist). I hope that people will want to come to hear my work who are not particularly interested in Radiohead, too, or Arcade Fire or M83 or Rakim or Fela Kuti. It’s not where you’re from, it’s where you’re at, and I’d like as many people as possible to feel comfortable coming to the hall, to be as unintimidated and as interested, as open-minded and as receptive as possible. And I hope that they — you — all enjoy my Symphony, whatever it’s called.

<October 2019>

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