Over the past few days, at extracurricular bazaars and introductory meetings, I have received puzzled glances while trying to explaining the kind of music that I write and for which I organize concerts. This is nothing new. The music is contemporary but not rock or pop. It is classical but not like Mozart or Beethoven. Sometimes it is written for orchestras, string quartets and piano trios, but sometimes it is written for electric guitars, drum sets and saxophones. I have assured many people that there is a lot of “classical” music these days that would sound almost indistinguishable from some Indie rock and vice versa.
So what makes classical music classical? It is an exceptionally hard question, even for people who dedicate their lives to this type of music. There remains music that is clearly on either side of the divide, but the distinction between genres has become blurred. What then is at stake in the definition? The audience, the listeners.
More than saying anything about the actual content of the music, genre tags like classical or popular tell listeners which music is for them. “Indie” music is for the young and artsy; “pop” is music for dances and most everyone; “classical” is often seen as a warning tag: “Music for snobs and the elite only!”
The truth is, there is a lot in common between “classical” music, and music you already know. Last year, Sufjan Stevens wrote an orchestral suite of symphonic proportions named after New York City’s Brooklyn-Queen Expressway citing composers such as Igor Stravinsky and Johann Strauss as his inspirations. “Classical” composer Nico Muhly recently teamed up with Jónsi of Sigur Ros fame for the new album “Go.” Bang on a Can composers Michael Gordon MUS ’82, David Lang MUS ’83 and Julia Wolfe MUS ’86 write music infused with the instruments and spirit of rock. They’ve also commissioned new “classical” works for their ensemble The Bang on a Can All Stars by rock musicians such as Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, and jazz musicians such as Don Byron.
Classical music is open to anyone, and you don’t need to be a snob, an elite or even a musician to enjoy it. You do need to know how to listen to it. Unlike most pop songs, classical music is meant to be listened to intently. This is not to say you need to listen to it analytically, or suggest that you need any skills, knowledge or a good ear, but rather that is meant to be listened to with all of one’s attention. Pop songs, more or less, contain a single, unchanging musical idea and a lot of repetition. This serves their purpose very well — freeing the mind to listen to the words, dance to the beat and use as background noise.
One can, of course, pay attention to popular music and enjoy it more by doing so, just as one can get something from classical music without being all ears. But we are never taught to engage with music the way we do theater or the visual arts — by interacting intently and thoughtfully with what we see and hear. Music is used all around us: We play it in the background while we work and relax, and hear it on television shows and in stores. Listening, however, is the last thing we are doing. No wonder we are bored at concerts — wallpaper becomes the main attraction!
But there is value in learning not just to hear music, but to listen to it. It’s not hard — often reading the program notes for a concert or Google searching the pieces beforehand is enough to give one enough to listen for.
Try this the next time you go to a concert: Ask yourself about the sounds you hear. Why these sounds? Why these instruments? What is being communicated? An emotion? An idea? How do the sounds interact with each other at a given time and throughout the piece? What is the overall structure of the music? Does the music wrap back to its opening or move forward and never look back? What does it mean?
You might be surprised at what you uncover — communicated emotions, ideas, even jokes. Whether or not you find any meaning, through the process of listening intently you might just stumble on what this music is all about.