Hey, don’t NOT call me classical!

I mentioned Missy Mazzoli in my previous post.  Via a Jeff Harrington Facebook post, here’s a short piece she wrote for the NPR Deceptive Cadences blog (which I didn’t know about, so thanks, Jeff). When I heard her speak on the 13th, she seemed to be firmly against labels, yet in this piece she doesn’t like a label being withheld:

Some critics have claimed my recent album Cathedral City is not classical music, even though it is fully notated, uses several instruments straight out of the orchestra, harmonies straight out of Stravinsky and was written by a composer straight out of music school. Huh?

I haven’t heard Cathedral City, but I have played a lot of fully-notated non-classical music (including Christian pop arrangements) that used traditional instruments and some funky harmonies, and the arrangers definitely went to music school, so I wouldn’t say fulfilling those criteria is sufficient for deeming a piece “classical.” (But don’t ask me to define what does make something classical.)

Lots of comments, a number critical and/or heated, have been added to her post, including at least one from Jeff, who seems unimpressed with her music.

There’s definitely an irony here.  Composers coming from the classical tradition have always wanted to be taken seriously by the classical music establishment.  Those incorporating elements and idioms from outside the classical tradition get brushed aside by the establishment.  As Joe Horowitz often points out Gershwin’s orchestral works were consigned to the pops-concert bin for years by many orchestras. Certainly jazz was seen as a threat to the white classical music establishment in the U.S.; in Europe there was more interest by composers including Ravel.  Now the indie-rock influences are seen as a threat by some.

Can one be post-classical and classical at the same time? If you don’t want to be labeled, if you embrace pop and rock elements in your compositions, why complain about some traditionalist critics refusing to accept you as a classical composer?  If we’re moving past labels, why cling to them?

Lots of practical reasons, of course.  Marketing, commissions, venues, etc.  We’re not in that label-free world that is the ideal for many, and probably never will be.



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3 responses to “Hey, don’t NOT call me classical!

  1. That’s the problem, isn’t it? We’re not in that label-free world, and probably never will be.

    I remember when I was really into all the avant-garde and experimental music so was constantly lookin for the next “revolutionary” piece of music, composer, sound artist, whatever. Easiest way to find out about this music was to look for those lables–“experimental”; “avant-garde”–but just as often as not I was disappointed in what I’d come across.

    Granted, once I got past using the simplistic lables for search queries I realized how they were being used in the context of why the articular composer or piece of music was being labled as such. Then I just realized how the context was so dependent on the idiosyncratic knowledge of the person who made the label.

    Which didn’t make, say, a particular “revolutionary” rock band or new music ensemble [in the context of rock music or classical music, respectively] feel any more, um, “revolutionary”.

    I’m reminded of one of those 20th century lit class concerts where I recited a couple of excerpts from Kurt Schwitters’ concrete poem, “Ursonate”, and how one student afterwards commented on how “radical” and “new” it seemed. I was thinking to myself that this poem was written around the time our grandparents were born.

    Nowadays, when I listen to the non-academic experimental and noise music that I used to do for some years I ask myself why I bothered? Maybe I just got too jaded and disillusioned with all the post-whatevers being the “future of *fill in the blank* music”.

    “Post-classical” is the new “Crossover” anyway– 🙂

  2. I really enjoyed what little of the experimental and noise music I heard you do–wish I had gone to more of the Cello Shed. More importantly, the process of doing it meant a ton to you.

    The post-classical/crossover connection is interesting. It seems like it’s post-classical if it combines genres of nearly equal unpopularity with a mass audience. Crossover if it is popular!

  3. Sorry if that sounded more like a rant than an intelligent response–I’m still a little sick and being prompted by many past frustrations by your recent posts.

    Yes–that’s a good distinction between how post-classical and crossover are used. Though the two labels are used in reference to classical music, I sometimes find it useful to subvert the hierarchy. For example, would Classical Persian music (which it could be argued has been around longer than Western Classical Music) that has been adopting Western notation, instruments, and occasionally even tonal harmony be considered authentic from the viewpoint of a Persian musician or would he or she just say the music is piggy backing on the popularity of Western Classical Music so it’s crossover?

    I sometimes think that in ways, the Western Classical Music tradition was the first crossover genre borrowing from the art music traditions of a far more ancient near east and pan-mediterranean culture.

    The really ‘hardcore’ noise and experimental music that I was doing ‘post-Chello Shed’ (I really shouldn’t say there’s a post there since I occasionally still do an event or two every year) was like the pop music version of avant-garde. I was fascinated to find a group of musicians and artists without any classical composition training (and in many cases no really academic training in anything) that were creating a very abrasive and reactionary response to popular music. It went far beyond things like Punk Rock and Industrial music as both of those genres eventually did become commercial. Or rather, they eventually evolved into a more commercial genre. Noise artists could never hope to have any commercial appeal and being outside of the academic avant-garde musics, they would never have any institutional legitimacy either.

    It’s a fascinating music scene that has pockets of activity worldwide now. At the same time you have your “traditionalists” who decry the usage of laptops and computers to make the noise that had been done with found objects and chained effects pedals and rackmounts which I just kind of felt was silly (even if I did understand and agree with to an extent).

    I guess the process did help me, but I’ve spent some time second-guessing that learning experience as I’ve slowly gotten back into the more orthodox classical music field. I guess I’m still learning lessons from all those years spent doing the perormance art and baning on amplified sheet metal–haha!

    But the one thing I did learn– every group of people, no matter what their musical interests (or any interest for that matter), will have their value judgements about musicial ideas and will invariably use those to place musicians and their music in either the ingroup or outgroup. What matters most is which gorup has the most power to enforce and legitimize their musical values. Now that there are so many competing sets of values, everyone seems to be vying for that legitimacy and power to make their music valued by whoever they can convince that it has some value.

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