Classical Music Needs a New Name

Craig Havighurst on 2016-01-06

Clockwise: J.S. Bach, Gustav Mahler, Jennifer Higdon, Jonny Greenwood, Steve Reich, Aaron Copland and Maurice Ravel. All composers. Not all “classical.”

…and here it is.

In his Young People’s Concerts, circa 1958-‘72, Leonard Bernstein lamented the limits and imperfections of the term Classical Music. We use it, he said, “to describe music that isn’t jazz or popular songs or folk music, just because there isn’t any other word that seems to describe it better.”

Nearly a half century later, we find author and musicologist Alex Ross opening his 2010 book Listen To This with a similar complaint. “I hate ‘classical music’: not the thing, but the name,” he writes. “The phrase is a masterpiece of negative publicity, a tour-de-force of anti-hype.”

During the intervening decades (my lifetime, more or less) The Thing We’ve Called Classical Music has cratered in popularity and public engagement. It’s working its way back, slowly, to a place of respect, relevance and commercial viability. But it needs all the help it can get, including a major re-branding and re-conceptualization.

I actually think there is a great new word for Classical Music, one that’s been hiding in plain sight, as they say. So with a bow of gratitude to Leonard The Great, who helped me and millions of others experience great music on its own terms and in all its wonder, I hereby propose it.

Composed Music.

Let it sink in for a few seconds. See if you can get used to it. Imagine it as a designation in Spotify, a new Grammy Awards field or a wall in a record store. Imagine it as a new frame of reference for every kid studying cello, voice, piano or a band instrument. The ramifications of laying that term over and around the beleaguered term Classical Music could be profound. Baggage of history, class and race is swept away. The awkwardness of there being a Classical Period in Classical Music becomes moot. In a radio context, the music would no longer come across as an oldies format but as a vibrant art form, with Mozart and Jennifer Higdon and Chopin and John Luther Adams getting equal billing and stature.

Brooklyn’s So Percussion performs composed, not classical, music by Bryce Dessner of The National. (Claudia Hansen)

The general public won’t initially know what we’re talking about when we talk about Composed Music, but that’s a good thing. It’s a chance to re-introduce and refresh the very idea of music made for careful listening and refined expression in a fast-changing and jaded world.

Composed Music’s primary virtue is its blunt veracity. It is what it says it is: works by a singular mind, fixed and promulgated in written form. When you think about it, that is probably the one and only thing that unites all eras and styles of so-called Classical Music. Composed Music covers everybody and every work we’ve ever described as Classical Music, plus anything written in the 20th and 21st century, right up through right now, without privileging any era or style. Perhaps it can vanquish the reflexive recoil we sometimes see from “Contemporary” or “Modern” music or the peculiar banality and meaninglessness of “New” music. With its inclusivity and candor, Composed Music wins for plainspokenness.

The second argument for Composed Music is that it emphasizes the actual creator of the music, giving credit where it’s due in an era when the general public has been conditioned to associate works with performers. We will of course continue to hold up musicians, ensembles and conductors on their own terms and recognize their interpretive and musical brilliance. But the reason those people get up in the morning and perfect their artistry is ultimately to hack into the mind of a composer through the historic invention that is the composed score. In the concert hall (or appropriately hip alternative venue) the air shimmers with the sounds originally imagined by the composer in the silence of his or her studio, and the composer’s instructions are the one non-negotiable part of the experience. Composers have been rock stars in the past and they should be again.

Finally, the term has more poetry and resonance than might be apparent at first blush. The related word composure describes well the formality and focused attention that’s at the core of how so-called Classical Music has been performed and received for centuries, something that’s decidedly not broken. Composed Music honors and thrives on active, engaged listening. It distinguishes itself from all music appropriate for a party or a free-speech atmosphere and invokes a contract among composer, artist and audience. We collectively conspire for silence, which is this art form’s canvass, blank page or dark theater. To grasp and feel Composed Music, the audience has to compose itself, and it’s nice to be reminded of that.

When ensembles like Nashville’s INTERSECTION call themselves “modern classical” some run away. (Alex Ferrari)

As a term of art or commerce, Composed Music is weirdly virginal. If you search for it as a phrase, you get the Wikipedia entry for Musical Composition and the only instance of Composed Music that doesn’t stem from the past tense of the verb (i.e. “Mozart composed music when he was seven.”) is a single genre tag in an obscure database of copyright commons music. It’s pretty clear nobody’s ever embraced Composed Music as a term for much of anything, let alone as a value-neutral but evocative and accurate descriptor of formal art music.

Objections? I suppose that some will assert that all music is composed. Somebody fixes all those beats and notes and vocals in every pop record. Jazz tunes start with a fixed melody written down on staff paper. Electronica is made by musical minds consciously shaping timbre, texture, dynamics and the arc of a musical experience. Yeah, but no. My concept of Composed Music is limited to music that begins with musical notation, conventional or otherwise, and a composer’s intent that the music be performed as written, while allowing for and expecting the traditional and well-understood breathing room we call interpretation. Formal pieces that allow for substantial improvisation or randomness can still fit in the Composed Music as long as it’s clearly of the composer’s design. If you must, you can call those hybrids Semi-Composed Music.

We who cherish profound, challenging, complex music are facing a monumental task of the ‘turning an aircraft carrier’ variety. Composed Music organizations, from symphonies to cutting-edge ensembles, have tried commendable new approaches and adopted new technologies to develop new audiences. Success has been mixed, but hey, it’s time to let a thousand flowers bloom. I think that if just a few key players, such as streaming services, the Recording Academy and the BBC and NPR networks adopted the framework of Composed Music, it might lend those efforts a sense of unity and new momentum.

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