I want to restate here some things I wrote in answer to Gabriel Solis’s comment on my last post. Thanks, Gabriel, for getting me thinking. Classical music performances — even of music of the past — are always contemporary. That is, they smell of the present more of the past. That’s because the style of performance has changed over the years (as anyone can hear from recordings). So any performance we hear of anything in the classical repertoire is going to be done in one of our contemporary performance styles. (I say “one of,” because by now there’s more than one. Daniel Barenboim vs. Roger Norrington in Beethoven, for instance.)
And in fact the whole notion of classical music is contemporary. That’s true just about by definition. You can’t have classical music — music that has attained some kind of classic status — if you don’t have contemporary music to contrast it to. Besides, the concept of classical music (as I’ve said here many times) didn’t exist before the early 19th century, and so music written before that couldn’t be classical. Which is to say that there wasn’t any consciousness of any classicism in the minds of the composers, and thus no inherent air of classicism (in all of its aspects — a sense of importance, a sense of hoped-for timelessness, a sense of assumed grandeur, whatever) built into the music.
Even once the concept of classical music appeared, its meaning changed over time. Each new generation felt it differently. Classical music performances, then, reflect our present idea of what classical music means. And almost all classical music performances — I’m talking, just to make this clear — about the classical music mainstream — do convey a sense of “classical music,” quite apart from the sound and inner content of whatever piece is being played. For a striking (and, interestingly, non-mainstream) example, listen to performances of Aphex Twin’s “AFX237V7” conducted by John Adams with the London Sinfonietta, and compare them to the original Aphex Twin records. (Go to the iTunes music store, search for Aphex Twin, and put the songs in alphabetical order.) The Adams performances sound classical; Aphex Twin, in his original form, just doesn’t. (You could also compare the Aphex Twin arrangements with the performances by another new music group, Alarm Will Sound, which I haven’t done.)
So what happens if we made classical music sound like it came from the past? Paradoxically, we’d radically freshen it. We’d strip it of its classical veneer, and hear it with really fresh ears. We’d also unravel some contradictions that have grown up over the decades, when traits from the past in classical pieces contradict our idea of what classical music should be. More on that — and on how we might make classical pieces sound like they come from the past — in my next post.