Well, I’m back. I attended the Third World Forum on Music (as in the third they’ve held, not a forum about third world music), sponsored by the International Music Council.
More later about what that all is, about the international music scene I learned about (with some major issues being debated, one of them involving the US in not a very pretty role). And about Tunisia, a westernized culture whose Arab roots are never all that far below the surface. And about all kinds of crosscultural moments, including a distinguished older singer from Afghanistan whose music i heard on (of all places) her MySpace page. And my friendship with an Australian who works with aboriginal music, which comes from a culture (musically and otherwise) very, very far from our own.
And the phenomenal way younger Tunisians sing and play their own traditional styles, complete with microtones and long rhythmic cycles (more than 100 beats), that western musicians probably couldn’t keep up with.
But later for that. Because it’s most germane to this blog, I thought I’d start with my own presentation, though that wasn’t the most important moment for me while I was there. I should say, first, that (as I only found out after I’d been there a few days) I’d been invited because of this blog. An official of the IMC reads it, and thought I’d be a good choice to talk about (what else) the future of classical music.
So I spoke on a panel about art music and its future, called “Challenges to Art Music: In a world overrun by celebrity and superficiality, is there an audience for the disciplines and profound truths of art music?”
Faithful readers can imagine how little I liked that premise. But in an international context, it turned out to have a special meaning: “In a world overrun by bad American music, and by greedy pop record companies whose interests are promoted by US policy…” I’ll have more to say about that in a later post.
And the art music the panel discussed wasn’t only western. One speaker talked about Indian classical music, another about Tunisian traditional styles. And another about a specific niche for western classical music, in Ugandan Catholic churches. The speaker, a Ugandan, didn’t endear herself to other Africans at the meeting when she said she thought western musical instruments are harder to play than African ones.
You can hear a recording of what I said here. I found myself reacting to earlier panels I’d attended, about “riding the digital tiger” and about music education, where one speaker talked about a “paradigm shift” necessary, he thought, for people who run conservatories, and who teach at them. I began by telling stories, about innovations in music, many of them involving online technology. In part I wanted to get away from the abstractions most other speakers provided, but I also wanted, as vividly as possible, to emphasize two things:
- That the digital eruption is only a tiger to those who stand outside it. Inside, it can be a happy riot of hopeful possibilities.
- And that “paradigm shift” doesn’t go far enough. There’s been nothing short of a revolution in our culture.
I noted that the innovations I talked about (I’ll list them another time) all happened outside the mainstream classical world. And then I moved on to the ways in which classical music is losing ground in our culture these days, a familar topic in this blog. (I talked, for instance, about the dire data that the NEA recently released.)
I did add something, for the international audience, something I haven’t stressed here, but which I’ll certainly say in my book: That the decline of classical music is — in the last analysis — caused by the end of western cultural (and political) hegemony. How, for instance, can we insist that white European culture is preeminent, musically, in a world that’s largely non-white and non-European? Or in my own country, the US, which is headed toward a non-white majority?
The rise of rock and jazz is, in many ways, a non-western challenge to European music and its former rule. That’s because rock and jazz rhythms ultimately come from African music, and imply a culture that’s not European at all. (On this, see Christopher Small’s Music of the Common Tongue, and Michael Ventura’s essay “Hear the Long Snake Moan,” in his book Shadow Dancing in the USA.)
I ended by telling more stories, about the ways that classical music might change. My favorite is something I thought of at the conference, after a conversation with someone in Europe who runs an organization that deals with classical music competitions. She said she was trying to find new things for competitions to do. And it suddenly occured to me — classical music competitions could reshape themselves as reality shows.
I’m serious. I’m thinking of reality shows like Project Runway, where contestants — in Project Runway’s case, fashion designers — are given challenges each week. Make a garment entirely from newspaper, design an outfit for recent graduates to wear to their first job interview (in collaboration with the graduates themselves, and their mothers), design something extravagant for Cristina Aguilera to wear to an event, with Aguilera herself as one of the judges.
So why not give challenges to musicians in competitions? Competitions, as I think we all know, can be dull. The winners are often consensus choices; musicians with real flair get left out, because some judge might dislike them. And — something I haven’t heard said, but which is obvious, when you think of it — there’s no guarantee that a competition winner will make any impact on the outside world.
So — challenges! Serious ones, that would show what kind of musician each competitor really is. For instance:
- One week give the contestants a short piece to play. The judges then pick the one whose playing they like the most. And then, the next week (I’m imagining this as an actual reality show on TV, with weekly episodes), bring the contestants back to play the same piece, but with instructions to play it in an entirely different way. They’d have no advance warning of this, or any other challenge. We’d see in an instant how adaptable and imaginative each one was.
- Give the contestants a wildly difficult, outrageous, even wildly ugly short passage written for their instrument. They’d have 30 seconds to look at it, and then they’d have to play it. We’d see who came closest to getting it right — and to making music with it. (The competition could provide reference recordings, made by people who’d taken time to learn the music.)
- Give the contestants a new piece, without expressive markings of any sort — no tempo indication, no dynamics, no phrase marks, not even any articulations. Now we’d see who could make the best music from what would look, in musical notation, like something pretty close to an undifferentiated mass of notes.This would show us who had true musical imagination, and would expose — mercilessly, I think — the kind of competition entrant who can only play what he or she has been taught. (This isn’t my idea. I’ll happily give credit to the man who invented it, Ben Verdery, guitar teacher at the Yale School of Music, who told me he gives this challenge to guitarists who audition to get into the school. It’s a brilliant idea.)
Of course we could think of many more challenges. These are just the first that came to my mind. We could ha
ve musicians forced to make instruments to play on, musicians challenged to improvise, musicians given most of a new piece (written in a famliar style), and then challenged to make up the ending. Or musicians given something beautiful from the standard repertoire to play, and then challenged to play it again, even more beautifully. (This comes from one of Tom Johnson’s pieces from the ’80s, called, collectively, Music for Unrehearsed Performers, if I remember correctly. He wrote one of these pieces for Richard Stoltzman, and that was one of the things Stoltzman had to do.)
I really like this idea. It could be done on TV, but could also be done live. I suspect that the winners would be almost guaranteed to be interesting, if the challenges were potent enough.
Two footnotes. First, nearly everyone I met, when I told them I worked on the future of classical music, said classical music had to change, maybe drastically. This included people whose positions might make you think they’d be far more conservative.
Second, I recorded my talk on my iPhone. I’m amazed at the quality of recordings I can make with it. And it’s always in my pocket, so there’s no need for any presentation I give to go unrecorded.