It’s becoming a hoary old question, but Philip Clark’s recent piece for Gramophone, reprinting a talk he gave at the Swansea International Festival, adds some new grist to the mill. I particularly like the following paragraphs:
Yes, music is at its best and most creative when it refuses point blank to exist in the stylistic world it already knows. But, no, that is absolutely not the same thing as this nebulous world of major label crossover music currently being dished up as ‘classical’ music. When recently I read the blogger Norman Lebrecht say in connection with the Bristol Proms that labeling music as ‘classical music’ is missing the point – ‘It’s not classical. Music is music. The moment you start putting categories to things, you diminish them’ – a little part of me died. Because exactly the opposite is true.
An example: if a composer wants to work with jazz, what can that mean? You could, of course, concoct a score that deals superficially with the surface cliché of jazz – those melodic hooks, stock chord sequences and wah-wah trumpet sounds that evoke classic Herman Leonard photographs of smoky jazz clubs populated by drug ridden, down on their luck musicians.
But categorising jazz begins to make sense of it creatively. Is this piece you want to write riffing off ideas from early ‘Classic jazz’, from the jazz of Jelly Roll Morton or Louis Armstrong? Or is interested in bebop? The journey between Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker is long and complex; but even if your piece is commenting on bebop, do you mean the purist bop of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, or the bop of Thelonious Monk, with its references to stride piano that crash at the very brink of Modernity – or with the so-called ‘Hard bop’ of Lee Morgan and Art Blakey? To compose with this material you must know the difference. And perhaps your composed response might want to subliminally imply that the harmonic and rhythm techniques of bebop were mirrored in the music surrounding it – the rhythmic smack in face typical of Stravinsky’s music or the harmonic smoke-and-mirrors of Messiaen. Only when engaging with music rigorously can you start to look beyond categories; only then do you realise that Monk was rooted in bop but actually had little to do with it; only then can you understand how far Tippett’s vision of the symphony moved outside any idea of what an ‘English symphony’ could be.