For all the complexity and plenitude of our thoughts regarding the music we do, it's amazing the extent to which they can be affected by very simple changes in terminology.
The other day I was having an email discussion with Jim in which I cited a favorite definition of "classical music," which is a paraphrase from an old Kyle Gann essay in Music Downtown -- it's global, it's broad, I like it, it describes the music not by style or social context but by function.
"Classical music is any ritualized music intended for listening."
Jim suggested, and this is so small and yet so powerful, that we excise the word "music." Which makes sense, right? Because having it in there makes the definition circular. So it's much more logical to say,
"Classical music is any ritual intended for listening."
I find this change brilliant and liberating. Because it's the "music" part that creates division, that invites the endless questions about genre and context and meaning. If you have "music" in there you get debates about what is and isn't music. Not to suggest that this formulation can't be bickered with, of course it can, but I think it's more workable insofar as we can all understand that we create rituals around listening. The definition posits that when people do this, they are making for themselves a classical music.
Then I was reading Alex Ross' article "Listen to This," which he begins by mentioning, and appropriating, the jazz world's practice of referring to their tradition as "the music." Throughout the essay, then, where one would expect the phrase "classical music," he supplies instead "the music."
He's talking about something different; my definition includes much (not all) music from the jazz and rock traditions, whereas Ross is discussing that which does come from the notated, European-inherited, "classical" tradition.
Which is fine. It's just amazing how much this broader formulation alters the tenor of his sentences. Look at an observation like, "The music attracts the reticent fraction of the population." He could have written, "Classical music attracts the reticent fraction of the population." The feeling is incredibly different.
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