The Amaranth Solution: Classical v Classical

“Classical” The meaning of this word pertaining to music obviously is defined as a musical form.  So what is this meaning?  Ask any average guy and he would probably say “like what Mozart and Beethoven composed.”  Hey, he would be absolutely correct.   I mean, there was an age long ago termed the “classical period.”  This period was defined not only within music, but paintings, architecture, poetry, etc.

So if you ask the average “Joe” what contemporary classical is, he might scratch his head, confused.   I mean, most likely.  And that’s the problem.  Is rock a period?  Is jazz a period (I know about the age, but we’re talking music)?  The term “classical” is a definite problem.  It links the past to the present under false pretenses.  Imagine Philip Glass or Steve Reich being asked “what genre of music to you compose for?”  They answer “impressionism.”  That is if we swap out the word classical in favor of the word impressionism, both a period so would it matter?

Does the use of the word classical as a blanket definition of all eras of this form in turn form a bias within academia and elitists?  Meaning, to pick classical as the word might say to some that the era of classical itself is the most relevant to every genre.  Here in Seattle our main “classical” station rarely strays, or some might say deviates, from the baroque, classical and romantic eras.  I would bet that to be the case for every metropolitan city around the world.

Do you want a solution?  Take out “classical” as the definition of all periods in aforementioned music and replace with “amaranth.”  An unfading flower.

I compose amaranth music.  I compose amaranth music in a contemporary style.

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9 thoughts on “The Amaranth Solution: Classical v Classical

  1. Interesting. I think the two meanings of “classical” in reference to music may very well lend itself to a bias for past forms. I wonder if we could say similar things about Jazz; the jazz of Louie Armstrong, Mingus, Rollins, and Bud Powell are very different from contemporary artists, and they — contemporary artists — are often left out of the general understanding of Jazz in the minds of the masses. Some Jazz historians and critics believe that contemporary Jazz should be considered a different style with a different name. I do believe that there is a strong stylistic and technical link between contemporary Jazz musicians and those of the mid-twentieth century; I can easily pick out Coltrane’s influences whenever it comes up, and it comes up frequently; so I do not think we should break the periods/styles apart. But when talking about classical music, maybe a new term is deserved, because “neo-classical” or “amaranth in a contemporary style” is very different from classical era classical music. Great post!

  2. Additionally, perhaps it is not the name given to neo-classical forms, but its general obscurity in the music world that keeps it in a subordinate position. Not unlike avant-garde jazz, neo-classical is not a mainstream form, and at times it is difficult to listen to; thus perhaps it is not the name but the structure of the music that is responsible for its position, and changing its name would do little to increase its notoriety. If you tell someone you compose classical music, they should ask “what kind?”, and the neo-classical composer can explain their form. Much like if you tell someone you compose “amaranth music in a contemporary style”, and they ask “what’s that?”, one then explains their form. And in both cases differentiation from classical-era music should be met. However, since amaranth-music-in-a-contemporary-style or neo-classical forms will never replace traditional classical music, perhaps it is best to give it a new name, so it can be referred to more easily as a distinct form, which it definitely is. This would then separate it, at least semantically, from classical-music heritage. Is this what you are advocating? Or do you think the word given to classical-music heritage should be changed, and classical-period music be a form within its history. Perhaps this would then give a more equal status to each form of the genre. But again would a different name really change the way people think? And do people know the difference between classical-era and baroque forms? To them maybe it is all one thing, regardless of the name. And the only way to give equal status to each form is through music education. Also, in different cultures, wherein different names are given to these things, classical music is still identified as Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach. So I think it is the narrow range of representative composers that is responsible for the misrepresentation of neo-classical music, rather than the name in itself. When we think about the name “acid jazz”, the same type of situation arises; the form’s users wants to maintain a link to jazz, but it is different such that new nomenclature should be used to identify it. And I think the name effectively does that: we know it has a relation to jazz (albeit weak), but it is not jazz,and this dichotomy shows itself in the name. So maybe instead of changing the name for the classical genre, you should advocate for a name that differentiates neo-classical from and links it to
    classical-music heritage at the same time. I propose “amaranth classical”.

    Words are truly dicey beasts, aren’t they? (I like your post — it brings up one of those many wonderful things that don’t have a single correct answer.)

  3. My statement “I compose amaranth in a contemporary style” might have confused readers of my post. Just forget I said that. Simply use amaranth in place of “classical” when used as the blanket definition. Amaranth has been used in poetry as it is an imaginary unfading flower. What else could describe classical better? Jazz is fortunate for having a name that is appropriate. If someone were to say they were a jazz musician, I wouldn’t jump to any conclusions. I would wonder if they played ragtime, old standards, smooth jazz, etc. But I am sure there are pitfalls with that definition among jazz musicians which I am overlooking. As you say, words are dicey beasts.

    A lot of what you say is correct, but at the same time you keep using the word “neo-classical.” You might think that is correct because obviously neo means new right? However, neo-classical actually refers to a particular style of composing of the 20th century and if you were that sort of composer you would try to sound old, but new at the same time. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neoclassicism_%28music%29
    http://www.askoxford.com/concise_oed/neoclassical?view=uk
    Hence, neo-classical is used as new “classical era” music, not new “classical blanket term” music. I.e., if you were to say to someone who followed contemporary classical music, “I compose neo-classical music,” they would have an understanding instantly that you made music which sounded similar to baroque and classical, anything but avant-garde in our era (however actually somewhat avant-garde in the early 20th century). So even when using neo-classical in such an obviously seemingly correct way, you end up with an altogether different definition, so it is actually incorrect. Just another problem with the word “classical.” That is why I propose to throw the word out in its usage as a blanket definition. It is such an oxymoron. Old-new.

    As far as what you say concerning the avant-garde. Very true. But amaranth wouldn’t have to mean mainstream. Used in replacement of classical (the blanket definition), it would mean avant-garde if you used the word with that in mind. I compose amaranth in a contemporary style. Avant-gard. Or, I play amaranth music on the piano. I am holding a recital for Beethovan’s piano concerto No. 4. Then, of course, it is is used in that sense, the true era of classical. Someone might reply, “oh, nice, so you play classical era music?”

  4. I was not aware of the neo-classical style — thank you for the clarification.

    Do you think changing the name of the classical music genre will change the way people think about classical music? And the primary composers that represent it?

    I was thinking about the word classical today at work and I realized that these days “classical” seems to be more widely used as an adjective independent of the era. If we look at the root, we get a noun, “classic”, which just means “something that will stand the test of time”. So perhaps something that is classical is something that will stand the test of time. I would prefer if we changed the name of the era, since it did not stand the test of time, and continue to use the term “classical music”, since it will stand the test of time. I talk as if we have the power to change words — it’s probably good that we don’t, or I would never get anything done.

    And a quick digression, in Chinese the word for classical music consists of three characters: 古典樂. Together they represent the idea of classical music, but when you look at the meaning of each character, you get: the first character means “ancient”, the second “books/records; allusions; a statute”, and the third “music”. So we can say that the word for classical music in Chinese is made of three parts (or three morphemes, if you want the linguistic term): ancient-book-music. It is funny, the reference to the classical era is not there, but reference to the past is very much there. I wonder if this reference to the past is in some way connected to the English term; that is to say, that they saw the two words “classical music”, recognized that it is related to the past, and came up with a name in Chinese that preserved that reference. This would not be far fetched since the idea for classical music probably came to China through an English-speaking culture. By anyways, the Chinese name for classical music deemphasizes classical-era classical music, but still emphasizes the past. If we believe that peoples’ perception of music is somehow connected to its name, then we could say that the Chinese name preserves a bias against modern composers, and favors past ones.

  5. “Do you think changing the name of the classical music genre will change the way people think about classical music? And the primary composers that represent it?

    I was thinking about the word classical today at work and I realized that these days “classical” seems to be more widely used as an adjective independent of the era. If we look at the root, we get a noun, “classic”, which just means “something that will stand the test of time”.” – Louie

    I think changing the name would be a big step in changing the public’s perception of “classical, blanket term” in its entirety. The name has a closed door feel to it, doesn’t it? As classic is something that has withstood the test of time, it really doesn’t include contemporary composition, but at the same time it does. It’s that old-new oxymoron. You already have a great deal of knowledge regarding music in general as well as music theory. Think about the laymen and their perception of anyone composing avant-garde. First off, they are probably somewhat surprised that there is new “classical” music and I guarantee that an assumption on their behalf is that if its good, it should sound like “classical era” music. The Inverted Vase, my work within the whole-tone scale barely scratches the surface of Avant-Garde, if that at all. Yet someone who doesn’t follow classical in any form (besides hearing classical in elevators, romance flicks, etc.) would likely find that piece ugly and would question why I didn’t compose something more “Mozart-like.”

    Interesting how you compared the word classical in its Chinese form, very revealing.

  6. Clever.

    But terminology matters little. And in fact it works similar to a trademark, allowing someone who had a previous good experience in a given form to seek out a similar (new) experience in future – Bach and Vivaldi being both classical is a good example. Bach to Mozart , and even more difficult, over to Mozart and Satie, for example, this becomes more difficult as then the label becomes unreliable.

    So a sub-label (baroque, classical, post-romanticist) becomes useful, according to present usage.

    There will be hard cases and outliers. I consider Satie a slightly hard fit into the system. But it’s not as bad as, say, the fit Metallica would have into the Romatic period of classical music.

    The problem comes with implicit heirarchies and misuse. If it becomes good to appear like a certain format, then the predictor function of a label becomes distorted for short-term (hopeful) financial gain.

  7. Many people misinterpret the amaranth solution since its just simply replacing the word classical with amaranth. You must be reading too much into my post.

    Why replace the word? Because classical implies old, outdated, antique. Sure it works for the old and antique composers, dead and buried, but does it work for the contemporary composer? No.

    I wasn’t implying that we end what you call sub-labels (or genre names). In fact, if anything it would make the classical sub-genre much more clear cut to outsiders of the arts.

    I’m not quite sure why anyone would consider Satie a hard fit into the system. Is that because you feel Satie is not “classical?”

    As for today. Lets end the myth. “Classical” music also includes:

    Field recordings
    Electroaccoustic
    Soundscapes
    Minimalism
    Process music

  8. Thoughtful post. You are right, the phrase classical music is often used to describe the music of Beethoven, Haydn, and Mozart. But people won’t raise an eyebrow if you include Tchaikovsky, Mahler, or any of the Romantics/Baroque era composers. People might raise an eyebrow if you include Schoenberg in the classical mix though. To avoid confusion, I tell people I compose concert music. It’s funny though, most people don’t know what that means either!

    On a positive note, our classical station Iowa Public Radio classical does include a fair amount of new music in the mix. I’ve never heard anything really avant garde, but the certainly include a bit of edgy music by 20th and 21st century composers.

    American Composer Ralph Kendrick

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