Thursday, August 13, 2009

New Definitions: Classical Music

Happy birthday to me!

To celebrate, and in the vain hope of kick-starting this blog into something like action, I've been thinking about definitions.

We all like to define things, don't we? And it's even more fun when we can have good fight about it. A spate of letters recently in Private Eye has debated the rights and wrongs of Classic FM's playlist, and whether the music from ET is classical or not. Classic FM seems to take the view that if it's got an orchestra or a wobbly cod-operatic voice on it, it's classical. Others disagree.

It's a perennial argument. Once upon a time, "Classical Music" meant simply music written between about 1760 and 1830, a particular style as exemplified by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. But the advent of the twentieth century and the invenion of recording, pop music and marketing means that now anything written from the 12th century to today might be called classical, if only we could agree what that means. According to recent reports, classical music is apprently something soothing to distract you from the recession. This implies that Bacharach is classical, but Beethoven isn't. Hmm. tricky, isn't it?

Kyle Gann has also been in on the argument recently, offering a definition given him by Robert Ashley -under 5 minutes is pop, over 5 minutes is classical - and I can see the attraction of that. It's simple, it sidesteps all those thorny issues of whether a particular genre might be inherently classical or not-classical, and it pisses off a few people in the process who probably deserve to be pissed off.

My definition is even simpler, though, and it sidesteps all those tricky borderline issues, such as whether Blue Monday by New Order is clasical, but True Faith isn't. And it's this:

Classical Music is music written by dead people.

So: Beethoven, Bach, Josquin, Stockhausen: Classical. As is Frank Zappa, who's an excellent example, as he was treated with disdain and contempt by the classical music establishment until he died, whereupon he became OK and can now be found cropping up in classical concerts, and is represented by a classical publisher. And Michael Jackson is the latest inductee to the classical canon. Of course.

Britney, Take That, Thomas Ades, Björk and me, however, are Not Classical. We're just breathing too much.

The Beatles, meanwhile, count as crossover, I guess.

So there you go: if they're dead, it's classical. Much simpler. Glad we cleared that one up.

There are probably a few naive people out there who think it doesn't matter, and that the only important question about a piece of music is whether it's any good or not, but of course we pay no heed to such people.