K.V. Narayanaswamy

Defining “Classical” from a World Music Perspective

By Mark Hertica, professor of music at San Diego Miramar College
and Center for World Music board member

There are many terms in use today for the wide variety of musical styles played, heard, and recorded throughout our world: folk, pop, jazz, world, rock, classical, and more, as well as all their various sub-genres. While these terms are useful for most of us as general descriptors and for purposes of marketing, defining them is problematic. The term classical provides us with an excellent example of the problems posed.

Use of classical as applied to music presents several problems. For example, when associated with the Western tradition, as exemplified by such composers as Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Copland, and many others, it often refers generally to pre-composed music of the concert hall. But one of the more confusing aspects of the term in this usage is that classical also refers to a specific period of time from the latter eighteenth through the early nineteenth centuries when certain aesthetic principles were generally predominant in the music of European concert halls, churches, and the courts—a period in which the styles of Haydn and Mozart are most illustrative. Moreover, beyond the problem of European application, the problem is compounded as it is often used when referring to some traditions found worldwide in places such as Japan, China, India, Iran (Persia), Arabia, etc. Thus the determination of what is classical music is dependent upon the context in which and by whom it is used.

However, there are certain characteristics, some musical, some extra-musical, that upon closer inspection can be observed in all of the traditions referred to as classical music. First and foremost among these characteristics is that the musical traditions referred to as classical in various cultures have historically been associated with material wealth, education, and nobility. While today this music may be performed, observed, and enjoyed by people of all social backgrounds, historically this was music created and performed by members of the socially and politically elite classes. What are some of the other characteristics of classical music, and why would it find its creation and historical home among these elite classes?

Court Gamelan Solo

Court Gamelan, Royal Palace, Surakarta, Java

By their very nature the great courts of the world were, and, although perhaps less so, still are elitist, socially and politically. The high art found in these courts represents the most sophisticated and refined expression of the aesthetics of the cultures from which the courts arise. The art associated with these courts and their religious traditions therefore reflects and glorifies the people of the court and their divinities, and their music is an integral part of those traditions. The music, just as the court itself, must be elevated above the mundane, the everyday, as it expresses the aristocratic nature of its surroundings and speaks to and for its patrons. Indeed, to fully appreciate the artfulness of the music and the musician, it is as incumbent upon the listener as it is upon the musician to be familiar with the musical language. As Ananda Coomaraswarmy points out, “the listener must respond with an art of his own.”

The language of these various court musics, like the visual art, literature, dance, etc., is highly nuanced and packed with meaning for those who know how to listen to those nuances and for the meaning. To the untrained ear subtle details of rhythm and melody might be lost, but those educated in the details of the musical aesthetics of a given culture learn to hear and maintain in memory those details, hearing them as constructing the hidden meanings that may be lost on the unschooled ear.

To convey these messages classical music found around the world requires highly skilled and knowledgeable performers to play in an aesthetically pleasing manner for these audiences. To obtain the proficiency necessary for proper performance, the players must devote years of their lives to acquiring the physical dexterity necessary for flawless performance. But physical dexterity is not enough. Performers must have an intimate knowledge of the various nuances of the musical aesthetics that govern what is acceptable in a given style or genre; this is the basis for musical education. Whether for ritual or entertainment purposes, the musician must be well acquainted with proper performance procedures and practices.

With all of this in mind, if both the listener and the musician are to fulfill their roles effectively, then both must have sufficient time to practice their art. This requires resources for both day-to-day living and musical studies. And around the world it was the court and the religious institutions that possessed those resources. So as these musics developed, it was by and for these social elites that this music was created.

As resources necessary for musical education and training have become much more widely available, classical music is no longer the realm solely of the social and political elite. However, for a fuller appreciation of the art, the listener still must become acquainted with the particular musical language being performed. An uninitiated listener may well appreciate the inherent beauty of an Arabic maqam, a Tyagaraja kriti, a gendhing for Javanese gamelan, or a Beethoven symphony, but without some understanding of the nuances, the subtle art of the composers and performers, the messages put forth within the music will more than likely not be heard. As Wynton Marsalis tells us, “When an art form is created, the question is how do you come to it, not how does it come to you. Beethoven’s music is not going to come to you . . . you have to go to it. And when you go to it, you get the benefits of it.”

Andrea Hernandez — Balinese Gamelan Angklung

The Center for World Music would like to give a warm welcome to Andrea Hernandez, who has recently joined our World Music in the Schools roster of teaching artists in residence.

Andrea Hernandez

Andrea’s vibrant creativity comes from growing up in a large family of singers, musicians, dancers, writers, and artists. Her imaginative home life inspired her to actively pursue all of these arts from a very young age. She grew up drawing, painting, writing, singing, dancing, and playing every instrument she could get her hands on. She has performed Balet Folclórico (traditional dance of all regions of Mexico) since she could first walk, and continues to do so to this day. Her insatiable curiosity and appetite to learn has persisted, as she continues to study many different arts including guitar, piano, drums, flamenco, and capoeira. When she first heard the Indonesian gamelan, she was naturally drawn to it because of its complex musical rhythms.

Andrea was introduced to gamelan while working at the Museum School in 2003 and has been in love with it ever since. She has studied and performed with many teachers including Dr. Alex Khalil, Putu Hiranmayena, Tyler Yamin, Djoko Walujo, and Made Lasmawan. Her primary focus has been Balinese gamelan angklung, but she has also studied Javanese gamelan, gender, and Indonesian dance under Wuri Wimboprasetyo.

Andrea is a member of the USD Gamelan Ensemble, Gunung Mas, and performs with them on a regular basis. At USD, her enthusiasm for learning and playing is almost unmatched and her participation is very much appreciated. She has taught beginning and intermediate gamelan angklung at the Museum School for about 10 years. Andrea is determined to continue developing her abilities and teaching skills so she can help her students find the inspiration to be creative in their daily lives.

The Art of Peace Banner

The Art of Peace Conference and Performances at USD

The Art of Peace, a major, multi-day symposium exploring the use of the arts in peacebuilding, will take place at the University of San Diego November 11-14, 2015, under the auspices of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice. The symposium will feature local, national and international playwrights, filmmakers, poets, musicians, visual artists, and academics who are mobilizing the creative power of the arts to break the cycle of conflict.

For details, visit the official The Art of Peace website or download the conference poster. Most of the symposium’s events are free, but registration is required.

One event that might be of special interest to world music lovers is the performance of Saffron Caravan on Wednesday, November 11, from 7:00 to 9:00 p.m.

Saffron Caravan

Saffron Caravan features Lebanese-Brazilian Badi Assad, vocal and guitar, Moroccan Aaron Bensoussan, vocal and oud, and Arab-Israeli Haytham Safia, oud, joined by Bosnian Tony Pesikan, guest percussionist. They’ll take the audience on an inspiring musical journey from the Balkans through the Middle East and North Africa to Brazil, tracing the cultural crossroads of sevdah, an emotionally charged folk music originating in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The concert includes an original composition, specifically for Saffron Caravan, by Nigel Osborne, composer, global human rights activist and emeritus professor of music at the University of Edinburgh.

Tickets for this concert are available here.  There’s also a nice poster for this concert.