A Rose by Any Other Name

Asymmetry Music Magazine announces that it will be covering the classical music of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. I know from the reactions of colleagues and from reading some on-line conversations about music, that calling the musics I intend to feature in this magazine by the word “classical” is going to puzzle some and annoy even more. So I thought a word about my choice might be in order in this premiere issue.

I did not make the choice lightly. I respect my colleagues and their opinions. And there is much to be said against identifying the music to be covered in this magazine as “classical.” For one, since the word unequivocally describes the brief era of music typified by Haydn, Mozart, and early Beethoven, it should be confined to that. But somehow, the word has come to be used to identify any of the “serious” musics of the medieval, renaissance, baroque, romantic, or modern eras. So, for two, the word is impossibly diffuse—it covers, as a trip to any respectable record store will illustrate, both Dowland and Dockstader. For three, as the word serious suggests (at least inside the double quotes), classical music is specialist music. It’s “artistic” and “elite” and “difficult.” It’s certainly not fun.

Of course, those of us inside the elite group that listens to classical music know how much fun it is. And even if we’re sitting still and quiet while it plays (something nonhabitues find peculiar), we’re dancing on the inside. That’s probably why so many of us are jealous of conductors—those are the people who get to dance on the outside as well. As for difficult, well, that’s a matter of some dispute, certainly. I never found Haydn or Rachmaninoff particularly difficult, though forty years ago I did find most of Sibelius to be incomprehensible. I don’t know why. Thirty years ago, I found Lucier difficult. I no longer know why about that, either.

Artistic and elite I have almost no problem with. Because I know how much fun it is, I want as many people to like new music as possible. And I think there are are lots of people who don’t like it now who are perfectly capable of being just as pleased as the rest of us already are. But I know that fans of Hodgkinson will always number fewer than fans of Primus. (For that matter, fans of Primus will always number fewer than fans of Shakira. It’s a strange world.) So I’m not concerned with elitism. It happens.

As for artistic, perhaps that word should be shelved. I’m sorry I brought it up.

So why have I chosen the word “classical” to describe the musics to be featured in Asymmetry Music Magazine? Partly out of frustration, I must say. I’ve been reading about classical music ever since I started listening to it, and as my tastes developed, I noticed that the things I came to like more and more were either savagely attacked in the books and magazines I read, or they were simply ignored. (I’m not sure which is worse.) You probably don’t have to imagine my glee when David Cope’s New Directions in Music came out, or Michael Nyman’s Experimental Music: Cage and beyond. You probably felt the same. Partly out of my sense that for all its problems, it’s still the only word that connotes the artistic purpose, the serious value, as well as the sheer pleasure in sound that I find in the new musics that will feature in this magazine.

You probably noticed that some time in the sixties, if not before, that musicians on the cutting edge of whichever category they found themselves in (rock, jazz, classical), found themselves interested in many of the same things—noise, chance, electronics, theatre, getting new sounds out of old instruments. In a way, I suppose I’m cheating to lump all these people under the word “classical,” but there it is. You will find Zorn and Coleman and Merzbow and Nurse With Wound and Dr. Nerve in Asymmetry, alongside of Avram and Ferreyra and Noetinger and Kubisch. You will not find a lot of my own favorites, Primus, Mudvayne, Tool, and King Crimson. But in all those names, you can perhaps most clearly see where I’ve put the line, if not why. I’m not alone in this. In the Futura 06 festival last August, Aphex Twin and Pan Sonic rubbed shoulders with Dieter Kaufmann and Elsa Justel. So there you have it.

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