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Thursday, March 03, 2005
The Music Which Dare Not Speak Its Name

So I've slammed the term "serious music" and I'll gladly slam "cultivated music" as well -- It's less objectionable, but still implies that all other musics are non- or un-cultivated. But really, there are plenty of musics besides the music we're talking about that meet one or more of the standard definitions of cultivated, and "cultivated" is, again, a word with positive connotations (and whose opposite is decidedly negative). So we end up being, while slightly less so than before, condescending. (I have the same problem with the so-called "bright" movement, to give a non-music example -- I'm one of them according to the definition they employ, but think the term is awful.)

But just shooting down other people's suggestions isn't by itself very helpful. I do believe strongly that the use of terminology is both useful and desirable, as long as we understand what we're talking about. (Kyle Gann had a series of posts on the value of terminology last August, and was kind enough to quote my e-mail to him at one point. I'll leave the value of terminology at that for the moment.) So let me propose a set of desirable criteria for a name, and then make a suggestion.

1. Ideally, the term should be completely meaningless on its own -- that way it has no semantic baggage to get in the way of its new duty.
2. Failing that, it should be vaguely descriptive of the most salient qualitative feature of the music. "Bluegrass" is a good name because it carries no value judgment, but by referencing Kentucky Blue Grass vaguely ties into the idea that the music has roots in the rural south. "Industrial" is a good name because it carries no particular value judgment, but illustrates that the music tends to be aggressively mechanical like an industrial process. "Minimalism" is a slightly less good term because "minimal" means something like "as little as possible" which really only applies to a subset of the musics we think of as "minimalist." Also, "minimal" can have a somewhat negative connotation. But it succeeds at describing the salient superficialities of much of the genre, and in that it is a fairly good term.
3. When selecting a term, it's better to go with one that is merely adequate but is already accepted by the public than one that is great but obscure. The point of terminology is communication, and changing the rules on people is a good way to be unclear. That said, if the term in common use is offensive, changing it can be appropriate -- we don't say "negro" any more.

So if you haven't already guessed, I'm in favor of just accepting the problems with the term "classical music" and qualifying it when appropriate. Kyle Gann's suggestion (and the title of his blog) "Post-Classical" isn't bad. I often say "contemporary classical music," or "academic classical music" (although given that many people object to being called academic, I probably shouldn't). In the end, if we say "I'm a classical composer" some people will know what we mean, and the people who don't will at least be wrong in the right way.

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