Over on Medium, Craig Havighurst has a new solution to the perennial question that haunts many a musical conversation: Can we please find a better term for “Classical Music”? Almost every musician I know in that scene has some beef with the term (Alex Ross, in fact, “[hates] it”), but the most well known alternatives — Concert Music, Art Music, Western Art Music — all have issues too, and none of them are really better enough to be gaining much ground. Coming up with something satisfying is a tall task given the ground to cover, from the Medieval chants of Hildegard to the secular explosions of Boulez and everything between and beyond, especially if you’re hoping for something that’s short and pithy to boot.
Havighurst’s proposal? Composed Music.
At first blush, there’s a lot going for this. Havighurst lays out the arguments in favor at greater length, of course, but to rehash them quickly: The focus of this music does tend to be on the composer (we talk about “Higdon’s Violin Concerto” [Spotify], not “That Concerto Hillary Hahn Premièred In 2008”); “Composed Music” avoids privileging one historical period within the tradition over another, and doesn’t imply that other musical traditions aren’t art; the term doesn’t currently have any pre-established meaning, nor is it in widespread use, so it’s free for the taking; its very unfamiliarity allows a great opportunity to present this music to listeners who aren’t familiar with it without bringing along the baggage they may associate with names they already know.
On further inspection, however, it begins to fall apart.
Havighurst runs into trouble right from the get-go in describing Composed Music as covering “works by a singular mind”. Opera, after all, is usually considered to fall under this umbrella, but it’s a collaborative art form, and while Mozart may not have worked particularly closely with all of his librettists, it seems blatantly incorrect to toss aside Myfanwy Piper’s contributions to The Turn of the Screw [Spotify], which owes much of its interpretive richness to the tightly constructed text. But fine, that’s an easy enough fix to make: Let’s tweak that language to include works written by a team of collaborators.
The real trouble starts when Havighurst starts talking about the role of performers as essentially interpretive for this music: “In the concert hall”, he writes, “the air shimmers with sounds originally imagined by the composer in the silence of his or her [sic] studio, and the composer’s instructions are the one non-negotiable part of the experience.”. Performers may well have “interpretive and musical brilliance”, but this new term “emphasizes the actual creator of the music, giving credit where it’s due”. Later on, he emphasizes this point further: “Composed Music is limited to music that begins with musical notation, conventional or otherwise, and a composer’s intent that the music be performed as written, while allowing for and expecting the traditional and well-understood breathing room we call interpretation.” This is dicey.
Consider, for a moment, one of George Brecht’s “Event Scores”. A mid-century avant-garde American composer (among other things), Brecht studied with John Cage and took to heart the idea that music could readily include sounds that previously would have been regarded as mere noise. His event scores consist of a set of instructions that may be carried out in any way at all, up to and including ignoring them entirely. The score for his string quartet is, in its entirety, “Shaking hands.”. When the Calder, Lyris, and Jack Quartets performed it at Disney Hall this past December, the players stood and engaged in a jovial round of handshakes, but it’s easy to imagine performances where they used tremolos or other musical effects, and it seems like a stretch to claim that Brecht “originally imagined” every single one of these possibilities, or that his instructions are “non-negotiable” given their deliberate non-binding vagueness, or even that he is the sole “actual creator” of the music.
But perhaps this is too extreme an example. Perhaps, despite our wanting to claim Brecht as a flamboyantly experimental composer of classical/art/composed music, despite the performance in question having been given by three groups dedicated to this genre in a performance space designed for and overwhelmingly dedicated to performances of this music on a program that otherwise consisted almost entirely* of music that fit neatly into this metric — perhaps the Brecht string quartet isn’t music at all, but instead a conceptual piece or performance art.
Perhaps, but it’s approached by a smooth continuum, not a sharp disjuncture. Earle Brown’s Four Systems [program note with score image] presents four horizontal swaths of black lines of varying thickness, with instructions that indicate they “may be performed in any sequence, any side up, at any tempo(s)”. Does that count as Composed? Frederick Rzewski’s Moutons de Panurge [scan of score] provides an actual melody and instructions on how to play it, but also calls for nonmusicians making “any sound, preferably loud” with a leader they “may follow or not” and the theme “the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing”, and tops this all off by encouraging musicians who get lost to “stay lost” and begin improvising “using any instruments” once the strictly notated portion of the piece is over. Confounding matters, the most famous recording [Spotify] of the work (by the critically acclaimed ensemble eighth blackbird) ignores many of Rzewski’s explicit written instructions. Is that Composed? Do we discount Leonard Bernstein’s Mass [Spotify] simply because there’s a passage where the singers are instructed to sing any note within a fifth of the one written? JS Bach’s instrumental works because tempo, articulation, dynamic, and ornamentation markings are often left entirely up to the player? Where exactly is the line between permissible interpretation and impermissible performer-driven improvisation? And if we do decide these works don’t belong under the Composed Music umbrella, where do we put them? Whatever Moutons is, it certainly isn’t Jazz or Rock or Electronica.
Coming at things from the other direction causes problems too. When you go see a performance of Rent [Spotify], the book, music, and lyrics are going to be pretty much as Jonathan Larson imagined them, but it seems clear that Rent belongs in a different genre than Anthèmes [Spotify]. But under the “Composed Music” label, we don’t have a clear way of making that distinction. Both of those pieces “[begin] with musical notation, conventional or otherwise, and a composer’s intent that the music be performed as written, while allowing for and expecting the traditional and well-understood breathing room we call interpretation”. Should we then lump together Larson and Boulez while setting aside Rzewski? Maybe we ultimately should, but at that point we should also be clear that this new term is not, in fact, a new label for a familiar grouping.
Havighurst offers a compromise of Semi-Composed Music to cover some of these possibilities, but only “as long as [the substantial improvisation and randomness is] clearly of the composer’s design”. Fair enough, except that he explicitly says Jazz doesn’t fall under this umbrella. Why not? Jazz composers know and expect soloists to improvise over their chord changes; the form of a Jazz piece is hardly a profound mystery, and if we’re going to allow John Cage’s 0'00" (“In a situation provided with maximal amplification, perform a disciplined action.”) or Rzewski’s injunction to “stay lost” and then improvise as “clearly part of the composer’s design”, I’m baffled by how we can exclude the basic Jazz “improvise over these specific chord changes or some standard substitutions with reference to this melodic line”. (Unwritten formal expectations are part of this tradition too: In Baroque- and Classical-era pieces with a minuet and trio, it's customary to play the minuet a second time after playing the trio, this time omitting the repeats. This is seldom written explicitly into the score.)
And again, we run into difficulties from the other end as well. Electronica is cast out from the Composed Music umbrella, but what, precisely, sets it apart from musique concrète or other forays into electronic music? What makes Ligeti György’s Artikulation [YouTube**] Composed but Aphex Twin’s “Isopropanol” [Spotify] not? Or is only some of Ligeti’s music composed? Does that answer change if someone re-creates Artikulation in real time using synthesizers? Can the same piece of music flip between genres depending on whether it’s presented by means of a fixed tape instead of a live human performer? These aren’t trivial questions, and Havighurst doesn’t really acknowledge them.
Havighurst’s follow-up piece clarifies little. He backs off on the claim that Composed Music is meant as an alternative to Classical Music, instead suggesting the term “is not a genre, but a trans-genre term for music born of a single mind and set in a fixed text”. (Again with the single mind: I guess Rent is in the same genre as Parsifal [Spotify] but not Spring Awakening [Spotify], and L’Amour de loin [Spotify] joins Sheik and Sater’s breakthru hit in the collaborative realm?) But OK, let’s roll with that. If we’re strict about the one mind thing, then “...Baby One More Time” [Spotify] is Composed Music (written by Max Martin alone, at least according to Wikipedia) but Deryck Cooke’s completions of Gustav Mahler’s tenth symphony wouldn’t be. That seems . . . wrong. (The subsequent analogy to sculpture that Havighurst offers doesn’t really help. Sculptors sculpt, resulting in sculptures. Composers compose, resulting in compositions. I’m honestly not sure where he’s suggesting “Composed Music” fits into that arrangement, as it seems to converge pretty rapidly with just “Music”, or at least “all music with the exception of anonymous melodies and folk tunes”, and I’m not sure that’s a very compelling lexical void.)
Look, I understand where Havighurst is coming from. We do tend to organize this music by composer where other genres tend to revolve more around performers — I say that I like Messiaen and Beyoncé, not the Berlin Philharmonic and the writing team behind “Run the World (Girls)” [YouTube]. (Tho, conversely, I do think the Berlin Philharmonic is an incredible group, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all to learn that there are common writers behind the pop songs I do and don’t like.) The problem is that other genres do this too. I like Stephen Sondheim, and I went to see If/Then [Spotify] because it was written by the same people who wrote Next To Normal [Spotify]. (I’m sure there were people who went to see it because it starred Idina Menzel, but I’m also sure there are people who go to Renée Fleming’s vocal recitals because of her star power and not because of Schubert or Strauss.) And further: The Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet is hands-down the best wind quintet in the world, and most of their recordings feature obscure and/or contemporary works. I’ve bought several of their albums without knowing any of the works they were playing because I’m in awe of their sound and usually respect their taste. Jubilee Riots write and perform almost all of their own songs — I don’t know how to tease out which side of their work I care about more. Nicki Minaj writes every word she raps — if you talk about her songs, are they hers because she had a hand in writing them, or because she had one in performing them? (Bear in mind Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Paganini — all of these composers and many others wrote works for themselves to play to show off their performing virtuosity, and Chopin’s pieces, especially, often have the feel of transcribed improvisations.) Describing Classical Music as composer-focused music not only shunts to the sidelines some of the most intriguing experimental work of the past century and lays claim to vast swaths of music not typically included under that umbrella, it also erases the critical role that performers play in the classical scene and devalues the work of pop songwriters (and songwriter-performers) as not “really” composition.
That’s bad. I don’t want the term for this music I love so dearly to do any of those things, let alone all of them. There’s an argument to be made that this question is ultimately unanswerable, that genres are artificial terms of limited utility, and that they will always run into trouble on the edge cases, that they’ll never really have satisfactory definitions. It’s a strong argument, and one that I’m sympathetic to, but at the same time it is often useful to have a quick shorthand way to refer to this large body of music and the people and institutions that perform and maintain it. “Classical Music” does that poorly, and I would love to find a new term for it. “Composed Music” just isn’t it.
*There was a graphic score on it as well, which I would argue raises similar problems.
**NB: The “score” in this video was created after the audio.