Classical Music is a Visual Art

By contemporary marketing standards, both Classical Music and Jazz are considered genres or styles. The number of genres and sub-genres listed by music services is mind-boggling. I can’t even pronounce some of them, let alone know what they sound like. But unlike most genres, Classical Music and Jazz are more defined by their procedures than by their sound or style. Both have a long history, and both now have well-established means of apprenticeship. I will discuss the nature of Jazz and improvisation at some other time, but would now like to discuss the nature of Classical music, how it has evolved, and how it has affected my creativity.

visual-musicWhat makes Classical Music “Classical,” beyond anything else, is the fact that it is written down. Classical musicians can and do play any “style” or “genre” of music, as long as it is in written form. I think nearly every characteristic you can mention about Classical Music can be traced to the fact that it is Visual. Of course, it is true that for nearly a thousand years its written form has been an effective way of preserving it. But think about it, music has been passed down from one generation to another in every culture ever discovered, yet only European culture felt it necessary to write it down.

Music is an auditory phenomenon. Having music preserved in a visual format is beyond extraordinary. It changes our whole concept of it. For the rest of the world, music is an experience, but for Classical musicians, it is a “thing.” It has depth and breadth; it occupies space, and all of it exists at once. Accordingly, any part of it may be accessed at any time to be discussed, practiced, or even changed. As a result, every single note is susceptible to analysis, meaning, or criticism. You can talk about it as you would a visual artwork, or more often, a book. Of course, other arts have also been written down; drama has been in written form for 2,500 years! Choreography has a written shorthand too, though it never became much more than a memory tool. Visual art does not, of course, because the artist creates the artwork himself. But imagine if it did. Imagine if Leonardo da Vinci had written instructions for the Mona Lisa; the variety and number of Mona Lisa’s would be spectacular. Or not, because maybe the instructions by themselves would not be as inspiring without da Vinci’s realization.

Classical music is organized around ideals; this is what makes it truly “Classical.” (Not the fact that it is old!)

Because Classical music is visual, it has adopted many of the characteristics of other written art forms. It has become logically and dramatically organized, like literature. Its inner parts have become mathematically structured, like architecture. But most importantly, it has adopted Western philosophical principles as truth. Classical music is organized around ideals; this is what makes it truly “Classical.” (Not the fact that it is old!) It has ideals of rhythm, tone, balance, intonation, and structure that are absolutely taken for granted. How could a composer write a complicated score if he or she didn’t know how the rhythm would be played, or notes, or even how the instruments were going to sound? Classical musicians sublimate their individualism to their musical idealism. Even individual musical expression and musicianship are considered ideals.

Above all, a Classical musician strives for the ideal of perfection. It can be an obsession. I once heard a story about Vladimir Horowitz, where he was listening to a recording of one of his recitals and, after about a half an hour, he suddenly grimaced. When asked what the matter was he said, “That was where I hit that “g” wrong.”

Classical musicians are expected to have their own ideas on style and interpretation, but the differences in style and interpretation in Classical Music are minute compared to that of Popular Music. A Popular musician tries to create a style that is individual, no matter what the genre, while Classical musicians try to all play essentially the same way. Anybody can tell the difference between Frank Sinatra and Bob Dylan, even if they were singing the same song, but only an expert can identify different Classical soloists or ensembles.

For a Classical musician, the word “music” often refers to its written form, as in “I left the music in the car.” This borders on silly, when you think about it. But in reality, the “real” music has become a concept. The Beethoven Piano Sonatas have become ideals themselves. It is like Plato’s Cave Analogy, what we hear are the shadows on the cave wall. The ideal is, in itself, an interpretation of a written form, not an aural one, which makes it another step removed. This is why the institution of Classical music continues to play the same music over and over. It is tradition; it is an attempt at achieving perfection. It is like an athletic feat and one can always do it better. It has become something other than just music.

Yet, to non-Classical musicians and listeners, that is exactly what Classical Music is, just music. That is where New Classical Music and Composition come in. New music is listened to in a different way. It is heard for its style, its content, its cultural context, its originality, its innovation, and simply whether it’s liked or not. These kinds of questions are not usually addressed at a Classical concert; the quality of the music has already been settled. This means that to play New Music to a Classical audience is to already start with two strikes, the musicians and the audience. To be successful, a composer has to write something the performers feel comfortable playing and/or something the audience feels comfortable listening to; either of which, these days, involves a pretty drastic restriction in creativity. If a new piece is neither comfortable to play nor to listen to, then it REALLY has to be good! But even if a composer were to write a piece that everybody loved, that doesn’t guarantee that the piece of music will become part of the Classical Repertoire and reach the status of an ideal. That determination depends on cultural whim and luck, it is well beyond a composer’s control.

Composers imagined new music of great imagination in a popular vein, but that is not what happened.

Today, symphony orchestras play a lot of Popular Music. The Phoenix Symphony plays Popular Music at least half the time, maybe more. There was a time when some composers thought Popular styles and music would save Classical music institutions, and in a sense, it has. Composers such as Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein led a push for a more popular style. Gunther Schuller led a push for a fusion between Classical Music and Jazz. Composers imagined new music of great imagination in a popular vein, but that is not what happened. Just like the Classical Music it plays, symphony orchestras (primarily) play music from Popular artists that are already famous. There is almost no originality, but everyone is happy – performers, audience, and management.

To me, this is why creative New Classical Music of the last half-century or so has tended to cultivate not only its own audience, but also its own performers. Classical music (as well as Popular music) has ceased to embody the stylistic progressive evolution that characterized its earlier periods. “In vogue” has become somewhat of a non sequitur. Since the loosening up of the distribution of recordings, and especially since the Internet, all music has developed a stylistic multiplicity that would have been hard to imagine even fifty years ago. These days, not only are some Classical musicians only playing New Music (and making a living!), but some also do their own arrangements of other styles of music, or even write their own music. Some Classical performers are even improvising. The amount of cross-fertilization of musical style and technique has almost reached the level of individual preference. Even with all those identified genres, the most creative composers and musicians are still falling into the cracks. Being strikingly creative and fitting into a mold always seem to be mutually exclusive.

brush-portrait3-fb-banner-copyIt is against this backdrop that I made my decision to pursue improvisation as my main creative outlet. For me, the Classical Music experience was too distant; I was looking for something more personal both as a composer and a performer. But I don’t see improvisation as a spontaneous Classical performance technique or real-time composition. It is its own artistic discipline with its own aesthetic and fundamentals. But improvisation is fueled by intuition, and my intuition is primed by my experience. I don’t need that experience to improvise, but my experience does make my improvisation distinctive. It is that distinction which I mean to exploit.

My music is also meant to take advantage of the one-to-one relationship between artist and listener that has become the norm in the Digital Age. Though I can and do improvise live in concert, I don’t consider that to be the main thrust of my creativity or career. I consider my art to be more private than public. It is more conversation than lecture. For me, improvisation has become the perfect format, and in recording that improvisation and making it available online, I have found the perfect vehicle.