The New Musical Eclecticism

[Editor's note: The following article revisits the idea of the "global canon" — the theme of World Policy Journal's Fall 2010 issue.]

By R. David Salvage

In recent decades, contemporary classical music compositions have begun sounding similar to compositions in non-classical genres; in developing their musical voices, composers such as Osvaldo Golijov, Tan Dun, and Mark-Anthony Turnage have internalized sounds and techniques from popular music, world music, and jazz to a degree that goes beyond the penchant the old classical masters had for quoting folk songs. 

At the same time, composers from non-classical backgrounds have been crossing over, too: Astor Piazzolla cut an album with Gerry Mulligan; Farrukh Fateh Ali Khan graced the soundtrack of a film that has nothing to do with Pakistan (1995’s Dead Man Walking), and not long ago A.R. Rahman had a musical on Broadway—just to name three wide-ranging examples from among thousands. 

Today’s musical eclecticism has acquired a standard explanation that goes something like this: through recordings, today’s composers are exposed from the time they are young to an extraordinarily wide variety of music; as grown-ups, they naturally compose music inspired by the music they have enjoyed—regardless of the genre.  But that explanation isn’t entirely satisfactory.  After all, recordings may provide access, but why would they confer the confidence to compose in an unfamiliar genre?  

A fuller explanation requires understanding that recordings do not just provide listeners with expanded access to music: they confer “classicalness” onto whatever music they contain.  Any documentation of a work of art allows it to be experienced outside the environment from which it came.  We refer to this artistic autonomy whenever we call something a “classic” or “classical.” 

Arguably the most distinctive characteristic of western classical music is its having long been documented through musical notation.  For centuries it has had a claim on artistic autonomy, and this claim allowed the music to become a model, something one should (broadly speaking) imitate. In the twentieth century, recording technology gave non- or semi-notated music the means to become documented.  Acquiring the prestige of artistic autonomy became a possibility.  Popular and world musics seemed more classical, more legitimate. 

This has made it easier for individuals and institutions of musical authority to embrace musical diversity.  In the United States, no non-specialized primary or secondary school drills its students in classical music, and colleges increasingly look for faculty with experience in popular and world music.  (This year, Yale University Press published The Anthology of Rap and two biographies of Bob Dylan.)  In addition, younger classical composers have been influenced by various international strands of electronica and American minimalism, a movement that began as a reaction to the atonal current of classical music and took inspiration from world music and modal jazz.  When Elvis Costello can get a commission from the Danish Royal Opera, and musicians specializing in everything from traditional Japanese music to Weimar-era cabaret take the stages of Carnegie Hall, western classical music clearly has less of a grip on high culture than it once had.  

Today’s musical eclecticism also stems from the enormous impact of the computer.  Whether they’re writing a song, symphony, or string quartet, composers now hear their music as electronic music, thanks to playback features.  Naturally, this experience influences taste.   Surely the fact that computers can barely reproduce vibrato reinforces contemporary composers’ significant (though certainly not total) prejudice against vibrato.  As for rhythm, a computer doesn’t lose count or run out of breath, and this has clearly encouraged contemporary composers’ love for prolonged, driving rhythmic phrases called ostinatos.  Vibrato-less singing style and rhythmic ostinatos are in fact two hallmarks of much music outside the western classical tradition.

But the use of computers goes beyond notation.  Composers from classical backgrounds have been finding it easier to “plug in” and manipulate live signals electronically.   More classical composers are making the same crossing their mainstream popular peers took decades ago: the transition from acoustic to electronic sound production.  The wide availability of such programs as GarageBand and music schools’ growing attention to electronic music have created an era where electronic music techniques are now part of a composer’s toolkit. 

Unsurprisingly, today’s music scene features amplified new music ensembles that sometimes even call themselves “bands.”  New York-based groups like Zs, Anti-Social Music, Fireworks, and Victoire are the brainchildren of classically trained composers who have embraced popular music and fused it with twentieth-century classical techniques.  They have a lot in common with groups like the Kronos Quartet.  While the educational background of the musicians in the quartet is classical, their musical endeavors have led them to collaborate with musicians from Azerbaijan, Romania, and Pakistan, creating hybrid forms that challenge the notion of a ghettoized “world music” genre.

Indeed, the more one dives into today’s music scene, the more uncomfortable one finds oneself with distinctions like “classical,” “popular,” and so forth.  Generic labels seem to apply to less and less music, and easily-labeled sounds risk being perceived as anachronistic or obscure.  Multi-movement symphonies and arena rock risk the former, just as atonal string quartets and insular traditional music the word over risk the latter.

Over the next few decades, the training musicians undergo is also likely to become less insular and composer-centric.  In mainstream popular music, sound engineers, arrangers, and producers are all crucial parts of the composition process..  One wonders if future symphonies premiered by the New York Philharmonic will continue to be orchestrated by the same individual who comes up with the melodies and harmonies.  One wonders if in the future all the notes one hears from an orchestra will be made by live musicians.  One wonders if there will one day be classical music producers who expand and contextualize the seminal ideas of composers – classical-music George Martins or Timbalands.  One wonders if today’s non-classically-infused classical music will be “covered” by the classical ensembles of tomorrow. 

Fortunately, it is hard to be any more specific about the musical world to come: at their best, the arts are about surprising the world around us.  No matter our individual attitudes about technology’s ever-growing impact in our lives, or any aversion we may have to this or that genre of music, we should all be looking forward to continuing to listen.

R. David Salvage is a composer and pianist.  A three-time ASCAP Plus Award winner and graduate of Harvard and the CUNY Graduate Center, he composes a musical blog called

Image courtesy of Flickr user limowreck666

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