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July 22, 2008 2:14 PM   Subscribe

The future of classical music lies in China. Chinese enthusiasm for Western classical music is deep, says New Yorker music critic Alex Ross, but traditional Chinese music is older and more classical than anything in the West.
posted by plexi (30 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
How is traditional Chinese music "more classical" than anything in the West, except by being older?
posted by aswego at 2:22 PM on July 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


This is my favorite part Ross's article:
When Wu Na returns to Beijing, later this summer, she hopes to develop a cross-cultural exchange that will bring traditional Chinese masters to New York and jazz and blues musicians to Beijing. She noted that audiences in Beijing have little grasp of African-American music in its classic, early-twentieth-century forms. And I realized that, while I had gone around Beijing looking for “authentic” Chinese music, she had been doing the same in New York, searching, with little success, for old-time jazz and blues.
I put together a post about the guqin, a chinese classical instrument, back in February. I'm quite fond of its sound.
posted by Kattullus at 2:27 PM on July 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


Can everyone stop RIGHT NOW using the word "classical" as though it were synonymous with either "orchestral/chamber/choral" or "traditional"?

Because that's just stupid. Chinese traditional music has a longer history than Western orchestral, chamber, and choral music. Neither is more "classical" in any meaningful sense of the word "classical".
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:31 PM on July 22, 2008


Is there a vaccine yet for China hype?
posted by kid ichorous at 2:34 PM on July 22, 2008


I thought one element that made "classical" music "classical" was its use of staff notation, which set it apart from most other non-Western (and some Western) musical traditions.
posted by Sangermaine at 2:34 PM on July 22, 2008


I sympathize, but you're fighting a losing battle, Sidhedevil -- the usage is already pretty firmly ingrained. (If necessary, I'll clarify by asking if someone means "real classical" or "record store classical.")
posted by danb at 2:36 PM on July 22, 2008


One of the ways "classical" is used is as a value-positive term for traditional or old. Would you be against people talking about classical Chinese literature?

However, "classical music" is something very specific (usually encompassing an era that stretches roughly from Bach to Verdi) but I don't see why "Chinese classical music" can't exist as a different kind of beast from "European classical music."

But, yeah, "more classical" is nonsense.
posted by Kattullus at 2:38 PM on July 22, 2008


They can have it. Personally, I was done with it when I finished my undergraduate degree in music.

How many times can you listen to the same symphony and still find it profound?
posted by fourcheesemac at 2:43 PM on July 22, 2008




How many times can you listen to the same symphony and still find it profound?

This statement stays stupid no matter how many times I read it. I guess that stupidity, unlike profundity, doesn't decay with repetition.
posted by Faze at 2:52 PM on July 22, 2008 [6 favorites]


^ the answer is blowin' in the wind, 4cm
posted by yort at 2:53 PM on July 22, 2008


Is there a vaccine yet for China hype?
posted by kid ichorous at 5:34 PM on July 22


Yes, it's called "global recession."
posted by Pastabagel at 2:54 PM on July 22, 2008


是故子墨子之所以非樂者,非以大鍾、鳴鼓、琴瑟、竽笙之聲,以為不樂也;非以刻鏤華文章之色,以為不美也;非以犓豢煎炙之味,以為不甘也;非以高臺厚榭邃野之居,以為不安也。雖身知其安也,口知其甘也,目知其美也,耳知其樂也,然上考之不中聖王之事,下度之不中萬民之利。是故子墨子曰:“為樂,非也。”
So the reason why Mozi condemns music is not because that the sounds of the big bell, the sounding drum, the qin and the se and the yu and the sheng are not pleasant, that the carvings and ornaments are not delightful, that the fried and the broiled meats of the grass-fed and the grain-fed animals are not gratifying, or that the high towers, grand arbours, and quiet villas are not comfortable. Although the body knows they are comfortable, the mouth knows they are gratifying, the eyes know they are delightful, and the ears know they are pleasing, yet they are found not to be in accordance with the deeds of the sage-kings of antiquity and not to contribute to the benefits of the people at present. And so Mozi proclaims: To have music is wrong.
Mozi - Condemnation of Music
Mo Di was really criticising the lavish expenditure on ritual music and hidebound Confucian prescriptions for exactly how it should be played though. A classical Chinese thinker against classical music, as it were.
posted by Abiezer at 3:05 PM on July 22, 2008 [2 favorites]


How many times can you listen to the same symphony and still find it profound?

Did you think about this even a little bit before you wrote it? How many times have you listened to your favorite song? Favorite album?

Anyway, on to the article... I have an amateurish interest in Chinese traditional music. For anyone else interested, there is an excellent compilation called A Treasury of Chinese Musical Instruments (that's volume 1 of 4).
posted by synaesthetichaze at 3:06 PM on July 22, 2008


Can everyone stop RIGHT NOW using the word "classical" as though it were synonymous with either "orchestral/chamber/choral" or "traditional"?

No one is using it that way. Classical music refers to music produced in the context of the "high" culture establishment of some society. This usage is widely accepted by academics and laypeople alike, and it means something entirely different from the Classical period in Western classical music, which does not claim sole dominance over the term "classical."
posted by invitapriore at 3:46 PM on July 22, 2008 [4 favorites]


More on-topic, I'd be curious to see if the boom in music education in China is producing any composers.

Debussy's experimentation with the materials of Chinese music as a Western composer proved to be pretty interesting -- I wonder what the opposite approach would sound like.
posted by invitapriore at 4:02 PM on July 22, 2008


More on-topic, I'd be curious to see if the boom in music education in China is producing any composers.

You do hear some of their music in competitions and festivals but so far it hasn't to my ears distinguished itself from the rest of the "New Music" world. Unfortunately, composition and "new music" seem to have lost their way as a whole; there hasn't been a "bold new voice" in, what, decades....?
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 4:17 PM on July 22, 2008


I'd be curious to see if the boom in music education in China is producing any composers.
They mention a few in the article, and Tan Dun at least must be famous if a musical ignoramus like me has heard of him.
posted by Abiezer at 4:50 PM on July 22, 2008


there hasn't been a "bold new voice" in, what, decades....?

I'm inclined to agree, but it might be that that voice will pass us by without us knowing. I'm not sure we're going to go new places in harmony or melody any time soon, but that's okay; in my opinion, the most interesting arena to be opened in music in the last century is that of timbre. George Crumb and Takemitsu (and more recently, Thomas Adès), have created wonderful works in that space, but it's a very subtle one.
posted by invitapriore at 4:52 PM on July 22, 2008


lupus_yonderboy: there hasn't been a "bold new voice" in, what, decades....?

Have you searched for one? There was a starstruck profile of twentysomething composer Nico Muhly in The New Yorker recently. Now, I'm no classical music maven but I quite enjoyed the piece they put up on their website. He may or may not be a "bold new voice." I'm sure you'll find some if you search.
posted by Kattullus at 6:53 PM on July 22, 2008


It's classic orientalism to claim that Chinese classical music is "older and more classical" than its western counterparts. Music in China isn't stuck in some unchanging mystical past. Peking Opera was developed in the late Qing Dynasty and the Erhu only beceame widely popular in the century to give to examples.

The popularity of Western Classical Music in China is interesting sociologically. There is a tendency for Modern Chinese to uncritically favor western high culture. Perhaps because they did experience the widespread counter culture movements that the west did.
posted by afu at 8:04 PM on July 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


there hasn't been a "bold new voice" in, what, decades....?

Either your judgment is radically different than mine, or you and I aren't listening to the same composers. I think there are some fantastic composers alive right now, many of them currently under 40.

It's interesting to note that Asia (China, Japan, S. Korea) is producing huge numbers of outstanding performers, but not so many composers or conductors. In working with Japanese players, I've found that they are tremendously adept at technical precision--work that requires focus and diligent practice--but less comfortable in the more gray realms of musical inspiration or spontaneous expression. My experience is limited, but I have noticed very distinct manifestations of cultural differences in working with both Chinese and Japanese musicians, kind of fascinating how working on the same kind of music together brings that out. As those cultures become more comfortable in the idiom, I expect that's rapidly changing.

The most striking example to me of how differently the eastern musical imagination manifests in the western classical tradition is the music of Toru Takemitsu. So much of it is like sitting in gorgeous sonic gardens, very unlike the western linear approach to time. Also, he's strongly influenced by Debussy and Messiaen, so how can you go wrong?

The most basic practical difference in my experience working with Chinese musicians in western concert music-type ensembles is timbre--so much traditional Chinese music has very bright, closed, almost nasal timbres, that are very unlike our ideal in the west, which is better described as dark, warm, full-bodied. Because of this, some of the worst jazz playing I've ever heard in my life was at the Peace Hotel in Shanghai...quarter tone Chinese folk music meets stumblingly played golden age jazz classics...it was in its own way quite sublime. Horrifying to actually hear, but sublime.

Also, if I might rambly on a bit more, the classical/Classical thing drives me nuts, has for years. I use--and many others do--the term 'concert music' for the more general reference.
posted by LooseFilter at 8:52 PM on July 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


Also, I have to say, lame editorializing in an otherwise cool post--older and more classical? That doesn't even mean anything!
posted by LooseFilter at 8:54 PM on July 22, 2008


I would be remiss if I didn't also mention the terrific Chinese composer Chen Yi.
posted by LooseFilter at 9:59 PM on July 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


It's been mentioned here that traditional Chinese music is older than in the west. I'm not sure that's accurate, though it wouldn't surprise me if it were true. What are the dates we're using here? Western music is based on Sumerian base-60 tunings; about 3000 BCE (not strictly western, but not eastern either). Also, Qin tunings. Some problems with just intonation tuning.

I'm not pretending to be an expert or anything; just a serious curiosity in music. It seems that, in my very limited searching, there is a relationship between music, mathematics and quantum physics. Music might be a means of storing and transmitting information, and is not something humans use merely for pleasure and recreation. If so, that might help explain Chinese interest in western musical thought.

[Might also help me figure out the meaning of Yellow Ledbetter.]
posted by sluglicker at 11:16 PM on July 22, 2008


I'd be curious to see if the boom in music education in China is producing any composers.

Forget that, I'm curious to see if this boom of Western Classical in China has led to some good classical music trackers. Demonoid can only feature so much.
posted by daksya at 8:35 AM on July 23, 2008


Classical music refers to music produced in the context of the "high" culture establishment of some society.

Except, not really.
posted by washburn at 3:54 PM on July 24, 2008


I ain't gonna argue the point. I am a musician, with a degree in music and years and years of experience playing classical music as well as many other things.

For me, the problem is with all the mystifying talk about classical music being any more "profound" (or "better") than any other kind of music. Any other kind of music.

Of course, we've had this debate in other threads. And some of you music zealots will call me things like "stupid."
posted by fourcheesemac at 7:29 PM on July 24, 2008


For me, the problem is with all the mystifying talk about classical music being any more "profound" (or "better") than any other kind of music. Any other kind of music.

Zealotry aside, you have centuries of European classical music to draw the best examples from, and only a few years of Reggaeton. I'm pretty sure that the tradition of classical music can't help but offer more profundity.
posted by kid ichorous at 7:39 PM on July 24, 2008


A few years of reggaeton is comparable, maybe, to a few years of Musique Concrete or the Florentine madrigal, not the entire history of western classical music.

Now if you want to compare centuries of European classical music to centuries of African percussion grooves, of which reggaeton is but one tiny offshoot, you have me interested. Otherwise, you're comparing apples and mustard seeds.

You may be "pretty sure" of anything you like, but that doesn't make it true. You just don't know enough about other kinds of music other people find equally profound. You're steeped in the ideology of classicism, an ideology applied only retroactively to most of the music produced throughout most of those "centuries" of which you speak.

I expressed an admittedly snarky opinion -- but very obviously an opinion and a statement of taste -- about music. What's always striking to me is the way that people who disagree with that opinion seek to ground their certainty in "facts" they pull out of their asses, or accusations that I must be "stupid" or lack musical sensitivity to hold such an opinion -- to be bored by Western classical music! What a scandal! I won't say more than that I'm a professor of music, and you don't get there without going through a pretty rigorous engagement with western classical music. I know my shit, and don't need patronizing suggestions that expose myself to Great Art.

The view that some music is "classical" and therefore profound or of transcendent value vis a vis any other music is all ideology, disguised as aesthetic absolutism (common to other advanced civilizations with complex divisions of labor and elaborate social hierarchies, it's not just a wester thing). And I've spent my now lengthy career as a scholar of music poking holes in this balloon and enjoying the whooshing sound of hot air escaping. Saying any "kind" of music (or musical culture) is "objectively" *better* than any other kind is bullshit, like saying the Greek language is objectively more beautiful than Xhosa or Mayan. All languages are equally complex, from a linguistic point of view, and equally well suited to their purposes, most of which are universal but some of which are not. Every idea can be expressed in every language, even if not always as efficiently. I see musics as the same thing -- the underlying profundity for me is the universal, common human faculty for musical cognition and expression, which I hear in all music, even the homeless man singing to himself on the subway.

All these debates ever really show us is how powerfully our belief in the objectivity of our own judgment of taste can blind us to the possibility that other worlds of value might exist in other places, or right next door.
posted by fourcheesemac at 2:13 PM on July 26, 2008 [2 favorites]


4cm, I was pointing out the absurdity of equating the whole body of European Classical music with "any other kind of music," not arguing for its unconditional superiority, or inviting a diploma-measuring contest. And while there's plenty in your argument I respect and agree with, this:

All languages are equally complex, from a linguistic point of view

is something I've never heard said of linguistics, but doesn't hold in information theory.

posted by kid ichorous at 9:27 PM on July 29, 2008


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