Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The relevance of the classical music

Music of any sort can make us forget. Or remember. Or grow. They can also make us gag, curse and flee. Which of those kicks in depends on when, where and why a particular music was made and when where and why it was listened to.  

Like all art, music is a reflection of times, places and people. Let us call this the situational triad. So when the triad of the composer and that of the consumer are close together, the reason why a music came into being and why it is heard have a great chance of congruence. This “why” factor then, speaks to the listener in terms of vicinities, proximities and histories. Obviously therefore, closer an individual is to those temporalities, geographies, societies that are mirrored in the music the better the individual will understand it.

These days we rarely hear mention of the two great classical music traditions of our world. These forms that originated in Europe and India and commonly called Western and Hindustani/Karnatic respectively seems to have been substantially removed from the current global musical aesthetic. If they had made like the Dodo and become extinct, there would be no great cause for alarm and no big reason to comment on its passing expect perhaps as a part of world history. To understand why this is so and, by extension, to figure out why they persist if they do at all, one must visit, at a very basic level, what music means to all us in terms of the tune, the beat, the harmony, the symphony, the cacophony.   

The term “music” is simple enough to understand and refers to the various man-made or natural sounds that pleases large groups of people. However “a music" or musics in the plural have a far more spectral and complex meaning. This is because musics pull in not just the tunes, beats and harmonies but also many other social, temporal, emotional, psychological and systemic factors. Combined, they can redefine random notes (or yowls or shrieks, screams or bangs or bursts or thuds) as music (death metal anyone?). 

Now, the classical musics are so named as much for their psycho-emotional, psychosocial situational fix as they are for their systems. These are both, to a greater extent, old. Old, simply because they have not changed. Situationally and systemically they have progressively ceased to mirror the changing world and so, they have gradually violated the fundamental reason for the existence of a music. That which they depict is becoming rapidly forgotten. Those systematic methods of tonal and harmonic commentary on the world that they constructed and solidified over centuries are being overrun by alternative systems that better reflect the urgencies, turmoil, poesies, societies and politics of the day.

Removed then, from the proximate cloud of time that surrounds today, the classical music systems and their times have to be viewed much like a historian would approach the past. They do not come naturally for they have no immediate referral to the present. So, essentially, the appreciation of classical music is an acquired taste if people are not deeply sensitive to histories. That is the case with the majority.

A condition of the modern world is that it forgets easily because it is assailed every day with many things to remember. Yesteryear for us is telescoped into a matter of days and lasts only as long as the next superlative idea or tune or regime that forces itself into our consciousness.

In contrast, classical musics were created in a historical setting that changed slowly. For western music, this change occurred over hundreds of years and for Hindustani/karnatic music over thousands of years. Cooking slowly, they reached incredibly complex and subtle levels of creative expression since the situational triads out of which they grew evolved and changed but slowly, complexly and subtly. Because of this parallel development, the peoples of the past understood those musics without really having to try for they were integral to their living evolution. To understand, contextualize and validate what they were hearing, they brought hundreds or thousands of years of historic remembrances to bear.  Yet, to a world where systems change overnight, where impatience is a virtue and speed of change is a value, such unhurried, millennia spanning complexity and subtlety are irrelevant, boring and unfashionable.

Many, if asked, would say they love Enya’s Gaelic ballads. The same would wonder if you’ve lost a few upstairs if you ask them what they think about the 2nd movement of Beethoven’s piano concerto number 5. Why do I compare these? Well, simply because  the tunes and the harmonic juxtapositions are similar. The former uses 200 vocal overlays to get an effect that the later uses 200 instruments to create. The overlay trick is familiar, proximate and fully understood by most. The orchestra? Very few get it. Similarly, every Sri Lankan would recognize the basic tune of a Goyam Kaviya but blank when asked about Raag Gara played around the fifth although the tune and lilts are identical.

You see, it is not important to know. This is as it should be. It is really not relevant anymore to most. Therefore, if the classical musics persist, they do so despite of society and not because of it. They are an aberration, an anomaly. Those who enjoy them are not the elites. Rather, they are the misfits. These misfits can place those musics within the climes, times, and peoples from which they sprang. They can tie their own minds and experiences firmly to the “why” of the composer and therefore, much like a historian would, they find in them great quality, great empathy, great reasons to forget, to remember, to grow. To them who take on the arduous task of unpacking an aria, goes the same salute that goes to the majorities who effortlessly move and thrive with the tune of the times. 

For the many that live now who are sick of our times, it would be worth their while to visit those musics… at least to forget this tough, miserable, kickass we call the here-and-now...if not always to grow. 

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