Naming Names

Frank J. Oteri, Editor
Frank J. Oteri
Photo by Jeffrey Herman

In every culture and in every language, names are the way we learn about the world from earliest childhood. If you don’t know the name of something, more likely than not, you won’t know what it is. Why we name things a certain way, from stars to rivers to animals, is the source of much of the world’s folklore. And, indeed, names are also the source of many cultural taboos running the gamut from the sacred to the profane, from the religions which forbid their adherents from uttering certain holy names to the so-called four-letter words which just about every language has.

For better or worse, everything has a name. Everything, that is, except the music we feature in this web magazine. Sure, we give it names like “contemporary classical” or “post-classical” or “new music” but usually we preface the name by clearing our throats or doing some other sort of mea culpa. For years, we’ve bemoaned our music’s lack of a name in articles, conversations, editorials, you name it (pun intended). And many of the big names in our field have weighed in: Milton Babbitt with “cultivated music,” David Lang with “other music,” and on and on. I even posited Ivor Darreg’s one-time “neoteric music” a few months back. (Hey, I can dream, can’t I?)

But more than playing the name game, we’ve tried to convince ourselves that we actually benefit from not having a name, “Hey, we don’t have a name, that’s how inclusive we are.” Or “Hey, we’re so cutting edge there’s no name for what we do.” But it’s not true. The fact is we just don’t have a name.

Coming out of the tradition of classical music, we’re already saddled with that completely awkward name and spend way too much of our time trying to explain how we’re simultaneously related and not related to it. The more musicologically oriented among us cry foul stating that “classical” should not refer to all of this music but rather exclusively to the era of Haydn and Mozart and maybe early Beethoven, a period of roughly 60 years. But then, of course, the word “classical” really refers to ancient Greece and Rome, and the few fragments of music that survive from back then are hardly enough material for a section in a record store. Yet somehow the term sticks around and classical music in the minds of most folks encompasses everything from Gregorian chant to operatic tenors to the Nutcracker, but rarely anything having to do a composer who is actually still alive.

When I spoke with John Corigliano, a composer whose music interacts with music of the past more comfortably than the music of most composers of our time, even he wasn’t quite comfortable with describing himself as a “classical” composer because of all the ancillary associations that term now has in popular perception, not only with antiquity, but with also with perceived affluence and soporific relaxation. We asked a group of wordsmiths and professional namers to come up with some alternative names for us and even got an advance scoop on the results of a similarly-minded “name this music” contest masterminded by the folks over at Bang On A Can. No one seems to have struck proverbial gold here, but everyone agreed on the importance of having a name that is meaningful and relevant.

Perhaps the perception that classical music, and by extension the music composers are creating in the here and now, is not relevant to the majority of people in today’s society has to do with this whole name business. Classical music was the original music without a name. So much so that so many standard classical music texts avoid even naming what they are. Sure, it’s the Grove Dictionary of “Music,” but chances are you’re more likely thumbing through it to find Monteverdi rather than Mötley Crüe.

Richard Taruskin’s new six-volume magnum opus sports the title Oxford History of Western Music which raises another canard that we frequently try to hide: the idea that so-called classical music is the domain of Western civilization, e.g. from people of European-cultural extraction. Of course, the reality is that civilizations from all over the world have created highly sophisticated music and many of today’s most important composers, no matter what their own particular cultural background is, are creating music that stems from more than one of these traditions.

Maybe when people talk about “the death of classical music,” something even Taruskin does, they’re talking about how it’s no longer possible not to be pluralistic. But then, wouldn’t that more appropriately be “the death of Western music”? But, if we said that, maybe people would think that had something to do with Hank Williams or Johnny Cash!

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