“Composed Music” — Replies and Clarifications

I’ve enjoyed and appreciated reactions pro, con and mixed to my proposal for rebranding classical music as composed music. I’ve learned some things, refined my thinking and dug in harder on some points.

I overstated the need to replace classical music as a term, when in truth composed music should be a complimentary term that helps us hear, understand and sell art music for active listening. I disagree with some who’ve said that classical has “served us well,” because the evidence of the marketplace and the wider culture belies that. Classical is not a cool or healthy brand. Adding composed music to the nomenclature is about reaching outsiders who’ve formed negative impressions. Insiders and fans will always use classical music with reverence as they should, while a new frame of reference will help build bridges to newcomers. A good analogy is the 1990s term Americana giving us a new way to talk about “folk” and “country” music at a time when those terms had taken on misleading cultural baggage. The Americana label, while widely debated, has helped folk and traditional music thrive artistically and commercially in the last decade. I’m not proposing an association or awards for composed music. It’s just an updated way of talking — and thus thinking and storytelling — about something we cherish.

An oversight: I wish I’d included jazz and third stream composers in my list of icons and archetypes because the term composed music would be a joke if it didn’t include Duke Ellington, Gunther Schuller, Maria Schneider and Frank Zappa too. Composed music is not a genre but a trans-genre term for music born of a single mind and set in a fixed text. Think of it this way: In art there are sculptors and an art form called sculpture, an idea transcending era, style or artistic intent. In music, we have composers but no ready word for what they do — just an imperfect genre term. The word composition means a specific piece or the act of composing. Composed music fills the void — a term for the thing that special thing only composers can achieve.

Because I uphold composing as special, some interpreted me as condescending to other styles of music. Some said the term composed music struck them as elitist, which is hard to fathom given that it’s a literal and critically neutral term. So it seems I need to clarify that while I don’t regard classical/composed or any genre/approach to music as inherently superior, it’s a big mistake to not acknowledge that certain approaches to music are better at some things than others — that different genres/styles have different paths to emotional release, beauty, transcendence. Composing is not just another way to make sound in space, as some of my readers imply. It’s not the same thing as arranging, songwriting, producing, mixing, layering or digital sound manipulation. It’s an approach with an unparalleled number of variables and choices available to the creator. In composed music, every measure is by design, an intricate arrangement of instrumentation, pitch, duration, timbre. The composer has molecular level control over musical effects and movement, allowing for ideas and developments that simply could not occur with intuitive arrangement or ensemble improvisation. This is not a value judgment but just a mathematical fact. And to blithely equate composing with every other kind of music making diminishes the freakishly hard work of the composer and the musically involving, intellectually complex results.

Only a tiny fraction of Americans can even name two living American composers. The market share of new composed music (jazz, classical or other) is two percent at best. The data show us that we’re estranged from composed music in all its forms and manifestations. A new term is only part of the solution of course, but branding and narrative are incredibly important. To uplift this one, centuries-old and still evolving approach to music is not to denigrate or even remark on the others.

Journalist, radio host and speaker in Nashville. Music news producer for WMOT/Roots Radio. Host of The String. Co-host of Music City Roots.

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