World Music | The unrest is silence: why ‘classical’ music traditions are under threat
By Michael Church for The Guardian
Friday 16 October 2015 06.02 EDT
From Thai gong music to Iraqi oud to American jazz, there are more classical traditions than we might imagine – and as a result of political turmoil, many of them need help to survive.
Today, armies of conservationists are rushing to the rescue. Unesco has designated a long list of musics as “intangible cultural heritage”; the Aga Khan Trust for Culture has set up a network of schools throughout central Asia where master-musicians now pass on their skills to young performers. Cylinder and shellac recordings are being studied by Middle Eastern musicians seeking to revive forgotten styles; governments are realising the value of traditional music as a propaganda tool.
Until revolution erupted in Aleppo in 2011, Syria’s second city had been home to a musical tradition venerated for eight centuries throughout North Africa and the Levant. This music is not much heard there now – most of the players and singers have fled – any more than the world’s most sophisticated artistry on the oud (the Middle Eastern lute) is much to be heard in its natural habitat, Baghdad.
Just two examples, from many around the world, of classical music under threat. Classical music? Yes. The phrase should not be seen as implying superiority to folk music, because all classical music has folk roots. But it does imply elitism, as classical music will typically evolve in a stable society where a wealthy class of connoisseurs has sponsored its creation by professionals. It will have had the time and space to develop rules of composition and performance, and to allow the evolution of a canon of works, or forms. Thus permitted within “classical” are musics which many people would automatically exclude: North American jazz, for example, and the Mande music of Mali and Gambia, because the template fits these traditions like a glove. The Andalusian music that originated in Moorish Spain and spread to Syria in the 12th century has a perfect claim to be called “classical”, as does Iraqi magic on the oud. To listen to the improvisations recorded by the oud’s supreme master Munir Bashir (1930-1997) is to be put in mind of Yo-Yo Ma playing Bach’s unaccompanied cello suites: both imply compellingly beautiful polyphonies through a single melodic line, and in both the silences are as eloquent as the sound.
But no music can survive long on artificial life-support: without a driving social impulse, it’s just a piece of museum culture, and this could well be the fate of the Uzbek-Tajik shashmaqom – a fusion of vocal and instrumental music, melodies, rhythms and poetry – whose continued existence now depends, despite its venerable history, on the enthusiasm of a handful of musicologists.
All of which raises a big question: if some classical musics go to the wall, will they be replaced by new ones? Not necessarily. Indeed, given the social conditions required for their gestation, and given the exponential rate at which the geopolitical order is now mutating, it’s hard to imagine new classical forms emerging anywhere in the foreseeable future.
Folk musics will continue to burst forth as they always have done. But with classical music, what we have may be all we’ll get, so we should treasure it.
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