27 January 2015

Unequal Music

Visiting a group of my former students who have set up a new music school in India, I was told of one particular problem they were facing and for which their foreign education had not adequately prepared them.  How, they wanted to know, could they persuade parents in India that there was any benefit in teaching their children Western Classical Music.  As one of the former students put it; “All is progressing well until visitors go the pupil’s house, see the piano and are told that the child is having expensive music lessons.  ‘Play us something’, they insist, and when the child plays a simple Minuet by Bach or Beethoven the visitors are appalled.  ‘That is not proper music.  Why waste money learning to play that?’  And the parents think; ‘Yes.  We do not hear our child playing real music at home.  What is the point?’ And they stop the lessons.  For the visitors and the parents – for, in fact, most of the older generation of Indians – music is Indian Classical music.  Western Classical music is an irrelevance and so alien to them that when they do not hear anything they recognise as music, they feel we are bad teachers.”

As ever in any field of education, there is a potential problem when a child is being taught something beyond the parents’ knowledge.  The parents perhaps feel intimidated by seeing the child exposed to an area of knowledge alien to them, and, more significantly, cannot appreciate the value of learning something which they themselves were denied during their successful journeys to parenthood.  This is very much a problem amongst Indian and Chinese communities where, only a generation or two ago, hardly anyone was exposed to Western Classical music.

In our discussions one former student had a very strong idea of what needed to be done.  “We first must brainwash the parents against Indian Classical Music.  Then we get the child to play some simple Bollywood songs which the parents can understand, and then we progress to Western Classical Music.”  That seemed to strike a chord with the others who all agreed that Western Classical Music was in some way better or more intellectually advanced (and therefore of more educational value), and so, as a priority, parents had to be convinced that perceptions of Indian Classical Music as “real” music were wrong.

I find myself on the horns of a dilemma over this not least because, not understanding the intricacies of Indian music, I am in no position to comment on its educational value.  However, I can never accept that one kind of music is more “real” than another, and while I might fervently believe that there are huge benefits in studying the considerable intellectual substance and emotional depth of Western Classical music, I am the first to accept that the spiritual plains sought by Indian Classical music, the extrovert exhibitionism of a Bollywood song, or even the instant gratification of a Western Pop number are not generally to be experienced in Western Classical music.  The idea that one should “brainwash” people away from one music in order to understand another seems utterly wrong to me; but I am looking at it from the point of view of one whose own native culture has long ago been destroyed, so cannot begin to know whether people with a powerful inherited culture are capable of willingly setting it aside in order to appreciate another. 

The root of the problem is, however, blindingly obvious; it is that word “Music”.  Is any other art form saddled with a name so loose and all-embracing as to be utterly meaningless, yet which so firmly means something to those who freely use it?  “I love music” is such a common phrase that most people believe it can be true; indeed many people believe it in themselves.  A good few years ago, a group of us Associated Board examiners found ourselves battling in a restaurant against the insidious background din of piped music.  Finally, exasperated at not being able to hear ourselves think, one of our more distinguished number (a leading orchestral conductor) asked the waiter if it could be turned off; “You do not like music?”, asked the waiter incredulously.  “No, I do not like music” was my colleague’s response.  In that context, he was speaking the truth, and saw no irony in what he had said.

Music is a virtually indefinable word (all my students are faced with the task of coming up with a definition of music which can encompass all known musics but which can define nothing else; and none has really done so yet, despite one or two clever attempts) because it is an indefinable thing.  Music is Rachmaninov on a piano or Cage on a prepared piano, a Gibbons Motet, a Tablā playing a ghazal, a painted woman singing Peking opera, the Sex Pistols performing “God Save the Queen”, Mr Suzuki belting out “My Way” at the local karaoke, sitting watching a DVD of Michael Jackson doing his Moonwalk – there are people who regard any one of those as the epitome of music; although if anyone genuinely likes all eight in equal measure, I would be hugely surprised.  We have had correspondence in this blog about noise and about how, for some people, music they do not like is noise; but that cannot be so if music is something which can be defined as a distinct entity.  Music, if it exists, is music.  We can have nice music or horrible music, but it is still music; from that list above, I would go a long way not to be exposed to six of them, but would never for a moment dismiss those six as not being music by some people’s definition.  Yet too many people hear music they do not like and say “That is not music”, believing that music only exists in their personal definition of it.  So when I tell someone I am a musician, the immediate response is usually either “What instrument do you play”, or “What is your favourite band?”; both responses showing a fundamental disconnect between their definition of music and mine. 

I detest the phrase Western Classical Music, as it implies a cultural specificity which it actually does not have (except in the minds of those - Indians and others - who need a justification in not liking it), yet it is the only generally accepted phrase which distinguishes that kind of music from another.  In the West they use the term “Classical” music to distinguish it from “Pop” music, but that is meaningless in India, where “Classical” music is something else entirely.  And there again, “Pop” music in the West is such a loose term (only Wikipedia offers an online “definition” which is, almost inevitably, utterly wrong) that it would seem to lump together performers as disparate as Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan, the Sex Pistols, Abba and Lady Gaga as a single, distinct and cohesive art form.

My former students need first of all to realise that this is not a cultural issue.  While Indian Classical music may be defined by the culture from which it originates, Western Classical music has no societal or geographic cultural exclusivity; no single aspect of the art derives wholly from Europe (or “the West”) and while its dissemination through musical notation was the result of the Roman church’s global spread (hence the use of the word “Western”), elements of musical notation can be traced back to ancient Chinese, African and Arabic – even Polynesian Aboriginal and North American indigenous – cultures.  Thus, it is not a question of one culture replacing anther (I have had heated discussions with Chinese students who suggest that the growth of Western Classical music in their culture amounts to “Cultural Colonialisation”) but rather of misunderstanding that two totally different concepts which can (and should) happily coexist, unfortunately share the same name; Music. 

If we were to refer to Indian Classical Music as “Chalk” and Western Classical Music as “Cheese”, my former students’ problem might be solved.


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