The summer between finishing graduate school and starting my contract with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra was one filled with work. During the day, I worked as a temp at the Memphis Board of Education, and by night I was a taxi dispatcher. The boss at the taxi company (and many of the employees) were from India, and one night I had an unexpected moment of truth from one of them. I think the guy's name was Avi - he said something along the lines of, "I'm really familiar with Indian classical music, but you'll have to teach me more about the classical music YOU play".
My first thought was, "Indian classical music?". My second thought was, "of course - every culture has it's own 'classic' music - especially India". From that moment forward I stopped using the phrase "classical" music in reference to the instrumental music from western Europe, but rather any sort of music in a classic style. That idea went on to inspire the way I program "classical" music on my radio show - music from east Asia, the Middle East, the bayou of Louisiana, and anywhere else can rightfully be called "classical", if it's in a classic style. Nina Simone even famously said this:
With those ideas in mind, I went on a school visit today to find out what a few kids consider their own "classical" music. I gave them my shout-out this week, but I also wanted to reflect on it here. The first young lady I spoke with said that her "classical" music is TLC. When I asked her to go a little further, she said that more modern groups like Destiny's Child and the City Girls always remind her of TLC, and that TLC is a group that is a classic part of her experience. Why shouldn't TLC be considered classical in their own way then?
Another student said that for her, "classical" music is defined by Bob Marley. She was wearing locs, so that was easy for me to understand, and the way she talked about other artists who have been inspired by Marley made it clear to me that she knew exactly what she was talking about.
Classical music radio (in it's more traditional sense) has embraced these ideas, but in a pretty specific way. It's ok to explore music for erhu on classical radio, or maybe a concerto for electric guitar, but it seems like black music gets left out often times. If Schubert lieder is "classical" music, (music for voice and piano), why can't this song by Nicki Minaj be the same? If we embrace the instrumental music inspired by English folk songs, we should also embrace the instrumental music inspired by pop songs too, right?
It probably seems like I'm trolling right now, but I'm all about dismantling traditions and institutions, and breaking down the definition of "classical" music is something I'm going to always work toward. If it's music performed in any sort of classic style, I'm going to call it "classical" music.
I'm going to make it a personal goal of mine to get this piece of CLASSICAL music on my show: