What is Chamber Music?

What is Chamber Music?

Ed. Note:

It has often been said that jazz is America’s classical music. Yet despite the fact that many of today’s most adventurous composers and performers are involved in music that skirts the divide between jazz and more commonly accepted definitions of classical music, the worlds of classical music and jazz sometimes remain very different worlds. However, when it comes to the economics of music-making in both of these musical genres, jazz seems even more in need of philanthropy than classical music.

In 2000, Chamber Music America, the only national service organization for the chamber music profession, established the New Works: Creation and Presentation Program to support ensemble works in the jazz idiom. Over the ensuing six years, the program, which was founded with the support of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, has fostered the creation of more than 80 new jazz works. In addition, CMA also offers a French-American Jazz Exchange Program, created in partnership with the French Embassy and the French American Cultural Exchange, and recently launched the New Works: Encore Program, also with support from Duke, to encourage jazz performances in venues beyond clubs. These various programs are administered at CMA by a full-time staff position currently held by William Pace.

CMA sees the inclusion of jazz as part of its mission “to ensure that chamber music, in its broadest sense, is a vital part of American life.” And each of these programs is funded separately and apart from CMA’s other more core repertory-oriented programs by foundations which do not traditionally fund chamber music. Yet, at a session during CMA’s 2006 national conference devoted to an open discussion about the future of the organization, a debate broke out about whether jazz should be included under CMA’s umbrella. We asked session attendee Joel Harrison, a composer and guitarist whose music straddles many genre divides, to attempt a definition of chamber music that accurately reflects the early 21st-century American scene and to also address the economics of music that falls outside the commercial mainstream.


Joel Harrison
Photo by Joerg Grosse Geldermann / ACT

At this year’s conference of Chamber Music America, I attended a rather fiery colloquium whose purpose was to chart the future of the service organization. I don’t think I was alone in my surprise when 90 percent of the 75-minute session was given towards a single question: “Should jazz be part of CMA?” Clearly some members are deeply concerned about this issue.

As a jazz musician who recently has benefited from CMA’s largesse, and admittedly biased, I found myself taking the question personally and had to fight back my anger. Why would anyone even raise this question? Especially when a good number of jazz pieces are listed in CMA’s own list of 101 great chamber works? As the discussion progressed, and genuine, heartfelt issues were aired, I discovered nuances to the dialogue and took in some of the contrasting opinions. There was fear among several members that CMA, with its limited resources, was spreading itself too thin by including jazz in its mandate, thereby compromising the support of the performance of Eurocentric classics. An historic constituency feels threatened by expansion and change. This constituency apparently believes that jazz should be deposed because the performers of Haydn and Mozart need CMA more than jazz musicians.

Does jazz fit into CMA’s mandate? Does the jazz world need CMA? Must we define chamber music? Would that tell CMA what to fund and not to fund? Do we then have to define jazz?

Allow me to grab my megaphone and shout this as loudly as I can. WE SHOULD NOT EVEN BE HAVING THIS DISCUSSION. The partisans of style over substance are fighting a lonely, pointless battle when they attempt to value one kind of music over another. It’s 2006. Back when I was a student, in 1975, I got used to the ghettoization of jazz and world music in music schools by the white elite. But now? Aren’t we over that?

There was an argument put forth that jazz has great support and therefore doesn’t need CMA, whereas the performers of Beethoven and Mendelssohn have nowhere else to turn. I cannot even believe I heard this statement! Most classical radio stations play “the classics” ad nauseam, to the exclusion of anything remotely modern. These stations can be found on the dial in most parts of the country, whereas jazz radio stations are few and far between.

Our airwaves are chockablock with the sound of Baroque recorders, one more time for The Four Seasons, Haydn, Mozart, and so on. Lincoln Center is deeply devoted to the classical music tradition as are scores of chamber performing societies nationwide. Jazz has much less of an institutional constituency than classical music.

Rigid stylistic fault lines are the refuge of scoundrels. Defining chamber music, jazz, or any other style of music is a dreary, pointless undertaking. It’s the job of undertakers, not life-givers. The musicians I value don’t waste their time with these kinds of conversations. Rigid definitions imply that art can be fit into tidy boxes, when in fact art is often untidy, chaotic in the boundary lines it crosses, multi-dimensional in its reference points. All art is a hybrid, and is best judged on a case-by-case basis, not according to genre. Anyone who is paying attention to current trends knows that styles are more porous than ever, and some of the most important composing being done today challenges hierarchical definitions of form and style. Plenty of composers I spoke to believe some of the most potent music of our time is jazz. CMA cannot simply support the past achievements of dead Europeans. It must support the present.

Is jazz chamber music? Chamber music is not defined by individuals, it is defined by the collective zeitgeist, the pulse of the times. In these times there is an abundance of jazz that resembles modern classical music. It is valued in performances in small concert halls all over the world. To me, that answers the question. If we are talking about Chamber Music AMERICA (and not Asia or Europe) it defies logic to claim that it has no place at the funding table. Jazz IS America. Let’s also remember that jazz is not one thing. You cannot lump Diana Krall, John Zorn, Duke Ellington and Andrew Hill together. Jazz is a vast art form and is rapidly taking on new shapes.

To even trot out the words ‘jazz’ and ‘classical’ seems old-fashioned to me. Many composers value both traditions equally and are devoting themselves to finding common ground. This is a movement that is at least 60 years old; it’s almost old hat. And what of the usage of certain world music traditions in chamber music? The press is fawning over Osvaldo Golijov’s use of world music, but again, what seems cutting-edge is simply part of the current zeitgeist, and many composers are doing what Golijov has done (though few do it as well). Soon CMA may have to grapple with the idea of funding music that is composed and performed by Americans but is fundamentally “third world” music.

The resistance to limiting definitions has been ground into me for most of my life. I recall Joan Tower saying in a composition class at Bard College that “jazz is composing in real time.” She (and everyone else I ever learned anything from) detested the notion that classical music was more important or more serious than jazz or even some kinds of pop music. “Forget the labels!” was the message. “Does it work musically?” On another occasion, Roscoe Mitchell of the Art Ensemble of Chicago forcefully insisted that I involve myself with the “form not the frame” of art.

Still, certain broad definitions do exist. We know that orchestral music is not chamber music. Chamber music has no conductor. Furthermore it is played in a room, not a huge concert hall. Also, soloists are not considered “chamber” musicians; there has to be a dialogue on stage. O.K., but that hardly helps. What about big band jazz? Is that orchestral music, since it is often conducted? And what about a rock band in a small club? Does chamber music have to be soft or non-amplified? Can chamber music take place in a place that reeks of beer? Is the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” chamber music? Is Sonic Youth chamber music? And what about an African drum group, an Indian sitarist with tabla accompaniment, an Irish flautist with bodhran and bass, a hip-hop trio with a DJ, a turntable, and a bassoon, or a bluegrass group? Where does folk music turn into chamber music? Where does pop music cross the line into art music?

I hesitate to weigh in, because my best and final answer will ultimately be, “I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter.” Still, here goes…

As regards the thin line between folk music and chamber music, assuming there even is one, let’s take Bartók as an example. In many pieces he took folk music from Hungary and recast its components into art music. That’s a world away from being a folk musician. Folk music lives in an oral tradition; it thrives in a static environment where changes occur very slowly and where hewing to history is paramount. The minute you bring in someone who wants to reinvent that tradition, whether by improvisation or notation, art music enters the picture. The composer tries to make the world new, while the folk musician upholds the structures already in place. Take Bill Monroe. He basically invented bluegrass, which was a monumentally creative act. Still, as far as I know he didn’t care much for David Grisman’s modernist leanings on bluegrass mandolin. I’ve heard stories about him cutting youngsters like Grisman and Garcia to the quick with his disdain for their adventuresome ears. He was a folk musician, devoted to upholding tradition, despite his marvelous inventions. If he were alive today, would he qualify for CMA support?

As far as pop music goes, I love a lot of it, and value it as much as anything else, but it probably doesn’t need CMA’s support. Often pop music gets lots of radio play, expensive marketing, and its concerts take place in big, noisy halls where people talk through the shows. You can tell that substance is in short supply when the look of the group is more important than what they say. Sentimentality, theatrics, and shallow personalities rule. Still, whether it needs institutional support or not, there’s abundant quality in the pop genre. Anyone who argues that Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell, or Hendrix are any less interesting than John Adams is sadly close-minded. I’ll wager John would agree.

Value is perilous to assess. I like the questions more than the answers. As soon as we rigidify our answers we close off our options. As time goes on, different CMA panels with different members will all bring their definitions to the table, and the democratic dialogue will keep evolving. This is as it should be, and no constituency should wholesale be turned away. The creation of something new is a sublime, fearsome undertaking and should be valued, supported, and praised even when it stumbles and falls.

There is only one line I might draw, and it’s an awfully uncontentious one. Chamber music implies art music. And jazz is art music. CMA should advocate for small ensemble music made by marginalized people that is provocative, sophisticated, and enlightening—music that is not being fed by consumer society.

Still we have to remember that pop culture and folk idioms will always be a part of our best composer’s and performer’s vocabularies. Today’s composers borrow from everywhere to create something new. Composer Alvin Singleton includes references to James Brown while Daniel Roumain uses a DJ, but that doesn’t mean they are composing pop music, it simply means their ears are attuned to what’s happening in the modern world. Jazz, too, has always had a healthy, active dialogue with pop music. Charlie Parker reinvented Tin Pan alley tunes in much the same way that Bartòk dissected Hungarian folk music. Brad Meldau has made it a point to include radical re-imaginings of pop composers Björk and Radiohead in his latest work.

The question of jazz in CMA becomes even more pointless when we see that the funding of jazz does not actually steal anything away from any other program. From what I understand Doris Duke’s gift was offered not as a replacement for any other mandate but as an adjunct to existing programs. If CMA becomes broader and more inclusive, everyone wins, so the argument that jazz and classical music are at odds with each other, fighting for the same scraps, is false.

As it turned out almost everyone at the conference forum spoke in favor of jazz, not against, so I can only conclude that a handful of people, not a core mandate, are unhappy, and it is probably because they don’t favor jazz to begin with. As a way to build bridges I wonder if there is some way to present jazz and classical music side by side at next year’s conference, so we can see examples of what the two have in common. Someone pointed out that we should be encouraging presenters to think out of the box to mix improvisation and notation in their programming. What a wonderful idea!

There was a comment during the meeting that was poignant in its naivety and I would like to close by addressing it. A member commented that she had come to believe that the economy of jazz was in fine shape because a jazz club in her hometown was doing well.

Jazz is not doing well. The jazz education economy may be thriving—plenty of people are getting jobs in universities teaching jazz—but there are almost no substantial jazz clubs or venues left in America. Of course the major cities all have a club or two, but if one were to attempt to actually survive by playing these places starvation would settle in quickly. Small clubs are dead, and records don’t sell. Grant opportunities are far fewer than for classical composition and performance. Where there is any money at all it is either abroad or in subscription series in concert hall and theaters. Sounds like chamber music to me.

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