We seek a diverse population in our schools, believing rightly that a variety of backgrounds will contribute to the healthy exchange and development of ideas. Yet at Juilliard, this attitude does not fully translate into the musical curriculum. Our studies mainly comprise the history of music that conforms to the notation we use today. This is an enormous but highly focused body of literature, primarily from Western Europe during the last several centuries.
Specialization is necessary for making progress in a career in music, as in many fields, but specialization without a broad foundation risks irrelevancy. Without meaningful exposure to a wide range of musical traditions, our own tradition risks becoming stylized and obsolete, with its customs practiced out of habit rather than understanding.
A performance of classical music is built around the precise execution of what appears on the page. Any interpretative license exists within a limited range prescribed by the style. There is a “historically accurate” way to ornament Baroque music, an “appropriate amount” of vibrato for opera or lieder or chant, a “right way” to employ rubato in a Chopin mazurka.
But many of the musical elements we take for granted or think of as immutable—even something so basic as the desire to produce a pure tone on our instruments—are by no means universal. The Japanese shakuhachi (a type of flute) is designed to emphasize the noise of breath along with pitch, and in this blend lies great expressivity. Would it do any harm to incorporate more of the sounds and aesthetics of other musical cultures into our palette of sonic possibilities? We might sacrifice some “authenticity,” but may also gain some freedom. Contemporary composers such as Tan Dun have met with success in this regard, but a global musical perspective is still far from the mainstream.
All this is not to deride the European classical tradition, but to suggest that by transposing the virtues of a global view of music into our own practice, we can enrich our experience as performers, composers, and listeners. Just watch the calm faces and faint smiles of musicians playing an Indian raga, and you would never know they were performing feats of extreme mental and physical virtuosity. Applying a kernel of this to our curriculum does not mean having to drop the violin and pick up a sitar.
At Juilliard, just such an opportunity is available in the form of the yearlong World Music class taught by Behzad Ranjbaran. Admirably, many classes are led by guest performers, and Professor Ranjbaran emphasizes learning by composing and performing miniatures in a variety of styles. This aspect is key, since learning about music through a textbook, without playing or writing, is like learning a language by studying its grammar but never speaking. To my mind, a class like World Music should not be an elective taken by a few students each semester, with only a week or two to cover an entire culture’s musical tradition.
Rather, so-called world music should be part of our core musical curriculum, interwoven into our historical and theoretical education. When studying Baroque ornamentation, we should study the ornamentation of the Chinese qin,which mimics the inflections of the language. In Schenkerian analysis, we often “reduce out” ornaments, but in music for the qin (a plucked string instrument) much of the content lies in these details.
When learning about medieval church modes and the affects that were associated with each, we should learn that Indian raga blends our ideas of scale and melody, and superimposes a different set of associations. By studying the way different cultures understand the same musical concepts, we can approach a grasp of the universals in music, make informed interpretive decisions, and avoid the trap of only following “the rules.”
Let us cease being students of some music, and become students of all music.