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Jazz musician Vijay Iyer is director of the Banff Centre’s jazz and new music program.

The year 2013 has not been the most relaxing in the history of classical music at the Banff Centre – and that was the case even before Vijay Iyer, director of the Centre's jazz and new music program, was awarded a $625,000 MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" this week.

The tremors of populism that have shaken the music industry for a decade now threaten to run a rift through the elite school in the mountains.

It has been fascinating to watch as a non-musical outsider, like Cro-Magnon man stumbling upon his first NHL game. Unk! Why red sweater smash blue sweater's head on ice?

The nervous stretch began last spring with the departure of Henk Guittart, the traditionalist director of Fall and Winter Creative Music Residencies. Guittart was ousted after Jeff Melanson, the 38-year-old, change-loving president of the Centre, issued a dictate that the Centre had to pay more attention to non-classical music – specifically jazz, world music, indie bands, singer-songwriters and indigenous fare.

The tiny tendentious town of Canadian classical music popped a gasket. Melanson was accused of dumbing down and commercializing the Banff Centre's 75-year-old standards to make it more "relevant." Suddenly, the Centre's internationally renowned classical music department had to share its trove of financing with jazz musicians and the likes of Broken Social Scene's Kevin Drew, who occupies a coveted Banff residency this fall. Kevin Drew! The man wears a toque!

The nervousness did not abate with the arrival in June of the MacArthur-winning Iyer, appointed last spring as head of the Centre's International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music. One of the world's most celebrated jazz pianists, Iyer was raised in Rochester, N.Y., by Indian parents, which partly accounts for the blend of American and Carnatic influences in his music. To date, he has 17 albums and a passel of Grammys, and makes no bones of the high regard in which he holds jazz. "There is no 'supposed to,'" he said to me one afternoon last June, describing why jazz is different. "There is only what people do, and what people did. There's just that. And when you take it that way, it's all discovery."

Ooooh, I thought. Then said: "Do you think that's true of classical music too?"

"It's almost a false equivalence," Iyer replied. "What I kind of have to keep reminding everybody here is that we're all makers of music. Which is not the same as playing the music of someone who lived 200 years ago, in some state of perfection. It's actually about putting yourself out there right now and making a whole bunch of choices, and every choice might fail. You know? But the possibility of that failure, the risk that's involved in that process, is really just an inherent part of it. It's a very different idea of what music is and what it can be. I'm not trying to denigrate the amazing legacy of classical music, which is a big part of my life too. But just to understand that what we're talking about here is creativity, which is more than playing an instrument."

Inter-genre rivalry heated up all summer. One night in Banff I met a famous concert violinist. "What do you do?" she said.


"Oh," she said dismissively. "That's so easy. Just one thing, writing. We have to read the music and then play it, flawlessly. We're gods compared to writers." I'm pretty sure she was trying to make a joke. Later I reported what she'd said to a jazz saxophonist.

He snorted. "A classical violinist? All they do is data transfer."

A lot of classical musicians agree with Iyer's description of the rut of perfectionism classical music finds itself in today. Shortly after Iyer returned to New York, John Corigliano arrived. The celebrated American composer admitted that classic classical can be a snore.

"I think what he's talking about is the kind of programming in which the standard three Bs [Bach, Brahms, Beethoven] are played over and over again. And it's like the Top 40. It does get tiresome," Corigliano said.

The answer, Corigliano believes, is new compositions, which historically shared equal billing with established classics. The problem with new compositions is us, the audience: We can't be relied upon to like them. Mozart's operas are far more successful today than they were in his time. And Beethoven – trained by Haydn to be "the next Mozart" – began offending audiences with his first symphony.

Faced with the possibility of audience revolt, managers of classical companies fall back on the standards. But even that may not be working. Classical accounts for less than 2 per cent of annual recorded music sales in North America. Meanwhile, rock music sweeps away more than a third of the money spent on recorded tunes.

Classical music isn't just a genre, you quickly realize upon visiting Banff: It's a religion, with it's own doctrine. A career as a concert violinist begins in childhood and demands complete specialization.

Barry Schiffman, director of the classical music program at Banff and a member of the faculty at the Royal Conservatory in Toronto, was performing at international competitions at age 13. "It was unheard of 250 years ago to go to school for years to study nothing but violin," Schiffman says. "You composed, played the piano, the violin, another instrument. Today, people go to school and spend their entire careers being concert violists." (Trust a violinist to make a joke about the viola.) "We're seeing the pendulum shift away from that kind of specialization."

The casualty of classical music's cult of perfection, Schiffman believes, is interpretation, the classical musician's version of improvisation in jazz – "the level of nuance that's possible, the spirit of creating in the moment, of being on the edge of your seat, the feeling that it is being composed even as it is being performed." While classical musicians fear making a mistake, jazz and other contemporary musicians face the prospect of never being accepted – and of commercializing their music too soon, before they find an authentic voice. Jazz has identity problems, too: It is no longer the music of slavery and oppression, and needs a new reason to be.

Hence Melanson's desire, out in his cultural laboratory at the Banff Centre, to throw the specialists into a room together, where they might begin talking.

Whether audiences, the music weenies in their respective camps, will ever relax enough, as Mark Wold, administrative director of the Centre's music program, says, "to allow ourselves to respond to the music without feeling like we need to be experts," is another story. "It should be fun and provocative, not so reverent."

This is a problem all art forms face, of course, as they become respectable: They prefer respectability to the uncertain vitality that made them noteworthy in the first place. But in Banff, where different genres crash into each other by sheer accident of proximity, music stops being an abstraction to be judged, and becomes physical. You start moving to it. Rhythm, as Iyer pointed out, is the centre of every musical experience.

"The first thing that hits you about a piece of music is how it works in time, how it lands on your body," he said.

Many anthropologists believe early music was an attempt to reproduce the sounds of every-day life – Cro-Magnon man, chinking and clinking along. "Humans doing human stuff, just the sound of that happening," Iyer called it. "If we think about music as emerging from that, then it kind of grounds your understanding of rhythm. It's not just a bunch of numbers, and not just a bunch of figures on a page, but actually things that people do together, ways of doing stuff together. … It's how you dance, it's how you walk down the street, among other people, it's how you" – pause – "breathe. It sort of underpins everything we do, to the point where we forget about it, or we don't know how to talk about it, because it's so ubiquitous. At the brain level, what happens when we perceive music is that we imagine ourselves moving to it. There's really not any distinction between rhythm and movement at that level. It's an identity."

I remembered that months later, watching the audience at the 11th Banff International String Quartet Competition. For a week in August, 1,000 spectators watched 10 of the world's finest string quartets (all under the age of 35) perform 40 concerts. The average age of the audience had to be over 70. There were so many bald patches that from the back the audience resembled a commercial turnip patch, just as the swedes were breaking the surface. The concertgoers had trouble getting around the steep campus, but they didn't miss a note: read scores, kept score, twitched and bobbed to the performances, gossiped, attended lectures, cut in line at the bars.

"It was like an orgy," Shiffman said. "They couldn't get enough of that music."

Why did it mean so much to them? What is a string quartet, in the end? A few instruments trying to create as much feeling as possible in a strictly limited period of time. Is it any wonder that people approaching the end of their lives would find that a compelling metaphor? The final winner was chosen by mathematical algorithm, but the result was an anti-climax: The audience cared more about their physical experience of the music. The sooner we learn to judge art not by its perfection, but by its capacity to make us feel complicated and human, the better off art will be. Art won't save us, of course, but at least it's one consolation for the fact that we can't stick around.

Ian Brown is a staff writer and the current Banff Centre Globe and Mail Canada correspondent.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article gave an incorrect title for Henk Guittart. He is director of Fall and Winter Creative Music Residencies, not as the article stated co-head of the classical music program.