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

Classical music at the Banff Centre: It’s a religion, with its own doctrine Add to ...

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.”

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