Simon Rees

Hither & Zither

The Other Classical Musics: Fifteen Great Traditions

By Michael Church (ed)

The Boydell Press 404pp £25 order from our bookshop

Michael Church, music critic of The Independent, has long been fascinated by what has variously been called ‘world music’, ‘non-Western music’, ‘ethnic music’ and ‘traditional music’. In this book he has assembled a set of stylish and scholarly essays by fifteen experts to argue the case that these bodies of music should be considered as the ‘other classical musics’. This invites the question, what does ‘classical’ mean? Narrowly, in Western musicology, the term refers to the period from Haydn to Beethoven, lying between the Baroque and the Romantic. Broadly speaking, however, it covers everything from Palestrina to Boulez and beyond. To apply this term to the music of India, Iran, China, Japan and parts of Africa poses further questions, and perhaps this is the point of the book. One chapter is given over to European music itself, turning the argument of what constitutes classical music on its head and presenting European music as no less exotic and ‘other’ than the court music of Java or the griots of West Africa.

Each chapter opens with an imaginary portrayal of a typical ‘classical’ performance: the settings range from a hall full of gongs with a barefooted audience in Thailand to a kabuki theatre in Japan to a garden in Iran where the performers assemble to play lute, fiddle, zither, flute and drum. This establishes the important point that classical music is defined as much by its audience (often in the formal setting of court, temple or theatre) as by the performers and the music they play.

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