Opinion Piece

Playing with Canons, from a Performer’s Perspective

I have had the good fortune to play in an established string quartet all of my adult life, on the faculty of Brandeis University, a research university with an undergraduate focus on a liberal arts education. Our mission: “to offer students the opportunity to experience music as both scholarship and a process of creation and performance. We believe in uniting musical excellence with intellectual inquiry. At Brandeis, we help our students to awaken their creative identity within the context of one of the country's most progressive universities.” Our nationally acclaimed graduate programs focus on composition, theory, and musicology. Our undergraduate majors may choose from one of four tracks: performance, history, theory, or the cultural studies track – this last, an option that emerged only after long, challenging discussions within our department.

When I joined the music department faculty in 1980, we had a clear path of what sorts of things we would teach our students. We would teach from the canon. That is, the Western canon. Theory and history courses were firmly aligned with the great Western European composers, mostly white males. Performance as well reflected the canon; and contemporary composition situated itself - at least to my ears - within a heady ‘East Coast’ tradition, with Irving Fine and Seymour Shiffrin as two of the leading patriarchs.

As a string quartet performer, I study, coach, and perform a repertoire that is graced with many of the most beloved works from that canon. And in line with the Lydian’s mission (which was, and continues to be shaped by the context of our residency at Brandeis), that repertoire is balanced with many contemporary works. Whether any of these works are part of the canon - or will ever be - is an ever more intriguing question. Of course, the concept of canon (whose?) as primary teaching foundation, and its place in culture (whose?) is the elephant in the room, and not only in music. The curriculum of many departments, and in truth, the direction of the overarching liberal arts mission is at stake these days, as globalization and cross-cultural fertilization are creating new hybrids in all subject areas and the student body is becoming more diverse.

If the Western canon is that collection of works that has been the most influential in shaping Western culture, then what is the canon as Western culture evolves and transforms over time? And what is the canon if some newer works show clear influences of other traditions outside the canon? How are we to understand these works, as classical performers, teachers, and students, without deepening our understanding of their root traditions, such as with jazz, regional musics of the world, rock, popular, and so on?

In music departments in this country, teachers use masterpieces from the Western canon as the foundation for music training and appreciation, for theoretical knowledge, and as anchors for historical context. Traditionally, our students study the vocabulary and grammar associated with the language of the Western canon, with the goal that they will appreciate that music at a deeper level, and become better musicians. Analytical skills, creative expression, musicianship, and critical thinking are all required, and are expected to improve.

As a student, I went through this training. That was more than 25 years ago. As I encounter music written in the last few decades, I find myself very grateful for skills I acquired and use daily to approach the varied and challenging repertoire we deal with in our quartet work; I attribute so much of my ability to the training that I received through studying and performing the canon. But I also wish I had had a broader palette of musical traditions (and the musicianship skills that go with them) to shape my development as a young musician. As I prepare pieces written by, say, Osvaldo Golijov, Franghiz Ali-Zadah, Reza Vali, Chen Yi, Bright Cheng, or Astor Piazzolla, I do wish I had more grounding in diverse musical traditions, with different scale systems, improvisation, and more. I first learned about the group Public Enemy through one of Lee Hyla’s quartets, improvised some jazz licks thanks to a piece by Marty Erlich, paid homage to Horace Silver, Bill Evans, and other jazzmen through Thomas Oboe Lee’s Jazz Suite, and happily swooned through Victor Young’s music for film in John Harbison’s medley for quartet, "Thanks, Victor". Playing these works well, lifting notes from page to ear is not just about extended string techniques or the ability to analyze complex scores, it is also about translating and expressing other styles and world views through music...each with its own context.

The growing furor in music departments in this country over what to teach and how is inevitable. After all, we teach what we know and hold dear, and with all respect to our increasingly diverse student body, there are limits to how broad a curriculum a department can support. But it isn’t enough to simply add a World Music survey course, and leave it at that. A department would do well to extend more deeply by focusing on a region or tradition, offering performance opportunities, musicianship training, theory, and historical context in that tradition - so that a student has a chance to sharpen ears, analytical skills, creative expression, and critical thinking through another musical world. Choosing which may very well depend on the resources already available in other departments (East Asian Studies, Latin American and Latino Studies, Middle East Studies, etc.) so that students can reach across discipline for context, while going in depth musically. As with Western classical music, a student may elect to take courses purely at the appreciation level, or may choose to go more deeply into a tradition, acquiring skills along the way.

Composers and performers act as lightning rods, picking up the resonances from social and cultural movement. If something is happening, if something changes, you will eventually hear about it in a piece. Some new pieces will rise to the surface, as the forward motion of cultural expression progresses through time. What will happen to the canon? Will it extend further? Will it extend into other traditions? What will happen to the past; should we always start from the same point in the past, even as the decades propel into centuries? As a performer of this beloved repertoire, I care deeply that it is honored and kept alive, and that we encourage and enjoy its future evolution, development, and many transformations. I am thankful for the young composers and players that are emerging, and expect them to lead me in directions I did not anticipate.

How do we see our own tradition in the context of the whole collection of diverse world traditions? I wonder, for example, how long will we continue to settle for the category of ‘World Music’ –when we might more aptly begin to call our concert series something like ‘Musics of the World’. Such a series may still emphasize the Western classical tradition, but also may include offerings in Jazz, African drumming, Central Asian singing, etc. And when we welcome the ethnomusicologist, the Hip Hop lecturer, the young composer from China, the director of the African drumming ensemble into our departments, how will invite them into the conversation?

This is a time for discourse, rather than entrenchment. ‘Canon’ is an increasingly controversial concept. As musical influences converge on the concert stage, no one set of works can legitimately represent the living Western classical music tradition in this age of globalization, of silk road superhighways. Our goals for our students remain the same: we want them to acquire the skills to understand, listen to, create, and express music more deeply. Standards yes, values, yes, depth, yes. Yes too, to multiple identities, diverse world views, the critical capacity to analyze how and why certain bodies of works become part of a canon, and others do not – with an eye to the power issues that may be found at the root of such choices.

If our goal is to teach our students how to more deeply appreciate music, the Western classical music canon is a beautiful and deep tradition with which to build a foundation. I hope to be playing Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms until I can no longer hold the violin, and I hope be teaching the music of those musical giants for as long as there are students! But more and more, I feel it is a moral obligation to reach out, and reach into those other traditions that we find on the doorstep of our canon. Or - those other canons that we find on the doorstep of our traditions.


“What is firmly established cannot be uprooted.
What is firmly grasped cannot slip away.
It will be honored from generation to generation.

Cultivate Virtue in your self,
And Virtue will be real.
Cultivate it in the family,
And Virtue will abound.
Cultivate in the village,
And Virtue will grow.
Cultivate it in the nation,
And Virtue will be abundant.
Cultivate it in the universe,
And Virtue will be everywhere.

Therefore look at the body as body;
Look at the family as family;
Look at the village as village;
Look at the nation as nation;
Look at the universe as universe.

How do I know the universe is like this?
By looking!”

from Tao Te Ching by Lao Tsu
translated by Gia-Feng and Jane English, in the Vintage Books Edition, a division of Random House, Inc., NY, March 1997


Judith Eissenberg is a founding member and second violinist of the Lydian String Quartet, in residence at Brandeis University since 1980. The quartet has launched a five- year project: Around the World in a String Quartet. As Professor of the Practice at Brandeis, she performs and teaches. She also founded and directs the Brandeis program MusicUnitesUS, whose mission is to deepen the appreciation and understanding of diverse cultures through music. This three-tiered program includes a World Music Series, a Public School Outreach Program, and the on-campus Intercultural Residency Series. Ms. Eissenberg is also on the chamber music faculty of the Boston Conservatory, and plays and teaches at summer festivals including the Chamber Music Conference at Bennington, and Music From Salem, which she co-founded and co-directs. In addition to her musical expertise, she is has a Massachusetts DOE Educator’s License to teach Elementary Classroom, 1-6.