When is a classical music composition not really classical? That’s the conundrum that’s now at the heart of a heated row over which songs are shortlisted for the Grammys, the annual awards that will be handed out in weeks to recognize outstanding contributions to music.
A number of musicians have collectively expressed outrage that nominations for “classical music” awards include recordings they consider anything but classic. Letters of complaint have been sent to the organisers, the Recording Academy, arguing that the tracks in question – by two separate artists, Jon Batiste and Curtis Stewart – have been “miscategorized”.
Their objections have absolutely nothing to do with quality, but with genre, say the musicians. They believe that “miscategorization” jeopardizes the credibility of the music industry’s highest accolades.
Without questioning the brilliance of the Oscar-winning Batiste, they believe that his piece, Batiste: Movement 11′, should not have been nominated for the best contemporary classical composition. Although they also admire the multiple Grammy-nominated Stewart, they believe his album, Powershouldn’t have been nominated for Best Classical Instrumental Solo.
Former Grammy nominee composer Marc Neikrug told the Observer that Batiste is a pop musician and that nominating his recording for a classical music award is baffling. “What sense do you think it makes to a serious novelist that Bob Dylan is awarded a Nobel Prize in Literature?” he said. “It’s not that what Bob Dylan does isn’t magnificent in what he is. But it’s not Nobel literature.
In a letter to the academy, he wrote: “As a serious and devoted composer of what has always been considered ‘classical’ music, I am appalled. I spent 60 years studying and working in this specific trade. It is incomprehensible that an organization that is supposed to have an inherent knowledge of music would choose to reclassify an entire segment of our inherited culture.
The Recording Academy represents “all music professionals,” from performers to engineers, who can all vote for the awards. It hosts the 64th Grammy Awards on April 3, recognizing the achievements of recordings released in the year through September 2021.
Professor Apostolos Paraskevas of Berklee College of Music in Boston is also disturbed by the inclusion of Batiste and Stewart. “I’m not going to say that classical music is better than jazz. I love both genres,” he said. “These two musicians deserve to be recognized for their work. But you can’t compare apples and oranges.
He added: “If you look at the nominees for Best Contemporary Classical Composition, you see incredible musicians writing operas and symphonies. Batiste’s piece lasts two minutes, someone plays sequences in the jazz style. If that person gets an award, it’s a big slap in the face. It’s a message to everyone that we should give up and just do this.
He too sent a letter to the academy, saying: “I am a voting member of the Recording Academy and have seen minor inconsistencies over the years in the results, but nothing compared to what is happening this year.” He added, “It jeopardizes the credibility of the Grammy Awards.”
Asgerdur Sigurdardottir, classical producer and director of Tonar Music Management, which specializes in classical guitarists, also wondered if the music of Batiste and Stewart fell into the categories of classical music.
“My argument is: why should I personally even be able to vote in the gospel or reggae category? I have no expertise in this area, but I can still vote. It also means that people who have no classic expertise can vote in classic fields.
Stewart, who studied at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, has performed as a classical soloist at Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall, and held chamber music residencies at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
He said he doesn’t need to justify his music’s inclusion in the classical music category, but hopes it “can fill a gap that has hurt and ostracized classical music from a world of listeners for decades”. He added, “My work attempts to draw question marks over categories. I consider myself a classical musician.
On his classical music blog Slipped Disc, Norman Lebrecht, a British music journalist and author specializing in classical music issues, wrote that he had received many complaints that this year’s Grammys is blurring the classic awards sections with non-classic entries.
His report sparked a flurry of comments on Facebook, with one supporter telling Stewart, “Your musical sense is of the highest caliber, but they want to categorize it.”
Batiste studied at the famous Juilliard School in New York. In 2018, he received a Grammy nomination for Best American Roots Performance. In 2021, he won the Oscar for best original score for the Disney / Pixar film Soulshared with fellow composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.
Batiste’s record company and the Recording Academy were approached, but declined to comment.