AJ Logo an ARTSJOURNAL weblog | ArtsJournal Home | AJ Blog Central

November 14, 2005

Episode 2: An Odd Blankness

In episode 1:

(Some people—one commenting in public, the others writing private e-mail—thought my writing wandered too much. Maybe this new episode will change their minds, because they’ll see where the book is going. But even so, I’m not sure they’re wrong, so in the summary that follows, I’ve reconceived  the first episode, to make it more coherent.)

Classical music is in trouble, and the trouble can be measured, by (among other things) the decline in ticket sales, the aging of the audience, and the increasing trouble classical music organizations have when they try to raise money. But I’ll save the full details for later, since it’s dull to start a book with dry statistics. And in any case, classical music has deeper troubles—artistic troubles (because it’s locked in repetition of the past) and cultural troubles (because it’s lost its meaning outside its little ghetto).

So to begin—after establishing that there is a problem—I’ll offer snapshots that might show us how classical music functions (or doesn’t function) in the world right now. The first snapshot is of me, living in a culture that includes much more than classical music, and listening (as I really was, as I sat down to write) to a Cuban singer, Beny Moré. He plays with rhythm in ways no classical musician would. And that’s a challenge to classical music. What have we shut ourselves off from? Or maybe—since classical music used to be just as rhythmic as Beny Moré, and classical performers just as willful and insistent—we should ask a more wistful question. What have we forgotten?

Second snapshot: Mark, the man who cuts my hair, trying to buy a classical CD at Tower Records. The classical department in the store confuses him. How’s he supposed to know who all the composers and performers are?

Third snapshot: Jed, a therapist I know, who doesn’t go to classical concerts. But he loves Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, and impulsively once bought a ticket to hear the piece at Lincoln Center. Was there anything at this concert that could make him feel that he was welcome, or that could seize his attention, so he’d be drawn back again to hear something else?

Fourth snapshot: Me again, listening to the Pastoral. I give passionate and detailed reasons why I love the piece. But I also think that it’s performed too often (and too blankly), and that its ending—in which Beethoven gives heartfelt thanks because a thunderstorm has ended—might be too naïve for a modern audience. So even the music—even one of classical music’s most famous masterworks—can’t be assumed to speak for itself without any problems.

And that brings us to the second episode.

 ***

So back to Jed. He went to his concert, and heard the symphony he loved. I can’t say that absolutely no one would be drawn to return; people vary, though if we believe the figures for declining ticket sales, we might guess that more people would stay away than return.

But leave that aside. I want to ask how a classical concert might have felt to Jed. And I might start with this: The concert would of course have seemed quite formal, and (whether he heard it at Lincoln Center or anywhere else) would have been presented in a concert hall that’s large and formidable. With fine, dry eloquence, Christopher Small describes what classical concert halls are like in his 1998 book, Musicking:

As we approach the building, our first impression is likely to be of its great size. It is a landmark in the cityscape, and even its external appear­ance tells us that it was built with no expense spared, probably in the fore­front of the design and building technology of its day. It stands most likely on a prominent site, on a rise perhaps, in a park, beside a river or harbor, or as the focal point of a complex of civic buildings. It is probably located slightly apart from the commercial center of the city, possibly sur­rounded by gardens and fountains, and at night it will almost certainly be floodlit. In the winter darkness it blazes with light inside and out, a beacon of culture in the philistine world of commerce that surrounds it, welcom­ing the initiated with dignity and discreet opulence but making no at­tempt to attract the vulgar with those flashing neon signs and brightly colored posters which one sees outside cinemas and other places of popular entertainment.

A concert hall, in other words, has a point of view. It tells us what we ought to think about the music that gets played inside it. And Small is someone we should read, if we’re going to ask ourselves what classical music’s problems are (and what its future might be, though he doesn’t care to say very much about that). He’s just about the only writer on this subject, or at least the only one who looks at nearly every aspect of the field, whom I can thoroughly endorse. His three books—Music of the Common Tongue, Musicking, and Music, Society, Education—touch on things both inside the classical music world, and outside it. He’s read by rock critics, who among other things like his evocation of African-American music in Music of the Common Tongue. They’re encouraged by the way he contrasts the culture of African-American music with the culture of the classical music world, suggesting that African-American music has things to offer that classical music doesn’t. (Much as I suggested about non-classical music in general, when I invoked Beny Moré in my first episode.)

Small can write about classical music with authority, because ever since his youth in New Zealand he’s been a classical music professional, both a pianist and an academic. The odd title Musicking reflects his certainty that music can’t exist until somebody plays it. This, in the classical music world, is heresy. We think that music can’t exist until somebody composes it. But Small—looking at how people make music all over the world—says that music is an activity. It’s a verb, as he says, not a noun. So he talks about musicking, which is what musicians do. They play their instruments, or they sing; they improvise; they make things up; and, yes, if they’re western classical musicians, they perform from written scores. But still it’s their performance that’s actually the music, and not the flat, blank notes (however promising) that the composer wrote.

So this is heresy in classical music, since at concerts we worship at the shrine of dead composers. Which might tell us why we dress in formal clothes. Formality and worship go together. Though of course all this is changing. If Jed had gone to hear the Pastoral more recently, and, even more important, in some other city—since classical music in New York is mostly still presented in the old way—the musicians might have walked on stage and smiled at him. The conductor might have said hello, and might have talked about the music that he’d chosen to conduct. Jed, very likely, would have felt more welcome.

But are these changes welcoming enough? The musicians still are wearing formal dress, white tie and tails for the men, black dresses for the women. In the audience, the men are mostly wearing suits and ties. They look as if they might be going to a meeting in the board room of a bank, while Jed went to his concert wearing his hair, as he always does, in a ponytail. That alone, at most classical events, would mark him as different. Classical concerts don’t attract many men in ponytails. Nor do they attract many artists, rumpled intellectuals, rock musicians (even if more than a few rock musicians have tried to write classical music), or anyone, really, who looks (and you can choose your own word here) hip, or casual, or relaxed, or countercultural.

And this means that classical concerts don’t look like art events. They don’t look like gallery openings, theatrical premieres, poetry readings, or modern dance performances. They look more like business gatherings, or maybe like meetings of some highly respectable civic group, though I do want to say that I don’t mean this as any criticism of the classical music audience. The people who go to classical concerts are good people, warm and devoted; they love classical music.

But that doesn’t mean that everybody would feel comfortable with them. Jed, quite apart from his ponytail, would have been younger than most of the other people at the concert he heard. So that gives him two reasons why he might not want to come back, his lifestyle and his age. He wouldn’t see many other people like him there. A former girlfriend of mine, in her thirties when we were together, used to ask me to take her to classical events. I was working as a pop music critic then; I didn’t want to go. One night we happened to be walking past Carnegie Hall just after a performance had ended. My girlfriend saw the audience coming out, and said, “Who are these people?” She never asked to go to a classical concert again.

People in the classical music world want to believe that classical music—the great musical heritage of the west—ought to be somehow universal. And maybe it should. But still a classical concert looks like a gathering of a particular social group. Sometimes, when I say things like this, people in that social group get offended. When I’ve said that younger people feel out of place at classical concerts, I’ve even been accused of age discrimination! But of course I’d ask in return if many people in the classical music audience would feel comfortable at a NASCAR race, at a Death Cab for Cutie show, or at the annual Caribbean Day parade in New York, the city’s biggest annual public event, where a friend and I were once the only white people anywhere in sight. Not, of course, that it isn’t natural for public gatherings of any sort to attract their own special slice of the demographic pie. But the classical slice is shrinking, so we have to look very sharply at what kind of slice it is.

 

So back to the formality of a classical concert. Of course it isn’t troubling to everyone. The classical audience is used to it. And some people really love it. The late conductor Hans Vonk told me when he was music director of the St. Louis Symphony that he loved putting on his tails before a concert. He felt like an actor putting on a costume, he said, and that helped him focus on the music he was going to conduct. Formality also marks classical music as special, as a refuge—as someone wrote in a comment on my first episode—from the “rampant vulgarity and barbarism” of current life. And finally formality might set the music in relief. As this same person also wrote,

most orchestra musicians are not fashionistas. If the concert equivalent of “office casual” were to become the onstage norm, the resulting spectacle would not be at all dignified. Just as a blue suit, white shirt and red tie give the overweight schlub in accounts receivable a gravitas he does not possess wearing khakis and a polo shirt, so does formal evening wear subsume the 250 lb. harpist and the violinist with unorthodox facial hair within a harmonious visual element, one that does not distract from the music.

Ba-DING! But can’t all this formality also put the music in an odd, blank place? If the musicians are wearing formal dress, then the concert is a formal rite. But is the music formal? Is performing it a rite? Well, maybe, yes, because the same pieces are played over and over. But should these performances be rites? What kind of rite would the Pastoral Symphony be? A rite in which a clarinet pretends to be a cuckoo? I don’t think that works.

And what about the other pieces that are played at concerts every year, in formal concert halls around the world? What about the Surprise Symphony, by Haydn? What kind of rite would that be? A rite, I guess, in which Haydn lulls the audience with something lilting, slow, and quiet, and then blindsides everybody with a loud and unexpected chord. I’d love to join a church that offered anything like that as a ritual.

This list could go on. Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique would be a rite in which we drug ourselves with opium, watch our lovers dance with demons, and get brutally beheaded. (That’s what Berlioz said the music was about, in a scenario he wrote for the first performance.) Stravinsky’s Sacre du printemps really is a rite, but not one that anybody in the concert hall would normally be part of. It’s a human sacrifice; a virgin has to dance herself to death.  And orchestral works like these are nothing compared to what happens in opera. Verdi’s Rigoletto—the rite in which a hunchback drags his dying daughter through the streets, in a torn and foul sack! Alban Berg’s Lulu—the rite in which Jack the Ripper kills a prostitute! (Or, with delectable perversity, the rite in which a woman presses up against a man whose father she once killed, and whispers, “Isn’t this the couch where your father bled to death?”)

And, sure, there really is music, in the opera house and in the concert hall, that does work as a rite, like the “Hallalujah” chorus from Handel’s Messiah, during which, according to tradition, the audience should stand. My favorite classical rite might be Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde, which is desperately erotic, but also otherworldly. Back in the 19th century, a great violinist threw his shoes in the fire after hearing it; everyday life, after music like that, now seemed impossible.

But most classical music isn’t meant to work as a rite. Some of it—like the Surprise Symphony—was written to be nothing more than entertainment. Christopher Small is surely right, when he says in Musicking that “[a] modern symphony concert…is a very different kind of event from those at which most of the musical works we hear there today were first performed.” We should think about that. We might gain something when we play classical music in rapt, respectful silence; there’s nothing to stop us from hearing every note. But we might also lose—or at least hold at a distance—the spirit of the music, which fights against the formal concert hall, especially in pieces written before the last half of the 19th century, or in other words before the formal concert hall existed.

What happened at concerts in those days—the era before the formal concert hall, which was also the era of Mozart, Bach, and Beethoven—might surprise us. In Musicking, Christopher Small talks about a Canaletto painting that dates from 1754, called “London: Interior of the Rotunda at Ranelagh.” It hangs in the National Gallery in London, and shows an orchestral performance:

canaletto.jpeg

The orchestra, amazingly for anybody used to modern concert halls, isn’t in the middle of the space. It’s off at the right, under the canopy. and not at all the center of attention. The performance, Small says, might have been

Mr. Handel directing one of his organ concertos or a concerto grosso; or that remarkable phenomenon, the eight-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, presenting a piano con­certo of his own composition; or the regular music director [at Ranlagh], Dr. Thomas Arne, directing his new symphony—they all performed there. Whatever it is they are playing, we can be sure it will be a piece that modern concert au­diences sit in stillness and silence to listen to.

But that is not what the people in this picture are doing. They are stand­ing or walking about, talking in pairs and in groups, or just coming and going, in much the same way as people do in the foyer of a modern concert hall. It appears that the building has not caused socializing and enjoying music to be divided into two separate activities as does a modern concert hall, and the members of the audience seem to be perfectly capable of doing both things at the same time. We have to assume that they were no whit less sophisticated or discerning in their musical judgment than mod­ern audiences, since this is the period, around 1760, that is generally re­garded as one of the high points in the history of the Western tradition.

Most of those present seem, at least to our eyes, to be treating the per­formance as background to their other social activities—there is even in the foreground a couple of small boys engaged in a bout of fisticuffs—but there is a knot of people gathered around the musicians' platform, as in a later day jazz enthusiasts would gather around the bandstand in a dance hall when one of the great bands was playing for the dancing. If the musi­cians are part of the social scene and do not dominate it, it is to large extent because of the circular shape of the building, which allows no direction to be me dominant one. Even the musicians’ platform is unobtrusive; it looks like the afterthought that we are told it was, since the musicians were orig­inally placed at the center of the space. Another detail emphasizes what is to our eyes the informality of the scene: in the niches around the circum­ference can be seen diners seated at tables. In one niche I think I can even see a waiter bending over obsequiously, taking the order. It looks like a very agreeable scene.

But not a scene, of course, like anything we see when we play Handel or Mozart now. In the Louvre earlier this year I found another painting of a musical performance, Giovanni Paolo Pannini’s “Fête musicale donné par le cardinal de La Rochefoucauld au théatre Argentina de Rome en 1747 a l'occasion du mariage du Dauphin, fils de LouisXV”(or, in English, “Musical celebration given by the Cardinal de la Rochefoucauld at the Theater Argentina in Rome in 1747 on the occasion of the marriage of the Dauphin, son of Louis XV”):

pannini.jpg

This was a resplendent occasion. There are more than 70 musicians in the orchestra, plus singers, and in the audience (or so I’d guess) was everyone important at the court of Louis XV, including many churchmen. In the front row of seats sit cardinals or bishops, in red skullcaps; behind them sit priests, whose skullcaps are black. And yet vendors (at the bottom of the painting) are moving through the crowd, selling drinks. In the space behind the seats, aristocrats are chatting. One of them has even wandered forward, and is standing in the middle of the seats, gabbing with the clerics. This was a formal occasion—more formal, in fact, than anything we’d see in concert halls today; just look at the lavish theater, and the lavish clothes that everyone is wearing—but the music isn’t being heard with formal concentration.

And so it went, for much of classical music history. You can read accounts of people talking in Italian opera houses in the 19th century, during almost any performance. They were quiet only during premieres of new operas, or so wrote the worldly and acute French novelist Stendhal, who lived in Italy for years, and (to judge from some of what he wrote) went to the opera nearly every night that opera was performed. During premieres, he wrote, the audience sat in utter silence until the overture was finished, and then burst out in cheers or jeering howls. And in the 18th century, if we’re to believe the musicologist Richard Taruskin, people didn’t only talk during opera performances; they ate, actually cooking meals (or having their servants cook them) in their boxes at the opera house.

In London, during the 18th century, singers sometimes fought on stage during performances of Handel’s operas, and people in the audience didn’t hesitate to shout out their opinion of the music. At the premiere of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in 1824, people applauded the unexpected, brief, explosive solos for the timpani in the second movement; they’d never heard anything quite like them. At the premiere of Grieg’s Piano Concerto in 1869, the audience liked the solo cadenza in the first movement so much that people applauded right in the middle of it. As late as 1955, in a Rome performance of Bellini’s opera Norma, Maria Callas lofts a soft and magical high C, and a ripple of awed applause (clearly audible on a live recording) sweeps through the audience while she holds the note.

And finally (though this time-travelogue could go on much longer) there’s Mozart’s famous letter of July 3, 1778, about the premiere of his Paris Symphony. He was 22, and for the first time had left his home in Salzburg without his father looking after him. He went to Paris, wrote a symphony, and after the premiere (which we can imagine taking place with people talking, just as in the concert Canaletto painted), wrote to his father, to assure him that the piece had been a triumph:

I was exceedingly anxious at rehearsal, for never in my life have I heard a worse performance. You can have no conception of how they bungled and scrambled through it the first time and the second. Really I was quite frightened and would have liked to rehearse it once more, but there was so much else to rehearse [Mozart's symphony was being played along with many other works] that there was no time left. Accordingly I went to bed with fear in my heart, discontent and anger in my mind. I had decided not to go to the concert at all the next day; but it was a fine evening, and I finally resolved to go with the proviso that if things went as ill as at the rehearsal I would certainly make my way into the orchestra, snatch Herr Lahouse's instrument from his hand and conduct myself! [Lahouse was the principal violinist of the orchestra. In those days, nobody stood in front of an orchestra to conduct with a baton. Performances were led either by someone at a keyboard, or by the principal violinist.]

I prayed God it might go well, dedicating all to His greater honor and glory, and ecce! [behold] -- the symphony began! Raff [a famous singer who was friendly to Mozart] stood near me, and in the midst of the first allegro [the first movement] came a passage I had known would please. The audience was quite carried away -- there was a great outburst of applause. But, since I knew when I wrote it that it would make a sensation, I had brought it in again in the last -- and then it came again, da capo! [An Italian expression, meaning that something is repeated.]

The andante [the second movement] also found favor, but particularly the last allegro [the final movement] because, having noticed that all last allegri here opened, like the first, with all instruments together and usually in unison, I began with two violins only, piano [softly] for eight bars only, then forte [loudly], so that at the piano (as I had expected) the audience said "Sh!" and when they heard the forte began at once to clap their hands.

I was so happy that I went straight to the Palais Royale after the symphony, ate an ice, said the rosary I had vowed -- and went home...

Behold the great, the sublime, the ineffable Mozart (to use some of the epithets that have been used to worship him), not only loving it when the audience applauds in the middle of his symphony, but even crafting the piece to make sure that they applaud. He was human, after all—and at least on this occasion, entirely commercial.

But there’s something else about the formality of concerts. It’s not consistent. The musicians, as I’ve said, are wearing formal dress. But typically, at least in America, they stroll out on stage at any random time before the concert starts, and sit there noodling at their music, all of them at once, cacaphonically, never looking at the audience. That’s absurdly casual, if classical concerts are supposed to be formal events.

And there are other contradictions. Typically, classical music is advertised with blank superlatives. Here are some examples, culled in five minutes from the websites of orchestras both big and small:

Discover the magic and the genius of Beethoven's music.

Create holiday memories with this special concert featuring excerpts from the great classics.

Celebrate great music in a great hall.

From the delightful Brandenburg Concerto of Bach to the beloved Canon by Pachelbel, this annual performance of Baroque-era music is an audience favorite.

Close your eyes and flood your thoughts with memories and emotions from tears of joy and sadness, hearts pounding with excitement, love, anticipation, fear; physical exhaustion, exertion, relaxation…all the feelings music brings to you. Feel the power of the music.

That last one isn’t really empty, but it’s naively, almost painfully sincere. And, like most of the other examples, not so well written. Orchestra materials—flyers, posters, advertisements, brochures, newsletters—sometimes read like community newsletters, or like something from an eager small-town church.

But now contrast this with what we often find in program notes for classical concerts. These go to the opposite extreme; they’re often so scholarly that most people won’t be able to understand what they’re saying:

The Four Songs, Op. 2, published in 1910, called traditional functional harmony sharply into question. For example, the second song of the group, "Schlafend tragt man mich," bears a key signature of six flats that normally would suggest the tonality E-flat minor; but the chains of chromatic chords that dominate the piece fail to gravitate toward E-flat in the expected way.

***

Decades ago, convincing reconstruc­tions of [Bach’s] Concerto for Oboe and Violin, BWV 1060, and the Concerto for Oboe d'amore, BWV 1055, greatly enriched the repertory. (The range of the solo parts and their characteristic figuration indicate the intended solo instruments.) A more recent ef­fort by the musicologist Wilfried Fischer produced the present Violin Concerto in G Minor, reconstructed from the Harpsichord Concerto in F Minor, BWV 1056. Even in Bach's keyboard arrangement, the figuration of the solo part is idiomatic to the violin, espe­cially when the music is transposed from F minor to G minor, allowing the use of open strings in various passages.

***

An interesting detail about the horn call at this section's opening is that the fourth note, B-flat, is held for 13 measures so that it serves as a bass to the dolce violin melody that follows. This corresponds to the extra length of the D at the beginning of the symphony, and no doubt when Beethoven had the afterthought of lengthening that D it was to clarify this relationship. As for the violin melody, the first two measures outline the B-flat/E-flat dyad (though in reverse order), and the third and fourth outline F and B-flat.

All of these come from major classical music institutions: the New York Philharmonic, Lincoln Center, and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. The pieces that they’re for are Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, songs by Berg, and a Bach violin concerto. You might think I had to work hard to find them, but all of them came my way by chance, when I or my wife went to concerts and found them printed in the program book. I’ve seen many more like them. If we approached the institutions responsible, and asked how many people in their audience can understand these notes, what would the answer be? Most likely the institutions have never thought about this at all, even though the only purpose program notes like this can serve—apart, perhaps, from entertaining scholars—would be to make the audience feel stupid. “Is this what you have to know about if you want to understand classical music?”

Classical music institutions don’t ask who understands these notes, because in many ways they’re functioning on automatic pilot, and this, for endless years, has been how program notes are written. Nor do the institutions ask how likely it might be that the same people who’ll respond to their advertising—“Schedule the music you love into your life and SAVE!”—will also ponder B flat/E flat dyads. They write peppy ads because they want to tell tickets, and then, without asking why their left hand doesn’t know what their right hand is doing, they commission impenetrable program notes, because classical music, after all, is supposed to be scholarly. Not that some institutions don’t do better. Lately I’m hearing complaints about the program notes, and also about biographies of soloists and conductors that appear in program books, and glaze our eyes with endless lists of orchestras that the soloists have played with, and the conductors have conducted. (Or, in opera, lists of opera houses where the singers have appeared.) Surely, if these people are, as their bios tell us, “magnificent,” “acclaimed,” or “one of the great German pianists of today,” then of course they’ve done their thing with all the leading orchestras. Do we really need a list, especially when the biography otherwise says nothing humanly identifiable about what the soloist is like, as a person or an artist?

So, slowly, the biographies and notes will change. The Indianapolis Symphony has replaced biographies with friendly, even chatty Q&As; that’s one small step for humankind. Program notes are also getting chatty. But what’s remarkable, in spite of this, is how little the classical music audience is ever told. Here’s a small but deadly demonstration. Program notes, for reasons I’ve never understood, typically list the instruments that play in each orchestral piece. So the Pastoral Symphony, we’ll read, was written for piccolo, two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, two trombones, timpani, and strings. Exciting, isn’t it? Suppose the Pastoral had three trumpets instead of two. What difference would that make?

Well, to an expert it would make a major difference, but the audience is never told what that might be. And what they’re also never told is that the list of instruments might not track with what they see on stage. A piece that’s written for four horns might be performed by five; its three trumpet parts might be played by four trumpeters. Why? Because the principal horn and trumpet players in an orchestra reserve the sovereign right to skip some of the music in their parts, and therefore other horn and trumpet players sit there in reserve, picking up the slack. But no one tells the audience; no one seems to care that there’s a disconnect between the program book and what anybody in the concert hall can very plainly see.

Though that’s the least of it. No one tells the audience what the musicians think about—what their goals are in any piece of music, how this performance of the Pastoral might be different from any other one. You could say that it’s the audience’s job to understand all that, but how can they, even if they’re expert listeners? They can only guess, as I myself guess, when I go to a concert. No one tells us what the musicians had in mind. And many people in the audience are very definitely not experts; no matter how long they’ve been going to concerts, they may not understand how the performance they just heard, even of their favorite piece, was or wasn’t different from the one they heard two years ago. The music director of an American orchestra of reasonable size once told me—with an air of utter certainty—that no one in his audience understood what he set out to do in any piece. But how could they? He never tells them.

And so a veil of blankness descends on classical concerts. Behind the formality, who can tell what’s really going on? Or as Christopher Small wrote, once again in Musicking:

This is the great paradox of the symphony concert, that such passionate outpourings of sound are being created by staid-looking ladies and gentle­men dressed uniformly in black and white, making the minimal amount of bodily gesture that is needed to produce the sounds, their expressionless faces concentrated on a piece of paper on a stand before them, while their listeners sit motionless and equally expressionless listening to the sounds. Neither group shows any outward sign of the experience they are all presumably undergoing.

It’s a very odd blankness.

(Coming next, on November 28: Why it's way too late to solve the classical music problem with music education. And why classical music serves as a refuge from the present day.)

If you’d like to write a comment -- and I'd love you to -- may I ask you to put it at the end of the current episode, instead of here? More people will see it that way. And it will contribute to the always lively new discussion that emerges whenever I post a new episode. If you put your comment here, it will appear only at the end of this episode, the one you’ve just been reading. And that will isolate it from the current conversation. Thanks!

Posted by gsandow on November 14, 2005 3:11 AM

COMMENTS

There's a real problem with the whole idea that classical music needs to be 'understood.' Who says this about Ellington, Monk, Velvet Underground, Einstürzende Neubauten, or Tool? You like it or you don't. You may grow to like it through repeated exposure or you may not. I do feel that classical works tend to present a lot of musical information and that can be difficult to process in one sitting, but if something grabs you about a piece or a live show, you'll find a way to encounter it again.

When the audience feels that they are tapping into some sort of energy that the performers are putting out, they respond positively to a performance. The larger the venue, the more difficult it is to achieve this sense of energy transfer. Rock acts dealt with this by creating the arena show, with lights, pyrotechnics, and gigantic video screens. Opera dealt with this, well, by being opera -- theatrical, over-the-top, a spectacle. Pure volume alone does not create this sense of energy transfer; proximity to the performers is a necessary part. In lieu of actual proximity, visual spectacle can be used to help create the sense of energy transfer.

That said, I don't think visual spectacle is the way to draw people to orchestra concerts. If you're in the back of Symphony Hall you're too far away and if you're in the front row, the stage looms above you like a big black wall, which amounts to being too far away. Orchestras may do better to worry less about filling more seats and to worry more about bringing the filled seats closer. Create the feeling of intimacy and the audience will want to return the love they feel they're getting.

Posted by: andrea La Rose at November 14, 2005 12:01 PM

Andrea, thanks so much, and I agree completely. Classical music (the mainstream kind) does have a problem: Fewer and fewer people are paying attention to it. And it's a big-bucks operation, so it probably can't sustain itself on the kind of money Einstürzende Neubauten takes in

So the classical music business is turning to education, visual displays, and outright friendliness to try to win people over. This isn't a longterm answer. Education can be patronizing (and carries with it the dangerous assumption that the clssical music world doesn't really have to change). Visual displays are ultimately irrelevant, and friendliness won't make any difference if people don't see any reason to be at concerts in the first place.

In my view, there needs to be a lot more new music on classical music concerts. Radically more. Classical music has to become a contemporary art. Which also means that much of the new music has to sound like the music in the outside world.

And classical musicians have to play more vividly, so they grab our attention with anything they do, whether it's Bach or Aphex Twin arrangements. Note that "more vividly" doesn't mean more romantically, more shallowly, or with great exaggerated expression. It means, above all, that classical musicians have to sound more individual.

I'll be writing about all this in future installments. Thanks for focusing my attention on an important part of what I need to do.

Posted by: Greg Sandow at November 14, 2005 12:16 PM

One other difference worth noting is that classical concerts are not as "unified" as most other live events in the US today. If you go to a rock concert, you go to see, say, Bruce Springsteen. If you go to a movie, you see a single film. If you go to a musical, you go see The Lion King. All of these performances or events are centered around a specific piece or person -- that piece or person defines the event.

But if you go to a classical concert, you go see the "New York Philharmonic", which is not the primary focus of the experience (which remains the pieces being performed). Classical concerts as they are constructed are therefore somewhat bland and undefined on their very face. That lack of informational and emotional definition may be a killer in a publicity-soaked culture such as ours.

I'll illustrate with an example: say "The Lion King" was not advertised as such. Instead, it was billed as "A Night with the Lion King Chorus." Boring!!!! See the difference?

Posted by: jult52 at November 14, 2005 1:12 PM

Yeah, the weird contradictions of formality have always bothered me about classical music concerts too. I am 23 years old, and a few months ago I took a friend who is the same age to his first classical music concert, his reaction upon seeing the disorganized mass of people warming up on stage was utter disbelief. "Do they always do that?" he asks me. I answer yes, and he says "Wow, that seems really unprofessional."

Not sure how that helps you, but it should add to the idea that the presentation of classical music, however endearing to those in the club, is really perceived very poorly by outsiders!

Posted by: Dan VanHassel at November 14, 2005 4:37 PM

Nothing wrong with Classical music. Its just that the world has changed,we have so many more choices now.

vl


Posted by: LEONGMW at November 14, 2005 7:47 PM

Sometimes when I read these comments, I feel like I'm getting my own thoughts sent back to me. I'm not saying this to claim I was there first, or that I own these ideas -- nothing like that at all. I feel like we're all working together toward the same understanding. Since, really, none of this is very fancy. It's staring us right in the face.

Most classical music organizations, just as this comment says, have this huge problem. When people think about them, they say, "Oh, the NY Philharmonic plays classical music." The distinctions between one concert and another mostly speak only to classical music geeks. So one major revolution would be for the Philharmonic and everybody else to start creating events. Capital E events. It would help to give shorter concerts. That way they could be focused. How this would be done is another story, and (like so much else) I'll try to put it in the book. One thing I know: the "theme programming" people do just doesn't cut it. It's too theoretical, and mostly doesn't register when you actually go to the concerts.

All that is in response to Andrea. Dan's comment makes me smile. Not five minutes before I read it, I'd been reading e-mail from an older, more traditional music-lover who said exactly the opposite -- that she likes the formality, and that if a string quartet played in jeans, she'd think they were unprofessional.

This illustrates a problem that classical music groups have. They need to keep appealing to their old audience, and at the same time attract a new one. And those two goals can be contradictory!

Posted by: Greg Sandow at November 14, 2005 10:40 PM

I completely agree with the points you made above in your reply to Andrea la Rose, especially about new music in concert programs. In addition to making music sound like the music in the outside world, I think it brings something fresh to concert programs.

Many people I know don't attend concerts because they don't think they'll get anything new out of it than they will from listening to a recording. However, new music brings attendees that fresh experience that they are hoping for, and in that way, I think it might be a very effective way to attract patrons.

In addition, performers can also bring a “rarity” to concerts by, as you wrote, bringing their “individuality” to the performance. I'm not saying they should change a work so much that they stray too far from the original piece, but they should make it their own so that people are drawn to a performance because of this distinction, and recognize it's rarity because of it.

In addition, I wish performers still wrote original cadenza's. If three different orchestras and performers were doing the same concerto at the same time, on the same night, and one of them was performing it with their own original cadenza, I'd be much more apt to buy a ticket to that show than the others. Why? Because it's something new, different, fresh, and not too far removed from the original piece itself.

I enjoyed reading the section of Chapter 2 about the audiences response to music in the concert hall. I admit that I feel a little restricted listening to music in a concert hall, because I can't dance, I can't sway, I can't chatter to my friend about what to listen for next.

My father went to his first opera with me last year, and I hadn't schooled him on etiquette. He yelled and shouted and made faces and laughed loudly. I was embarrassed, but then I realized, “Why should I be?” Why can't watching an opera or listening to a concert be like watching a movie, more interactive and exciting?

I recently attended a concert, and at the start of the “William Tell Overture” the audience let out a collective “ah” in recognition of the familiar music. For the first time it hit me that I was experiencing the music with other people. Even though the show was sold out and the stage was filled with people, I didn't realize that I was sharing the musical experience with other people, and if I was how would I know? The orchestra looked staid, the audience looked even more unaffected.

I had a similar experience at a Yo-Yo Ma concert with the Mobile Symphony Orchestra, Ma came on stage for a few encores and said “Help me!” requesting help for what to play. Immediately everyone started shouting out titles of pieces, and it was incredible. I felt like some big ice barrier between everyone had been broken, and I didn't feel so restricted as I had before at concerts.

No matter how friendly everyone is, for me, personally as soon as I sit in a seat at concert hall, I enter this structured, enviornment where I'm very conscious of my actions—almost like being in school. I'm not comfortable, even if I've been millions of times, and I can see how new concert guests can be uncomfortable too.

Posted by: Ariel Davis at November 15, 2005 12:16 AM

I don't want to sound
disrespectful,but what
you have written is so full of sophistry I
scarcely know where to begin in disagreeing with
you.You have cited all
manner of out of context
facts which really prove
nothing.Just because
people bahaved differ-
ently at concerts and operas in the past does
not prove that there is something wrong with
performances ofclassical
music today.
I have never found
concerts and opera to be
stuffy,formal and boring (unless the performance
was really bad,which is
not usually the case).
If concerts etc are so
dull and irrelevant,why
are audiences so enthusiastic? You completely ignore the
fact that audiences often
cheer so loudly atconcerts.
Let me make a culinary
comparison.There are all kind of cuisines avail-
able in restaurants.
People who grouse about
classical concerts remind me of someone
who goes to a French
restaurant and complains
that the food is not Chinese.Pop music might
be compared to eating
at MacDonalds or Burger
King.The food tastes
good and it's fun eating there. But Classical music is gourmet food at
a fancy restaurant.
If you are only accustomed to fast food,
gourmet food might seem
off-putting or difficult
at first,but why not give
fancy food a chance? It's the same with classical music.People just need to give it a chance,but
many just are not willing.

Posted by: robert berger at November 15, 2005 10:35 AM

Ariel's comment should be required reading for clasical music organizations that want to attract younger people. Especially since she's a devoted classical music fan. See her lovely blog.

In my many e-mail exchanges with Robert, I've tried to point out that classical music is slowly losing its audience, even if some performances still are packed with happy fans. I'd be very interested in hearing from someone with his point of view who'd be willing to acknowledge this pretty well-known fact, and offer some thoughts about what should be done.

Posted by: Greg Sandow at November 15, 2005 11:32 AM

Greg, I wish you'd consider retitling your book. It should really be called The Future of the Classical Music Business.

Posted by: Danny at November 15, 2005 3:45 PM

Dear Greg,

First, let me thank you once again for making your thoughts on the current state of classical music available on your blog. I have just finished your latest installment, and it occurred to me that one source of the "blankness" of which you write may be the perceived lack of spontaneity and surprise in most performances of classical music, especially as compared to performances of other types of music like jazz and rock. It's not just that programs are poorly written, it's that they give one the sense that the performance, and the music itself, is embalmed. My typical reaction upon leafing through a program is depression at (1) the number of advertisements and the list of donors which taint everything with the not too subtle whiff of commerce, and (2) the impression that everything has somehow already happened. Why not stay at home and listen to my favorite recording of a piece instead of subjecting myself to the bored air of Music Hall (Cincinnati)?

I recently saw a performance by cellist Matt Haimovitz at a bar in Newport, Ky that perfectly illustrated the point. By choosing to perform in a bar Haimovitz had already created an air of expectation and excitement unusual in the classical world. Because he and his group also dressed casually, did not distribute programs (the evening was billed as Matt Haimovitz and Goulash), and spoke engagingly about the music between pieces, he managed to maintain a sense of urgency and interest throughout the event. To top it off, he made what he claimed was a last minute addition to the evening's set. Because he had just learned that Abraham Lincoln once slept in the house (now bar) in which he was performing, he would play Bach's second cello suite. "Do you like Bach?", Haimovitz asked. He then offered one of the most stunning renditions of the piece I have ever heard. And I was not bothered in the least by the sounds of the bar, etc. It was pure magic, and not the sort of thing one could have predicted would happen (especially the Lincoln/Bach connection!).

So perhaps the solution is not (or at least not always) to focus on the musical piece after all, or at least maybe it's best not to let on that that is what will happen. Instead, one could announce that Maestro so and so and the Acme Philharmonic (along with the Lion King Chorus?), invite you to, say, an evening in "search of the German Romantic Muse." What will that mean? Finding out might be one reason to leave the cds in their case and venture out into the world to hear some music "live", which ought to mean that many things could happen.


Posted by: Jerome Langguth at November 15, 2005 4:40 PM

A little irreverence won't hurt a bit in the world of classical music, it's not very often you see people have fun with it and make it something to enjoy listening to.

Imagine how much more interesting a concert dealing with composers who are the contemporaries of Mozart would be if the theme were something like "Hey! We wrote music too!" and go with the fact that they are forever under the shadow of the prominence of Mozart and something to that extent. Better than a laundry list of names and works I would say.

One ensemble who I think makes the effort to make the music enjoyable and also a partial learning experience is the Canadian Brass. I had been to one of their concerts last month and came out of it a little happier and more understanding of how brass instruments work. They weren't timid about the audience making a little noise during the performance, they just play louder to incite a little more noise.

Think about concerts with headers like "Things you shouldn't do to a violin" which showcases works involving playing the violin with utmost skill.

Posted by: Andrew Yen at November 15, 2005 10:42 PM

Greg,

I hope Jed is alright after his alienating experience with Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. I can assure him that middle-aged WASPs at classical concerts are usually harmless unless provoked. However, should the barman run out of gin at intermission with Schoenberg on the second-half of the program, the shit is definitely going down and the mild-mannered would be well advised to head for the exits.

I think I can actually top Jed’s entry in the Verfremdung sweepstakes. Once, while living in Hamburg, I left straight from the office wearing a grey flannel suit and black wingtips to hear the goth metal band, Danzig. Picture a 30 year-old in a suit and tie among several thousand leather-clad German teenage headbangers, all sporting the same spiky hair, vampire pallor and ostentatious alienation. The show rocked, by the way.

When classical music lovers discuss The Problem With Classical Music, one phrase that comes up again and again is “classical music has become a museum.” My response is: We should be so lucky! Most classical music presenters would give their endowments to be as relevant to their city’s cultural scene as the local art museum. My friends are all members of the museum here, and the members-only first nights of a new exhibit are packed with the sort of well-dressed, well-educated 20- and 30-somethings the symphony and opera cannot seem to draw. These same people also attend gallery openings displaying new works by living artists, and they can intelligently relate what they see among the new to what they know of the old.

What classical music today most closely resembles is not today’s art museum, but that of 30 or 40 years ago: A stolid edifice, built at the turn of the century and filled with the gifts of various civic-worthies down through the years which form the basis of the Permanent Collection. Here we have the third-rate Italian Renaissance Master. Here we have a minor Renoir. Here we have a North American landscape by Albert Bierstadt. And over here, just to prove we’re hip and cool and drenched in irony, the obligatory Warhol Elvis or Liechtenstein comic strip. There’s nothing wrong with any of these paintings or artists. They are all museum-worthy. But taken as a group and stripped of any sort of meaningful context, they scream: BLEHH!

Fortunately, museum directors got a clue and came up with The Big Show. Take a whole bunch of minor Renoirs from a dozen provincial museums, cajole a couple of major ones from the Musée d’Orsay and The Met and voilà! You have RENOIR: WOMEN WITH ENORMOUS ASSES or whatever you choose to call it. You can charge $50 a head to see the exhibit and $35 for a 200-page catalog. Posters and DVDs will fly off the gift shop shelves. People will plan their vacations around it, with the hotels packed and the restaurants jammed. The local press will write about it without being prompted, and, if you’re lucky, very lucky, one day the heavens may part, and a cloud bearing a critic from The New York Times may descend upon your blighted burgh, declaring it, if not exactly civilized, then at least somewhat more so than Hoboken.

And the best part about The Big Show is that it’s portable! You can take it to the museum in the next blighted burgh and repeat as necessary. Actually, the best part of The Big Show is that, despite the hype and commercialism that often surrounds it, it actually does a pretty good job of educating the public and stimulating interest in the visual arts in a way that is neither dull nor condescending. And if Renoir and his big-assed women aren’t your cup of absinthe, you can wait until next month when EGON SCHIELE: CREEPY, LIBIDO-CRUSHING NUDES arrives in town.

Today’s classical music concert resembles the provincial museum in the bad old days. Here’s Our Local Orchestra, not exactly The Fabulous Philadelphians or Die Berliner, but not a bad bunch, probably better than we deserve given our record of financial support and attendance levels. They are led by Our Maestro. He gladhands the donors at cocktail parties and even conducts the National Anthem at the ballpark on opening day. He’s not going to make anyone forget Bernstein or Karajan and, after twenty-plus years here, half the orchestra would dearly love to see a change on the podium, but they generally play together and in tune for him, and, even if he were to retire, it’s not at all clear that we would be able to recruit anyone better.

The program opens with an indifferently played Haydn symphony, indifferent because, well, it’s the just the curtain raiser after all, plus it’s seriously under-rehearsed owing to the next piece on the program, The Modern Work To Be Named Later, which sucked up all of the rehearsal time with its meowling, its atonal beeps and squawks, and its text by a medieval Armenian feminist poet, all of which the composer believes is terribly vital and alive and transgressive and which is supposed to shock us out of our comfortable bourgeois existence, when in reality we’re all just terribly bored because, seriously, what could a group of middle-aged, conservatory-trained musicians in formal wear possibly do with a bunch violins, oboes and trombones that would be shocking and transgressive, other than use them to beat each other to death?

We applaud politely and tepidly, and stream up the aisle, steering towards a strong double espresso or a stronger double martini. After intermission, we settle into the red velvet plush of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth or Brahms’ First. It’s warm, reassuring and delicious in the same way Grandma’s Pot Roast was every Sunday night, but also about as exciting.

A couple of months ago, I bought John Eliot Gardiner’s three-disc set of the Schumann symphonies. To my very jaded ears, the performances of these thrice-familiar works sounded new and alive, owing more to the evident commitment from conductor and players than to the use of period instruments or the fine recording. The two essays in the accompanying booklet (the first, by Gardiner, on the issues raised by Schumann’s orchestrations, and the second, by Schumann biographer John Daverio, on the historical development of Schumann’s symphonic works) were both readable and informative without being pedantic or technical.

As I listened, I thought to myself: This is what a classical concert should be, the musical equivalent of The Big Show at the art museum. Instead of one Schumann symphony anchoring a context-stripped program of other works bearing no relation whatsoever to Schumann, present an in-depth overview of his orchestral output over several evenings. Instead of Your Local Orchestra conducted by Your Kapellmeister, import a specialized ensemble led by a true avatar of Schumann’s music. Instead of the ad-laden freebie concert program with the empty and/or impenetrable program notes you so rightly decry, sell a lavishly illustrated catalog with a selection of musical and historical essays of varying degrees of sophistication, allowing each reader to find his own point-of-entry to the music. Include a compact disc or CD-ROM in a sleeve in the back cover for future listening. An expert like Daverio could tour with the orchestra as if he were a guest soloist, delivering a well-rehearsed presentation before the concerts, or even adding commentary at appropriate places during the concerts.

What classical music is lacking today above all is context and authenticity. By authenticity I do not necessarily mean a period-instrument, musicological approach. Lord knows we have suffered through plenty of bad “musicking” claiming a spurious authenticity based on the antiquity of the instruments used or the latest critical edition of the score performed. What I mean by authenticity is a level of artistic commitment and excellence that turns a performance into an “event with a capital E,” as you might say. The greatest orchestras and ensembles, such as the Vienna Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, or the Emerson String Quartet lend their very own authenticity to most everything they play, while ensembles such as The Tallis Scholars or Gardiner’s period instrument orchestras imbue the music in their specialized repertoire with the sort of authenticity very few other ensembles can match.

Concert presenters must also place the music they perform within a firm context, be it the composer in relation to his contemporaries, the work performed in relation to the rest of the composer’s output, or the history and culture from which the composer and his work emerged. As illustrated by your examples of the concert at the Rotunda at Ranelagh and La Rochefoucauld’s concert for the marriage of the Dauphin in Rome, we cannot in our modern times replicate the animal spirits of the age in which the great music of the past was composed, but we can create a simulacrum of those animal spirits by placing the music in its proper context, properly understood.

The Big Show approach has been successful before. Roger Norrington made his mark in London in the 80s with his “Beethoven Experience” weekends. And there are those classical works, such as cycles of Wagner’s Ring operas, that definitely qualify as The Big Show anywhere an opera company has the ambition and resources to tackle them. The Big Show approach would be a godsend to new music. I’ve never understood why we should force people who came to hear Brahms to sit through Charles Wuorinen, or vice versa. Wouldn’t it be far better to invite for a visit the Charles Wuorinen Orchestra (or, in the spirit of The Hans Pfitzner Blues Explosion, how about The Chuck Wu-Tang Clan?) and have them perform his music in an authentic and contextual manner? The Kronos Quartet has shown this approach can be made to work, at least on the chamber music level.

The Big Show approach would almost certainly mean fewer, but better and more specialized performing groups, all touring constantly. It could mean the death of all but the greatest of our municipal orchestras and ensembles, with local institutions becoming promoters or presenters. While there would be great dislocation inherent in such a transformation, it could help to fill in and to render more vivid The Odd Blankness.

Posted by: Thad at November 16, 2005 3:36 AM

Regarding the first chapter (and sorry I'm late)...I love the insight you offer, and the pictures, and it's past time that someone who really cares about classical music in this country take on this topic, if classical music hopes to hold its audience. Or regain its former glory, for that matter.

But I'm troubled that you begin by focusing on a seemingly random selection of listeners and audience members, and then transition to what Christopher Small thinks. I take your points, all of them, and I love the way the chapter develops, but I don't think you should go to other listeners and writers to establish either the importance of the subject or your authority. You've been toiling in this vineyard, and well, for years. I don't think you should begin your book by deferring to anyone.

Them's my two cents.

Posted by: Kit Stolz at November 16, 2005 11:55 AM

If you go to a rock concert, you go to see, say, Bruce Springsteen.

Sure, but you get the openers along the ride. With someone like Springsteen, he probably gets to pick who opens for him, and it's probably someone the audience is going to find more or less compatible. But at smaller venues, though you might still be going to see the headliner, or one of the openers, and if you're clever can time it so that you only see them, well, if you stick around for the whole thing you're going to get a pretty diverse show. For instance, I saw Alasdair Roberts, who sang English and Scottish ballads, and opening for him was the MV & EE Medicine Show, who played, well, crap in my opinion—sprawling, out-of-tune "jams" that embodied the worst of the renascence of the hippy interest in American folk music. You couldn't have wanted two more different approaches or sounds, but they were on the same bill.

But if you go to a classical concert, you go see the "New York Philharmonic", which is not the primary focus of the experience (which remains the pieces being performed).

This, too, doesn't jibe with my experience. Unless it's a touring orchestra, I can think of only one time when I decided to see a classical concert based on who was playing, and that time (Terry Riley, and I specifically wanted to hear him improvising with Fred Frith) the knowing the person playing gave me a lot of information about what would be played. At all other times, it's been about one of the composers or works on the bill. And I'm not particularly well-informed about classical music, or anything; most of my knowledge is by reputation.

A note about attire: I don't know how much of the direness of the straits Greg Sandow notes is confined to the US. I spent a quarter abroad as an undergrad in Greece, and I went to the symphony a few times. Not only was it absurdly cheap for students (six euros was the most I paid, I think, but then Greece is cheap generally), there were lots of people my age there, and none of them, myself included, was dressed particularly well. The same thing seemed to be true in Berlin. The performers, as well, weren't as done up.

Posted by: ben wolfson at November 16, 2005 7:44 PM

Danny: I believe you are very wrong. Greg isn't just discussing the decline of a business or an industry but the decline of a culture and a way of understanding music.

Ben W: Thanks for the comments but we'll have to agree to disagree. Thad was pointing out the same thing in a different (and more colorful) way.

Posted by: jult52 at November 17, 2005 9:50 AM

Thank you for this thought-provoking book-in-progress and the fascinating comments that have followed. I am with you 100% on so many things, the absurdity of certain program notes, the manner of dress, etc. etc. Meanwhile, here are a few more random thoughts from a classical performer:

It seems like there are two completely separate issues here. Most of classical music's "problems" you discuss really have to do specifically with symphony orchestras. That is the most totalitarian of all musical forms. Of course the musicians have blank looks on their faces! Most of them (string players especially) are not terribly happy people. That's a topic for a whole other chapter.

Individual performers and chamber groups, on the other hand, are more easily able to innovate in terms of their programming and even the physical context of presentation. The more encouraging stories out there as regards "concert music" are almost exclusively from that part of the music world. Some examples have been cited by others above, for example, Matt Haimovitz , and the Kronos Quartet. I would also mention eighth blackbird, whom I saw play last night and whose physical movement onstage I found (to my surprise) not gratuitous at all but very much a manifestation in space of what was going on musically at a given moment. The proliferation of string quartets in the last 25 years, or of small-scale music festivals in various spots of the "hinterlands," also go against this storyline of the "death of classical music."

With orchestras, on the other hand, there are so many problems it's hard to know where to begin. The makeup of the symphony audience reflects in part the ticket prices, which are usually too high and keep a lot of younger audiences away, especially those who are artistically oriented and would be a natural audience for thought-provoking music. The stark reality is that some orchestras will fold in the years to come and maybe that's a good thing. It will release some of this overstocked supply of well-trained American musicians into the society at large, and perhaps some of them will show an entrepreneurial bent and begin grass-roots efforts of their own. They might start small festivals, or small ensembles which can be more innovative and reach out to new audiences.

But we have to face up to the one basic fact that no one here seems to address directly. (Looks like you will in a future chapter). We in the US are reaping what we've sown in terms of arts education. In the age of the 15-second commercial, it takes an extraordinary commitment from an individual to sit through even one piece of music of merely ten or fifteen minutes' length. You can try everything you can think of, thematic programming, catchy slogans, informal dress, neat-o lighting schemes, but (as Robert implies above) you can't make a Beethoven symphony or a Morton Feldman work into a Christina Aguilera show. There is no way around that fact. Thad speaks enviously of museums' pull, but a museum-goer can pick and choose at his or her own pace. Listening to classical music involves much more of a commitment from the concert-goer, especially since unlike movies or theatre, there is not really a visual component and definitely not a linguistic component except for the abstract language of sound.

There do seem to be efforts to rectify the situation in arts education in this country, but it may be too late, insofar as we've lost a generation and the structural damage done to certain arts in this country may be impossible to repair later. I'm not so depressed about "classical music" per se dying out in this country. There will always be a small pocket of interest in the form, and maybe that's sufficient after all, in a country that is so ethnically diverse and where we now have the opportunity to hear a much wider array of musics from many sources. A fundamentally Euro-centric art form will never again hold center stage as it did much earlier in the twentieth century and that's maybe alright, too. What does trouble me about the poor state of arts education is that a whole mode of critical thinking is not taught to young people, and so the potential to create innovative and transgressive art of any kind is lost, and the populace at large becomes more passively accepting of corporate-created musical "product." There are definite political implications to this problem, and in the end, this is a more serious challenge than whether or not every single city of any size in the U. S. has its own professional symphony.

At the same time, I feel I have to defend my classical-music-playing brethren from some of the charges leveled directly or indirectly herein. Devoted classical artists (or devoted artists in any field) are heroic in our society. They do not need to apologize for not being other kinds of musicians. Christopher Small and others may say that African-American music or other musics have much to offer that classical music doesn't. Well, duh! And classical music has much to offer that other musics don't. There is no need to apologize for that!

And I really object to any implication that somehow the act of studying and performing classical music is in any way less personal, less individual, less soulful, than the norm with other musics. Performing classical musicians know that the composer's notation is never the final word on a piece of music. Notation itself is too clumsy for that to be the case, and even if that were not the case, a piece of music exists on a plane beyond even what the composer may have conceived. A gifted musician who conscientiously seeks to convey to the listener the overall emotional and sensory experience of a piece of music and the myriad beauties of its architecture and detail, cannot help but be unique, individual, personal in his or her performance. Greg and Ariel both want more "individuality" from classical performers. In truth, most gifted and dedicated artists do have a distinct and highly personal take on every work they interpret, but many concertgoers are not sensitized enough to tell the difference. That's why physical appearance plays such a role in the business. Lang Lang is a great pianist, but would he necessarily have made the splash he has if he wasn't as physically demonstrative at the keyboard? Watch great musicians of the past on film. It will amaze you how little extraneous or gratuitous motion they, by and large, exhibited in their performances. How many of them would break through to successful careers today? How about the state of new music? My favorite example is Morton Feldman. It's hard to imagine a current composer writing quiet, non-narrative, challenging and astonishing music like that having a ghost of a chance at any sort of career today.

Posted by: Phillip Bush at November 17, 2005 12:53 PM

I'm just going to unload my thoughts onto the Internet here, without checking them for relevance or interest. But I have to say that, while I agree with many of the thoughts expressed in these first two chapters, I still managed to get into classical music, as a lil' kid even (albeit with support from the parentals). I've never been any kind of serious performer and never taken anything beyond an intro theory course, but I even managed to get competent enough to become a freelance critic (insert joke here).

People who are interested in making classical music more accessible for us young'uns (I'm 27) sometimes ask me how classical music should be marketed to people my age. I have no idea, since it managed to get me anyway. I love new music, and eagerly attend as many new music concerts as I can, but I also wouldn't want to give up Beethoven and Bach; the modern composition that affects me as much as the music of those two men is extremely rare. I find Feldman boring. I don't think programmng more new music will make sense until the new music is better: engaging the world rather than retreating into these near-static marathon evocations of nothing or directionless explorations of timbre or the straggling serial compositions (the amazing musical technique almost nobody can hear!).

I certainly think classical music is way, way too stuffy and oddly exclusionary in ways that make no sense. I feel occasional stares of disapproval when I do things like laugh at particularly witty or sardonic passages in Haydn or Shostakovich, but I don't really care either (or I care less than I like going to see the music and enjoying it). It does piss me off when jokes get edited out of my reviews - since when is something so serious you can't joke about it? - but maybe it's my jokes that are feeble.

The one thing I strongly agree with you about is that classical performances somehow have to become more vivid. That, in a nutshell, is why most of my musical diet is chamber music, even now that I am not a student and can afford the symphony. Chamber halls are generally less imposing than the big concert edifices; they're often multipurpose rooms or churches (or mutipurpose rooms in churches). And you're close enough to the players, and they're close enough to you, so that they can make a few remarks about the music and so that they can communicate both as individuals and as an easily comprehended whole to me the indvidual audience member. I've noticed that this critique has been centered on prestigious halls and symphonies so far, and while their problems seem to be most acute, there's a whole lot of music-making going on outside of them. I hope that future chapters will even out the balance.

Other, even more random thoughts:

Echoing Philip Bush's comment above, Lang Lang chewed up a Rachmaninov concerto and spit it out in awkward chunks the time I saw him, but he made it look good enough that the audience enjoyed it. I am not sure this is the kind of individuality classical music needs to foster.

I used to like getting lost in the program notes. "I need to go read books and learn what that means," I said. I realize this is probably not everyone's reaction.

I could rant for 1000 words about how bad classical music biographies are. I DON'T CARE WHERE YOU FREAKING PLAYED LAST YEAR! This is a blind spot for classical musicians, as far as I can tell, like the first one to actually say something about his or her artistic philosophy would get beaten down by the marketplace somehow.

One thing we have to remember about talking in the latter days is that the circumstances in which classical music used to be performed were way more cramped, too. If I'm remembering what I read correctly, Alice Tully would have been a shockingly large place to have a symphony concert in Beethoven's time. Now if people are talking, I can't really hear quiet passages from an orchestra (much less an instrumental soloist) in El Grande Concert Hall, for example. I'd love to see Haimowitz in a bar, except that I'm sure he's tastefully amplified so that people who want to hear him over bar chatter can do so.

The advertisements in classical programs say one thing: "You should be a rich person if you're reading this program." I remember one advertisement for window treatments that said "It's worth eating domestic caviar for a year." Except I eat frozen burritos.

I'm interested to read the rest of the chapters. Perhaps I will make comments on those that actually pertain to the comments of the chapter. We can but dream.

Posted by: Andrew Lindemann Malone at November 17, 2005 9:14 PM

I apologize -- I haven't been able to respond to all these terrific comments. But I'm blown away by what people have been saying, both here and in private e-mail. I've learned a lot, and, just as I'd hoped, gotten many ideas for things I'd better do when I revise my text.

For instance: Philip points out that I talk largely about orchestras. He's right. I noticed that while I was writing. I work a lot with orchestras, and get caught up in endless discussions of their problems, so that's what immediately occurs to me when I sit down to write. I need to revise the text to accomodate chamber music, opera, early music, new music, you name it.

I did respond to Ariel, but I want return to her, and say how much I loved her stuff about people feeling that they can't move, and being grateful when something happens that they can really participate in. I used to see that at the Metropolitan Opera, in the days before supertitles. In a comic opera, there would be some slapstick on the stage, and an almost grateful laugh would come up from the audience, as if people were thinking (without quite knowing it), "Oh, thank God -- something I can understand." Vengerov gave a concert in New York (he does it elsewhere, too) where he talked a lot to the audience, and even asked for questions! I wasn't there, but my wife was, and she reports that the delight was so strong you could just about taste it.

In a concert series I did with the Pittsburgh Symphony, I asked the audience to clap during the first movement of the Mozart Paris Symphony, having first read Mozart's letter in which...well, you all read it in my text. The results were wonderful. People applauded a lot, but in very different ways. The applause had a different character whenever it broke out, in reaction to the character of the passage in the music that inspired it. Obviously people were listening very hard, and reacting to what they heard. (That's one answer for people who might think that the 18th century audience was shallow, and didn't really pay close attention.)

Do people pick what concerts to go to on the basis of who's playing? Complex question, and also one that surely plays out differently in big cities from how it does in smaller places. What I notice is that the New York Philharmonic basically sells the New York Philharmonic. Oh, they try to make a small fuss, in advertisements, about who's conducting, who the soloist is, and what music is being played. But that only speaks to the hard core of knowledgeable ticket-buyers. To the rest of the world, it's just the Philharmonic, playing classical music, night after night after night. As Thad so eloquently points out, these orchestras have to get a life, and create some events. Or, specifically, create some reason for people to go to their concerts. What happens now, I think, is that a lot of people will say, "Oh, you know, I really like classical music, and I'd love to go to a concert some time." But they don't go, because no particular concert jumps up to seize their attention. Classical music groups -- whether huge orchestras or string quartets in residence in rural Maine -- have to change this, by making their concerts real events. It's interesting that the string quartet in rural Maine has a great advantage. Their concert is an event simply because it happens.

About Jed being alienated: I'm glad Thad put it that way, because it makes me see I wasn't clear enough about what I was saying. I don't think Jed was alienated. He loved the concert. But at the same time, there was all that blankness. It wouldn't alienate him, consciously. He'd just think, "Oh, that's how classical music is." So he wouldn't immediately think, "I've got to go back for more of this." He went to hear the piece he loved, and that was it. To say he's alienated is a sophisticated judgment we'd make from the outside, not a description of his experience. I don't even think it's a correct judgment. The problem isn't that he was turned off; it's that he wasn't turned on enough.

Interestingly, even the people who go to these concerts all the time have some doubts about what they encounter. They don't talk about it, in part because -- here we go again -- this is just how classical music is. And nobody every asked them what they felt. Nobody ever proposed an alternative. Once you do ask them what they feel, you'd better be sitting down. I've faciliated some conversations with people from the audience at some major orchestras, and it's amazing how many buried reactions people have. They'd love it if the institutions communicated with them more, and explained more about what's going on. I can't stress this enough. The possiblity of any such thing ever happening had never occured to these people. But once they were put in a place where they felt safe saying what they thought…

I'm going to put a lot about this in my eventual revision of episode two.

Arts education, critical thinking, the attention span of the audience: I think we greatly exaggerate the problems here. I think people out in the culture today are amazingly smart, amazing critical, amazingly quick to form their opinions quite independently of any commercial hype. And very quick, too, to make art on their own, and to tear up and recombine the stuff the culture offers to them. There's an important book about the intelligence in popular culture today -- Stephen Johnson's ironically titled Everything Bad is Good for You. Required reading, IMHO. The idea that people in our culture passively accept whatever product is handed to them really doesn't hold up, if you actually look at what's going on. Some do; many don't. And among the many who don't are people who wouldn't think of going to a classical concert, because -- this irony just struck me -- it's something they're asked to passively accept! They're told it's art, it's good for them, and why aren't they eating their spinach? They respond by (among other things) listening to bands who are a lot more complex and edgy that what they'd get in the classical concert hall.

Classical musicians are creativity? Their training encourages them to be so? Philip, I'm afraid I disagree. My Juilliard students don't feel that they're encouraged to be creative. And I received a very thoughtful explosion on that subject from a music student at another school; I'm going to put it in my blog. At the very least, there are two opinions about this. I'm going to put something in my blog soon about whether orchestras play well enough, based on some discussions I've had in the field. The question is about creative playing, not technical ability. There's reason to believe that something is seriously lacking. I might also point to the film Music from the Inside Out, featuring musicians from the Philadelphia Orchestra, who are shown playing with irresistible verve and creativity… but only when they're playing non-classical gigs outside their day job. The orchestra performances in the film are relatively blah.

Keep the comments coming! I love them, whether I agree with them or not.

Posted by: Greg Sandow at November 18, 2005 1:18 PM

Andrew Malone sounds like someone I'd want to have working with me, if I were trying to present classical music to a younger audience. Of course he doesn't need to be sold on the music, but still he seems to have some of the same reactions to the classical music scene that cause other people to stay away from it. He sees both sides; that makes him valuable!

The ads in program books pose an enormous conundrum. The advertisers clearly know -- or think they know -- what the classical music demographic is. And that helps create the impressions that keep people who aren't from that demographic away.

Posted by: Greg Sandow at November 18, 2005 2:55 PM

One thing that came to mind while reading your second installment is the extent to which audiences don't just worship at the shrine of great composers, but at the shrine of musicians. In one of your comments, you raise this question: "Do people pick what concerts to go to on the basis of who's playing?" To some extent, I think we do; people who are new to classical music might not know one soloist from another (or even care), but it's also true that halls and orchestras, and all the major labels, go to greath lengths to market classical music stars. Think of all the attention Lang Lang or Yundi Li get, how much the Three Tenors received, how much adulation is afforded to conductors like Karajan, even though he's dead. In other words, many classical musicians have iconic status and are used to sell records and tickets (and get top billing, too, with their names in larger font on CD covers than the composer's name). But I say this not to disagree or spark an argument, but to raise a question: how does all this relate to your larger question of the status of classical music? One could argue that all the leading and popular figures of classical music do is simply perform and record the same core repertoire, and that this is detrimental to the art, especially in light of your statment that more new music needs to be heard. On the other hand, one could argue it has a positive effect; following the careers of certain performers can introduce people to a lot of music. I came to classical music by learning about musicians as much as I learned about composers.

As far as the experience of the concert hall is concerned, one thing that hasn't really been discussed is the cost of attendance. I don't mean to reduce the experience of live music to something as seemingly crass as money, but I often wonder how much cost really affects the general public. After all, we are trying to get more people into the concert hall, and I think cost can play as much a role as what the audience members or the musicians are wearing. Some halls can be expensive; a front orchestra seat for the L.A. Philharmonic will cost you $130 before service fees. But, perhaps this: if you are young with a small income, you can certainly get in for $10, $15, but then you have to sit either high in the back or behind the orchestra. And then when you look out and see all the more affluent, older, well-dressed people with better seats, and you look in the program and see all those ads catering to these people, it can make you nearly resent the experience. How much does this keep people from attending regularly? How much does this affect their relationship to the music? Is a live concert supposed to be such a bourgeois experience?

Of course, as you note, that experience will vary depending on where it occurs (big cities or small towns); so will the cost, but I suspect that these are all factors that affect the place of the music in our culture.

Peter Dobrin, one of the two classical music critics at the Philadelphia Inquirer, did an amazing story on Philadelphia Orchestra ticket prices. (I'm back to responding right after the comments. Easier that way.) He found they've increased since the '70s at a dizzying rate, far higher than the rate of inflation. I imagine the orchestra figured people would buy the tickets regardless, and for a couple of decades, anyway, they apparently were proved right! Lately I've heard a lot of talk about pricing, for all the obvious reasons. One sad wrinkle here is that -- if you believe the conventional wisdom you hear from classical music marketing people -- lowering ticket prices loses you money. You don't make up through increased volume what you lose in dollars per sale. I believe this is actually true. And what that means, of course, is that the financial squeeze on big classical music organizations might be even larger than we might have thought, because they honesetly might depend on those inflated ticket prices.

As for the appeal of stars, this is debated. I'll have to check with marketers I know for up to date information, but if I remember rightly, studies of ticket sales seem to show that not many star soloists automatically sell tickets. That is, there's no demonstrable correlation between having them on a concert and selling more tickets. Trying to figure out why ticket sales go up and down is a kind of voodoo, of course, because there are many factors -- weather, what else is playing in town that night, the music on the program, the conductor, the time of year…it's complicated. So, yes, if your sales shoot up bigtime each time Lang Lang plays, you can safely figure that people want to hear him. But in less obvious cases, the effect might be hard to measure.

Posted by: Michael S. at November 18, 2005 5:23 PM

I don't think you have to be too apologetic about writing about symphonies a lot in this chapter, as the center of your discussion is the Big Concert Hall, with which symphonies tend inevitably to be the centerpiece. On the contrary, staying within the confines of the hall I think gives you license to roam with your ideas in the way you clearly want to, but leaves one with a unified-feeling read at the end.

It is true, though, that I have no idea whether smaller venues, chamber music series and festivals, college music series, etc., are success stories or not. I flipped through an issue of Chamber Music America the other day and felt pleased at all the adapting all these little ensembles are trying to do. Are they succeeding? Would love to see you address the issue, later.

As for your discussion of music as rite, what jumped to my mind was perhaps the subliminal side of it, which was how this attitude has impacted music performance. A couple of years ago at Carnegie, I heard an interminable Schubert sonata that crystallized, for me, what I think is the attitude classical performance has come to have about its great works: this is a great piece, and my duty is to this piece, and if you can appreciate it, great, and if you can't it's your problem; after all, everyone knows this piece is great.

The change from yesteryear can't be overstated. Horowitz used to say that in live performance, the modulation had to be exaggerated to be comprehensible to the ear of the audience. I can't imagine anyone talking like that today. Scholars' eyebrows arched when they got hold of Toscanini's papers and saw that he frequently altered Beethoven's own orchestration and dynamics to make the pieces work better for the audience and venue he was dealing with - he considered that his job. Now it is our job to appreciate a Beethoven given to us independent of our existence. It used to be standard fare to tweak, say, Mussorgsky Pictures in all kinds of ways, to mitigate some of the clunkier moments that don't work so well in concert. I recall a friend of mine asking about it and being told by his teacher, "no one does that anymore."

I think it would be an amazing thing if this changed, and might override some of the more intellectual concerns. To take your Berlioz example, what if the question the conductor asked while deciding interpretation was, how can I make element X comprehensible to the "audience ear"? What would my orchestra have to do to make the audience feel, this is a drugged out episode? This is a witches' dance? Etc. A very different goal than, let's render the most polished version of this we can, now how do we tell the audience that it's about all this interesting stuff to help them be amused. I recently heard a Beethoven symphony in a midwest city, and I thought everything you address in your writings, they were doing wrong. But I felt it might be saved, if they just put a little more pop into the thing, rather than the sedated mess they played. Beethoven intended to rattle the rafters...what if that was the priority, rather than how the piece is "supposed to be", or how you might play it in an ideal world?

For sure, these musical questions are directly bound up with the very issue of those formalities. I was astounded when I listened to a CD of some wax cylinders of Verdi's Ernani, from 1903-05. A lot of the singers and players had worked under Verdi himself. In certain sections the orchestra thumped and oom-pahed like a marching band, not a prissy adaptation but a real one. I cannot even imagine a modern orchestra making that sound! Other times it rushed along in big swoops. It was so clearly a band that thought of itself very, very differently than orchestras think of themselves today. Gershwin's recordings with Paul Whiteman are another great example. Those wind players sound like barnyard animals. And that's exactly how the piece was meant to sound. It makes modern Rhapsodies all but unlistenable.

So, I think Music as Sacred Rite is not only about the formalities that surround a concert. It has seeped in to what the musicians even think they're supposed to do. It's not what they thought they were doing a century ago. If they tried to change that, it just might work.

In re the comments, thanks as always for holding firm against the tired complaints that people have no attention span and can only appreciate loud things. Using Christina Aguilera as an example of what people listen to? Please. Maybe if you're a tween. Go into a high school AP class and ask what they are listening to. You'll get a diverse list of sophisticated and interesting music. But not much classical, and that's the problem for us.

Wow. I'm very grateful for this. Eric, are you sure you don't want to be the one writing this book?

To me, what's especially important here is everything about how music is or could be actually performed. I think this is the final key to the classical music problem. we absolutely do not play with the audience in mind. Reminds me of someone who e-mailed me about program notes. She writes them herself, and was genuinely puzzled. What could anyone write about in program notes, if not the technicalities and history of the msuic? As she set out her thinking, it was clear that the technicalities came first, and the audience last. Maybe even worse than last, because she was easily willing to accept the strong possibility that many audience members couldn;t understand the notes.

So in performance, our first care is to play the music properly -- proper style, proper attention to structure, proper restraint, so we're respectably classical. I didn't know about that Horowitz injunction, but as I've written in my blog, and will certainly write in the book, the idea was out there. Brahms said about the same thing that Horowitz did -- and about his own music! Someone I know e-mailed me this week about why he (back some years ago) preferred hearing the Grateful Dead to any orchestra, and it was exactly the vivid, in the moment playing that was the reason. And by the way, it's not that classical musicians have to put on a show for the audience. They can be as utterly unresponsive, as locked in their own world as Thelonious Monk or Miles Davis -- but, like those two, they have to do and be something memorable, so that every phrase means something. A lot harder to do, by the way, when you're recreating old music, which is why new music has to become the norm in classical performance. Then the old music will take on new life and new meaning, simply because the norm will be playing music that's immediately vivid and new.

Posted by: Eric Barnhill at November 19, 2005 1:58 AM

I enter this conversation not as a music historian, but as a musician and a historian, of a middling sort in each case. I have lived in Juneau, Alaska, for the past eight years, playing cello in our regional Juneau Symphony Orchestra and teaching world history at the University of Alaska Southeast. My guess is that I will have the most to say in Part IV of the book, but I have a couple of preliminary thoughts for now.


First, putting on my historian's hat I see a fundamental tension between forces of tradition and modernization. This strikes me as having a particular impact for the nineteenth-century classical music canon (symphonic music), for this is the century in which newly emerging European nation-states rallied industiral and commercial capitalism (including imperalism), technological innovation, an uneasy social relationship between bourgeois taste and mass popularity, the coalescence of the image of the artist as genius-hero, toward the creation of "superior" national identities. More pithily put, "the invention of tradition" by "imagined national communities" (see Eric Hobsbawm, Benedict Anderson). The catch: The forces of modernization made symphonic culture possible (in its largest sense, not just the music itself). Yet the nineteenth-century notion of a classical music canon was an edifice; against this, twentieth-century modernism would be the "tradition of the new," anti-canonical, valuing the emphermal and continual innovation. Despite traditional fundamentalisms of all sorts (including aesthetic ones), I am convinced that the impulse of mass-demographic consumer capitalism is solidly on the side of (post)modernism.


Side note: I understand the early music renaissance of the late twentieth century in this light; the moribund nineteenth-century classical music canon was temporarily invigorated by the infusion of previously scorned period music and alternate tonalities, but in the marketplace it ends up having ephemeral impact. I feel similarly about the recording industry: Studio manipulated sound increases listener appeal, but only has a temporary effect upon sales. We may think it's about the music, but it really has been about commercial sales.


Moving to an altogether different position: Playing cello in the Juneau Symphony Orchestra has been one of the most wonderful, sustaining experiences of my adult life (I am 48 years old). Literally located on the edge of the world, this symphony is genuinely community based. About three-quarters of our regional symphony players come from our local city and borough of 33,000, the balance being musicians imported from Alaska and Washington state during performance week. The audience is entirely local, numbering around 1,000 over two performances (and expanded a bit by live radio broadcast and web-simulcast of the Sunday afternoon concert). Each spring, we include a major choral work (e.g., Beethoven's Ninth, Mozart's Requiem), which engages an additional 100 local singers. The emphasis is definitely on community, rather than commercial, experience.


While this does not address the woes of the classical music industry, it makes for an altogether different kind of classical music experience. As players, we get to perform the kind of music that most of us would have to pay to hear in major metropolitan cities. And the relationship between performers and audience is altogether different: We are doing this music for each other, and roughly one out of every thirty inhabitants in our borough is drawn into the experience (oh, that the music industry could get one out of every thirty music purchases to be in classical music!).


The union of performance with community participation makes the Juneau Symphony Orchestra unique in my life experience. Truth: I'm not a fan of the nineteenth-century canon; my personal preferences jump from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries. But as a community participant, I get wrapped up in the music (and must hold my experience of that in check while performing, to maintain concentration and technique) despite the fact that it's largely symphonic material that we play. It is a living performance, more than "classical music."

Posted by: Robin Walz at November 19, 2005 3:13 PM

I guess these do show up eventually, even if it doesn't seem so initially…

I was thinking about this project of Greg's on thursday night—I was at a concert at a smallish venue, where the headliners were a local-to-San Francisco jazz quartet, and the support was Gutbucket, a rock band whose releases are on Cantaloupe, which is either run by or affiliated with the Bang on a Can folks, and a bass clarinet quartet called Edmund Welles. There was a fair crowd, largest for Gutbucket, but not insignificant (relative to the size of the space for the audience) for the other bands, and this is a venue that ordinarily hosts straightahead rock of various flavors. Mostly when the clarinetists were playing, I was reminded of the comment above about Matt Haimovitz: granted that they were playing originals by the founder of the group, and not arrangements for the forces deployed (aside from two rock covers, but that's probably not the relevant sense), but they were mostly through-composed, serious efforts.

A related incident: Kyle Gann sometimes includes, in his lengthier lists, Nick Didkovsky as a post-classical composer; as far as I know, Didkovsky's band Doctor Nerve is his primary musical outlet. They recently played a concert with another group, Zs, that I understand was formed out of a composer's collective that was self-consciously "classical" or "post-classical" in conception (details fuzzy here), and four other groups that have no such externally-granted composerly cred (and there are any number of groups of similar approach that weren't present; Yowie, the Ruins, Cheval de Frise, &c). My point isn't that there are musical or intellectual satisfactions in rock or rockish music; rather, I'm not sure what "classical music" is meant to capture here. Symphonic music is too narrow; completely composed music too broad; chronological definitions inappropriate. Is it institutional, as Danny's ment of Nov. 15th suggests? Is it sociological? A marketing term? The Butcher Shop Quartet, plays The Rite of Spring on two electric guitars, an electric bass guitar, and drumkit—what do you say about that? (After one of their performances, a guy in the audience called out for "more metal". And I have to admit, it rocked pretty hard.)

Perhaps it's naïve, but, especially given the clear acceptance of the idea that classical music institutions need to change, with something like classical music being preserved, I'd like to know just what classical music is that's being talked about. Because if it's primarily an institutional or sociological definition, well, I'm not so interested. (Clearly much that will be ruled in or out will be obvious. I'm interested in corner cases.)

I would also mention eighth blackbird, whom I saw play last night and whose physical movement onstage I found (to my surprise) not gratuitous at all but very much a manifestation in space of what was going on musically at a given moment.

I hate this about eighth blackbird. I don't think they do it gracefully at all, and they've done it in all of their performances that I've seen. Very artificial, in my opinion. I don't particularly want them to stand stock-still, but their rehearsed-seeming movements are no improvement.

In addition, I wish performers still wrote original cadenza's.

(I wish performers improvised original cadenzas. Sure, it might suck, but it might be great, too, right?)

In the age of the 15-second commercial, it takes an extraordinary commitment from an individual to sit through even one piece of music of merely ten or fifteen minutes' length.

R. Kelly's "Trapped in the Closet" is apparently 40 minutes long! The Mars Volta's tracks regularly top 10 minutes, and they are, I understand, rather popular. And wasn't that 14-minute cut from "Frampton Comes Alive" a triumph for FM radio, way back in the 70s, whence come many, many other stretched-out songs from popular groups? The lead track from Tortoise's Millions Now Living Will Never Die, "Djed", is 20+ minutes, and they were enormously popular (and that album and track, in particular, were quite influential), for an indie band; ditto Godspeed You! Black Emperor, who I don't think have a track under 17 minutes. None of these are obscurities.

Nor does that (false) claim explain why some who do have the extraordinary endurance to sit through fifteen continuous minutes of a single piece of music choose to sit through endless jazz compositions by Tim Berne or Anthony Braxton, or hour-plus doom metal dirges courtesy Boris or Earth (let's stipulate that they aren't stoned), or the latest release from Orthrelm or albums by the Necks (remarkably similar in method though completely other in result), or any number of lengthy, but, I take it, not classical pieces of music.

Which isn't to say that a better program of music education in America, anyway (which is to say, any program of music education, at all) wouldn't be helpful, and even if it wouldn't be helpful on these grounds, it would still be desirable in its own right.

Posted by: ben wolfson at November 20, 2005 4:34 AM

May I offer a very brief clarification of my earlier comments? Greg, I make a distinction between the training at music schools, and the creativity of individual professional classical artists. My students at Michigan had the same complaints your Juilliard students did, and in the end I left academia in part because I wasn't sure that the system itself allows for exploration of divergent thinking and creativity among music students. It's the ones who survive the anti-creative atmosphere, luck into a couple of good mentors, and take responsibility for their artistic growth by exploring other arts, cultures, musics, who are the creative individualists I referred to in my post above. (Again, orchestras are a whole other question, for a variety of reasons.) The real culpability music schools bear for the current crisis in classical music in America is not so much because of how innovatively or not they teach actual musical skills to their students, but because of the relative inattention to the preparation of their graduates for being "musical citizens" in 21st-century America. I know some schools have been trying to change, Eastman I believe for one. But discussions such as the one on this blogsite should be going on throughout every music school, even at undergraduate levels. (But most schools would be too afraid that frank discussions like this would scare off kids from majoring in music. I think they're wrong, but that's another story).

To Eric, let me just reiterate that the chamber and small festival scene is actually very central to this story and will be so more and more in the future as orchestras break up and the classical music following levels off at a smaller, grass-roots, "fringe"-ier (but loyal) level.

Posted by: Phillip at November 20, 2005 3:12 PM

The failure of contemporary Art Music composers and their interaction with performing ensembles and the audience has so far escaped mention. But it shouldn't. Show me an art form who's creatives have stopped producting works compelling to their base audience and I'll show you an art form in financial and social decline.

The statement about classical music being too long is certainly wrong. There is a large cadre of classic rock fans who worship such music as Pink Floyd for "Echoes" and Yes for "Close to the Edge." Both are innovative multi-movement works about emotional adventures.

Posted by: jult52 at November 21, 2005 1:05 PM

I certainly think classical music is way, way too stuffy and oddly exclusionary in ways that make no sense. I feel occasional stares of disapproval when I do things like laugh at particularly witty or sardonic passages in Haydn or Shostakovich, but I don't really care either (or I care less than I like going to see the music and enjoying it).

No, it's not stuffy or "oddly exclusionary". It's called not making sounds that distract from the ones the orchestra is making. See also: loudly unwrapping your throat lozenge, fidgeting in your seat so that it squeaks, not turning off your cell phone etc. If you laugh at some Shostakovich moment, that means I have to listen to you AND the orchestra. When that happens, it breaks my concentration on the music/playing/conducting. Fine, don't care, but don't act like it's some mystery or act of grand snobbery when people stare at you.



I was embarrassed, but then I realized, “Why should I be?” Why can't watching an opera or listening to a concert be like watching a movie, more interactive and exciting?

What on earth? Movies are interactive? Since when? So you actually go to a movie theatre and talk throughout it with your friends and so on? And you don't get "shusssssh"'d every 30 seconds or told off by an usher? Watching a DVD at home is not the same as you being in a concert hall because there are other people around who might not appreciate your dad and his vocalisations while the music is playing. And good for them.

Some halls can be expensive; a front orchestra seat for the L.A. Philharmonic will cost you $130 before service fees. But, perhaps this: if you are young with a small income, you can certainly get in for $10, $15, but then you have to sit either high in the back or behind the orchestra. And then when you look out and see all the more affluent, older, well-dressed people with better seats, and you look in the program and see all those ads catering to these people, it can make you nearly resent the experience.

So, it has nothing to do with ticket prices, it's that your $15 won't buy a 4th row center seat. The fact that, at Disney Hall, the sound is best up in the rear balcony or behind the stage means nothing, of course. Those people that you deride SUBSIDIZE your $15 seat. Without wealthy or even middle-class individuals and corporate hospitality people buying those $130 seats and being targeted in the ads in the program, there likely wouldn't BE a Los Angeles Philharmonic, let alone an LAPhil that plays so much new music. Yikes, it's odd to see such a blatant example of reverse snobbery; it's one thing for a Grande Dame in furs and jewels to sneer at the person dressed in jeans and a Led Zeppelin t-shirt--that's lame, I've been on the receiving end of that--but the fact those people exist at all is now yet *another* problem?

Lately I've heard a lot of talk about pricing, for all the obvious reasons.

Bottom line: any student can get in cheap to any of the major US orchestras, most orchestras in fact. Any non-student can get in cheap as well, often for not much more than the cost of a movie/popcorn/soda/parking outing. What all the bitching is about is that people can't sit 10th row center for $20. Well too damn bad. I was stuck up in the nosebleed seats at U2 a few tours ago because I wasn't going to pay $180 to listen to Bono struggle to hit any notes above the staff on the old stuff. So, I slummed with all the other poor folk up in the $65 seats.

Not only was it absurdly cheap for students (six euros was the most I paid, I think, but then Greece is cheap generally)

No, I bet it was that it was heavily subsidized by the government, that's why it was so low. That, of course, doesn't apply to the US. The level of government funding of the arts is scandalously low in this country, but people sure don't seem to have a problem with a little less than half of the US budget being taken up by military spending. If they'd junk the lame, never going to work Star Wars program from the Reagan era--yes, that fine example of corporate welfare is funded every year--and distribute that money to arts orgs, ticket prices would fall by quite a bit, but that's "socialist" in most Americans eyes.

Look, I agree that there is more that classical orgs can do to make the experience more newbie friendly: I think that pre-concert talks are a good idea and I'm intrigued by the idea of computer screens being on the back of seats so that people can get info about the piece as it happens in real time, but the bottom line for me is that the basic experience will never change: people sitting still and quiet in a hall while the orchestra plays pieces ranging from Palestrina to Birtwistle. I simply don't see how light shows or better program notes or allowing people to dance in the aisles or only playing stuff written in the last 5 years or having cocktail parties afterwards or any of the other schemes I read about on here is going to change that basic template, which seems to cause so many people problems.

The LAPhil about 6 or 7 years ago commissioned pieces that were written expressly as soundtracks for video pieces. It was hyped to the heavens and there was all this hifalutin' talk about the Phil "operating in a synergistic partnership" with the visual geniuses of Hollywood etc. It never got past the first 2, largely because the Hollywood types didn't appreciate that the music was ultimately the most important thing. If the idea is "well, let's distract them enough so that they don't really care about the music", then heaven help us all.

There is a large cadre of classic rock fans who worship such music as Pink Floyd for "Echoes" and Yes for "Close to the Edge." Both are innovative multi-movement works about emotional adventures.

Hahaha, you should have mentioned the 81 minutes of Tales from Topographic Oceans, which, after all, was written according to symphonic forms or the 45 minute pieces by Jethro Tull, Thick as a Brick and A Passion Play. Of course, that was a different time and music enhancing drugs were more widely used back in 1973, but still.

Posted by: Henry Holland at November 22, 2005 4:15 AM

No, it's not stuffy or "oddly exclusionary". It's called not making sounds that distract from the ones the orchestra is making. See also: loudly unwrapping your throat lozenge, fidgeting in your seat so that it squeaks, not turning off your cell phone etc. If you laugh at some Shostakovich moment, that means I have to listen to you AND the orchestra. When that happens, it breaks my concentration on the music/playing/conducting. Fine, don't care, but don't act like it's some mystery or act of grand snobbery when people stare at you.

Gee, I wish I could go to a rock concert and just listen to the music instead of having the fans scream and "distract" me from the experience . . . I can't even hear what the lead singer is saying over the indelible roar of the crowd.

And extraneous sounds are inevitable. When you sit in a concert hall, it's not just you and the orchestra, you are sharing the experience with many people. If distracting noises were such a problem, concerts should never be held outdoors. Too much potential for a jet plane flying overhead to "ruin" the experience. I think little sounds here and there that aren't expressly musical make the experience a lot more natural.

Posted by: Andrew Yen at November 22, 2005 12:34 PM

I love all this. Sorry I can't respond every day. But it all nourishes me, and gives me ideas. Plus I just love the variety of the things you're all thinking about.

A while ago, Eric wrote: "I flipped through an issue of Chamber Music America the other day and felt pleased at all the adapting all these little ensembles are trying to do. Are they succeeding? Would love to see you address the issue, later." I want to address that. Very hard to find out about, but I think Chamber Music America can help. I know at least one string quartet that's made a wild success away from any big city.

I loved everything Robin said, and the Juneau story touched my heart: "The union of performance with community participation makes the Juneau Symphony Orchestra unique in my life experience. Truth: I'm not a fan of the nineteenth-century canon; my personal preferences jump from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries. But as a community participant, I get wrapped up in the music (and must hold my experience of that in check while performing, to maintain concentration and technique) despite the fact that it's largely symphonic material that we play. It is a living performance, more than 'classical music.'"

So much has to do with context. If it's rare to hear the music live, then performances are much more vital. They have to be -- they're a fresher experience for musicians and audiences alike. That's another problem, I think, with our classical music culture. Repeated performances of the same pieces robs those pieces of their meaning.

Ben asked: "I'd like to know just what classical music is that's being talked about. Because if it's primarily an institutional or sociological definition, well, I'm not so interested. (Clearly much that will be ruled in or out will be obvious. I'm interested in corner cases.)" Very good question, Ben. And in fact I'm going to address it in episode three, which should be on this site on Monday (Nov. 28). I'm going to say a lot about the music itself, what I think makes it distinctive, why it's valuable, why it should survive. I want to separate it from the institutions. But at the same time, the music is -- in practice -- wrapped up in the institutions. And if the institutions collapse, many things will be hurt, not least the chances for classical musicians to make a living. I'm not saying classical music won't survive that. But it'll be a shock (a bigger one, I think, than we might think). Maybe that would be a healthy shock, though. If classical musicians are forced to find their audience on their own, maybe that would be the best thing that could happen.

I was happy to read Philip's comment on his earlier thoughts: "It's the [music students] who survive the anti-creative atmosphere, luck into a couple of good mentors, and take responsibility for their artistic growth by exploring other arts, cultures, musics, who are the creative individualists I referred to in my post above." I agree, 100%. And I've been hearing that there are more and more students like this in music schools. Hope for the future!

I'll address the huge, intractable, and in many ways unpleasant problem of modernist music in part two of the book. Very, very important to talk about. New music has to become the norm in classical performances, and modernism became not simply an obstacle to that, but the most apparent reason why it stopped happening. I've never seen an adequate study of why this was so. So I guess I'll have to supply some reasons myself.

To Henry: I don't think it's helpful to bash the audience, or prospective audience, for being stupid or reluctant or (the horror of it!) more interested in other things than in classical music. We have to take the world as we find it. Or, rather, we have to accept how it is before we can change it. No company selling any product could stay in business long with a marketing campaign that said: "You assholes should be buying what we make! Your excuses for not buying it are pathetic!" (Well, maybe some edgy alternative product could be sold that way. I'd love to see the campaign. Very refreshing.) The classical music business has to work with what it's got. If people like classical music, but aren't buying CDs or concert tickets, then the business has to address that, and find ways to make the CDs/tickets more appealing, more affordable, more interesting, more challenging, more essential, whatever. As any marketer would do, classical music marketers have to figure out how to keep the core audience coming, and in fact how to make them come more; how to make people who occasionally buy tickets buy them more often (even a little more often); and how to get people who never buy tickets to buy occasionally. You can pick which of these goals to emphasize most, of course.

As for ticket prices, I think Henry is absolutely right to say that the expensive seats subsidize the cheap ones. That's a fact of life. And, this said, it still may be true that big classical music institutions have locked themselves into a price structure that may not be working. That is, prices may have to be where they are, because of the institution's budgetary needs -- and still they might be too high to bring in a large audience. If you used to be selling 95% of your tickets, and now you sell 70%, you have to look at every possible reason why that happened. If your ticket prices during that sales decline have increased by a percentage that way outstrips the inflation rate, then you'd better look very long and hard at that. You might end up saying that your budget -- your balance of income (from all sources) and expenses -- just can't work. Which, I think, is the position some big classical music institutions are finding themselves in.

Are movies interactive? No, not in the theater. But people interact with them in other ways -- critique them to their friends, post comments on websites, buy DVDs in large enough numbers to keep the movie business healthy. None of this is happening to any great extent in classical music.

And finally: a marketer I know with a large orchestra says that only the program sells tickets on a regular basis -- people respond most of all, in other words, to what music is being played. Soloists don't have much effect. I've heard differing opinions from smaller places, and there's no doubt that, even in this large orchestra's case, that an occasional soloist will bring people out. But mainly it's the program.

Thanks again, everybody. Have a great Thanksgiving. And look out for the next episode, here on November 28.

Oh, and one other thing. The problem with posting comments has been fixed. You'll get an acknowledgement now, not just a blank screen.

Posted by: Greg Sandow at November 23, 2005 10:42 AM

I like the ideas that are surfacing here. Thank you for making a space for this discussion, Greg, and for seeding it with such potent observations and with such a friendly voice.


Sometimes while reading the comments I get nervous about the familiar human tendency to look for the One Right Way. There are lots of dialects of classical music, and people like different ones for different reasons. Note how one writer loves Feldman and another doesn't, or how one writer loves the way eighth blackbird moves and another hates it. To have such varied responses is natural and healthy, and classical music could be helped by admitting that people don't agree about what is beautiful or engaging or exciting.

So what we need are multiple solutions and lots of presentation styles, some proceeding from opposite assumptions. The music itself is much more varied than the field lets on--Brandenburgs as well as Passions, celebrations of nature as well as drug-induced hallucinations, elaborate and beautiful structures as well as outbursts of raw emotion. It's about time we diversified the ways in which we make this stuff available.

Posted by: John Steinmetz at November 25, 2005 8:21 PM

No, it's not stuffy or "oddly exclusionary". It's called not making sounds that distract from the ones the orchestra is making. See also: loudly unwrapping your throat lozenge, fidgeting in your seat so that it squeaks, not turning off your cell phone etc. If you laugh at some Shostakovich moment, that means I have to listen to you AND the orchestra. When that happens, it breaks my concentration on the music/playing/conducting. Fine, don't care, but don't act like it's some mystery or act of grand snobbery when people stare at you.

Laughter is not a voluntary response, and I'm not looking for opportunities to laugh. If a composer makes a good joke and the performers deliver it well, though, I probably will laugh. This gets back to making concert-going feel more like moviegoing, which may be a useful starting point; you're not supposed to talk, kick the seat in front of you, or talk on your cell phone at the movies (though people do, just as they do at classical concerts), but you are allowed to have spontaneous responses to whatever's happening onscreen - sighs, laughter, even occasional applause mid-film.

I agree that discretionary noise-making, such as unwrapping lozenges, jangling metal bracelets, or asking the person sitting next to you what movement of the piece is being played, is not real conducive to anyone's enjoyment of the music, and there would have to be major changes in halls and presentation to allow chattering up a storm.

Question for everyone: Sometimes when I attend Baltimore Symphony Orchestra concerts, there will be a person in attendance (I don't know if it's always the same person) who brings an oxygen tank. It makes a sound like this: "CLICK hssssssssssssssssssss CLICK hssssssssssssssssssss." All the time. Is it fair to ban oxygen tanks from concert halls? I am interested in others' opinions.

Posted by: Andrew Lindemann Malone at November 26, 2005 9:34 PM



Post a comment



Verification (needed to reduce spam):


Remember Me?

(you may use HTML tags for style)

Tell A Friend

Email this entry to:


Your email address:


Message (optional):














 

Site Meter