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May 1, 2006

Book 2.0
Episode 6: Finishing the Introduction

Previously, in episodes one through five:

[Everything so far has been a draft of the book’s introduction.]

This is a book about the future of classical music. It’s a necessary book, because classical music is in crisis, and people have burning questions. Is the classical music audience growing older? Will classical music disappear?

Many people can get caught up in these questions — classical music professionals, people in the classical music audience (who often love classical music even more than the professionals do), people who like classical music but don’t go to classical concerts (and might wonder why), and of course people who care about the current state of culture. I’m writing this book for all these people, including those who don’t know much about classical music.

But now I’d better state my own beliefs. I think the game is mostly over, by which I don’t mean that classical music will disappear, but that the classical music world will change, maybe drastically, and that classical music institutions — even big, brand-name orchestras and opera companies — that don’t change fast enough might collapse.

Change is needed because the old ways aren’t working. The audience, as data from the National Endowment for the Arts pretty clearly shows, is in fact getting older. Younger people, even people in their fifties, aren’t starting to go to classical concerts in the numbers we saw in past generations. Fundraising has become more difficult. In the orchestra world, there’s a long-term pattern of expenses rising faster than income, which — especially when combined with falling ticket sales and falling donations — means a serious financial squeeze, which if things down change, will only get worse in the future, leading to notably dire private projections about where things are going. The trend is downward, and concerts that don’t sell well are starting to look very empty.

But lying behind everything I’ve talked about are two much more basic problems, a drift away from classical music in the culture all around us, and, within the classical music world, something very like stagnation, a failure to engage with contemporary life. These trends Obviously these two trends are tied to each other. If people lose interest in classical music, and the classical music world refuses to engage with them, then of course they lose interest even more, and the classical music world finds them even harder to engage. And of course as classical music (and high art in general) recedes in our culture, popular culture rises up to replace it. Is this a bad thing? I don’t think so. Popular culture can be many things, some of them pretty ghastly, but at its best it’s the greatest outpouring of popular creativity that the world has ever seen. For classical music to ignore it would be suicide. How can you attract a new audience if you turn your back on everything they like? How can you be a contemporary art form if you turn your back on contemporary life?

Popular culture is many things, some of them pretty ghastly, but at its best it’s the greatest outpouring of popular creativity that the world has ever seen. It’s also gotten smarter over the years (an insight nailed in Stephen Johnson’s ironically titled book, Everything Bad is Good for You) and for classical music to ignore it would be suicide—financial suicide, because how can you attract a new audience if you turn your back on everything they like, and even artistic suicide, because how can you become a contemporary art form if you turn your back on contemporary life?

Which is exactly what classical music has done, most obviously by maintaining its formality. But what’s worse is what I’ve elsewhere called “an odd blankness,” or in other words a massive failure to communicate. Even facing their own constituency, their own loyal (if shrinking) audience, classical music professionals won’t even explain very basic things about what’s going on—why, for instance, when an orchestra plays a Tchaikovsky symphony, there might be five horns on stage, when the program book says Tchaikovsky wrote the piece for four.

The enterprise of classical music operates from the top down. Students are taught in music school to obey the rules, to learn the officially sanctioned ways to play the music, and keep their creativity in check. Professional musicians say their job is only to realize the composer’s intentions, thus reducing themselves to a servant’s role. Scholars tell the world that the meaning of a classical piece lies in its abstract structure, thus muting the force of everything we hear in the music.

So classical music is robbed of its force, and ends up as a refuge from the contemporary world—which then explains why we can’t find a new audience. People in the new audience would have to be socialized into the classical music world; they‘d have to accept its odd blankness, with all its contradictions, and all its secrets that are never explained.

But now how can we fix all these problems? First, classical music needs to become a contemporary art, part of contemporary culture, just as the visual art world is, or world music, or smart alternative rock bands, or art-house films

To do that, it has to look and feel contemporary. So we have to get rid of formal dress. The look (and content) of everything involved in a classical performance ought to be contemporary—advertising, brochures, everything printed in the program books given out at concerts, the way the musicians dress and act onstage, the way the music gets talked about.

And the music needs to be contemporary, too. Half the pieces played, maybe more, should be recent or new. New pieces, almost by their very nature, put us somewhere in the modern age. We need to tear down the walls, and let classical music breathe the same air that the rest of the world breathes. Once that happens, then the older repertoire should easily find its meaning and its place. If we’re deeply engrossed in playing John Adams and Steve Reich (along with composers we barely can imagine now), and we know why we’re doing it, then when we turn to play Bach or Mozart, we’ll know why we’re doing that, too.

And now I’ll suggest some concrete steps that could be taken right now. How do we get from here to whatever the classical music world will look like after it’s fixed?

One way we’ll get to the future is by admitting that we have to. We’ll go under, if we don’t change what we do. Another answer is that a new generation is taking over. Younger people may not believe in all the classical taboos. We should understand that everything doesn’t have to change at once. And in fact, it shouldn’t, because for the moment, at least, the classical music world still depends on its established audience. So for the next two years, we might see classical music moving down two roads, one for the existing audience, and another for the new one.

The new road won’t be entirely new, of course. Things already have been changing, and sometimes what I’ll recommend here will just be an expansion of things already in motion.

So here are the ideas:

Acknowledge pop music, and bring it into the classical music world. One way to do that: Classical music organizations should honor the non-classical music (especially the noncommercial kinds) in the towns they’re in.

We need to talk to our audience, and—even more important—create forums where they can talk back to us.

We need to connect to other arts. Other arts are more imaginative than we are, and function better in the current world. Classical music groups should open themselves to the other arts, and put on what might seem like avant-garde performances, the musical equivalent of the kind of art taking place elsewhere.

We should empower our musicians. Give musicians far more power in classical music organizations, especially the biggest ones.

We should create events. Each classical performance should be an event, whose purpose can be vividly stated. An extravagant example: One of my Juilliard students played in a concert of Chopin nocturnes, which began an hour before midnight in a darkened space, lit by candles. I’m not saying that every classical concert has to be so generously staged. But they all have to feel like special events.

We need to find a context for new music. Who likes it? Not the mainstream classical audience. So who’ll like it? We have to find those people. But we also have to find some newer music that the mainstream audience really will like, and find ways to present it so the mainstream audience will be strongly engaged. The Pittsburgh Symphony did this, playing three short new works on the first half of a concert program, and asking the audience to vote for its favorite at intermission. I was there; people in the audience were energized, and argued vigorously about which piece was best.

And finally: Let’s stop thinking that classical music is so very special. Certainly it has special qualities. But we shouldn’t pretend that it occupies a uniquely lofty plane, and—worst of all—that it requires special education for its listeners. When we think that, we separate ourselves from the rest of our culture, and make classical music’s problems even worse.

You can still read the full texts of episodes one, two, three, four and five. And I encourage you to do it! Especially for episode five, because I had to leave many of my most specific ideas out of my summary. (I’m thinking that, as the book unfolds, I’ll always keep the most recent episodes online, even if older ones eventually will disappear. Maybe I’ll keep entire sections of the book only—as I’m doing with the episodes that make up the introduction—until they’re finished.)

Forgive me for this, but again I’m going to begin my new episode with a little introspection, just as I did last time. As I look over my work—and especially when I think of what else I want to say—I see that in some ways this book is taking shape as a patchwork, as even more of an improvisation than I expected. I don’t mind that; it’s hard to wrangle all these tricky ideas into shape. That’s one reason I’m writing the book this way—because I knew it would be very hard to write, I wanted just to start getting it out, in whatever form, so I’d have something to work with.

And certainly I’ve got something now, a sprawling introduction, at least six episodes long, with its ideas maybe not in the right order—but it really does cover the ground, and let everybody know what the book’s going to say. Though of course I’ve thought of a few things that I wish I said, and so (just to get something else into the light, to be massaged into final form later) I want to insert one of them here.

It’s about objections to everything I say. I run into a lot of them, as I speak and write about the future of classical music. I hear the same ones over and over, not surprisingly, and maybe soon I’ll even create an FAQ, and post it on my blog. One pattern that develops is even—with an affectionate, teasing look at some of the older people who argue with me—a little like a comedy routine. I go somewhere, and speak on the future of classical music, saying more or less the same things you’re reading here. Somebody from the mainstream classical audience, typically someone of an older generation, gets up to tell me I’m wrong (maybe even horribly wrong). This person then goes on to complain that there isn’t any younger audience. And then after the event is over, all the young people who’ve been at it crowd around me to tell me they agree with most of what I’m saying. The older people, in other words, tend not to like precisely the things that might help attract the younger audience they so strongly wish was there.

But here’s a common objection. Why, some people ask, do I want to dumb everything down?

I don’t, of course, That’s not what I’m about at all. I’m not going to say that dumb things haven’t been done in the name of making classical music more accessible, but I trust that I haven’t done them. My taste in classical music is—as anyone who knows my writing should understand—really pretty highbrow. (Well, yes, I love Italian opera, but I love wistfully difficult Webern pieces, too.) If anything, I’d like to get more people to share my highbrow tastes, instead of throwing them away to make classical music blindly popular. (Which is why I programmed Webern and John Cage in the concert series aimed at a new audience that I planned and hosted with the Pittsburgh Symphony.)

But that’s not the best answer to the question about dumbing down. I’d rather respond by posing two questions of my own. First, what’s so smart about the way classical music is presented now? And, second, why do so many insiders worry that classical music might be getting dumb? Why do they make such a fetish about how brainy classical music supposedly is?

I’ll consider the second question first. Clearly people feel—and I’m sure they feel this especially strongly in an age when classical music seems to be threatened—that high intelligence is something that sets classical music apart. It’s as if they’re saying, well, popular culture may be popular; it might make tons of money; but classical music is deeply thoughtful and profound.

This, of course, is a strikingly self-serving thing to think. (It also encourages—or maybe even requires—those who believe in it to imagine that all of popular culture is dumb, which is not only wrong, but, in the current climate even a bit suicidal, as I’ve said, because any trace of this belief will drive away the younger audience we keep saying we want to attract.) But this line of thought also, at least for me, reflects a very limited notion of what art and life are about. Does everything we do have to be profound? It also reflects a limited understanding of classical music’s history, since in the past the composers we now revere as deep classical masters in fact created all kinds of music, including some works that were meant to be nothing but pure entertainment. How, in our time, did all of that evolve into being profound?

And when we say that classical music is deeply intelligent, what kind of intelligence are we talking about? One way to answer that is to look at my other question: What’s so smart about the way we present classical music now? Answer: our current presentation isn’t smart at all. That’s true for many reasons, including these (I know I’m repeating some things I’ve said in earlier episodes):

  • Musicians dress up in formal clothes, which really say more about the social class that used to support classical music than they do about the true nature of classical music today.
  • We often enough put pieces that don’t fit together on our concert programs, just to make the concert long enough to fill out an evening.
  • Opera productions are pretty feeble as theater, especially if you compare them to movies, Broadway shows, or TV. And most likely they’ll always be feeble, because there’s no reason to believe that someone who, first, happens to have an operatic voice, and, second, learns how to use it, can also develop professional skill as an actor.
  • We perform the same old pieces over and over.
  • We marginalize the music of the present day.
  • We ignore the real meaning that classical works from the past had when they were new. That’s especially true for pieces written at a time when composers expected performers to improvise changes on the written musical text, and also expected the audience to react by clapping or cheering, not just at the end of a piece, but even in the middle of the music.

So what does our present style of performance really do? It acts out a pantomime of profundity and intelligence. With silence and formal dress, we put a frame around the music, a frame that says, “Something very important is happening here.” (Or, to quote Gilbert and Sullivan: “Bow, bow, ye lower middle classes.”)

And along with that comes a hierarchy—very familiar, even almost second nature serious classical music people—of classical music values. What’s most important, according to this hierarchy, is the music, or in other words the masterworks that great composers create. Performers are only important because they serve this music. Or, to put this way it’s most often put, the job of a performer is to realize the composer’s intentions.

And the most important thing about these masterworks is their structure—defined purely in musical terms, as an arrangement of musical ideas, not (God forbid!) as anything so cheap as a narrative, or a parade of emotional states. Which means that now we have to pretend that the composers’ main intention was to create these structures. (A complex question, really, as I can very pointedly appreciate, since I’m a composer myself, and I love to create musical structures. As did many of the great composers of the past. But I’d never think that these structures were the purpose of my music, any more than my body’s biochemistry is the purpose of my life.)

Because of all these profound and important things, classical music—according to this way of thinking about it—has to be played with great seriousness. (Which of course then proves that it’s better than popular music, which has to be defined, from this point of view, as nothing but pure entertainment.) It also follows that greatly serious performances—sober and restrained—have to be better than exuberant ones. And also that the highest praise you can give any performance is that it reveals the music’s all-important structure.

If you know classical music well, you know how much prestige these ideas have. They’re classical music’s religion. But if anyone thinks that they demonstrate classical music’s intelligence, my response would be that they plainly value one kind of intelligence more than any other. They value what I might call “idea intelligence,” placing it far above emotional or practical intelligence. They value mind intelligence more than body intelligence; they create, as I’ve said, a very strong hierarchy, one that plainly stands very far from much of what our culture has learned in recent decades.

Which gives us one more reason why classical music is having trouble. The classical music world accepts—and in fact tries to enforce—a set of values that’s very far from what most intelligent people believe today. And if you try to change things—if you want musicians to talk to the audience, if you want the audience to ask questions, if you want musicians to improvise changes in what the great composers wrote—then you’re breaking the pantomime of profundity, and therefore you’re dumbing the music down.

***

And now some concluding remarks, which should bring my own current improvisation (of the introduction to my book) to a close.

I myself am a creature of the old classical music world. Clearly I have trouble with its values. But I don’t have trouble with the music, which I love just about to distraction. Especially—and I don’t care how ironic this sounds, after what I’ve just written—I love its inner details, its structure, the way it’s constructed. For a project I’m working on, I’ve had to study the full orchestral score of Verdi’s opera Falstaff. I work through it with unending delight, drinking in subtleties, like the way (in the first scene) that Verdi detaches the piccolo from its usual role at the high sparkly end of the woodwinds, and instead bringing it right into the heart of the orchestra, creating wistful sonorities that bring almost a touch of sadness into Verdi’s comedy.

On the day I’m writing this, my review of a new Stravinsky biography appeared in The New York Times Book Review. I began it by talking about something in a Stravinsky piece I love, the Concerto in D. At the start of the second movement, the violins play a gorgeous, almost soupy melody. The cellos also play it, starting an octave lower than the violins, but then changing places with the violins on each successive note, “continuing this dizzy do-si-do [as I wrote in the review] until the first part of the melody is finished.

“This is crazy [I went on]. It's also elegant. It also might be mannered. But in the end, it's just delirious…” My heart leaps when I see things like this in a musical score. And my own music is full of things that made my heart leap—or which made me grin like a fool—when I wrote them. In one unfinished opera, I got the crazy idea of taking the music from a scene in the first act and using it again, verbatim, in a very different scene in the second act. No, that’s not quite right—the music from the first act becomes the entire scene from the second act, with one difference. In the first act, singers sing all the melodies you hear, and in the second act, they’re played by the orchestra. Meanwhile, over these first-act melodies, I wrote two completely new strands of music, representing two duets, for two pairs of singers, which go on simultaneously, while the melodies from the first act play in their accompaniment. This, too, is a little crazy, since it all has to sound completely natural, as if it putting it all together wasn’t a wildly difficult technical trick. But I loved doing it.

The day after I write this, I’m going to meet with a string quartet—a really good and well-known one—that’s going to premiere a piece of mine. This is a long piece, 28 minutes, and at its climax, it falls completely silent. In the score, I tell the players that the length of this silence is up to them, but that they should resist all temptation to make it short. And in fact I want it to last (or I think I do; I’ll have to see how it feels when I hear the music played) for at least a minute. In one way, this is an affectionate joke. The piece is a set of variations (on the theme of the last movement of Mahler’s Third Symphony). Many of the variations are tributes to great composers of the past. The silence is my tribute to John Cage, who of course is especially famous (or is it notorious?) for his piece 4’33”, which is completely silent.

But my silence means much more than that. I feel it, somehow, as the preparation for the ending of the piece, not really a pause, but something like a gathering of strength, or maybe a grounding of the long and varied flow of all the music heard up to that point, out of which the final variation emerges out of nothing, beginning as a sound that’s just a step away from silence.

And this helps explain why I love classical music, quite apart from its great historical value and the beauty, strength, and detail of all the musical works that so delight me. I love the way classical music can massage the passing of time, the way it can create patterns of ebb and flow, the way a classical work is built from many parts, each with its own evolving role to play, and its own relationship, always changing, with all the other parts. Or, to be more simple about it, the way classical music can create structures that develop over time. This, of course, goes hand in hand with the development of any narrative or feeling in the piece. The musical structure is the narrative structure; it is the emotional structure; it’s not the meaning of the piece, but it makes the meaning possible. No other kind of music works quite this way, and to lose it, if classical music should disappear, would be an incalculable loss.

 

Some other thoughts. I’m not the only one who’s challenging the way the classical music world thinks and operates. I owe a lot to many people, who’ve evolved their own thinking at the same time I’ve evolved mine, allowing me to take comfort and ideas from what they’ve come up with. I know that in some cases I’ve also influenced them.

Among these people are the so-called “new musicologists,” most notably Susan McClary, whom I’ve called a friend for more than 20 years. These fabulously lively scholars have brought current cultural thinking—feminism, gender theory, and much more, including a sharp understanding of popular culture—into the study of classical music. They’ve also attacked, much more sharply than I’d know how to do, the idea that classical masterworks exist, in the last analysis, as autonomous musical structures, speaking only a musical language, which in its own final analysis has nothing to do with the outside world. (See, for instance, Susan’s book Conventional Wisdom. This is a far more sophisticated version of what I mean when I say that classical orthodoxy says the most important thing about a piece of classical music is its structure.)

And then there’s Christopher Small, whom I hope to meet one day, who in three unforgettable books (Music of the Common Tongue, Musicking, and Music, Society, Education) has written the best criticism I’ve ever seen of classical music’s current idea of seriousness. He shows, among much else, how rooted this is in many uncomfortable things about Western culture, and contrasts it very joyfully both with other musical cultures, and with the way the music we now call classical functioned in the past.

I admire Alex Ross, the music critic for The New Yorker, who’s a far more lively writer than I am, and can evoke a vision of classical music’s future that seems a lot more vivid than mine, in part because he doesn’t go through all the cumbersome steps of showing, in painful detail, as I can’t stop doing, why the way we do things now is unsupportable.

I’ll give a shout to Joseph Horowitz, whom I’ve also known for many years (but who probably isn’t talking to me any more after my review of his last book in The New York Times). He boldly decrees that classical music is actually over, and that we live in what he calls the post-classical age, an idea that’s as useful as it is provocative. I do think, though, that his own way of operating (especially in the festivals he’s created for a few orchestras) tends to replicate the top-down ways in which the orthodox classical music world functions, and which we have to get away from.

And I’m even grateful to Julian Johnson, whose book Who Needs Classical Music? completely endorses everything about classical music that I most strongly criticize, and whose ideas about pop music—essentially that it’s stupid, cheap, and worthless—are, in the rare places where he deigns to ground them in any kind of data, demonstrably wrong, and elsewhere, when he doesn’t search for any facts to back up what he says, but simply makes pronouncements ex cathedra, are just irresponsible to an almost laughable degree. But at least he wrote his book, which as far as I know is the only full-length defense of classical music published in our time. And it’s always useful to have someone summarizing, so thoroughly and so very seriously, what the opposition thinks.

My book, I think, stands apart from everything I’ve cited here in one important way. I’m the only one, as far as I know, who tries to weave conceptual considerations into more practical discussions of how the classical music business works. The difficulties that classical music now is having thus become reasons why the classical music world will have to change. And at the same time, the artistic, cultural, and human problems that the classical music world so obviously has can help explain why the classical music business is so badly tanking. Plus I try to offer solutions. So I hope my book might be especially useful for everyone who wants to figure out what to do about the classical music crisis.

Which leads me to the final group of people I’m indebted to—all the people in the classical music world who’ve e-mailed me, talked to me, worked with me, hired me, argued with me, encouraged me, given me ideas and information, leaked secrets to me, showed me where I’m wrong, and taught me to understand arcane details of the business that I’d never have grasped on my own. And, not least, actually gone out and made changes! From those changes I begin to see the dim but still tangible outlines of the classical music world that’s going to be—which is to say that even the smallest change tried out in practice is worth a thousand of my speculative ideas, because only by trying things out can we see what’s going to work.

Through all these contacts I’ve also learned something that’s dramatically hopeful—that the classical music world is honeycombed with people who think things need to change. I find these people everywhere. They’re conductors, soloists, orchestral musicians, singers, administrators, scholars, marketing directors, critics, music students, funders, consultants, publicists, members of the audience, people in service organizations like the American Symphony Orchestra League, members of prestigious boards of directors, amateur musicians, recording company executives, radio broadcasters, people who run music schools—they’re everywhere. Some are famous names that anyone in classical music would recognize; some work quietly in small cities in America and elsewhere, sometimes doing more for change than some of the famous names.

Soon enough, I’m willing to believe, we’ll see a tipping point, and then these people will all at once emerge as the dominant force in classical music. And then we’ll really see some changes. To all these people, with gratitude for everything they do, this book is dedicated. Many of them have flattered me by saying I’m invaluable, but I want to turn that compliment around: If people all over the classical music world weren’t working for change, than nothing I do would mean a thing. I’m grateful to each and every one of them.

And now I’ve finished my improvisation of the introduction to this book. The next episode, according to my normal every-other-week schedule, should appear on May 15. But I may decide to delay a week or two, just to take some deep breaths and plan where I’m going. I’ll notify subscribers as soon as I’ve decided what I’ll do. And I’ll also post my plans in my blog, so look for them there if you’re not a subscriber and want to know what’s going to happen.

The next section of the book will be about the quantifiable problems of classical music—the aging audience, the decline of ticket sales, and much, much more. Because I don't yet have all the data I need, this may be more tentative than anything I've written so far in this book. In some places I may only be able to write an outline, a description of future research. Still, this should be the most complete collection of data about the state of classical music that's presently available.

If you'd like to become a subscriber—which above all means you’ll be notified by e-mail when new episodes appear—just click here. Subscribers help me; I feel wonderfully encouraged each time somebody new asks to be put on my subscription list. And feel free to add a note to your e-mail. I’m always curious about who’s subscribing, and why you’re all interested. That often leads to an e-mail exchange, and often enough to some sharing of ideas (from which I learn a lot). Or let me put it this way: Even if you don’t work in the classical music business, you become part of the network of people I’ve just described. In the future, I may offer special goodies to subscribers—segments I haven’t published online, revisions of online episodes, the book proposal I’ll eventually send to a publisher, other things I can’t quite imagine yet.

Please comment on the book, too. Below you’ll see where you can post comments, which can either appear with your name attached, or anonymously. Anyone who posts a comment of course also becomes part of the network I’m so happy about. The comments have helped me enormously.

My privacy policy: I’ll never share my subscriber list with anyone, for any reason. I send all e-mail to my list myself, without routing it through anyone at ArtsJournal. And I send all e-mail with the names of the recipients hidden. All subscribers have their privacy protected at all times. Further: if you e-mail me about the book, I’ll consider your e-mail private. I won’t quote it in any public forum without your permission. Comments you post here, though, of course appear in a public forum, and thus can be freely quoted by me or by anyone else who reads them.

Posted by gsandow on May 1, 2006 2:25 AM

COMMENTS

Hi Greg

I obviously can’t speak for others, but from my own point of view, my concern with some (and only some) of your ideas, is not that you advocate the dumbing-down of classical music, but that you don’t give sufficient recognition to the fact that our dumbed down society creates many of the problems now facing classical music. Your suggestions and solutions seem to propose a realignment of the classical music brand to appeal to contemporary popular tastes that require nothing more than – and to a large extent depend on passivity. We increasingly pass our leisure with whatever gives least bother and few of us waste our time trying to convince others that active participation in the arts is actually extremely rewarding.


I’d like to draw your attention to an excellent, if complex article by Chadwick Jenkins, in which he points out that,
“… involvement is the price of desire that I am willing to pay; indeed the payment, the exertion figures into the very nature of the desire itself and becomes the essential substrate of my enjoyment. But too often we are concerned only with "receiving pleasure".


A few months ago I saw Peter Seller’s new production of Tristan und Isolde at the Paris Opera. The performance focused attention, not on the stage and the performers, but on a giant screen suspended above the stage where a video installation by Bill Viola accompanied the entire opera. The imagery and narrative pacing of this extraordinary video were stunningly beautiful, but for me at least, it was an unsettling experience because the essential passivity of film viewing contrasted awkwardly with the active involvement that theatre and opera demand.


You don’t need to be a stuffy intellectual to appreciate good music – but you do need to engage in it actively.

Guthry, I'm grateful to you for bringing this up. It's an important question, which I guarantee I'm going to consider at some length in part three of my book (see the outline in the left-most column of the page).

But I must say that I disagree with you. I don't see many signs that popular culture makes people passive. Quite the rreverse, actually. I'll give some examples in a moment, but because this is such a hot-button topic -- and since you're hardly the only person holding the view you hold -- I'm curious to know what evidence you'd cite for what you believe. Have there been studies? Can we read the Wall Street Journal, or the business section of the New York times, and find marketing people talking happily about how passive the public is, and how easy it therefore is to sell things to people? Is there even any large body of anecdotal data, real-life stories about how passively pop culture is received?

Certainly there's evidence of all three kinds that seems to contradict what you're saying. And quite honestly, in my experience with these debates, what I usually run into are assertions, rather than any discussions based on solid facts. Or else assertions in effect footnoted to other assertions, which is to say that someone, to support what he or she is saying about the passivity of current culture, quotes a book which turns out to be nothing but assertions.

I have to admit I feel this way about the articile you linked to. The writer says:

"Indeed the (relatively) new sites of pleasure no longer seem to need us at all. Nearly all television sitcoms are thoroughly suffused with laugh tracks. The television laughs at its own jokes like the fellow at a party who drinks too much, fights with his wife, and is smugly self-assured that everyone there is an idiot aside from himself. Inasmuch as the viewer has any presence, it is wholly circumscribed — at least within the ecology of the sitcom itself. You are told when you think something is funny and you shall be mirthful. The latest Hollywood film tells you who is sympathetic, who is devilish, who is a hero, and which moment should bring tears. There is hardly any need (indeed, hardly any room) for you to bother thinking at all. Of course, one can always make room for critical distance but then that requires active (indeed self-aware) participation. And if we are to believe certain contemporary critical thinkers, that possibility is rapidly dissipating."

See what I mean? There's nothing here but an expression of opinion, with a vague citation of "certain contemporary critical thinkers" (who may have no more evidence than this writer has for what they think). The writer doesn't consider the possibility that pop culture phenomena might differ from each other, that some TV shows, for instance, might be smarter than other shows, or that the audience might also be made up of different groups, who may react quite critically to things they don't like.

As far as I know, the view of pop culture put forth here goes back to social critics like Theodor Adorno. Adorno (who began thinking about these things at least as far back as the 1920s) put forward the idea of a "culture industry," which imposed junky mass-market products on everybody. These products -- movies, popular music, rado shows, and in later years TV shows -- were supposed to be manufactured mainly to make a profit, and to be, in artistic terms, more or less indistinguishable from each other.

This kind of thinking then found sympathetic echoes after World War IIi, when TV became a mass phenomenon. We had people famously calling TV "a vast wasteland," and deploring almost everything that was telecast.

But meanwhile something had come along that upset the whole concept, and that was rock & roll. Here we had music that became vastly popular without being created by the mass-market culture industry. It attacked the pop charts from the outside, was widely considered to be an attack on all civilized values, and in fact was actively suppresed. (Unsuccessfully, of course.)

The people who hated it most were, as it happened, the people most invested in the older styles of pop music, which (whatever meaning one wants to read into this) really were marketed by a large music industry. Rock & roll, by contrast, was first recorded on very small record labels. (And it involved -- shock! -- black people, who didn't figure at all in any culture-industry power circles.)

As pop music evolved in the wake of rock & roll, we saw the rise of many different musical styles. Acid rock (and everything else in the '60s), the return to roots music like blues, folk music, heavy metal, the rise of singer-songwriters, punk, disco, death metal and grindcore, house music, techno, grunge, alternative rock, hiphop, and so much else. Almost every one of these styles arose outside the music industry, was (again) recorded at first on very small record labels, and generally left the marketing people in the music industry feeling helplessly behind the times, not quite able to keep up with current styles. Twice, at least, the pop record industry had to restaff itself, because its existing employees didn't know anything about the music that was becoming popular. That happened in the '60s, and again at the end of the '80s, when record labels had to hire a lot of kids straight out of college, because those kids were the only ones who knew about what we now call alternative rock. I watched this latter process happen, in the days when I was a rock critic.

I dwell on this history because I know a lot about it. And, by the way, I'd love to see evidence that I'm wrong, that all these musical styles in fact were created safely within the bosom of the established music industry. I'd especially love to see that argument made about punk! But of course similar things happened, though maybe not so quickly, in other areas of popular culture. By now, we commonly see alternative films and alternative TV shows, and even shows with an alternative sensibility created by big entertainment companies, who in the search of profit are now required to just about subvert their mainstream products, by putting on shows (like the fabulous kids' show on MTV, Wonder Showzen) that mock them.

Stephen Johnson, in his indispensable book about current popular culture, Everything Bad Is Good for You, has extensively docoumented the intelligence -- and, yes, the participatory nature -- of current pop culture. I'm going to make a strong statement. No responsible person should try to engage for very long in these discussions without reading what he has to say. And just look around! You see (and can read about) people having intensely critical reactions to pop culture, arguing fiercely about it, refusing to accept what's marketed to them. Just read any rock magazine -- Spin, Q, Mojo, Blender. Read Entertainment Weekly. Read the business section of the New York Times.

It turns out, in fact, that our present age probably has the least passive mass-market audience that has ever existed. People actively participate. They make their own music, make their own movies. Kids form bands, write their own songs. As I wrote a while ago in my blog, my wife's cousin, who's a Marine in his early 20s, came back from a tour of duty in Iraq with a DVD of films his unit had made about their expeirence. There was nothing exceptional about this. Anyone with a video camera and a computer could do it, and plenty of people do.

People make mashups -- collages of music and video, in which all sorts of things are cut, smashed, dissolved, and reconstituted pasted on top of each other, in a completely new form. After Brokeback Mountain came out, there was the very famous rage for creating mashups of old movies, taking scenes from movies of the past and rediting them, or adding new dialogue, or simply playing them straight but with a new understanding, finding gay subtexts that no one had noticed before. This is passive?

A reading of the Times business section will bring stories of companies who worry that, in this new critical, participatory age, people are going to laugh at their commercials. So they're now asking all of us to send in commercials that we make ourselves. These are being shown on company websites -- in one case, at least, even when they make fun of the product. The company in question (sorry, I've forgotten which; I think it was one of the American car companies) thought it was more important to honor the invitation they'd extended -- and to endorse the creative, participatory spirit that's running through popular culture -- than to sanitize the result.

None of which is to say that we're living in a utopia, or that commercial manipulation doesn't exist, or that public taste (or some strands of public taste) can't be corrupted. There's obviously a lot of junk out there. Which is exactly where a lot of the phenomena i'm talking about start -- they're protests against the junk, against everything the writer Guthry linked to is upset about.

I don't ask everybody to like popular culture, or pop music. But at least let's recognize what's really going on in it.

Posted by: Guthry Trojan at May 1, 2006 6:33 AM

The following comes from a violinist who’d prefer not to be identified:

I'd like to comment on the idea of changing the dress. What does this have to do with music? Shouldn't we be concentrating on "deeper" issues?

NO! Anyone who has ever attended a classical music concert knows how utterly visual the event is. Anyone who has ever performed has received comments on what the listener SAW. Ever since I was a fledgling orchestra member I have fought against the dress code. My skirt has been measured (from the floor to the hem) by the personnel manager to make sure it is within the guidelines of the master agreement. I have been in several orchestras since, and each with its own set of rules. One of the greatest orchestras in one of the most fashion conscious cities in the world will not let its women wear trousers on stage, not only retaining the antiqued look of the orchestra, but of women themselves. Management is highly resistant to dress change (with the occasional exception during summer pops when they let the musicians wear cheap Hanes golf shirts with the symphony logo, how cool is that?). Even the musicians themselves, men and women alike will more likely opt for the status quo with the argument that any sort of "uniform" would not be suitable for all body types. What is the big fear about changing the way the orchestra looks?  Would a change be enough to drive a million dollar donor away? I just cannot imagine (although I'm sure they have been driven away by much less). Why not employ the services of a rising fashion designer to create several outfits for each gender and then let the musicians choose his or her own styles, fabric etc? The orchestra would not have to veer away from black, but could be fashionable and dare I say, hip? Imagine men in Nehru jackets and smartly cut shirts and women who didn't look like a mish mash of those going to a ball and those who are ready to step into the grocery store. Expense? I have a closet full of black clothing that has cost far more than a few well made, well designed "uniforms" would ever come to over a lifetime. And don't the men ever want to be free of the confines of those tails?

Posted by: Greg Sandow at May 1, 2006 11:03 PM

This introduction is indeed a towering edifice. It makes me wonder if you haven't written something more like a series of chapter summaries. What I have in mind is the form of a book I recently read called "A Universe of Consciousness" by neurologist Gerald Edelman - there are sections, section overviews with a couple of pages about the upcoming chapters in each section, and then each chapter has a page or so in italics giving a helicopter tour of the basic ideas before proceeding to the nitty gritty. Not suggested as a model to follow slavishly but that might be the direction the book is taking itself.

Relatedly, I find it interesting how your italic summaries contrast with your actual chapter sections. The summaries are organized in top-down fashion delivering clean and fairly proscriptive points. The text of each section itself is more dialectical, discursive, taking us through a series of associated thoughts to paint a situation. Both are, of course, aspects of music itself and I think that's why you want to include both styles! But, a format of summary followed by essay might be a successful for the scope and nature of what you want to write.

I had a couple of other thoughts. First, I think a FAQ is a promising idea and would be worth having not just here but maybe near the beginning of your book! It might help the reader. Second, I think the most difficult challenges you've set yourself are in the discussions of structure and meaning. In essence, it seems to me, you are going beyond the local issues and trying to create a model and maybe even a sketch of a method for such things as program notes and verbal communication with the audience. I think getting it right will require a sophisticated bit of critical and scholarly kung fu with a light touch, but it's an important thing to start getting straight! So I'm eager to see how it goes.

I'm looking forward to what comes next and hoping that your work can continue to be a rallying point for those of us interested in change.

Eric, I'm very flattered by what you wrote here, needless to say. Thanks. In one area, I'm going to have to disclaim any special intention, and that's the difference between the summaries and the epsiode texts. My natural writing style is discursive. That's why I'm so happy writing my blog. And in fact I've had to curb some of that to keep the book on track. The summaries are naturally less discursive simply because they're summaries. I had to go through my episodes and in effect pick out topic sentences. Otherwise the summaries wouldn't make any sense!

I certainly think you're right in pointing out the need of both kinds of writing. I've always disdained making outlines before I plunge in (and in fact I've long said that my favorite place to begin any piece of writing is not at the beginning, but right in the middle). But for the book I'm finding that I have to make them, because otherwise (as I think really was starting to happen in version 1.0) I'll end up writing 40,000 words of lively digressions before I realize I haven't stopped to make my most crucial points.

I think you're exactly right about the questions of structure you raise. You've nailed exactly my intention, which is to create a model of how I think classical music should be talked about. In fact it's more than my intention -- it's something anyone writing a book like this would be faced with. It's unavoidable. If you're going to say that classical music should be thought and written about and in general practiced (in all ways) differently, then your book has to be an example of what you're talking about. It really is a scary challenge....and I'd better not dwell on it too much, or else I'll get writer's block!

Posted by: Eric Barnhill at May 2, 2006 9:36 AM

One quick point comes to mind. In your discussion of the flaws in thinking about classical music (that's it's deep and intellectual and so on), I think you overstate the argument with little supporting evidence of the attitudes other than your own experience. But my point is that there's a different and very pragmatic argument as to why "art music" is worth saving - most of it that's heard today has lasted a long time, and that's something that a number of more "popular" forms cannot say (or at least cannot say to the same extent).

Beethoven symphonies - the damned things were written 200 years ago and they're still around! Not to mention the St. Matthew Passion, Dowland lute songs and (mandatory because of the The Anniversary, I suppose) Mozart. Why?

In other words, much of the introduction goes at the questions of "how" - how to promote, how to program, how to perform - but there's not much that I recall that tried to come to grips with "why?". What is it that's worth preserving? What combination of musical qualities and "societal attitudes" make it so much easier to get people out to Mozart rather than Shostakovich (to stay with the "anniversary" theme)?

I have little idea what the answers are, by the way. I have 2 daughters, one of whom is a dancer (classical ballet). One listens to classical music for enjoyment, and it's not the dancer. Go figure ...

Good points. I'm certainly going to spend a lot of time on "why" in the final book. I hope I got into at least some of it in my current episode, but there's room -- and the need -- for much more.
And I do need to cite evidence for the attitudes I criticize, beyond my own assertions. Here I have to pinch myself, sometimes, to remember this, since classical music professionals (along with music students) all know the mindsets I'm talking about. This comes under the heading of, sigh, research. That is, I have to take some time to find really cogent examples. As I write these episodes on the fly, I confess to sometimes skipping this step. But it has to be done for the final book.

Posted by: Scott Belyea at May 5, 2006 11:49 AM

Hi again Greg

Sorry for such a long delay in replying to your prompt response to my last comment.



I wasn’t suggesting that popular culture makes people passive: nor that classical music is superior to pop. Indeed, I agree with much of what you say – it’s perfectly obvious that plenty of people are intelligently engaged in popular culture. However, it should not be assumed (no matter how well researched and documented your evidence is) that these people are representative of the majority. The fact that some people are sufficiently interested to engage intellectually in popular art forms does not prove that the forms themselves require, demand, or encourage active engagement. On the contrary, it seems to me self-evident that something with broad popular appeal is, by definition, neither difficult nor demanding: that’s the nature of popularity surely? And that’s why classical music and other high art forms are unlikely ever to be popular in the broadest sense. That, for me at least, is nothing more than a statement of the obvious. But sure – it’s just my opinion.



My intention was to question the validity of attempting to broaden classical music’s appeal by tinkering with its peripherals. To support my assertion I sited my own experience at the Paris Opera where Bill Viola’s film accompanied the entire production of Tristan. I don’t imagine for a moment that this was a cynical marketing technique, but I feel sure that it was commissioned and conceived with an acute awareness of the essential popularity of the medium of film, which in my humble opinion is essentially passive.



If I wrote a book about all this, I too would collate a body of evidence – but as it’s you whose writing the book, I’ve only a small amount of time and my opinion to offer. Sorry!

Hi, Guthry,

I'm sorry if I came down too hard on you in my earlier reply. I get carried away in these debates, sometimes.

A friend of mine makes a compelling argument that mass culture doesn't exist any more. Almost everything in what's called "popular culture" is some niche or other. But whether that's true or not, popular culture is a big arena, and the presentation technques (if that's the term) it uses can be very varied, and don't imply that whatever they're applied to has to be some mass-market affair.

Here's a useful term, invented years ago by a leading rock critic: "semipopular music." He uses this to mean music that's created in popular styles, but has some twist in it that makes it more sophisticated, and hence less popular, even though it still might have quite a large audience..We could apply that to all of popular culture. "The Sopranos" would be a good example. It's very serious, and even if it doesn't get the ratings of the Superbowl, a lot of people see it.

About the Tristan production. As it happens, I know someone who was intimately involved in putting it together, or rather in putting together the earlier LA Philharmonic Tristan performance with the same video. What they mostly thought about was that Bill Viola, who did the video, was a serious Los Angeles video artist. They seemed to approach the concept only from the point of view of art. And for whatever it's worth, most of the commentary I've heard has raved about how well the video flowed with the music.

Beyond that, though, maybe you could tell me more about why you think film makes people passive. I have to admit that I don't think of it that way, and quite honestly I don't think I've ever come across this idea before. Speaking only for myself, I really love film, and when I come out of a movie, I usually can't stop talking about what I've seen, which as far as I can see is a very common reaction, shared by my wife, my friends, just about everyone I know. When I was an editor at Entertainment Weekly, we covered film extensively in the magazine, and there wasn't even the remotest sign that our readers were passive about it. They were wildly opinionated.

And certainly this isn't the first time film has been used so extensively in an opera production. I remember my parents taking me to see a Czech production of Tales of Hoffman that used film from beginning to end. In fact, that was why the production was brought to New York. The film was considered an exciting innovation, not because it brought in elements of popular culture (nobody thought of such things in the '50s), but just because it seemed new and beautiful. The company was called Laterna Magika, if I remember correctly, and in the '50s it was a sensation, taken very seriously by serious people.

In the ''70s (I think this is the right decade), Frank Corsaro staged his famous production of Janacek's Makropoulos Case (hope I'm spelling that right) at the New York City Opera, with extensive use of film, and once more it caused a sensation. With nobody saying the use of film would make anyone passive. The film was considered extremely involving, something that heightened the music and the drama. All of which makes me puzzled. Since film in opera is nothing really new, even used as extensively as that Tristan produciton used it, why should it now have the dreadful effect that you describe?

Posted by: Guthry Trojan at May 12, 2006 10:11 AM

My mistake Greg - I've not explained what I mean by the term 'passive'. I hadn’t intended to imbue it with pejorative connotations [at least, not insofar as it concerns film]: I used it only to distinguish it from the ‘active’. I was making no criticism of the genre of film – of which I too am a great lover: not even the Bill Viola film that accompanied Tristan which was, as I think I said in my first posting, stunningly beautiful and clearly a work of art in its own right.


The distinction I was trying to make is that films are complete, finished products whose success does not necessarily depend on the participation of an audience. Each person is of course free to understand something slightly different from the film, which at best, works on a number of different artistic levels but the method of its construction means that it necessarily presents a single perspective [that chosen by the director]. The focus, close-ups, camera angle, sound etc go toward prescribing the viewpoint: that’s the craft of cinematography! I'm not saying that film renders people passive, only that it is a passive medium.


Theatre, on the other hand, together with opera and classical music does not impose a viewpoint in quite the same way, but depends more on the active participation of its audience. Most audience members are relatively distant from the stage and notwithstanding the actor’s efforts to project and to direct the audience’s attention, each person must make some effort if they are to bridge the physical divide and actively engage in the production.


My comments were aimed at questioning the advisability and efficacy of trying to broaden the appeal of classical music to an audience who I believe to be less and less able or willing to engage actively in the arts. [You may also remember a previous posting in which I made a similar claim concerning what I believe to be a diminishing ability to listen to and engage with acoustic music]


I imagine that now you’ll want to know what evidence I have for such an assertion - but that’ll have to wait I’m afraid.

Guthry, thanks for the eloquent clarification. I honestly don't know if I see this the way you do. Beethoven and Wagner seem pretty strong in imposing their way of seeing things, and most of my favorite films allow many interpretations. But then ultimately we'd need to know, in actual fact, how people react. Which art allows the most room for individual interpretation, which the least? Might be pretty hard to determine, since (1) how we define these terms is tricky (2) how we measure peoples' reaciton is tricky also, and (3) how we pick what people we're going to study might be trickiest of all. There's bound to be quite a selection effect. (Just as, for instance, we could "prove" that the fine distinctions wine connoisseurs care about don't really exist, simply by measuring the reactions of people who don't know much about wine.)

But this is a fascinating question even so, and I'd love to find some objective data. Thanks so much, Guthry, for your calm and reasonable and (once more) eloquent discussion of all these points. I'm sorry if I misunderstood you.

Posted by: Guthry Trojan at May 13, 2006 7:05 AM



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