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June 20, 2007

Worlds, real and otherwise

by Greg Sandow

To clarify, if necessary, what I meant by the "real world":

I'm not talking about which subculture, or collection of subcultures, is intrinsically more valid (whatever that would mean). I'm talking about the evident fact that there's a culture shared by the majority of young, educated people in which the canonical arts (and especially classical music) play very little part. "Young," in this context, might mean everybody under 50.

One quick demonstration of why this fact is evident: many, many conversations with young classical musicians, either in my work with orchestras or my 10 years of teaching at Juilliard. Young classical musicians routinely say that their friends -- with whom they otherwise share a culture -- have no interest in classical music, don't go to classical concerts, and therefore don't understand what the young musicians do.

In what sense do these young musicians share a culture with their friends? A vignette: Last year, I'm teaching my Juilliard graduate course about the future of classical music. One student comes early to class, and sits there intent on his iPod. This student, in previous weeks, had argued forcefully that classical music is better than pop (more complex, more involving), something he'd done, I want to stress, with my encouragement. In fact, I'd asked him to develop his view in class at whatever length he chose.

When he took off his headphones, I asked him what he'd been listening to. "Sufjan Stevens," he said. Stevens is a singer-songwriter who's embarked on a long project, to record albums about each of the states. Complex, subtle music and lyrics, exactly the kind of thing that never gets near the pop charts, appeals to educated younger people, and in some ways is more like new classical music than any mass-appeal pop. I said I had Stevens' Illinois album on my own iPod, and Nick started talking with great enthusiasm about the differences between this and Stevens' other work.

Sufjan Stevens is part of a culture this student shares with his friends outside classical music. He also obviously has a classical music culture, which he's passionate about. I'm sure he'd trade Stevens for Mahler, if he had to make the choice. But he can't talk to his friends about classical music.


A historical example. If you study classical music history, one of the high points in the early 1960s is going to be Boulez's work in Paris. This will be taught with lots of emphasis on the structure of Boulez's music, with reference to serialism and the reasons Boulez and others moved beyond it. Nothing will be said, in any exposition of this that I've ever seen or heard of, about who listened to this music -- who Boulez's audience was, and what kind of culture they represented.

It took Philip Glass, in an interview I once read, to state the obvious. Boulez had no audience to speak of, Glass said. He'd lived in Paris at the time, and the art that smart younger people cared about was film -- Godard, for instance. Godard, of course, was quite an avant-garde artist back then, which didn't stop his films from having a sizeable art-house audience, both in France and the US. What Philip said made immediate sense to me, because his experience was my own. I was in college in the early '60s, and Boulez even spent a semester in residence at the university I went to. But he drew little attention from most of the advanced artistic and intellectual people at the school. Whereas the art films of the era -- Antonioni, Godard, Truffaut, Bergman, Fellini -- they drew reasonable crowds. This was the stuff people talked about. Boulez, comparatively, was off in a corner.

Which doesn't mean Boulez was inferior! Just that he didn't play much part in the larger developments in the advanced culture of his early years. He did cultivate a following among wealthy patrons of the arts. And, of course, he became a central figure in the mainstream classical world, which of course didn't hurt his clout as a composer. But certainly -- if you look at the explosion of French thought and culture in the late '50s and early '60s, leading up, perhaps, to the student and worker revolt of 1968 -- Boulez played no large part in that, outside the classical music world. (One irony, to me, is that Boulez has often said that a new musical language -- his, for instance -- was necessary in order to express the new emotions of a new era. But what were those emotions? I don't think he's ever explained that, and I doubt that even experts on his music could say what these are, or how his music expresses them. Godard, on the other hand, made films in which his characters deal explicitly with the new emotions, morality, philosophy, and politics of those years -- and he did that by using a new film language, which on one hand throws the discussion of these things right in the face of his audience, and on the other keeps the discussion open-ended and subtle.)


When I talked about the "real world" now, I might mean a world of people who, like me, watched The Sopranos faithfully on TV, were deeply moved by Bob Dylan's 2006 album Modern Times, get deeply absorbed by any new Almodovar film, and could have been hooked in 30 seconds if they'd been driving late at night and by chance tuned in (as I did) to a live Bjork concert, broadcast on New York's public radio station.

I'm in that world. I can talk about some or all these things with most of the people I meet. But I can't as easily talk about my classical music joys -- most recently, for instance, my love for the DVDs of the complete Mozart opera series staged at the Salzburg Festival last summer. (That's 22 DVDs. I watched at least part of nearly all of them.) If I'm going to talk about that Mozart series to many people I know, it'll be a monologue. If I'm talking about Bjork or The Sopranos, it's a dialogue.

We in classical music badly need to know what the Bjork/Dylan/Sopranos/Almodovar audience thinks about classical concerts. Note that I'm not saying classical concerts are, in themselves, bad or good, as presently presented. Even I don't care for them (along, I might add, with many younger classical musicians), that's not an absolute value judgment. Just a personal preference. And in any case I've spent most of my professional life in the classical music world, and gotten a world of joy out of it.

In its most basic form, this is a matter of numbers. The mainstream classical music world isn't sustaining itself. The alternative classical music world (string quartets in clubs, Bang on a Can, all the things Molly goes to) has never sustained itself. Financially, I mean. These worlds, to sustain themselves, will need more audience. The potential audience is, as far as anyone can see, made up of people with -- generally speaking -- the culture I've described. So their cultural preferences, and how these differ from the culture classical music offers, are something it's crucial for classical music people to understand, if classical music is going to survive.

Posted by gsandow at June 20, 2007 10:27 AM


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