Open the gates

There’s a lesson for classical music — and especially big classical music institutions — in the Arts section of today’s New York Times. One of the lead stories (by Julie Salamon, whose byline is always worth looking for) is about Warhammer, a cult wargame played with intricately hand-painted toy soldiers. There was a Warhammer tournament in the visitors’ plaza at NASA’s Space Center in Houston.

And why there? Listen to Mike Wampler, the sales manager at NASA’s Space Center:

Sixty percent of our visitors weren’t born when NASA accomplished the man on the moon. I want our guests to leave saying, “That’s one of the coolest places we’ve ever been.” You have to do Warhammer events; you have to do Purina dog events. These are the links to the future.

Can’t orchestras and opera companies think this way? What events could they have in their own halls?

I’m reminded here of something my friend Elizabeth Streb said, when I was on a panel with her at the annual presenters’ conference in New York last month. Elizabeth started as a choreographer; now her name for what she does with her company is POPACTION, because it’s so intensely physical, and because it’s aimed at the widest possible audience. Her people throw themselves through the air, hurl their bodies through panes of glass. On the panel, Elizabeth said she’d learned her company could sell anything — meaning not any kind of performance, but anything at all. Why limit yourself to selling your performances, and a limited collection of related items that you stock in your gift shop?

There’s also a lesson in the recent history of Krispy Kreme. These, many people would agree, are the best donuts in America. (Or doughnuts, to use Krispy Kreme’s preferred spelling.) In fact, Krispy Kreme is almost a cult.

So when the chain expanded from the south into the northeast, anybody would have predicted huge success. When the first store opened in New York, late in the ’90s, there was massive publicity. I myself was on line for the opening.

And what happened? Krispy Kreme has taken a nosedive! To me, they made Dunkin’ Donuts seem ordinary, but Dunkin’ Donuts makes much more money. Why? Because they sell more than donuts, a little detail Krispy Kreme apparently never thought of. The northern expansion, as I understand this, was quite expensive; the new stores never sold enough donuts to pay for it. Dunkin’ Donuts, with its strategy of selling breakfast, bagels, and muffins, and with its branded coffee, does a lot better. How do we know orchestras aren’t like Krispy Kreme — with high-status and a kind of cult audience, but without much chance to pay the bills unless they diversify? (Into, for instance, other kinds of classical performances, and even non-classical music. And even non-musical events.)

Finally, I think there’s a lesson in The Gates, the triumphant Jeanne-Claude and Christo piece in New York’s Central Park. (And yes, it’s a triumph, no matter how many people go around asking, “Is it art?” So many people find it exhilarating that it doesn’t matter if others don’t like it.) The Gates is an installation — saffron fabric hanging over all the many pathways in the park.

What could an orchestra or opera company do to get as much attention, and have an equal triumph? This is worth thinking about, even if you couldn’t match the clout, joy, and publicity that all came naturally to Jeanne-Claude and Christo. What if an orchestra had small groups of its musicians playing all over town, in public places, even on the street, for an entire weekend? Or every Saturday for a month. Or for an entire week.

And there’s sound art — sonic installations that can be set up anywhere. Max Neuhaus is one of the leading sound artists. His current installation is “Suspended Sound Live,” set up on a footbridge in Berne, Switzerland:

Because it is outside, because it is so seamlessly integrated into the sounds of the city, of the neighborhood, one wonders where the sound is coming from. It is a part of the structure; it is a “footbridge lined with sound,” as if the sound was another element of construction, like steel and concrete.

I remember a piece of his, set up in the ’70s, beneath a subway grating in Times Square in New York. You walked over the grating, and from under your feet came a metallic roar. You probably heard the roar before you got there, but it registered (just as Neuhaus says about the footbridge sound) as part of the noise of the city. The day the piece opened, I watched people walk over the grating. I asked one of them what he thought the sound was. He said, “That’s the power that keeps the subways alive!”

Why can’t orchestras set up sound installations?

And there’s a wonderful composer in New York named Phil Kline, who currently has a CD called Zippo Songs, haunting music that’s especially potent live (the sound has almost a physical presence in the concert hall). But he’s especially famous for “Unsilent Night,” which he’s presented yearly in New York since 1992. It’s

an outdoor ambient music piece for an INFINITE number of boom box tape players. It’s like a Christmas carolling party except that we don’t sing, but rather carry boom boxes, each playing a separate tape which is part of the piece. In effect, we become a city block long stereo system!

Strangely, I’ve never heard it (or, rather, been part of it), but I’ve been in another boombox piece Kline did, and it was lovely, both as sound and as an experience. I felt like I was part of a community, as I walked along the streets with the procession, the sound radiating all around us. And at the same time, I felt like I was part of the city.

Orchestras might think that Phil Kline, Max Neuhaus, and Jeanne-Claude and Christo have nothing to do with them, but they’d be wrong. All these things happen in the same world that orchestras inhabit, in the same cities. They touch the people orchestras would like to reach. These people hear about Phil Kline, and say, “Interesting!” They hear about The Gates, and say, “Wonderful!” They hear about an orchestra — assuming that ever happens — and they say, “Who cares?”

Orchestras need to show that they’re interesting, too. They need to connect to the world around them, and especially to new and fascinating art in the world around them. If they can’t do that, they’re dead. (And if they were constantly in contact with new kinds of art, what would that do to their programming, and even to the way they play?)

(Phil Kline, by the way, has presented “Unsilent Night” not just in New York, but in Atlanta, Tallahassee, Philadelphia, San Diego, San Francisco, Vancouver, Cleveland, and Middlesborough, England.)

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