Plague

A while ago, I heard someone give a keynote speech about classical music, and why it deserves a bigger audience. He was lively, smart, impassioned, witty, a master (among much else) of unstoppable one-liners.

And yet nearly everything he said was wrong. He talked about the superiority of classical music, and about how much our culture needs it. “Everything else is loud!” he said (or words to that effect). We’re mezzo-forte music in a fortissimo culture.” Only classical music, he said, gave people room for thought and reflection.

Which of course isn’t true. On my flight to the event this speech was part of, I’d been listening to Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, a famously quiet pop album from 1982, full of thoughtful reflections on the darkness in American culture. I’d been comparing the album versions of the songs with Springsteen’s live performances, recorded on the Live 1975-1985 3-CD set; I loved how he pumped the songs up to make them work in huge arenas with his full band (instead of just the acoustic guitar and harmonica that he mostly uses on the album), but still found a way to let the quiet through.

And now this keynote dingbat tells me that there aren’t any quiet pop songs. (Of course there are countless examples.) But then this is a mistake people in our field make all the time. No, wait, change that—it’s especially a mistake that older people in our field make. I don’t mean to disparage older people (I’m 62 myself), but there’s a cultural divide, at least in classical music, between people who think classical music inhabits a superior plane, and people who can accept that it’s part of our modern world, and this divide is partly defined by age. I’ve noticed the age divide in reactions to what I say, when I speak in public. Older classical music fans tend to object that popular culture is terrible; younger classical music fans inhabit popular culture just like everybody else in our society; they know that lots of it is smart, honest, and intriguing.

So some of the older (or more conservative) classical music say some ridiculous things. Younger people have no attention span. They have no curiosity. Pop songs are famous for 15 minutes, and then are completely forgotten (as if oldies stations hadn’t been on the air for decades, as if pop hadn’t developed its own connoisseur and collector culture, as if people of all ages don’t listen to the Beatles).

And then at the same time they say we have to attract a younger audience. So how can we do that? Hey, I have an idea! Let’s attack the people we’re trying to attract! Let’s tell them that they have no culture, that their music sucks, that they can’t pay attention to anything for more than 15 minutes, that classical music is far superior to anything they currently understand, and that we’ll have to educate them before they can enter our tranquil, lofty world.

Or put it this way: Let’s make tell our prospective audience that we’re arrogant and smug, that we don’t understand the people we’re trying to reach, and that in fact we don’t know much about the world we’re living in.

Now there’s a recipe for success…

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