Access points?

Lately I had the privilege of being in some workshops led by an admirable and charismatic consultant, somebody widely employed by arts organizations, including orchestras, to help them reach out to a wider audience. I know him, and I’m fond of him, but I’d never seen his work before, and I ended up with some questions about it. These don’t reflect on him; they’re more about the assumptions behind his work, assumptions that are shared widely in the classical music business.

This consultant works with the idea of “access points”—things about a work of art that let us build bridges to it from the things people already know about. This, parenthetically, is one of the most admirable things about the way this man works: He starts from the art itself, and says very strongly that any outreach approach that doesn’t do that isn’t going to work.

And he’s terrific at finding the access points. Pick a bodily function, he’ll say, to variously intrigued or embarrassed giggles in the group he’s working with. Then write down what this function feels like. Then use these feelings, and the function itself, as a metaphor for something in American life. Now imagine that this something has become gigantic, transforming, apocalyptic. Now imagine someone caught up in all this, and invent a monologue for that person to speak. Having done all this, the consultant (who used to be a professional actor, and evidently a strong one) speaks a monologue from a Sam Shepherd play, in which somebody, with marvelous zany verve, decries America for being too clean. What we need is tourista, he says; we need to get sick from our own water. Then we’d know what life is all about.

And then the more limited “we,” the we in the workshop, see how we were lead point by point through much of what lies behind the Sam Shepherd monologue. Certainly we appreciate Shepherd a lot more. If we might have had trouble with the faint scatology of the monologue, now at least we understand where it came from. The consultant also asks us to examine how we made our own metaphors, what imaginative process we used. That way we learn ways to draw on our imaginations even if at first we’re stuck.

Of course, you might ask why anybody needs access points to a Sam Shepherd monologue. Shepherd is a successful playwright. He has his audience; anyone who doesn’t care for him or doesn’t understand him doesn’t have to be in that audience. And the humor in the monologue doesn’t need any explanation. It’s not much different from a lot we find in (just for instance) South Park.

But classical music, people think, does need explanation. Certainly it needs a new audience. So that’s where this consultant’s work might really be helpful, and that’s why he was doing his workshop at a music gathering I was at. He had many ideas. He described, for instance, how he and others led a group of kids toward Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. He had them make thunderstorm noises with their mouths and their bodies. Then they set up textures based on these noises. Then they performed the textures, which changed a lot. Then they listened to the thunderstorm in the Pastoral. And lo! They could follow it! And appreciate Beethoven’s skill in making it work. Now, granted, this was for kids. But a lot of the classical music examples worked in similar ways. The music is assumed to be valuable. It’s also assumed to be opaque, more or less, to those who haven’t come to it yet. And finally it’s assumed that if you find the right access point, the work will open its glories, and the people who went through this process will be glad that they did.

My problem with that goes something like this. The approach, I think, will work with kids. And it might work for adults in their 50s or 60s who want to like classical music, but find it baffling. It certainly might work for people in the classical music audience who can’t understand new music.

But will it work for smart people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s? Do I ever doubt that. Do they want to hear about the thunderstorm in the Pastoral Symphony? Probably not, because it’s so plainly obvious. Anyone can understand that music can depict a thunderstorm. Things like that happen every day of the week in film scores. And in fact the whole idea seems naïve, or at least it’s going to seem like that to people who listen to (let’s say) Radiohead, and therefore (a) are already used to music with complex textures (subtler textures, in fact, than they’ll find in Beethoven), and (b) are used to music that traces fine shades of often ironic emotion, something that (once again) is a lot subtler than a thunderstorm. How is this consultant going to attract them?

Well, again—the Pastoral Symphony exploration was aimed at kids. I assume the consultant would plan something else for smart people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s. But nothing he said, no proposal that he made, addressed the worldview of this crucial but difficult audience. (Crucial, because they’re the people classical music is most notably not reaching, people who, in past generations, would have grown up to become the classical music audience; difficult, because they’re the people the classical music world least understands.)

Besides, why should art need access points at all? This is the most important question, I think, and one that’s bound to be controversial. Many of us take for granted that classical music is complex and abstract, and that people need to be taught to understand it. These access points would therefore be an early stage in that education.

But maybe the problem is simply that this music is old, and for other reasons has gotten distant from contemporary life. It never needed access points when it was new. Worshippers in Bach’s church didn’t have to be taught to understand his cantatas. Verdi’s audience had no trouble understanding his operas. Wagner swept through Europe like a storm. Artists in Paris at the turn of the 20th century were immediately drawn to Debussy. The beats and other hipsters in the late 1940s and early 1950s heard bebop, and loved it. Thousands of people in and around the New York art world in the 1970s (including me) were thrilled to hear minimal music.

Some art, of course, is more popular than other art, but that doesn’t mean that the unpopular art needs access points. It’s not popular because it’s not for everyone. But the people it is for find it on their own. Nobody offered access points to bring anyone to difficult pop music, like Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa, or Sonic Youth. Those groups simply found their fans.

So what’s the problem with classical music today? Why does it need special treatment? I’ll go out on a limb here, and suggest that an art that needs access points is dying or dead. Why can’t it communicate more directly, not to everybody (no art does that), but to whoever might hear it, and like it? Don’t we have to work on the presentation of classical music, so that it seems interesting even before it’s played, and so performances happen in an atmosphere of enthusiasm and excitement?

And don’t we have to play the music more excitingly? At the workshop, I asked if the most important access point shouldn’t be the music itself. If it’s not functioning that way, couldn’t the problem be that we’re not playing it in the right way? I’ve mentioned here before that Brahms, among others in the 19th century, thought that music ought to be performed differently—with more pronounced tempo changes, for one thing—when musicians and audiences didn’t know it yet. That’s the situation all classical music is in, these days, when it looks for a new audience.

So here’s a question, for everyone involved with playing classical music who wants a new audience. (And isn’t that just about everyone?) How could we play the music, so its impact would be immediate and unforgettable?

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