For some of the last two weeks, I was blogging on a  special ArtsJournal blog leading up to the American Symphony Orchestra League’s just-concluded conference. The subject was, more or less, the state of the arts, and the need for arts organizations to engage audiences in a much more vivid way. If I’d been the least bit organized, I would have noted this here, while it was happening, and maybe even crossposted some of my many entries.

But to tell the truth, even while I almost obsessed with that blog, I was discouraged. My view, simply put, is that the arts — as an enterprise separate from our wider culture, and somehow standing above it — are over. And that therefore any attempt to revive them (this includes classical music, of course) will have to mean that they engage popular culture, and everything else going on in the outside world. Which I started calling “the real world,” partly because I was frustrated that many people just don’t get all this.

I have many reasons for my point of view, starting from my own arts consumption, which these days makes no distinction — in presumed cultural level — between TV, movies, gospel music (my current craze, along with a yet again renewed passion for past-generation opera singers) and classical music. And then there’s the wider world, where the arts clearly don’t have the force or constituency or unquestioned prestige that they used to have. The clearest example of this is the sense that emerged over the last decades that cities don’t need the arts to attract a smart, creative young workforce (and therefore the corporations that employ it). Instead — as reported by Richard Florida in his book The Rise of the Creative Class, and in reporting in the New York Times, cities need a vital local band scene, and a good network of bike paths. That’s a huge cultural change, of course reflecting the change in younger peoples’ culture.

But never mind that. You can read my posts in that blog for more. And in fact I’d recommend at least skimming the whole thing. It was quite a vital discussion.

What bothers me is the way I seem to be received. I was praised, offstage, by more than one person, for being “the provocateur the field needs.” I’ve gotten that “provocateur” label many times before, and, honestly, I don’t like it. I feel a little bit like Varese, who hated being called an “experimental” composer. “My experiments I leave in my studio,” he groused. “This is my music!” (Or words to that effect.)

So, likewise, me. These posts, here in this blog and in the other one (along with all my declarations on these subjects) aren’t meant to provoke anyone. They’re simply my ideas. They’re what I think is true. They’re what I think should be acted on. But they don’t quite register that way. I don’t often get people saying, “Great! Let’s do it!” Or, which I’d like just as much, “His solution doesn’t seem right, but he’s certainly raised some crucial issues. Let’s find a way to deal with them.’

Of course, maybe I’m just too extreme. Maybe I’m out beyond left field, raving about global warming, when all we’re seeing is a hot day. Or maybe, on the other hand, the field is too conservative. Take your pick. But I’d offer the following as one perspective that ought to be more than a provocation:

1, The arts are in crisis. There’s not enough audience, not enough support. Why else are we having all these debates?

2. From outside the arts, the world looks very different from how it looks inside the arts. And, above all, the arts look very different.

3. There’s even a literature partly about the arts, written by people in the outside world, including such widely read items as the Richard Florida book I mentioned above, and John Seabrook’s Nobrow.  People in the arts don’t seem to know these books. Certainly they’re not cited very often, even in the middle of debates where what they say is directly to the point.

4. People in the arts don’t pay enough attention to what people outside the arts think.

5. People in the arts need to pay close attention to what people outside the arts think. Because if you don’t have enough audience, or enough funding, or enough advocacy…well, we can all connect the dots ourselves.

But people in the arts are, in my experience, far too focused on inside-the-arts thinking. They (including me) talk, talk, talk about how to engage a new audience, without spending enough time considering what that new audience is really like.

Quotation of the day: “Most orchestras have got to do something to lower the age of their audience, or they’re going to be in big trouble in a few years.”

 GaryBongiovanni, editor of Pollstar, the trade publication for pop music tours, quoted in a New York Times piece about how some orchestras are starting to include alternative rock on their pops concerts.

Granted, Bongiovanni is talking about pops concerts, and where pops concerts are concerned, orchestras really do seem to be addressing the problem Bongiovanni raises. But look at the forthright way he states the problem. Do orchestras ever talk like that? This is yet another example of how things in classical music that we walk on eggs to talk about, get addressed in plain English when they come up elsewhere in the world.

The problem, by the way, with talking so frankly about orchestras’ classical concerts and their audience would be something like this. It’s fine to fiddle with pops concerts; they’re not part of the orchestra’s core mission. The classical concerts, on the other hand, are at the center of that mission, and therefore can’t be changed. Which then means it’s fairly hard to address some huge problem like the aging of the audience, because the most direct solution — start doing things younger people might like — seems to conflict with the untouchable core mission, and therefore can’t be contemplated, unless you’re only talking about very small changes around the edges of the standard concert format. To change that format in fundamental ways, or to change the programming in fundamental ways — these things aren’t yet allowed. Therefore it’s best to state the basic problem very cautiously. If it was hurled at the world in the kind of plain, bold English Gary Bongiovanni used, someone might just jump up and say, “So do something!”

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  1. says

    I can see I’m gonna have lots of stuff to read over the next few days…

    This is flattering, for me and the others involved! I think you’ll find it worthwhile.

  2. Alex says

    As I read Nobrow, its thesis was not that pop had triumphed but that the divisions between low-brow culture and high-brow culture no longer existed. That there was no dissonance between enjoying Britney Spears and Mozart, not that Mozart was dead.

    What you seem to be advocating is the abandonment of classicism all together in classical music, on the basis of a dwindling market. This really only makes sense as a last resort, because it really is an instance of artistic suicide. At the point that this happens, the institution ceases to exist.

    You are scorning those people who value the continued longevity institution foremost because it is meaningful to them, and saying that it is the product itself, not its marketing that is the problem.

    Give it time; many people still value the product deeply, and as long as that is the case, allowing the product to remain stable as we try different marketing approaches seems perfectly fine.

    Throughout the arts there’s a powerful and passionate debate about how to fix a really painful problem — loss of audience, loss of funding, loss of public support. That’s what the blog I was just part of was about (or rather, this was its unspoken premise, unspoken because it didn’t need to be stated, since everyone knew it — the actual topic was how to engage audiences both old and new, and thus move toward fixing the problem).

    That the arts — as traditionally defined — should have this problem would hardly be a surprise to anyone who took “Nobrow” seriously, because John Seabrook’s point goes a little beyond the end of any distinction between high and low culture. The end of the distinction carries problems for the high arts. They no longer have any special cachet, or any special claim on people like Seabrook, who, given his background, would have been an arts person if he’d been 20 years older. But instead, he’s a popoular culture person. Maybe, Alex, you remember the passage in which he talks about going to classical concerts with his parents when he was young, and how he knows that this is good music, but still it just doesn’t speak to him. And, as an adult out on his own, he doesn’t go any more.

    That’s the problem, for the classical arts, with classical music probably being the art that has the problem most acutely. It doesn’t matter whether I or anyone else pronounce classicism “dead,” whatever that means. Classicism is losing its audience, and the people who run classical music organizations are pianfully, powerfully aware of that, though they rarely choose to discuss their worries in public. Plus, some are in denial — “Any group that can’t get an audience simply has a failure in management.” You hear that from time to time (see, for instance, my wife Anne Midgette’s piece on the state of chamber music, which was in the New York Times on Sunday). But even so, the organizations that say these things are showing (at least if they’re orchestras) a striking decline in audience over the past 20 years, and a growing gap between income and expenses that, if projected into the future, looks really dire.

    Does that mean I’m calling for an end to classicism in classical music, whatever that means? There are two factors here. One is whether the current format of classical concerts is sustainable — whether there’s enough audience and funding (and, if you believe the Hewlett Foundation report, enough people interested in working for classical arts organizations, and being on their boards) for the institutions to survive.

    That’s one question. The second question is a matter of taste, if you like. I’m really tired of the 19th century approach to concerts — the reverent silence, the passive, unquestioning audience. I don’t think it serves the music well, especially the music written before 1800, which was created for a very different ambience, one in which the audience plays a much less passive role. And now there’s another result of the confluence between high and popular culture (which is another way to read what Seabrook says). My taste about what concerts should be like isn’t only informed by my study of what classical music was like in the past. It’s also formed, really strongly, by my experience of pop music, world music, and gospel and jazz. I’m not saying that classical music absolutely has to change, definitively, totally, for everybody, just because other kinds of music work differently. I’m saying, rather, that because of these other kinds of music — not to mention other changes in culture — I now experience classical music differently, and find I’m not interested in the standard concert setting.

    So far, that’s just my taste. When it becomes a larger issue is when it turns out to be other peoples’ taste as well. People from the larger culture — who notoriously don’t go to classical concerts much (which is the problem I started this by mentioning) may be put off by the standard classical format (the 19th century one, which is really all lit is), because they, like me, are now used to experiencing music differently.

    And then there are young classical musicians. My Juilliard and Eastman students these days are just about unanimous in wanting a change in the standard concert format. They’ve love it if audineces whooped and applauded during the music. I’ll grant a selection effect here — these are the students who choose to take my courses. But still I can’t deny that there’s first been a change in feeling during the past 10 years, that my students now want a change more strongly than they did five years ago. And I also can’t deny that the feeling they have is very strong, and that they’re joined in it by a growing number of people elsewhere in the classical music business (whom I meet in the course of my work in the business, or who e-mail me).

    That’s all I’m saying. And thanks, Alex, for impelling me to say it more clearly.

  3. Jeane Goforth says

    I’ve closely followed your postings from the conference.

    I guess I’m just outside of the arts enough to agree with your arguments whole-heartedly. If we can’t get the kids interested, the arts are doomed.

    Can’t get anyone here to see/admit that. We’ve been getting tremendous resistance to the changes we want to make in the local youth orchestra scene just to get kids to show up.

    Don’t you think part of it is fear/ignorance of the ‘New’, whether technology or culture?

    I agree, Jeane. And I’ve been hearing some stories from the just-finished American Symphony Orchestra League conference, about similar resistance. I think it’s based on fear, and ignorance, but also on a very sad feeling of superiority. There’s a desire to keep the great unwashed in their place. That might doom the arts faster than anything else.

  4. David Cavlovic says

    I seriously wonder whether or not this cultural monotony we find ourselves in is purely North American (with the possible inclusion of Great Britain). Yes, the record companies are dying a just death, but they are by far not the only measure of musical activity. China, it seems, is exploding, in a good way, with Western culture.

    But what is happening to us? Are we so white-washed by what seems to be a neo-conservative control of the arts, that we are willing to turn over and let the Wal-Mart-ization of our culture continue unabated? There is no better a way of quelling the masses than by controlling the artistic movements you fear. So now, for example, in pop music,once a radical motivator of the masses, has now been basically reduced to the thumping basses ad inifitum of House or Indsutrial music. What is the final outcome: buying a box that provides only this basic beat-and nothing else-to soothe the savage breast? What can we expect from a society that thinks that all you need talent wise is to make it on American Idol?

    It’s scary, but again, even though Europe (and Asia) have their own equivalents of mass dullness, it does seem like the dullness is neutralized by a fervant dose of culture.

    Europe is pretty much in the same position we’re in. All the stats I’ve seen about European orchestras, for instance, paint the same picture we see here.

    And, David, I think you rather radically overstate the problems with current culture. Take your comments on dance music, for instance. I don’t hear anything like what you describe. There’s wild diversity in that area, much of it fueled by an interest in the avant-garde classical music of the 1950s and 1960s. Listen to Aphex Twin, Squarepusher, and Clark, to name just some of the obvious names.

    Probably there’s always going to be more bad culture around than good culture. And there have always been people looking out at what’s popular and thinking it’s brainless and horrible, whether it was Mendelssohn’s friends denouncing Donizetti, or Adorno denouncing jazz. We need to be careful to check that we really understand what we’re denouncing. (In my case, I need to be careful that I really understand what I’m praising!)

  5. David Cavlovic says

    I realize I was stating something polemic (that’s the whole point of polemics, no?). My point, now that I’ve “calmed down” is that it seems our culture could care less about quality in anything. Disposable income means disposable consumerism means disposable culture.

    But where, really, is the middle ground? How much did the common masses in Donizetti’s, or Vivaldi’s, time really appreciate or care about culture? Is culture a product of 19th Century middle-class society? In fifty years’ time, will the same concerns for the decline of cultural life be no different than today’s?

    In general, I do not buy into the argument that the situation has not changed. I really do think we do not pay enough attention to cultural achievments as much as we did fifty or even one hundred and fifty years ago. There is no question that all the arts have a low-common-denominator element (and I REALLY don’t mean that in a pandering sense, since, let’s face it, for most of the world, mere surviving is enough of a daily concern), but are the more complex elements of all the arts–and in music that covers the gamut from Dowland to Adès to My Chemical Romance–losing their audience, and why?

    Back in Donizetti’s time, the people who wrung their hands about culture worried about the taste of the growing middle class. Those middle-class people liked Donizetti better than Beethoven! Now we worry about mass taste, though mass taste can’t easily be summarized. It’s too diverse.

    I don’t think the taste for smart music is vanishing, or even diminishing. Look at how successful Bob Dylan’s album was last year. Or look at the excitement over Arcade Fire’s album this year. Stephen Johnson’s book “Everything Bad is Good for You” makes a persuasive case (or at least I think so) for the increasing smartness of popular culture.

    Which isn’t to say that there’s not a lot of dumb, empty, offensive stuff out there. I’m just not sure the proportions of dumb to smart culture have changed. I’m also not sure it’s easy to measure these things at the time. The culture of the past seems to look better, in retrospect, than it did at the time. In the ’70s, smart rock critics thought Led Zeppelin was a disgrace. No longer! In the early 19th century, musical highbrows thought Rossini (then the most popular composer in Europe) was a trifling entertainer. We don’t think that now.

    It’s also easy to be misled by the tumult of the media, giving deafening attention to crap. A good antidote is “The Onion,” the humor weekly evidently aimed at people in their 20s, which has the smartest cultural coverage I’ve seen anywhere today. (Pop culture coverage, of course.) I trust its movie reviews more than any others I read.

  6. Joe Nichols says

    First, face it! You are a provocateur, i.e., one who provokes. And provoke means one of three things: to incite with anger; or to call forth; or to stir up on purpose. I don’t think you do the first thing, but I think you do the latter two things. And I think that is GREAT. At least you are not for the status quo. At least you are not clueless.

    I remember an interview that Pope John Paul II gave in which the interviewer was bemoaning the lack of participation in active Catholicism. The interviewer mentioned that perhaps the Catholic Church would have more growth in numbers if they would allow married priests, women as priests, change some of the more strict dogma, etc.

    The Pope responded that he would rather have a smaller Church, as long as it was true to its mission.

    Your concerns reminded me of his solution, and his acceptance of changing trends.

    I feel uncomfortable about the gimmicks that orchestras desparately resort to with the goal of getting young people into the orchestras. In the event, we are really saying that Classical Music sucks, but listen how we’re playing pop music! Doesn’t it sound better with strings?

    Some places, like Montreal and Baltimore, who have invested in vibrant and exciting Music Directors, are thriving. Other places, are not thriving because of many factors.

    But smaller audiences cannot be made larger by gimmicks. Smaller audiences will be made larger when a whole paradigm shift is accomplished.

    Recently, there was a discussion about how horrible it was that the Atlanta newspaper was considering terminating its music critic. Frankly, music critics are poorly used. If a person not normally inclined to go to see the Orchestra or any musical event read a typical musical review, the would read a negatavistic article using arcane language. Ultimately, no one reads the review other than the conductor, musical director and musicians, (perhaps some subscribers or attendees of the concert) NO ONE WHO DID NOT GO TO THE CONCERT CARES. A critic should be able to explain to the layperson the music BEFORE the concert and explain what to look for, AND WHY they should look for certain phrases and messages in music etc. Let’s be candid. If all the classical music critics left town, the concerts would not lose one patron. If the critic did the profoundly more difficult job of providing background and educating the public there might be more butts in the seats.

    The other problem is demographics. You want more people in the seats, you’d better make more people. Just as you go through suburban and urban America and see fewer pick-up games in the neighborhoods, you see less and less kids going to concerts.

    It is sad to those like you and me who love concert music, but true. For the players, and orchestras, and music directors, you had better be dynamic in your community; you’d better have great and aggressive press relations; you’d better be in love with your job; you’d better hire your own music critic to submit previews and pay for them as advertisements — or, you’d better accept sparse audiences, less money and doing music more for love than the money.

    You do a great job.

    Thanks, Joe. You warmed my heart.

    I think you’re right about shrinkage. The audience that accepts classical music uncriticalliy, and buys orchestra subscriptions, is growing older. There’s no sign that it’s being replaced, and you’re right — gimmicks won’t do any good. Even (un my experience) if they’re smart gimmicks. In the long run, classical music performances need for be livelier, leaner, smarter, more meaningful, and (just as you say) more oriented toward their audience, and their community. Then classical music will survive very nicely, but surely with fewer concerts and a smaller audience.

  7. orchestra player says

    It is not that I don’t agree with what you say. I too believe that the classical format is not as “vivid” as the more popular arts. I also agree that much of the pop music today is more sophisticated than even a decade ago. However, we are not them. we are non- profit arts groups. I wish we could find a way to improve the character of our performances, but not start from scratch. Like the first post said, I cannot help but feel that your remedy, although I am not 100% clear on it, is coming from the wrong place. I think your ideas are helpful and can inform, but blowing up the institutions and starting over is not a solution. Maybe your ideas are informed by your experiences, but it does not seem like you enjoy mainstream classical music. And like I say to some of the older symphony patrons that come to my chamber music series in bars and galleries who complain about the seats and “vulgar” art work, I tell them “maybe this is not for you.” I do think it is interesting to note that you can’t keep those people away. Perhaps this concert format is not for you. I think you have a deep prejudice that pevents your ideas as a whole from being accepted by those who have invested many years any many thousands of dollars in this profession.

    I’m sorry to see someone lash out at me in such a personal way, just because he or she doesn’t like what I say. Disagreeing with my ideas is one thing, but attacking my motives — saying that I’m acting out of a deep prejudice — is something else. It makes me sad, I have to say. We’re in a position now, in the middle of a lot of change, where very deep nerves are being touched, in so many of us. Maybe what touched me most, of any of the things anyone has said, was a remark a few years ago at a private meeting, by one of the leading people in the orchestra world.This is a guy I wouldn’t hesitate to call noble — also smart, sensitive, capable, a true mensch, and a real leader of the field. And certainly no radical. He said, very seriously, that he thought people in the orchestra world were going to need grief counseling, because of the changes that would very likely happen. My heart went out to him. And I can’t even say where I’ll fit in, in the new world that’s likely to emerge. These really are difficult times, and my heart also goes out to this orchestra player, the one who wrote the comment, and who seems so emotional about these issues. I can’t blame him for feeling so strongly. He’s not alone.

  8. says

    Two thoughts:

    * The notion that dance artists are greatly inspired by 1950s avant-garde efforts is hyperbole. Over a decade ago an article was published with the reactions of a number of IDM producers to a recording by Stockhausen they had been sent, and most found it 1) unfamiliar, and 2) dull. And as a fan of progressive house music, and at one time very active in the scene, I have made the acquaintance of a number of producers, none of which when I asked knew anything of the music of Stockhausen or (to my mind, much more similar to what they are doing) Steve Reich. I think contemporary popular electronic music which pushes the limits of the genre is more a freeing up of the simple Chicago house inspired by the appearance of the cheap drum machine than a continuation of early avant-garde music.

    * A return of audiences whooping and applauding during the performance would reduce many, many pieces to inaudibility. How am I supposed to hear the opening of Ligeti’s cello concerto if people are cheering, or nearly the whole of Schnittke’s Piannissimo? It would be an application of the “loudness wars” currently besieging rock to orchestral and chamber music: everything has to be made as loud as possible, and there’s no longer any room for the beauty that different dynamics can lend to music.

    So when Aphex Twin put prepared piano pieces on his “Drukqs” album, he’d never heard of John Cage? I might overstress the influence of Stockhausen, but I’ve been told the opposite of what you say, by people with as much direct contact with dance music as you’ve had. The difference, actually — which leaves both you and the people I’ve talked to in the honorable position of both being right — might be what kind of dance music you’re talking about. Dance producers who are making music for dance clubs wouldn’t — I can imagine — care much about Stockhausen. The far less popular people who make dance-derived music not designed for clubs — and whose work sounds more like contemporary classical music than like classic house music — would be in a different position. Aphex Twin is maybe the best-known name in that part of the music world. He sells, I’m told, about 50,000 copies of each of his albums, which in pop terms is barely anything at all.

    And why, Christopher, do you imagine these horror-movie scenarios? Why do you assume that applause and cheers would come at the worst, most inappropriate moments? It’s as if, to you, there’s no middle ground, or very little, between everything you hate in popular culture, and the silence and purity of a concert where Ligeti is played? Why can’t there be people who’d like to applaud during the music, and also have the good sense to applaud in appropriate places. Why do you assume that suddenly all sorts of yahoos will show up — at, let’s note, the kind of event that has never attracted people like that — just because we relax some rules about applause? And why do you think the musicians themselves can’t, to a large extent, control how people are going to react?

  9. says

    I have always felt quite comfortable listening to the pop radio stations and then quickly switching to the most profound classical station within a 15 minute car ride or longer–or shorter. Rewind to the 1960s and 1970s–I was studying classical piano, being groomed to be the next ‘classical piano star’. I had no problem with this. What I did have a problem with is fearing that I would get flack for going to the local store on Memorial Day and Labor Day stocking up on my favorite pop 45s (records, for the youngins’ reading this) and playing them until they wore out. My friends were shocked that I buy these and listen to them. After all, how does a classical musician accept pop music? Well, most pop musicians had their start in classical, so they’ve accepted our world first and then branched out. ‘Pops’ style music has graced the stages for decades, but we’re at a crossroads amongst the younger set in the US atleast, where the 45s and 33s turned into 8-tracks and cassettes which are are cds and now iPods filled with pop music. What we need are more Keith Emersons to write more piano concertos and classically trained pop artists to work with their classical counterparts (does the name Gershwin ring a bell?)to create their own brand of ‘Popsiccal’ music that can turn a new generation on to the world of classical music–but through their eyes rather than from the past forward. Personally, I am finding some of the pop music sounding a bit like the 60s and 70s sound, and my children singing along to the tunes just as we did. The difference is, we had more music education classes, general music etc. But that didn’t get the kids to attend concerts any more than they do today. It’s the parents that take them to the concerts. There are many wonderful orchestras playing today, in the smallest of cities too. True, there are less solo recitals, but the 40+ crowd does have access to live performances. We have so many technological distractions today, and easier ways to be entertained at home, but if there is a way to merge some of the pop and classical music in the programs, the marketing directors of the orchestras may be able to break through the culture wall of the generations. There can still be pure classical programs, but the gentle merge here and there can lure the new listener into the hall without making it seem like they’re being lured, or that management is not stooping to a lower level. Perhaps there are pop artists who need to be chosen with taste to delve into our classical world–might hold some interesting results. I’ll still be as profound as ever playing Beethoven and Brahms, but I’ll play the Keith Emerson concerto the next day with equal enthusiasm.

  10. says

    Speaking of pops/classical and the pros and cons of inter-mingling the genres for today’s audiences in the 21st century, I thought I would quote the first paragraph of my short story written a few years ago, set in 2061 before going back in time: ‘Through the Wings’, which is at

    Through the Wings

    By Jeffrey Biegel

    May 31, 2061

    3:30 pm. A cup of Javalotta. Fruity sconettes. Envirosafe banapples–the sweet fruit created by cross-breeding apples and bananas in 2040. Cufflinks: check. Vest: check. Tie: where did I place that colorful one that matches the vest? Perhaps I best not wear that today. It is certainly a serious concert and I don’t want to upset my audience. Must go with the ‘classical’ look. The elders still respect it. White tie and tails. The image of the ‘maestro’. Lucky if we get a young crowd to come for only half a show. With their MTV2R (Music Television Virtual Reality), they would probably rather go to a nearby Café-lotta and produce their own demo chip with the hottest teen idol on the scene. Beats seeing me hammering away at the 98s! Was I ever glad when Rockin’ Rocky Road penned out a half decent piano concerto in the 2020’s following his long career as the generation’s number one flip-flop artist. I truly believe that the flip-flop artists had a genuine respect for the classics. They bounced back and forth between the styles, making their music accessible to everyone, including me. Hard to believe I’m about to perform a solo piano recital that spans music written over three hundred years! Great piano–a vintage 2030 Steinway concert grand. I’ve planned an interesting yet traditional program: the Bach ‘Toccata in G Major’, Elton John’s eclectic ‘Sonata no. 3’ and Paul McCartney’s revolutionary ‘Souls’. After a short water break for an intermission, I’ve saved the daunting ‘Sonata in b minor’ by Liszt.

  11. says

    This is a multi-faceted problem, and I expect all sides of it have been thoroughly discussed, but it seems to me that there are one of two paths to follow:

    1) The problem is the product – it is too old or too poorly programmed to achieve popularity.


    2) The culture is changing with the result that older things, however sound they may be as things of art, are being increasingly devalued.

    I am thinking that with all of the experimentation in performance venues, programming, outreach, education, etc that someone would have hit on a winning formula for presentation.

    But it would seem that classical music is suffering from cultural irrelevance and the causes – too much TV and too much commercialism/consumerism in our culture – are forces too big to be countered simply by better marketing.

    Our society seems to be saying that there is no intrinsic value in anything past your desire to possess it. Don’t like your cell phone/CD player/TV? Throw it away and get a new one.

    What chance does classical music stand in such an environment?

    Maybe older people, who have what they desire in terms of material possesions, are the only demographic group who are looking for something more. I suspect that there will always be such people, and maybe this is OK.

    I do think that things are a little more complicated. In the ’60s it was young people who were looking for something more than the commercial culture could offer. And it’s still true today, even if the movement isn’t as visible as it was then. The key, I think (and I know I’m reepeating something I’ve said here a lot), is to understand that classical music isn’t the only music offering an alternative to commercial culture. What else is “alternative” music about? Of course, somebody’s going to say, “But alternative music is part of the pop music world. It sustains itself commercially.”

    To which my answers would be: Well, first, listen to the music. See what it’s saying. See how commercial it sounds. Not very, actually. And then compare the classical music world with the alternative music world. Classical music is cautious, so often doing the same things over and over. Alternative music is full of constant surprises. Or look at pop music publications versus classical music ones. Pop music publications (the best ones, anyway) run articles about politics and social issues. Does any classical music magazine do that? One might conclude that pop music fans have wider interests than classical music fans, or at least that they think their music is directly tied into a wider world.

  12. David Cavlovic says

    Boy do I identify with Jeffrey Biegel. Back in my days at the CBC, I encountered to camps firmly sequestred in their ivory towers (and still there to this day): the Classical camp, and the Non-Classical camp. I was ‘feared’ by both because I listened to both. ANY body who listened to both (I.e. most people) were feared by these camps. Hence, the inability to connect to their listeners in a meaningful way.

    At University, I was known as “walking Groves” because I breezed through my Music History degree (which, when you were trying to get laid, was actually a hinderance, but that’s for another blog! somewhere…)

    NEVERTHELESS, in Music School, to like pop music was a sin of sorts, unless you were one of those Jazz musicians. What was hilarious was that this was the minority opinion, but it was entrenched (it IS different today). I asked myself: “Self! What is wrong with listening to Tom Jones, Paul Revere and the Raiders, Grace Jones, George Formby, The Melachrino Strings, Queen, 1910 Fruitgum Co., etc?.

    Absolutely nothing. Maybe there is nothing wrong Posh Spice as a musician (is that what she really really is?…sorry….)

    Can we all, in whatever camps we are in, just GET. OVER. IT?

    Pontificated rant over.

  13. BP says

    I have to object to this idea that classical music audiences are “passive.” According to that reasoning people reading novels or looking at paintings are passive, too. For that matter, the vast majority of popular music is consumed in this supposedly passive way too, through recordings, which people listen to without doing anything in response, and often alone.

    The whole idea that “active” engagement entails some kind of interactive game, or direct physical response, or something, is sort of bogus. People engage with art–popular, “high,” in every medium–without expecting to be an active participant in the way you mean, without thinking about it. Why this special demand that classical music be different?

    There are many strands here, which need to be separated.

    First, classical music audiences are passive in ways that go far beyond their behavior while the music is played. There are book groups throughout the country, in which new books are avidly discussed. You won’t find music groups, in which members of the classical music audience discuss performances or new works.

    I’ve heard classical musicians say, many times, that they don’t think the audience understands what they do — I had this emphatically, once, from the music director of an American orchestra. Or that the audience shows by their conversation, when musicians and audience members talk, that they understand what they’re hearing. So that’s another aspect of passivity.

    I’ve done some work with orchestral audiences, at major orchestras. The audience members I’ve worked with speak out vociferously about new music, to say they don’t like it. But about performances of standard repertoire they’re reticent. They either genuinely don’t have anything to say, other than that they liked the performance, or else they feel they have no authority to speak. That last is very important. It’s yet another aspect of the passivity I’ve talked about. People in the audience may think something was wrong with the performance, but it may not occur to them to say so, until they’re specifically given permission. Compare that to how people react to books, movies, or theater.

    And speaking of theater, I know a consultant who’s worked with both theater companies and orchestras. He was somewhat shocked to see how different these organizations are. At a theater company, after a new production opens, the staff will be buzzing about it the next day, debating every aspect of it — the play, the acting, the directing, the lighting, the set. At orchestras ,this consultant says, after a weekend of concerts the staff has nothing to say. I’ve noticed this myself. So there’s an aspect of passivity that goes beyond the audience, right into classical music institutions.

    That’s one strand of this discussion — what’s meant by audience passivity. But if we’re going to talk specifically about how people react during a classical performance, now we have to make further distinctions. What’s the audience reaction to other kinds of performances? What was the audience reaction to classical music (and other arts) in the past? I’ve tried to say here that some other kinds of performance get an immediate audience reaction. Not all kinds of performance, but some. Jazz, kabuki, gospel music, pop music — those were my examples. So I’m not suggesting that classical music should be unlike absolutely anything else. I’m saying that we’re now in a world where a new classical music audience may bring expectations from other arts.

    (In fact, in one survey, people in their 20s said they didn’t go to orchestra concerts because, as far as they could see, the presence of the audience didn’t matter. The orchestra, they felt, would play the same way no matter who was there.)

    And then in the past, the classical music audience (and also the theater audience) behaved quite a bit differently. So it’s not clear, historically, that things absolutely have to be the way they are now. In Italy, in way, right into the 1950s you’d sometimes have vociferous audienc reaction during performances. This wasn’t widespread, to judge from the recordings I’ve heard of live performances in 1950s Italy. But in one performance, there’s applause during an especially lovely Maria Callas high note. She sustains the note, and there’s a ripple of applause. (And yes, a lovely Callas high note may seem like a contradiction in terms, especially if it’s a soft high note, as this was. But in fact the note really is lovely. It’s in a 1955 Norma. And, for those horrified by the thought of applause destroying the purity of magical moments in a performance, the applause in this case only underlines how magical the moment was.)

  14. says

    “You won’t find music groups, in which members of the classical music audience discuss performances or new works.”

    Sure you will. In the “Modern Composers” room on a file-sharing network I frequent, there’s discussion of new music 24 hours a day, involving several dozen people. And when I was resident in Chicago and attended the Music Now! series of the CSO, concert-goers would meet up at pubs nearby and discuss what they heard.


    One discussion group “on a file-sharing network I frequent.” And people who’ve gone to a concert going out for drinks afterward.

    And this, to you, is evidently equivalent to thousands or tens of thousands of organized book groups, meeting regularly all over the country in private homes and bookstores, a phenomenon so widespread that publishers often enough include questions for book group discussion at the back of the books they publish.

    No disrespect, but if you really believe that, then I don’t see how you and I could ever have a conversation.

  15. BP says

    A few thoughts in response:

    -I agree that the kind of passivity you’re talking about is bad, but my point was that the presentation of classical music can’t explain this passivity, because in all kinds of other arts, which are much more popular than classical music, audiences are outwardly passive but inwardly engaged. If the lack of opportunity to shout or dance during concerts were responsible for audiences’ lack of engagement, then novels and paintings would be doing just as badly. So, for that matter, would sales of a lot of the “smart” popular music you’ve praised, like R.E.M., Radiohead, Bjork, the Books, etc.

    -Speaking of which, are you SURE classical music is doing so much worse than acts like the Books? I actually suspect it’s doing better. Non-commercially minded people outside of classical music obviously have to pay rent, but beyond that they don’t seem to fret about their tiny audiences. Free jazz players and avant-garde electronic artists don’t imagine that if they only marketed themselves better they would suddenly have huge audiences. If you are choosing to work in a genre that is not conducive to commercial success, I think you just have to accept that.

    -I think–and please don’t take this is any kind of personal attack–that the way you’re trying to save classical music reflects a certain investment in the “old” model of classical music that you make a point of rejecting. If it really is just one of many kinds of music that are equally valuable, then seeing classical music shrink to a tiny niche interest like avant-garde jazz wouldn’t be a big deal. The fact that you’re fighting to preserve these huge, established, publically funded institutions suggests that you’re still holding onto the idea that classical music “deserves” to be widely liked and that society would be better for it. Classical music lovers are used to having their music endorsed by the hegemonic culture and now that it isn’t anymore, they’re upset. But this is something we need to let go of.

    -To expand on that a little, I think the size of audiences in past generations for classical music might have been “inflated.” By this I mean that for a long time going to symphony concerts was what you did if you were an educated bourgeois in America, even if you didn’t care about music that much. Aren’t these the elderly people in your passive audiences, who find the standards pleasant and familiar and don’t like anything new? Nowadays, though, educated people who don’t care very much about music listen to classic rock, or what a friend of mine calls “safe indie rock” (e.g., the Arcade Fire, sorry to piss off any fans), or conservative jazz. These people are basically going to listen to whatever’s around them. Making a really aggressive push to get them to go to symphonies strikes me as misguided because they will never be a core audience. The best classical music makes great demands on listeners and is more apt to attract people who listen to free jazz, and the number of these people is pretty tiny. We should reach out to them, but we have to accept that we’re not going to get a mass audience.

    -An obvious but easily overlooked but important point: smart, engaged young people are excited by new stuff. The standard classical repertoire will never be new (new ways of packaging will not make it new, just make it look like it’s trying really hard). This is an inherent limitation of the medium. Of course putting a lot more new music on programs would go a long way to fight this, but we’ll always need to keep a place for the old stuff.

    -A slightly less obvious easily overlooked point: the aesthetic of a lot of this music is just really really removed from our world, and there’s not much we can do about that. Alex Ross: “The music attracts the reticent fraction of the population. It is an art of grand gestures and vast dimensions that plays to mobs of the quiet and the shy. It is a paradise for passive-aggressives, sublimation addicts, and other relics of the Freudian world.” Friends of mine who got into classical music in college, rather than in their early teens, mostly don’t like the Romantic music Ross is talking about. I suspect I wouldn’t either, if I hadn’t found it early. Same goes, in a different way, for 18th century “pure entertainment” music. What constitutes “pure entertainment” is necessarily tied pretty closely to the immediate culture that produces it. Very few people in 2007 are going to turn to classical music for pure entertainment because we have loads of our own pure entertainment that’s much more in tune with our lives. What I’m getting at is that a lot of classical music might not be as timeless and universal as its partisans like to say, and this might be another limitation we have to accept.

    In short, classical music is not commercially viable on a large scale, for a bunch of reasons. Neither are many other kinds of great music, but no one in those genres talks about “crisis” because they never had any expectation of mass success (or NEA grants).

    I’m not saying classical music concerts can’t change. Mostly, I would like to see a lot more new music. Less obnoxious program notes couldn’t hurt either. Different concert formats–later at night, outdoor, whatever–could also be nice.

    But I these changes need to be motivated by the music itself, not by an effort to “attract people” in the abstract. Certain things you’ve proposed I just don’t see as artistically compelling. For example, I actually like listening to symphonies without any applause between movements–I find that I get further “inside” the music, more psychologically invested, more aware of the way movements are connected and of the tension that runs through the whole piece. Some music could be fine with applause between movements, but I think it would really take something away from Brahms 4 or Mahler 6, for example. As for clapping DURING music–maybe that’s fine for Italian opera (which I don’t really like), but it could seriously ruin some Beethoven. You don’t need to think that concert halls will suddenly be overrun with “yahoos,” just that when you get any large number of people together some fraction of them are going to be annoying. (This is also why we have signs in the subway telling people to let others get off the train before barging in.) This isn’t some elitist, exclusive classical thing, it’s just a response to the nature of the music.

    Same goes for having alternative rock at classical concerts. Why? Do they work together in any meaningful way?

    I’m going to end this obnoxiously long comment by asking you to imagine a parallel universe in which rock music is “dying” and classical records and concerts are hugely successful. Rock musicians are worrying about how to lure the young kids away from their Bach suites. Some of them propose that you could have rock shows in concert halls, have predetermined programs with pedantic notes, sell $10 sandwiches in the lobby, and encourage formal dress. Needless to say this would be a terrible idea and would destroy rock and roll.

    Classical music will never really “belong” in the 21st century, and if we try to make it will end up looking pathetic, like a middle aged banker dressed for a punk show. All classical musicians can, and should, do is offer their music to the world as well as they can. Those who are meant to like it will come.


    Thanks so much for these wonderful thoughts. Whether I agree with all of them or not!

    I’m not going to debate or annotate, but I’ll tell you one story. On a plane one day, I found myself sitting with a board member of the Guitar Center, which (I hope I have this right) is a chain of schools that teach (of course) the guitar.

    The Guitar Cetner, this guy told me, was having a crisis. Because rock was losing ground to electronica and hiphop, not so many people wanted to learn the guitar, and so the Guitar Center was losing students. The board therefore started discussions about how to fix this. How could they get schools to offer guitar education? You can imagine how that made me smile.

    As for classical music vs. the Books — I’m sure that classical musicians do better, on the average, than pop musicians. We shouldn’t be deceived by the huge sums the big pop stars make. If you’re starting out with band, you’re going to have to support it with your own money. And you have almost no chance at all of earning anything (apart from a share of the gate, when you play at a club) from the music you play. If you’re a classical musician, you can teach, sing in church (if you’re a singer), do freelance gigs. It’s not a great living, but it’s more than people starting out in rock are likely to make.

  16. BP says

    By the way, I would say most of the innovative popular music being made in America right now is hip hop, which I haven’t noticed anyone mention. Why is this?

    Maybe because hiphop was more innovative some years ago than it is now.

    Or maybe because some of us are old coots. I used to be friendly with Ice Cube and Ice-T, and used to be considered (rightly or wrongly) a hiphop expert. (Probably wrongly.) Now I look at my taste — Dylan, Neil Young, Springsteen — and I’m appalled. I’m a demographic cliché.

  17. Eric Lin says

    Christopher, I know that many of the people in the groups that you are describing (CSO MusicNOW audience members) are often local composers themselves. Book groups and movie fan clubs consist of many people–most of whom are not professional writers or filmmakers but simply enthusiasts.

    Most new music aficionados I know are mostly composers and perhaps a few performers.

    Or maybe I’m just hanging out with the wrong crowd. If that’s so, please tell me where I can go to find the crowd you are describing.

    Eric, Christopher is, pretty clearly, saying silly things for rhetorical reasons. Book groups are an organized national phenomenon. Discussions of classical music obviously aren’t.

    And of course you’re right about new music concerts. Their audience almost always is an in-group. Exceptions (at least the ones I know about): Bang on a Can, Present Music (in Milwaukee), a new music group in Charleston, S.C., that gets Present Music-sized audiences, and surely other groups here and there.

    Eric, I’d be curious to ask you something. You mentioned that you go to Miller Theater events. How much of that audience would you think are Columbia students, or have some other affiliation with the univeristy?

  18. David Cavlovic says

    People like Ice-T are now acting in shows like Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Is there a co-relation between the decline of influence of a musical genre and one of it’s proponents appearing on the big or small screens? For eg. : Lauritz Melchior, Leopold Stokowksi, Benny Goodman, Elvis Presley, David Bowie, Ice-T…..

    What would be just as interesting is if they (the ones still kicking) read blogs like this. Their imput would be interesting.

    It certainly would.

    About decline or loss of influence — maybe we could argue it either way. When Melchior and Stokowski were in movies, that seemed to be a sign that classical music was potent enough in the culture to turn them (and other classical musicians) into movie figures. Elvis likewise, in rock & roll.

    David Bowie — he’s a remarkably good actor. (The Man Who Fell to Earth, the Hunger). Why isn’t he doing it any more?

  19. David Irwin says

    In today’s New York Times there was a book review (sorry I didn’t save it) of a book which decries the loweting of cultural standards as a result of the internet. The writer thinks that music, writing, journalism, etc. are going to go to the dogs because of a lack of gatekeepers and editors, with standards and fact checking being things of the past.

    I think the book has some relevance to our discussion. I reject his thesis, as I understand it, as I don’t think he appreciates the intelligence and acumen of the users of the internet. He constantly refers to them as “the crowd.”

    I’m very interested in projects such as the one discussed on “The National Arts Center of Ottawa Canada podcasts: Podcasting is changing the way orchestras communicate with audiences.” I think this is exciting stuff, and represents one of the most fertile areas of media exploration for classical music in my lifetime.

    I suppose part of my oprtimism derives from having read The Long Tail and thinking that perhaps that is something that will cut in and help sales along. We have all had the experience of having favorite recordings go out of print. Now that isn’t necessary. I also think it is exciting that a listener in China can download a podcast or MP3 and listen to a Peter Lieberson song cycle without having to depend on distributors and executives in New York or Los Angeles who may, or may not, know their ass from their elbow.

  20. Ron Spigelman says


    For me as a music director, who has had many of the same thoughts as you have had, what is interesting here in Springfield MO where we have enjoyed a 60% increase in attendance in 3 seasons is that I did not set out to inncrease our audience. That is short sighted. I simply set out to engage people on personal level and to connect them to music in a way that is accessible, emotional, sincere and above all relevant. I did not set out to build a greaat orchestra, but to help build a great community…with the orchestra. Four examples; 1: At my first concert I asked the audience to fill out a survey of what they wanted to hear, and gave them a pledge “we will play on each of our concerts for the next three seasons a work that was popular on the survey”, we have done it and there is now a waiting list for the top priced seats in our hall that seats 2200. 2: If anyone who is alive and well and has not moved away does not renew their tickets, I will call them personally not to convince them to come back, but to get feedback and to thank them for trying us out…they almost all come back. 3: We produced a live CD, not to just sell at our concerts, but in partnership with the chamber of commerce for them to use in their marketing materials (the president of the chamber and the mayor have written letters that are in the booklet) to try to convince businesses and indivisuals to move to Springfield. 4: Each player hand writes about 20 personal Christmas cards that combined equals our entire subscriber base, it took 20 minutes of one rehearsal to do it, and now in the third year most of thm took them home because they wanted to write longer messgaes…we get tremendous feedback. Those examples are the tip of the iceberg here, I would love to share more.

    Your post on March 17 about the Pittsburgh musicians in the lobby is a classic example of true outreach that with personal engagement broke through all the boundaries. Instead of orchestras trying to sell more tickets, should they not try to create more music lovers? It is not a stretch, and the best way to attract new people is to engage the people you already have to get their friends to also come. We almost never market to them (we do here and it is working) because we think we already have them. But if you look at some of the appalling renewal percentages in some orchestras, it proves that we don’t really have them! Every program or idea we have tried here has these two criteria at the top: are we being sincere, and will it bring value to someone’s life. We can be so caught up on if we have served the music and the composer, when we should be concerned with if we at the end of a performance have made the city we are in even a little bit of a better place. We have got to get away from worrying so much about if the audience liked our performance and start to turn it into worrying about how they feel about themselves and hope that the music added something to their lives. The most infuriating cliche out there is that “music can change the world”. Not true…people change the world, and music can change people. We focus on achievement in the art rather than fulfillment from the art. We spend so much time trying to be revered and what would you rather be, revered or beloved. Some can be both (YO YO) but I would would rather if I had a choice be beloved, I mean whou would you rather be, Einstein, or Sinatra! Give me Sinatra any day. When you talk of making concerts more vivid you are right but the big problem, the biggest problem is that schools of music and arts admin courses are not addressing these very issues. Every college will have courses in “how”, and “what” but almost none have courses in “why”. I have a class at Drury University called Audience Connections and it is now a core class in the arts admin course. It is a “live” class as the students are required to read blogs and articles every week. Your blog is one of them by the way. This is one aspect of the class, Joe Patti (Butts in Seats) wrote about it on March 20 2006 if anyone wants to read more about it. It is a class in “why” attempting to understand and respect someone’s choice of music and entertainment and also prepare students for what is actually happening in the “real world” as you aptly put it. How many music students let alone professionals have ever heard of RAND or the Knight Foundation? If we are scared about what is happening now, then we should be terrified of what is going to happen next, because hardly anything is being done to teach students to make the paradigm shift in thought that you are proposing. I am trying to do something but again to do it to get the edge, to be successful is not sincere, because the greatest works of art are measured by the difference they make to humanity, not to the artist/s performing them. I have said this in many other posts, but here it is again because it is my belief, we are not in the music business, we are in the people business.

    Ron, congratulations, and your comment should be required reading throughout the business. In fact, I’ll make it required reading for the courses I teach.

    If you show you care about people, they’ll respond. I’ve run into several anecdotes that support this, including one from someone who runs a chamber music series at a New England university. She wasn’t selling tickets, so she tried selling memberships. If you bought one, you got a discount on tickets (large enough to more than pay for the membership).

    But she couldn’t sell the memberships. So then she simply e-mailed every member of the faculty, and gave them free memberships. Suddenly ticket sales shot up, not because suddenly the tickets were a gigantic bargain, but because she’d reached out and made people care about her.

    Thanks, from my heart, for posting this.

  21. says

    No, I’m not saying silly things for rhetorical reasons. Mr Sandow made the blanket statement “You won’t find music groups, in which members of the classical music audience discuss performances or new works.” Certainly there are groups where people discuss performances and new works, and I named two such ones that I have participated in. If Mr Sandow was speaking only of hyper-organized, nation-wide groups like book clubs, then he should have said so.

    And I must say that none of the people in either the Modern Composers room on a certain file-sharing network, nor the CSO MusicNow audience members I’d have a beer with after concerts, were composers themselves. Only a very small minority are even formal students of music.

    Here’s what I wrote:

    “There are book groups throughout the country, in which new books are avidly discussed. You won’t find music groups, in which members of the classical music audience discuss performances or new works.” Did anyone but Christopher really not understand that I meant music groups that are like those book groups?

    By chance, I was once involved in an effort to set up a music group, on the model of the organized book groups. The instigator was a bookstore owner, who had book groups in her store, thought a music group would be a great idea, but had never heard of one. Through one of her customers, who manages musicians who play new classical music, she assembled a notable set of advisors, if I say so myself. Besides me, and the manager I mentioned, there was the director of a national classical music service organizations, and the director of a national association of presenting organizations, organizations that present arts events. Not one of us had ever heard of a music group formed on the model of the book groups. Which doesn’t mean there aren’t any, but does suggest that there aren’t likely to be many of them.

  22. Misti says

    This is my first time to your blog Mr. Sandow. I have just recently started thinking about the classical dilemma. I manage a violinist who studied classically through his Masters, but the entire time felt out of place within the classical community. He has pursued a career playing the violin, but not classical music. He is a violinist who has an uncanny ability to touch audiences because he performs with inimitable passion and style; his fingers bleed the music. And, now I am working to bring him back to classical music because to see him perform a classical piece is heart-thumping thrilling, dangerous, and inspiring. Mr. Spigelman’s post spoke to me because I feel that his point applies to soloists and performers. This past week I watched students at a prominent summer music festival, and I have seen/heard other soloists. They all seem to think that the music is between them and the notes, a kind of private understanding. Their performance does not convey that the music is about the relationship between them and the audience– or at least that is what it should be about. Rock, and other “popular” forms of music, are so compelling because when you go to a live performance, rock stars understand how to create a living, breathing relationship with you. If they miss a note, improvise a section, or vary the rhythm, that is the beauty and the breath of the performance. The tension of not knowing what might happen creates a sense of danger. Those moments of brilliance and even danger forge a relationship with an audience that can not be captured on a CD. Audiences want to feel the life force of the music. They want to have a relationship with a performer, and from what I see and hear, today’s classical performers are largely incapable of delivering that because they are obsessed with the notes and their relationship with the piece of music. I can feel the thousands of hours of practice in every note, as if they want me to know how hard they have worked and want me to feel that only they can unlock the music. Perhaps it is a byproduct of a society obsessed with expertise. They have lost the voice of a rock star, which is what classical performers and composers were in their day. Right? The lack of truly improvised cadenzas is one apparent symptom. If classical performers can not deliver a unique voice to audiences, then there is no compelling reason for people to spend $40+ dollars to attend a concert. A $15 CD will suffice, and they can listen to it over and over. As Mr. Spigelman said, the music should be about the people, and I think that can be reflected right down to the performance of a soloist or any performer in an orchestra. These are some of my preliminary thoughts. Thanks to everyone for a provoking series of exchanges.