A look at the future

Well, maybe not the future, but one possibility. This was Sufjan Stevens’s piece BQE at BAM last weekend, part of their Next Wave festival. Here was a top indie rock guy creating a multimedia piece, 30 minutes long, with the music written for orchestra (30 pieces or so, counting his band). And he most certainly can write for orchestra. This wasn’t the embarrassment we all too often get, when pop people venture into classical music.

Jon Pareles wrote a rave review in the New York Times, both of  BQE and the show of Stevens’s songs that followed, also with the orchestra joining in. I wasn’t quite as excited as Jon was. For me there was a disconnect between the fancy stuff in the program book about the actual BQE — the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, a grizzled highway in New York — which the piece claims to be about. It’s fun to read about how the highway was built, and how the man responsible (Robert Moses, a key figure, and not a very wholesome one, in the development of New York in past generations) built parks, but hated frivolous recreation, thus explaining the hula hoops in the piece, which juxtaposed a pleasure Moses surely hated with the road he built…well, sure. But did any of that come through in what I saw onstage? I’d have to say no, though the hula hoops were fun, and the verve of the BQE images on video was also fun. And the onstage orchestra was vividly part of the stage picture.

But then Einstein didn’t have all that much — visibly or audibly — to do with Einstein on the Beach, a classic of this kind of music-theater. And what mattered most to me was the orchestra. The players were said to be Stevens’s friends (or, more likely, a few of his friends and some of their friends), and that made a difference. They were completely into the show. Older, veteran orchestral players might not have been so excited. Anyone steeped in classical music could say that Stevens doesn’t write for orchestra the way a classical composer would, that the textures could have been more precise, that more could have been going on, in separate voices, at any one time. Older orchestra players might also be put off by Stevens’s blend of true and faux naiveté, not uncommon in indie rock, but not often found in high art.

That last point, though, only shows that Stevens isn’t aiming his stuff at older people, and the musical complaint I sketched above would be a misunderstanding, because most of all I thought the music was new, fresh, really original, comparable only to Stevens’s albums. You can hear an inadequate excerpt in a video of a radio broadcast, with an ensemble much smaller than the one at BAM, and playing that’s not all that good. Still, it might give you some idea of what’s going on, with one more caveat – -the excerpt sounds more like Philip Glass than the piece did as a whole. This is a serious piece of work, completely conceived for orchestra, and realized with a lot of color and skill.

And the piece sold out three performances in BAM’s opera house, capacity 2109, without any advertising. Yes, without any advertising. All BAM had to do was mention the piece in its first publicity for this year’s Next Wave, and word of mouth took care of the rest. The crowd was young, of course.

So why shouldn’t shows like this be part of the future of orchestras? So many people talk about reaching a young audience. Well, here’s one way to do it. Infallible, I’d say. Book Sufjan Stevens. But this won’t be easy, because Stevens is both shy, and serious. He worked, I’m told, for three weeks with his BAM ensemble. Orchestras might slot this show as something they could fly in, and present — profitably — with just one rehearsal, and Stevens, from everything I hear, wouldn’t stand for that. So maybe BQE wouldn’t be economical for orchestras. But as an investment in the future? Priceless.

And something else to think about.

Yes, this isn’t the kind of orchestral music normally heard on classical concerts, even when new works are on the program. But is that a problem? And who’s to say, once we open this door, that more pop musicians won’t write serious orchestral music, and — here’s the key point — get better at it, as they continue doing it? The classical music world doesn’t understand the culture outside it very well, especially the culture of younger people. Rather than look down our noses, saying, “Oh, it’s all right in its way, but it’s just not us,” we should understand that this is exactly the central point — it’s not like us — and open ourselves to what it is, taken on its own terms. Otherwise people like Stevens will move into classical territory outside the classical world, and leave us gasping alone, like beached whales.

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  1. Hovie says

    WNYC has posted a video of a closed rehearsal on youtube and embedded it in this page: Sufjan Stevens and his Orchestra ride the BQE (Oct 27 2007).

    Thanks. This is the same video I linked to, via Pitchfork. The ensemble seems to be smaller than the full orchestra, and the playing is tentative (understatement). So I don’t think it represents the piece quite wonderfully. But at least it gives a taste.

  2. says

    Greg, I think the last time I saw you was in the lobby of the BAM for the revival of Einstein on The Beach. I loved that show. I”m sorry I couldn’t see this one.

    I think smart orchestra managers are beginnning to understand that they can bring in a new audience by doing things such as Lord Of The Rings concerts and video game soundtrack stuff.

    Dave, that was a long time ago! But we’re still lively.

    Orchestras tend to see the Lord of the Rings and video game concerts as low-cost extras — cash cows. They may also understand that this gives them a greater role in their communities.

    I suspect events like Sufjan Stevens are in another category. They’re serious artistic creations, designed specifically for the orchestra (or in this case, for BAM). So I suspect there’s more mileage, ultimately — artistic mileage and marketing mileage, both. Orchestras don’t need any external event to piggyback on. The downside, of course, is that there’s risk (if they commission a piece from Stevens or, maybe, Nick Cave, the piece might fail), and that these projects cost more.

  3. Nathan Botts says

    The orchestra was on retainer for three weeks, monday to saturday, from 3-11pm if I’m not mistaken. From what the guys told me, Stevens learned orchestration on the fly, day to day — from his lab rats.

    Thanks, Nathan. Good information to have.

    I think that’s a wonderful plan, the arrangement you describe. It’s good for the musicians, because they have steady work. And it’s good for Stevens, because he learns how to orchestrate. Straightahead classical composers would benefit tremendously from something like this, and nobody should begrudge Stevens the chance to benefit. His previous work shows he deserves it.

  4. says

    I have been following this fascinating blog for more than a year because I, too, am concerned about the future of classical music. This is my first ever comment.

    I confess that I have been dismayed by how “gray” the classical music audience is (my usual venues are the NY Philharmonic, the Met, NYCO, and Tanglewood) and yet I’m not sure there really is an easy solution to increasing audience diversity.

    It seems to me that in music, as in so many other areas of art, entertainment, and media, today’s audiences are highly fragmented. I’m not sure that most people are willing to step outside their musical “comfort zone.” I for one am certainly guilty of that.

    When I do my annual ticket orders I look closely at the programs and there are certain genres and composers that for me are poison. Perhaps it’s because concert and opera tickets are so expensive. When I spend that much money (not to mention the time and expense of just getting there) I want to be certain that I will enjoy the event. For me that means avoiding “film night,” “light classics,” and most music by highly regarded contemporary composers such as Wuorinen and Carter. And I don’t think I would enjoy cross-over works by pop artists either. I was a teenager during the birth of rock and roll but for some reason the entire genre of pop music never held any attraction for me. I suspect that the “old gray heads” that I see at most events wouldn’t be pleased with it either. On the other hand I suspect young hipsters would probably be bored to tears with the traditional repertory if it were offered on the same program.

    I wish I could be more optimistic about the possibility of expanding the tastes of all audiences (and my own tastes as well) but it seems such an insurmountable task. Nonetheless I realize that our major institutions must continue their efforts at audience building if only to ensure their continued survival.

    Thanks, Jay. I’m grateful for your openness, and your honesty. I think you’re right about audiences being fragmented. It’s been happening in pop for a generation now. And it seems to be a feature of contemporary life. (Cf. the long tail effect, etc.)

    That makes problems for big, mainstream classical music institutions. Their audience starts to shrink (much as newspapers have fewer readers, and fewer people watch network TV). And they lose their claim to universality, which could (probably will) affect their funding.
    So of course they have to move into other areas. The one I’ve sketched out seems very promising, both for its artistic interest and becuase it reaches a new audience.

    But that doesn’t mean you have to like it! You have every right to enjoy the music you love, without straining yourself to move into new territory. Orchestras for the next decade or so, maybe for the foreseeable future, will have to please both their old audience, and new audiences. My only warning would be for you to prepare, quite possibly, for fewer concerts of the kind you like. Orchestras might not be able to afford to do as many of them in the future as they do now.