Solutions (first of an occasional series)

Problem: How to attract a young audience


I’ve written about this before, here and here. You can almost infallibly attract a younger audience if you combine classical music with indie rock. (I’m assuming, of course, that you do this well — that you choose the right indie bands, and produce the concert in the right way.) The London Sinfonietta proved this years ago, and (in the first link, above) I’ve talked about Wordless Music, a concert series in New York that also offers proof. Last year, their first, they offered just a few events in a 400-seat space, selling out all of them. This year they have 10 concerts in Manhattan, in spaces that hold 800 people, and they’ve sold these out, too, with extra performances in Brooklyn and Minneapolis.

And then last week they presented their first orchestral concerts, two performances of the same program, in a church near Lincoln Center. I went to the first of them. It was packed, completely sold out, without any advertising, promoted almost entirely by e-mail. More than a thousand people were there, and more than 90 percent bought tickets in advance. The second one, I’m told, was sold out, too. This was a young audience, and they came early, most by 7:30, clearly knowing that the shows would be crowded.

The program? All new music, by Gavin Bryars, John Adams, and Jonny Greenwood, the lead guitarist of Radiohead. And I could say lots about it — especially about the Greenwood piece, which wasn’t the usual hesitant, not quite original or competent rock-guy-writes-classical attempt, but a sharp and original essay in absorbing, biting sound — but instead I’ll cut right to the larger chase.

First, the orchestra, all young, mostly (or so I’m told) students from Eastman and Juilliard.They played with radiant focus. Clearly they loved doing this.

And next the impact of the event on seasoned people from the classical music world. This seemed to be the Wordless Music event that brought out the mainstream. I talked to — well, I shouldn’t name names. But the people I talked to play central roles in the mainstream classical biz. And both were saying that they’d never seen anything like these concerts, that this was something new, that this was a doorway into the future (my words, but that’s what they were saying). Here was the young audience everybody wants to attract, out in force, attracted to a genuine classical concert, with no advertising.

Well, OK, Jonny Greenwood’s name was an attraction, and there had been an advance piece in the New York Times the day of the first performance. But Wordless Music itself attracts people, and studies (here, for example) show that younger people won’t go to something because they read about it in a newspaper. Word of mouth is far more important. So what happened at these Wordless orchestral concerts was a surge of something new — a new audience, reacting to something new in ways that the classical music world hasn’t seen before. (Though New York saw something similar when Sufjan Stevens did his multimedia piece — featuring 30 minutes of orchestral music — back in November at BAM. The large BAM Opera House was sold out three times, again with no advertising.)

And note one important — maybe to some people devastating — twist. Normally when we talk about attracting young audiences, we mean (whether we’ve thought this through or not) attracting young people to standard classical concerts, the concerts that already exist. But maybe that’s not possible! Or at least that the classical music world, in its present state, can attract a few young people, but not very many. To attract a large young audience, you have to do something new. 

Or let me put this much more strongly. The young audience won’t come to the concerts we want them to go to. (“We” being all of us in the mainstream classical music world.) They’ll come to the concerts they want to hear. So to draw the young audience it needs, the classical music world will have to change, It’ll have to reflect current culture.

And that change, I fear, will come as a shock to people who want the classical music world to stay the way it is. One of my friends put it very strongly. He’s a leading manager of classical artists, who of course has worked a lot with major orchestras. And at the concert, as we talked about these issues, he said (I’m paraphrasing, but these were more or less his words): “I told one orchestra I’ve worked with: If you really do get a younger audience, watch out. It won’t be an audience you like.” Meaning, of course, that it won’t be an audience that wants what orchestras normally offer.

There’s lots to think about here.

Starting with this: Since our culture, over the past generation, has so drastically changed, why should we expect the future of classical music to be anything like the past?

[Note: in an earlier version of this post, I said the church held 800 people, and had been 80% sold out in advance. But the true figures, I’ve learned, were even more impressive than that, and they’re given above. Thanks to Ronen Givony, who runs Wordless Music, for setting me straight.]

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  1. Michael Wittmann says

    I truly appreciate this post. In my family, I’ve got a jazz musician (Karlheinz Miklin ), a drummer (also Karlheinz Miklin, but Jr.), and a violinist/violist who is part of several ensembles (StringFizz and Tonkünstler Niederösterreich, among others). We talk about music a lot, since I play a “modern music” radio show that moves freely includes minimalism, Steve Roden , Sigur Ros and Radiohead, Sufjan Stevens doing his orchestral pop thing (“Illinois” had one minimalist-like piece on it…), and so on.

    What you’re describing is simply… what’s happening. When you have a group like StringFizz recording quartet versions of Mozart AND Randy Newman songs AND Elvis Costello’s Juliet Letters, then the you know the rules are changing. (Similarly, for Karlheinz Miklin Jr., you have jazz and indie rock mixing it up pretty heavily and successfully). Genremerging is the norm these days. That it’s happening in “classical” music is not a shocker. After all, Steve Reich got “remixed” not that long ago, Philip Glass worked with singer-songwriters in the 80s already, and the whole NYC Downtown Music scene was such a genre mashup that it’s hard to place some people.

    It’s no surprise, then, that a concert with Greenwood, Bryars, and Adams works. Just listen to the many versions of “Sinking of the Titanic,” from orchestra to the most recent release, which included turntables.

    It’s a great time to be alive.

  2. says

    Happy New Year, Greg. I hope your move wasn’t too onerous.

    Interesting post you’ve put up here. I’m reminded of three concerts we did with my community orchestra in Tennessee back in the early 80s. They all sold out, and the orchestra seemed to love playing them. We did a straigtht pops concert with a country singer from Knoxville. The only fly in the ointment there was a sound man who had a grudge against the new development director of the college and made the sound mix so loud a lot of people walked out–not because of the music, but because of the volume.

    The second was a concert featuring the McLain Family Bluegrass Band from Berea, Kentucky performing the Concerto for Bluegrass Band and Orchestra by Philip Rhoads. We also did an excerpt from Appalachian Spring on that one.

    The third concert featured the governor as piano soloist, including a classical medley and Nashville medley arranged by a friend from Nashville. That concert also included the Schubert Unfinished, a Dvorak Slavonic Dance and Wallingford Riegger’s Dance Rhythms.

    The hardest part of that concert was getting the music for the Riegger, but that is another story, and a sorry one at that.

    The audiences loved the concerts, and the musicians all did too. They didn’t feel compromised, though occasionally there was the ironic smile. The audiences included young and old, concert veterans and newbies.

    We were playing to the culture of that town and that area. Orchestras need to get to know the cutture of their particular area, including the underground culture and the folk culture.

    Thanks for asking about the move (and of course for everything else). Luckily, we didn’t fully move to Washington, for Anne’s job. She won’t spend full time there, and I’ll join her when I can, but not every week. We have a very nice place there, so it’s easy to settle in. But most of our stuff is still in New York!

    That’s the arrangement for the moment. We’ll see what the future brings.

  3. Eric Lin says

    Hey Greg,

    I think one of the key factors for these Classical/Indie Rock (whatever you call them) concerts to work and be genuinely interesting is for there to be some inherent connection between the bands and pieces that are programmed together. (either showing a certain pop influence on the concert piece or vice versa in the case of Johnny Greenwood). I’m strongly in favor of such endeavors. They don’t reek of “crossover” because they are have a strong level of artistic integrity.

    On the other hand, I find concerts with the NY Phil or whatever backing a washed-up folk singer from the 60s-70s or even a metal band wanting some orchestral arrangements to be disheartening and appalling.

    I certainly agree with you about that last point. And I’m not much impressed with pop stars who write classical pieces without knowing how. (We can all supply some names.)

  4. Michael Norrish says

    I think you’re absolutely right about this, and I don’t think it’s something the classical world should be scared of. Dressing up the “same old” in condescending “this-should-appeal-to-those-hoodlums” ways is never going to work. But. If this is the way of the future, does that mean leave live concerts featuring Brahms symphonies are never going to happen? If the BS (that’s Brahms symphonies) don’t appeal to the big audiences, do they deserve big philanthropic subsidies from governments or wealthy donors?

    A minority taste probably only deserves fairly small amounts of money. But how will the existing “old-style concerts of BS” infrastructure adjust to this new reality? Orchestras are expensive enough as it is; do the poor players have to get used to even less money? Or do they put on the BS performances out of the goodness of their hearts when they’re not playing the stuff that does draw a crowd?

    I am not asking these questions in a hostile way. I love BS (but couldn’t resist the acronym!), and have recordings that aren’t going away. Nor is it as if I have a long history of attending live performances anyway. Personally, the collapse of the BS performance infrastructure probably won’t make any real difference to me. But it’d be sad for some, and might well impact the creation of new recordings.

    I think the mainstream classical music world will probably shrink. One German scholar, working from demographic studies of German orchestra audiences, predicts those audiences will shrink 36% in the next 20 years, simply because the coming generation isn’t going to go as often as the past generation did.

    You’re so right about funding. Even funders and potential donors are starting to ask the question you asked.

    But I hope Brahms symphony performances won’t disappear. I’d love to hear some done by the same musicians who’ll be playing concerts like the one I described in the post. I’ve been at a Wordless Music concert, in fact, when the classical piece was a Bach partita, played by a good pianist. The crowd really did go wild for it. Maybe putting Brahms next to Jonny Greenwood will give Brahms some new spirit.

  5. Gary Hill says


    As is so often the case, you are spot-on! Indeed, the institution of classical music–from music education through professionally presented events–is what must change, not the music, per se.

    Thanks for framing the issue so clearly.

    Gary Hill

    Thanks, Gary!

  6. says

    Wonderful! This is a reminder that when an art form develops something new, it isn’t necessarily like the art that guardians of tradition would have thought of, and it may not be art that they would like. The new art, based on new assumptions, may appeal to a different crowd.

    Unexpected new music has happened so many times in the past, encountering resistance from traditionalists so often, that this very kind of change (or disconnect) is part of classical music’s mythology. Funny that the mythology has come to encourage conservation instead of exploration.

    Maybe an organization could focus on preserving vitality, exploration, and creativity instead of preserving a particular repertoire, but this would be a big change for classical music institutions, which are organized around teaching and performing specific repertories. Curiosity about unexplored possibilities is not a big value, so it is wonderful to hear about an organization trying something genuinely different.

    Hi, John. What an eloquent and necessary point you made here — about preserving vitality instead of repertoire. Nothing against the old repertoire, but it needs to be played with vitality! Established classical music organizations usually define themselves by their mission, which turns out largely to be playing the music of the past. But if they functioned according to your idea…wow. That’s a classical music world I’d be thrilled to be part of.

  7. Katrina S Axelrod says

    The Arts will come to life when the young people of this country are represented in the performances, concerts, exhibits, etc. is a blog that is creating awareness for more and enhanced Arts programming and Arts Education in the public schools. The country cries out for innovation and creativity. Our Arts infrastructure in our public schools could provide that and so much more. The public schools will provide the orchestras with musicians and then the orchestras will look like America. The public schools cannot provide the re-energizing of American without first awakening the creative and innovative capacities of our children. For those children in stressed communities- the harsh neighborhoods turn off feelings, the Arts nurture and support them. It is high time that this country receives the benefit of the creativity of all of its residents. Please advocate for more Arts and Arts Education in the schools in your community. They are our public schools and our children.

  8. says

    “The young audience won’t come to the concerts we want them to go to. (“We” being all of us in the mainstream classical music world.) They’ll come to the concerts they want to hear.”



    It seems this is a lesson about their customers that most anyone selling things has to learn from time to time (me, no doubt, included), so those in mainstream classical music needn’t feel “special.”

    Hi, Bill. Good point.

    I don’t know if people in the classical music world feel special. I think they’re in the position of a client a consultant friend of mine described. My friend helped his client see some more or less inevitable facts about the client’s situation. The client agreed that these facts were correct. And then said that, correct or not, that they were “unacceptable.” But the client had just said there wasn’t any other way to see the situation! Talk about denial…

  9. Paul A. Alter says

    My name is Beck Messer. Actually, that’s not my real name, but I think it is wise to conceal my true identity because I’m about to express opinions that run contrary to just about everything that’s been said so far.

    OK, so concerts featuring rock musicians with concert orchestras sell out 800-seat halls. Great! I love it! But I very much doubt that it is the way of the future for orchestras. (I also think that such concerts lose money when professional sidemen perform; anybody got the stats?)

    Any musical event that “speaks” to people is great. I think there should be as many of them as possible. But they are not to be confused with “symphony concerts” and they should never replace them.

    There’s a standard clause that mutual funds include in their brochures to the effect that “past performance is no guarantee of future

    performance.” That is certainly true of music. But, in the past, I have watched as “crossover” efforts, one after the other, go belly up. Think about Gunther Schuller’s “third stream,” or pops concerts at which the people who came to hear Miles Davis barely endured the classical pieces and those who came to hear the Poet and Peasant squirmed thru Davis. How long has it been since you heard the symphony for swing band that Tommy Dorsey commissioned or the concerto for clarinet and swing band that Artie Shaw recorded or the symphony for pit orchestra (whose composer I forget)? I am not aware of any bridge they created between musical genres.

    I greatly treasure Stravinsky’s “Ebony Concerto,” inspired by the Woody Herman band, but it is hardly to be confused with “popular” music.

    During the 40s and 50s, I kept hoping that somebody would write a concerto grosso for swing band with symphony orchestra. Well, Rolf Lieberman finally did, and it was hideous; one listen was more than enough.

    Sarah Brightman seems to attract large crowds when she appears with large musical groups and — although I don’t care to listen — I am glad that she provides gigs for instrumental players. But to what extent does she improve the health of symphony orchestras?

    One last hostile comment before I draw this hodge-podge to a close (the subject is too big to be covered in any single posting): when the Saint Louis SO brought Messian’s “Turangalila” to Carnegie Hall, audiences stayed away in droves.

    I will now slink away, muttering, “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.”

    Beck Messer

    Yo, Beck! Thanks for all of this. I don’t think concerts like this are meant to replace orchestra concerts. It’s just that in the future, orchestra concerts as we know them won’t be as sustainable as they’ve been in the past. There will be less audience, and less funding. So they’re going to fade away, at least a little. Or at least shrink — we’ll see fewer of them.

    Meanwhile, new kinds of performances are springing up spontaneously. The concerts I described are an example. And yes, you’re right — and very perceptive — to say that they wouldn’t be profitable if the musicians were getting union scale. But that’s a problem for classical music across the board. Money to support standard concerts, with union orchestras, is getting harder to find. And the new model, with the kind of concert I described, leaves many financial questions unanswered. In fact, one big task for classical music in the future is to develop a financial model that will allow musicians to make a living from playing the new kind of concerts.

    That said, I think orchestras should be exploring new kinds of concerts, to replace some of the concerts they give now. That’s one way they can move into the future where there won’t be demand or funding enough for the long seasons orchestras currently play.

    Finally, I don’t think the event I described has anything to do with crossover. Crossover is always, in my experience, a self-conscious activity. Painfully so! Somebody wants some kind of hybrid to exist — the way Gunther Schuller wanted “third stream” concerts, combining elements of jazz and classical music — and then that someone goes out and creates the hybrid, whether there’s demand for it or not.

    The Wordless Music concerts are quite different. They exist because of things that have sprung up spontaneously. Demand really does exist to hear pop and classical music together, as long as the pop music is truly edgy. And there are plenty of pop bands (Radiohead is the most famous example) that sound more like contemporary classical music than like anything on the pop charts. So there’s no need for anyone to cross over, no need for any classical people to reach over to pop, or for pop people to reach over to classical. The blend has already taken place, spontaneously. That’s why it works so well.

  10. says

    Maybe I’m playing devil’s advocate here, but, hear me out:

    Why do we need to artificially seed the classical music audience with young people who don’t want to be there?

    I went to hear Boulez conduct Boulez at Carnegie last week, and the audience filled Zankel hall (what, a few hundred seats?). There were young and old people there. But it was full, and everyone who was there was totally into it. So why should we try to tempt people who are not interested into listening to (in this instance) modernist music by pandering to their taste for pop music?

    Maybe the audience for classical music SHOULD be small. Like the audience for certain popular artists will always remain small (Ani di Franco, for instance).

    I think, in the money grab cultural institutions are all consumed by, we forget that size doesn’t always matter to the quality of the art. A bigger audience will not necessarily lead to better music or better concerts.

    Why can’t the classical world accept that it is not going to ever be as popular as popular music (as we know it) is. I’m pretty sure the people who naturally gravitate toward classical music will find their way to the concert hall, as I have, as most of us have.

    Why do we feel the need to be evangelical, other than to satisfy the box office quota of large institutions, or to convince people that our tastes are better?

    At Zankel Hall, never once did I feel like, “Gee, it’s too bad there aren’t two thousand more people here.”

    Why look for a new classical audience? Because the classical world, looking into the future, can’t sustain itself financially the way things are going now. Don’t be deceived by what you see at prominent concerts in New York. New York still has a developed classical music scene, in a way that other cities mostly don’t. In particular, it has a large professional audience from the classical music world, which if you include classical music students, is actually quite large. That certainly accounted for the sold-out houses at the four Elliott Carter opera performances at the Miller Theater. I felt that I must have known around a quarter of the people by name, the night I attended.

    And it reallyl doesn’t matter how much you or I or anyone complains about what you call “money grab cultural institutions.” No matter how clever we want to be at their expense, classical music costs a lot of money, and the future doesn’t look all that rosy for raising it.
    The problems, looking into the future (and I need to summarize all this once again in the blog) are these. First, the audience has been aging for around 50 years. Younger people just aren’t coming into it at the same rate that older people are leaving it. Thus it’s going to be smaller in years to come. And in fact, it’s already been shrinking, for at least a decade. Certainly statistics from the orchestra world (both published and secret) show this. There’s been a small bump upward in the past couple of years, but that’s largely due to smart use of marketing tools and research that classical music organizations never used before. So they’re maximizing what they get from their base audience, and drawing in a few new people, even some younger ones. But there’s no sign that they can continue to draw the much higher numbers they saw as recently as 1990. Or even 2000.
    And there are many problems with future funding. A smaller audience means fewer donors. Foundations and corporations have made it clear that they’re increasingly more interested in funding social causes, and less interested in funding high art. The rise of a new generation of wealthy people has shifted the center of money and power in New York from the Upper East Side to Tribeca, with a corresponding shift from an old arts culture to a new downtown culture. The people in the new downtown culture, the new moneyed elite of New York, don’t go to classical concerts, and presumably won’t be giving money to classical music nearly to the extent the old generation on the East Side did. I’m sure the same pattern can be replicated in other cities.

    Finally, there’s much talk these days about eliminating the tax deduction for the arts, because it’s felt that this simply shifts money from taxes into arts activities that rich people like. Instead of into social causes that make peoples’ lives better. We can agree or disagree, but the fact that many people think this way — including a number of billionaires, who refuse to give money to the arts –suggests that there will be less money given to the arts in the next generation. Probably less than classical music organizations need to stay alive.

    As for “pandering” to pop music tastes, this is really a little crazy. What in my post would give you the idea that any such thing was going on? Or do you think that any interest in pop music is by definition low-class, so that any move toward pop music on the part of the classical music world could only be pandering?

    The truth is very different. The bonds between classical music and alternative pop have been growing spontaneously. This happens first in the music itself. Pop bands are making music that sounds more like contemporary classical music than any kind of pop. And young classical composers are writing music that draws a lot on pop. Most young classical musicians — pretty close to all of them, from my experience teaching at music schools — listen to pop music, even more than they listen to classical music.
    So no pandering is going on. Ronen Givony, who started the Wordless Music series and runs it, wasn’t looking for some way to bring younger audiences to classical music, and decided to “pander” to their taste in pop to bring them in the door. Go ask him! His concerts reflect his own taste. He wanted a place where he himself could hear all the kinds of music he likes. And obviously he’s not alone, because the series has been a smash success. Now, from the classical music point of view, the concerts are instructive, because they show how a young audience will come to concerts that might include Bach or Shostakovich, and cheer for that music, even if they normally wouldn’t listen to it. But this rather limited, classical music insider perspective shouldn’t be confused with the reason why the concerts exist. This is a spontaneous movement, which takes many forms, and one of the reasons it’s exciting is that the concerts themselves can be. Or haven’t you gone to any of them?

    Footnote: Ani Di Franco can afford to play in small places. With her fan base, her shows, and her CD/download sales, she’s able to make a living. She’s especially able to play a lot of small shows. The Boulez concert at Zankel that you described costs a lot more money to put on than any Ani Di Franco show. Odds are that only a large institution could afford to put it on. Ticket sales won’t begin to pay the costs of the performance, as they would, over the long run, for Ani Di Franco. And yes, there are plenty of small classical concerts (young string quartets in small venues), but if you look at the financing, it’s hard to see how anyone could make a living playing these events.

  11. says

    I find this idea and approach intriguing, but I must be honest and say I fear the interpretation of the idea in the real world, especially where the American orchestra is concerned. This is the same idea that spawned “A Night at the Pops” in almost every orchestra in the country. It may have been fresh and relevant when it was first conceived, but it has devolved into the has-been torch singers, folk artists, and jazz musicians’ last hurrah.

    Without a major change in attitude from an organization that includes who’s on staff, who’s on the board and perhaps the very mission itself, I see this “new” attempt at cross polination going down the same road as the Pops phenomenon.

    Wendy, I’m sympathetic to your concerns here, but I also wonder why you’d offer such a strong opinion about a kind of concert that I suspect you haven’t experienced personally. These events, first of all, have nothing to do with established kinds of pops concerts. Pops concerts were created by orchestras that wanted to reach a wider audience, sell more tickets, and even make some money. The concerts I’m talking about were created by people who have a burning artistic interest in the music they’re playing, and see the pop side of the equation as artistically equal to the classical side.

    Secondly, these concerts have nothing to do with orchestras. They’ve arisen completely on their own, outside of any normal orchestral setting. The only hint of an exception might be the London Sinfonietta, but since that’s an orchestra that only plays new music, there’s obviously not much comparison to the standard kind of orchestra.

    The germ of the phenomenon I’m describing is something that arose spontaneously over the past couple of decades, far from the classical music world. This is the rise of pop bands (like Radiohead) that sound more like contemporary classical music than like anything on the pop charts. They aren’t remotely like anything ever played on any orchestral pops concert. In fact, the pops audience would flee in horror from the sounds these bands make.

    So if these concerts arise spontaneously far from the orchestra world, why does it matter whether orchestras can do them, or whether orchestra pops concerts have degenerated. Something very new and different is going on.

  12. says

    If the repertoire is good, the audience is there, it’s a good idea to get young audiences into music they can relate to. Audiences born in the 1980s and 1990s don’t feel the same way about going to concerts the way we do from prior generations, so it is in everyone’s best interested to experiment and create ways to make the concert-going experience relevant to young society today. Personally, I’d be happy to look at new concerto scores for piano and orchestra written by composers that fuse the styles you mention. If there is such an audience as you describe, then surely a new brand of repertoire will be come forth to please the masses.

  13. robert berger says

    Our orchestras are not

    to blame for the fact

    that so many young

    people have no interest in Classical Music.

    Many unfortunately

    have little or no intellectual curiosity.

    It’s not their fault,

    but their environment.

    If they would just keep an open mind and attend

    orchestra concerts etc,they might really

    enjoy them.And our

    orchestras are not resistant to change.

    They do not just play music by Beethoven,

    Brahms and Tchaikovsky,but music

    by a very wide range of composers,living and dead.I’m all for them

    experimenting with ways to bring in new

    audiences,as long as the

    music is not dumbed down.

    Is the problem that younger people have no intellectual curiosity, or is it that they use their intellectual curiosity in ways that don’t include classical music?

    People often make comments that disparage the younger generation. I wonder what the basis for these comments is. What’s the evidnece that younger people have no intellectual curiosity? Maybe it’s their critics who ought to be more curious! Curious, that is, about what younger people really are like.

  14. Paul A. Alter says

    I’m not sure that what I’m about to say is relevant, but I want to say it anyway — it’s a long-standing gripe of mine.

    Didn’t “classical music” use to be more closely related to pop music — specifically the dance music that was in vogue? Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, et al, wrote a lot of music that could actually be danced to. Tchaikovsky incorporated some great marches into his symphonies. As for Joe Strauss, a great composer who rarely gets played correctly, even I can dance to his waltzes, and find the experience as exhilarating as hell!

    Mass audiences can respond to dance music, but as classical music became more and more isolated from dance, it becomes less and less accessible.

    I wonder which came first, music or dance. Did somebody hear music and start dancing or did someone watch people dancing and then write music for it?

    Some of the greatest chamber music ever written was the dance-band arrangements for the dance and swing orchestras of the early part of the last century. So I ain’t gonna argue with statements about how “classical” some of the new pop music sounds; I’m sure that’s true. But I hope beyond measure that the tradition of the symphony concert, comprising a range of music from the earliest to the recently written, will endure.

    And, incidentally, I just read an essay by a “Midge somebody” saying she doesn’t much care for Brahms. I can respect that; she doesn’t say Brahms is no good, she just says she doesn’t enjoy him and explains why. In some respects she reminds me of (and this is a compliment) Pauline Kael, erstwhile movie reviewer for (I believe) the New York magazine who didn’t so much review movies as review her reaction to them. It’s probably the most honest form of reviewing that I know of.


    Classical music used to be much closer to everyday life, in every way. Including its relationship to music people danced to.

    And, Paul, I’m very glad you liked that piece by “Midge somebody,” otherwise known as Anne Midgette, my wife. She wrote it for the Washington Post, and I think it’s a wonderful piece for many reasons, emphatically including the reason you liked it.

  15. Wendy Collins says

    We don’t need to play this out in the comments, but let me assure you my musical tastes are varied. I attended the Wordless Music performance of Nico Muhly in Minneapolis in fact, as well as countless other cross-over performances of all shapes and sizes. Ironically I’m less versed in the orchestral world than any other musical universe, but I can understand how you would assume that my interests are much more narrow than you thought.

    In any case, I think that I read your use of the word orchestra too literally which is why I responded as I did, but I won’t give up my assertion completely.

    I’m not understanding how this is different than attempts in the past to meld what’s hip with classical music. There are amazing examples of how exciting this marriage can be (Tommy, Days of Future Past, Bird with Strings, Frank Zappa, Eleanor Rigby), but none of these have blossomed the way you describe.

    I guess my question is, what’s different now, and how new a paradigm is this latest attempt than those that have come before?

    Wendy, I’m so sorry I misinterpreted you. Thanks for your understanding. And you’re ahead of me — I haven’t heard a note from Nico Muhly, and I certainly should.

    I think the new paradigm is this — the current blend of classical and pop has a large audience already interested in it, an audience that doesn’t see these concerts as a step in any new direction, but as a natural extension of what they already like. You mentioned Zappa — classical music groups have often enough played his music, thinking they were making some extraordinary step into the pop music world. But Zappa was, in pop, a very specialized figure, who had an audience that would come out for him, but not for other things that some outsider might think were like him. The new audience I’m talking about has far more eclectic taste, and much more wide-ranging curiosity. I think a key to understand them is to also understand that many young classical composers occupy the same territory — they, too, combine classical and pop music, without even thinking much about it.

    There’s a book on the history of how high culture and popular culture have come together — “From Montmartre to the Mudd Club,” by Bernard Gendron. I think it shows that the present situation is something really new.

  16. says

    Hi Greg-

    To reiterate, I was playing a devil’s advocate to a significant degree. But you’re right. I shouldn’t have used the word “pander.” It suggests a tone I didn’t mean to use.

    I certainly listen to more pop than classical music; even as a composer of the classical/experimental variety. I don’t think pop music is low class by any stretch of the imagination, in fact, to the contrary, people on both sides tend to overlook the artistry inherent in the work of some of our greatest popular musicians.

    But I keep these worlds–classical (or concert, or serious, or whatever we want to call it) and popular–separate. They satisfy such different needs, personally and culturally. I just don’t think we can approach them the same way from a programming perspective, and certainly not from a listening perspective.

    I have not gone to the Wordless Music Series, but I don’t think that discounts my opinions about the subject at hand. I’ve been to countless other concerts (largely part of the contemporary dance scene) where classical, popular and experimental genres of music are presented side by side regularly. So, for me, the idea if Wordless Music isn’t particularly groundbreaking, although it may be very good. But, yes, I do hope to attend one of these days.


    Ryan, thanks for your very temperate answer to my somewhat intemperate reply to your comment. And thanks also for clarifying the issues we’re talking about. If you think that classical music and pop music occupy separate cultural worlds, then of course you wouldn’t think what Wordless Music does is as important or ground-breaking as I think it is.

    So here’s where we differ, and it’s certainly an honorable disagreement. I wouldn’t disagree that Maazel conducting “Die Walkure” at the Met, or the Carter opera at Miller, occupy a very different cultural space from pop music. But then when I look at the history of classical music — and especially the history of how classical music was actually performed and received in the past — it strikes me that classical music functioned, in the past, in some of the ways that pop music functioned today. For instance, the way the audience reacted to Baroque opera (see for instance James Johnson’s book, “Listening in Paris”) during the Baroque era isn’t like anything we’d encounter in the classical world today. Or I think of the great friendship between Brahms and Johann Strauss Jr., the way they’d hang out and drink beer together, the way Brahms loved Strauss waltzes — and made a lot of money writing what at the time were thought of as popular piano pieces. It seems to me that for these reasons (and many more), the connection between popular music and classical music in the past was vivid and alive, and people (especially before the 19th century) wouldn’t have thought they occupied different cultural worlds.
    I think that was healthy, and I think it’s very hopeful that something similar — at least in my view — is happening now. And, to (maybe boringly) reiterate what I’ve said here several times, I see it happening on both sides. That is, there are pop bands that sound like new classical music, pop figures like Jonny Greenwood who can create music in both genres, and pop fans who easily respond to new classical pieces. And, on the other hand, then there are young classical musicians who are completely at home with pop, and young classical composers who write pieces that are infused with current pop music. One composer whose name we both know, one of the leading younger composers in America, told me he dreamed of writing an hour-long hiphop piece, for himself (as rapper) and acoustic bass. Ideas like this aren’t at all uncommon.

    So it seems to me that the future of classical music includes a lot of cultural fusing, between things that are now thought of as classical, and things that are now thought of as pop. And also that to many younger classical musicians (including many who played in the Worldless orchestra concert) the two areas aren’t as culturally distinct as used to be thought.

  17. says

    Yes. Yes. Yes. I so appreciate what you have to say! And the link between music like Adams and indie rock may be that this is where cultural influences come together. I have often observed that the music we hear in new music concerts and what my teenagers listen to is not so wildly different. In fact, in the opening night concert of the new performing arts center in Orange County, my children were in the audience. They slept during Beethoven and Midori and were invigorated by Philip Glass. Yet, can I get them to attend a Pacific Symphony concert even if I tell them it’s Glass they will hear? Not very easily.

    That last question is very, very important. It’s not just the music that’s being played. It’s the feeling of the concert. If Philip Glass came to town with his ensemble, your children — and certainly anyone of college age — would very likely feel comfortable attending. The whole thing looks and feels different from classical concerts, and attracts a different kind of people. Likewise if the Bang on a Can All-Stars came to town.

    This is why savvy classical music groups sometimes start concert series that look and feel nothing like their main events, to attract a young audience. I know a chamber music series in the midwest that created an offshoot, to play new music in the local art museum, a very modern space, in an attempt to attract younger people. Simply progamming something new in your established space, for your established audience, might not work at all. I know one music series in a major midwestern series presented an Arvo Part concert some years ago. In that city, there’s a thriving new music group, but that new music group’s audience wouldn’t come to hear the Arvo Part concert, because they just wouldn’t come to the series that presented it.

    Very important food for thought here.

  18. says

    Hello Professor Sandow,

    I say professor because I am a student at Eastman and to call you Greg would be slightly arrogant of me. I wanted to take your ALP course this semester but I had registered too late and all the spots were filled.

    I find all of your points not only fascinating, but also true, especially about the spontaneity of the young composers joining together classical music with pop influences. In fact, in my upcoming senior recital I am playing a piece called “Going Home to Venus” by Caleb Burhans, and I swear, even though it is for solo viola I can distinctly hear a rock group backing it up. I am also trying to cross some of those boundaries between pop and classical in my own way.

    I would like to point out the differences in ambience and mood of the various types of music venues. Pop concerts have light shows that can’t possibly be healthy for human eyes, jazz clubs have a cool lounge atmosphere with little tables, while classical concerts are always in an extremely dark room/hall where you aren’t allowed to breathe too loud. Since today’s younger generation is used to pop concerts and going to bars and clubs where the musical event shares a social aspect, they are not going to want to sit in a stuffy environment like a symphony concert. I don’t even like to, and I am a conservatory student!

    I would like to make the claim that most of the reason younger audiences don’t show up to the symphony concerts is primarily because of the stuffy atmosphere. I think the Wordless Music series has proved that die hard fans of Radiohead can also cheer on Bach and Adams. Have any orchestras ever tried something like an entire season of informal concerts? Maybe not penguin suits, maybe scrap the no coughing rule, maybe not lights out during the performance. Also the clapping traditions can get rather complicated…. I don’t know exactly what, but something that breaks the ice a little, or maybe a lot. I think we need to tear down that fourth wall. I already know of people that are diametrically opposed to my point of view.

    Thanks for reading!


    Nick, you’re welcome to call me Greg. I always invite my students to do that. Some don’t feel comfortable doing it, which is their choice, but I’m happy when they talk to me the way they’d talk to each other.

    And I’m really sorry you’re not in my class! Maybe if we’re both at Eastman next year, you can take it. Though if it’s any consolation, I think you’ve already come to many of the conclusions I have.

    I think there are lots of pieces written now that have a rock feeling to them. Sometimes consciously, sometimes not. But it’s hard to imagine why this would NOT happen. Classical music has always reflected the culture it’s part of, and so now that means reflecting the sounds of pop and rock, and jazz, and hiphop, and — fill in every style of music you care about.

    As for the people diametrically opposed to you, I meet these people, too. And I think there’s an understandable split between those who want classical music to continue the way it’s been — though with a renewed audience — and those who want to see it evolve into something truly contemporary. I sympathize with the people in group one, but I fear they won’t get their wish. I’m reminded again of the comments made by the manager I quoted in my post, who has worked at a high level with a couple of major orchestras. He said he’d tell people at these orchestras that if they did manage to attract the young audience they talk about, it wouldn’t be an audience they liked. Meaning that it would have very different tastes from the audience they’re used to.

  19. says

    Hi Greg-

    Let me say that I very much appreciate this conversation, as the deeper we get into it, the more I am coming to understand what is at the heart of my hesitation toward today’s “classical music solutions,” so to speak, which, to me, are dangerously falling into a single trend.

    It seems that these solutions invariably favor TONAL MUSIC. I’m using the word “tonal” in a broad sense; I would consider middle eastern music, even with its microtonal inflections, as music of the tonal variety, as would I consider most pop music to be of the same category; every pop song in the world, even of the noise kind, has some kind of tonic or gravity to a fundamental bass tone, or at the very least, uses diatonic chord progressions as the basis for composition. Humans like tonality: it is fundamentally natural, and strikes the human ear, and heart, in innumerable ways. Bon.

    But there is no popular idiom that has fully embraced pure atonality, which leads me to believe that atonality, rather than being a state of tonal affairs that occurs along a logical, historical progression/continuum of aesthetic events, presumably leading to a new development beyond it, is something quite different altogether.

    I think we have all found that there is no development beyond atonality. It seems like an end to a line of historical progression. (Of course, I am including microtonalism and noise/silence music as atonal; anything that endemically avoids both diatonic constructions and tonic gravity.) At least, that’s what, I feel, most critics of atonal systems have surmised about the situation.

    But let me propose, rather, that, instead of being an end, from which there is no other direction to turn but BACK, atonalities are actually a kind of ALTERNATIVISM. If tonality will always be the main musical voice of all cultures of the world–as it is today, no matter what subtle variance musicologists may discover-then atonality will always be an alternative method of musical experience. It is “the other,” not the end.

    That being understood, if the current climate of the classical music hall is to favor music that turns back, or “looks back,” as Alex Ross said on Charlie Rose last week, then it is squeezing opportunities for atonal, or truly alternative music, to be accepted into concert performance. And that is a dangerous environment to foment. If atonality, if alternative tonal composition cannot find a home in the classical concert hall, then where will it find a home?

    I should make clear that, I don’t actually oppose trying to engage younger audiences in classical music. But all the solutions that are being proposed, almost across the board, emphasize a resistance to atonality, and, instead, almost relieved, promote virtually tonal composition.

    Thanks for engaging.



    I capitalized words or phrases I would normally have italicized.

    Hi, Ryan. Thanks to you, too, for this conversation.

    And that’s a worthy point about atonality. I think it’s overdue for a revivial, and also (long historical discussion possible here) has to be broadened beyond the usual Schoenberg/serial music view of it. There was atonal music written in the 1920s in America with an entirely different musical and aesthetic philosophy.

    But back to the point you were making. I think you’d be happy to know that the Jonny Greenwood piece on the Wordless Music orchestra concert was largely atonal, or at least so dissonant that the tonal/atonal distinction stops meaning very much. It’s also interesting that Stockhausen continues to be an inspiration to pop and jazz musicians, and especially (or so I’m told) to the current generation of people making dance music.

    And then there’s an atonal tradition of sorts in pop, crossing over into noise. Captain Beefheart, Lou Reed’s “Metal Machine Music,” Neil Young’s feedback album, some of Sonic Youth, Einsturbende Neubaten, Laibach, and I’m sure many, many more bands I’m not informed enough to know about. I could include some metal, too — the styles that descended from speed and death metal. I think if there’s any audience for atonal music, some of it would surely come from the pop side. The people who went to the Wordless concert would be much more open to atonal music than the standard concert audience. I remember, too, teaching at the University of Minnesota in 1988, and finding that the only students who liked Milton Babbitt’s music (when I assigned it in a graduate course on music and politics) were the punk kids.

    Hilary Hahn has recorded the Schoenberg violin concerto, advocates it passionately, and is very interested in finding a new, younger audience. The recording will be released in not too long. When she was asked what she thought about the piece being 12-tone, her answer was “I don’t care.” I can imagine that the younger audinece she might find would think the same thing. I can also see that a deeper engagement with the music might bring curiosity about what the 12-tone system is, but better not to care about it than to get creeped out about it, as seems to happen in the standard concert world, and reject any music that uses it. Besides, the classic 12-tone composers would have loved listeners who didn’t care. They were vehement about the 12-tone system not mattering to listeners. Or even to performers! There’s an important account of Webern coaching a pianist in his Piano Variations, Op. 27, and he refused to discuss the 12-tone structure of the piece, saying it didn’t matter, had nothing to do with performance. (He also danced and sang, and wanted even more expression — wider dynamics, bigger tempo changes — than is marked in the score.)

    One other thought occurs to me. Atonal music is, at this point, very much part of the past. I’m not saying it doesn’t play any role in the present, but the classic atonal composers, whether Schoenberg, Webern, Berio, or Carter, Boulez, belong to history now. (Even Carter and Bolez, who are still alive! Their styles were formed in an earlier era.) So it’s not completely clear to me that we’re moving backward in emphasizing tonal music now. Especially since much of the tonal music being written now doesn’t really resemble the tonal music of the past. (Arvo Part, for instance. Or that marvelous piece about the little match girl, from the Hans Christian Andersen story, that David Lang wrote for the Theater of Voices.) When I hear someone writing a new piece that harks back to the second Viennese school, to me that’s as much a move toward the past as would be a piece written in a 19th century romantic style. It’s just a different part of the past. I don’t care, at this point, whether concert audiences have caught up with the second Viennese past — it’s still the past to me. And the lovely people in the normal concert audience wouldn’t be embracing anything contemporary if they started to like it.

  20. Eric Lin says

    “Atonal music is, at this point, very much part of the past. I’m not saying it doesn’t play any role in the present, but the classic atonal composers, whether Schoenberg, Webern, Berio, or Carter, Boulez, belong to history now.”

    Yes, Greg I think you’re very much correct on this point, but I think we should clarify that it’s atonal music of a very specific kind–absolute atonality where NO pitch hierarchy exists at all.

    There are a bunch of composers writing very exciting music today that would probably be branded ‘atonal’ by lots of listeners that’s really quite different than the early-mid 20th century atonality. I think this music is very much alive and contemporary. Some Ades, composers like Georg F. Haas, Magnus Lindberg or even Ligeti. I’m not quite sure how I’d define their musical language. It’s certainly not tonal…even in a very loose definition: a huge C-major triad or some other quasi-consonant entity can appear but it doesn’t resolve or even want to resolve. You just don’t hear it that way. But neither is it atonal in the sense of Boulez. It really does live in some undefined, (and exciting) world in-between that’s very hard to pin down.

    Very interesting, Eric. I think you’re right. One way I’d define the difference might be like this. The older atonal music — Schoenberg and Boulez would be models of this, along with Carter and Babbitt — essentially defined dissonance as just another kind of harmony. In fact, the very concept, “dissonance” seems meaningless in their music. These composers use the harmonies they use, and we’re not supposed to draw any conclusions from that. (Apart, of course, from charting the evolution of the harmony in any piece by means that often seem mathematical.) More precisely, we’re not supposed to draw conclusions from the fact that these harmonies are highly and above all consistently dissonant, compared to the harmony of tonal music.
    But in the composers you name, Eric, I think the dissonant sound of dissonance is a positive value. The last time I heard an Ades piece (played by the Berlin Philarharmonic), I thought he must have loved the massive sound of notes piled up against each other. This was certainly what the American dissonant composers of the 1920s liked, including Ives. Play a huge tone cluster on the piano — with both your forearms — to Ives or Dane Rudhyar, and very likely you’d get a passionate oration on dissonance as the sound of masses of people, of democracy, of the entire universe. I’m sure Ades and Lindberg see it differently, but I suspect they don’t hear the dissonant sounds in their music as neutral collections of notes, explainable (as in Schoenberg) simply by their placement in a tone row, or some other precompositional collection of pitch-classes.

    Of course I’m guessing. And also doing what might be a misleading thing — attributing my own views of dissonance to composers whose views I don’t really know.

  21. says

    “Besides, the classic 12-tone composers would have loved listeners who didn’t care. They were vehement about the 12-tone system not mattering to listeners.”

    Stockhausen certainly thought that the 12-tone system matters to listeners. Just look at the booklet included with any CD published by Stockhausen-Verlag. Stockhausen was very insistent that enjoying his music should involve reading about its structure just as much as listening to it.

    Interesting. Thanks.

    Boulez, on the other hand, has been very reluctant to share the inner structure of his pieces. And in any case, when I wrote “classic 12-tone composers” I meant Schoenberg, Weber, and Berg. I’m not sure what Berg’s position was. (Does anyone know?) But there’s no doubt that Schoenberg and Webern didn’t think that listeners needed to know the 12-tone structure of their pieces, though they were happy to talk about the 12-tone system in general.