I want to write about something serious, something which – I think – is one of the most serious problems facing mainstream classical music today.
And it’s this. Classical music organizations are eagerly doing outreach and education, trying to rebuild the audience and cultural clout that they used to have. These efforts are passionate, intense, and deeply committed. The people engaged in them love classical music with all their hearts, and believe – again with all their hearts – that other people can love it, too.
But there’s one step they don’t take. They don’t ask what the world outside is like. They don’t ask about the people they’re trying to reach. Who are these people? What culture – what tastes, interests, commitments, longings – do they already have?
This doesn’t make sense. It’s like launching a marketing campaign in France, and forgetting to notice that the people who live there speak French. No large commercial company would make that mistake. Big commercial concerns do marketing research, trying to define the markets for their products, so they won’t launch campaigns that are doomed to fail. Which of course doesn’t mean they’re successful all the time.
But classical music institutions, from what I’ve seen, don’t do much to guarantee any success at all. (See an addendum at the end of this post for my comments on the research they do sometimes manage.) What they miss – in my view – is gigantic. They don’t understand that our culture has changed, and that classical music (as it’s presented in the classical music mainstream) can’t have the same meaning, or the same appeal, that it used to have.
In particular, the people engaged in all this outreach miss some fundamental truths. Or, at least, truths that no one who wants work with cultural problems in today’s world can afford to ignore: Meaning in our world today is largely expressed through popular culture.
Popular culture is no longer shallow, brainless, or trivial. Some of it is, but much of it isn’t. In particular, popular culture long ago evolved its own form of art, its own forms of expression – movies, music, TV shows, much more – that ask probing questions in a serious, artistic way.
Smart people involved with popular culture have a highly nuanced, often dark (or at least partly dark) view of the world. They thrive on complexity, and fine, textured detail. In fact, they demand these things. (Just look at three of the nominees for best movie, in this year’s academy awards: Juno, No Country for Old Men, and There Will Be Blood.
And here’s a brief story, which I’ve told many times in conversation and public appearances. Years ago, when I’d defected from classical music and worked as a pop music critic, and later as music editor for Entertainment Weekly, I had a girlfriend with no high art background. But she’d often say she wanted to hear classical music. One morning, while we ate breakfast, I put on some Handel. She listened for a while, and then said, “Why isn’t classical music more noir?” Referring, of course, to film noir, the complex, dark, and morally ambiguous crime films of the 1940s and ’50s, whose aesthetic now lies near the heart of our culture, though you won’t find much of it in the classical music world. Some of it, though, did slip into classical music, and so in response to my girlfriend, I put on the suite from Berg’s opera Lulu. “You mean noir like this?” I asked. “Yes,” she said. “Like that. Why doesn’t more classical music sound like that?”)
In popular culture, people make art for themselves. They play in bands, make films, design clothes, write fiction, make mashups of other peoples’ art, and much, much more. They take that for granted. They want to participate in culture, to make culture themselves, not just absorb it passively.
Smart people in popular culture are culturally curious. They want to find things they haven’t known before. They’ll try almost anything, and, very often, if something’s not popular, if it’s a niche taste that few people have, that’s a plus. (See, for instance, the vogue for curling after the last Winter Olympics, and the comment of a new curling fan, interviewed by the New York Times: “This is so cool. Plus it’s a very obscure thing to say you do.”
There’s more, but that’s a good start. Most of the lovely people involved in classical music outreach – and I really mean “lovely,” as a compliment to them – don’t seem to know the things I’ve just outlined, or at least they don’t talk about them, and don’t seem to bring them into their work.
Which leads – again in my view – to mistakes. The first mistake is to put down popular culture, not necessarily by mounting any overt attack, but by making casual remarks: “People today have short attention spans.” “We live in a culture of instant gratification.” “Our culture doesn’t encourage curiosity, or thoughtful reflection.” Classical music, of course, is offered as an alternative, or, even more strongly, as an antidote. We need classical music (or so the message goes), because it requires serious listening, and serious study, and because it encourages thinking, curiosity, and inward reflection.
But then what happens when you talk that way to the kind of people I’ve just described? They’ll think you’re crazy. Or – which in a way is even worse – they’ll readily agree, thinking that you’re down (just as they are!) on people who listen to pop music crap, or go to see the kind of empty blockbusters that play in the multiplexes near my country house. Imagine how they’ll feel when they find out you mean them, that their taste for Bjork or Grizzly Bear somehow proves that they don’t know how to think, that they can’t pay attention to anything for very long, that all they care about is instant gratification.
Though there’s a more nuanced way to make the point. You could say, more expansively, that these people, these people whose home base is popular culture, do have intelligent taste – and that this means they’re ready for classical music! Which, in a way, is true. They like intelligent music of all kinds, so why not classical?
But there can be problems.
Problem one: You keep telling them, or at least implying, that classical music is better than other kinds of music, so if they follow your lead, they’re upgrading. They might not think that.
Problem two: When you talk about classical music (and I’m sorry for this), you don’t sound smart enough. This is an endemic classical music problem, and it seems like a paradox. Classical music is supposed to be artistic and brainy, but discussion of it – except by scholars – is often less intelligent than the best (and, again, non-scholarly) discussion of pop. Read any good rock critic to see what I mean.
So (continuing with problem two) I’ve heard an irresistible man in the opera education biz, one of the most delightful public speakers I’ve ever heard, introduce a short concert of opera excerpts, sung by singers in his company’s young artist program. One of those excerpts was “O mio babbino caro,” not exactly a profound piece. The irresistible man unfortunately made himself resistible, by carrying on about the aria as if what it’s about – a girl doing a number on her father, playing dumb but stubborn, to get permission to marry the guy she loves – was endlessly charming and remarkable. As if, maybe, it was something out of Noel Coward.
But it wasn’t. It’s just a simpleminded Puccini aria. (Nothing against Puccini, whom I love, but he’s not exactly profound.) And if the now all too resistible gentleman was talking to people whose home turf in culture is something like The Sopranos, he’d lose them. He’d lose them, in fact, after two or three sentences. They’re used to art that’s more complex and layered. If he introduced Puccini as something adorable, like an adorable old movie (something, maybe, like Grand Hotel) – and, most important, if the singers sang it that way, with as much style and class as those old movie actors had (which, no coincidence, is more or less the class and style that graced opera singers of past generations) – then he could have made his case. But I’m not sure he sees the distinction. Like many good people in classical music, he thinks that classical music – of course including his opera excerpts – is just wonderful, and that its artistic status lies beyond question. So the unfortunate fact that, as people in today’s culture would see it, he’s presenting classical music as middlebrow entertainment, something not too far above Celine Dion in Las Vegas (but a lot less showy), doesn’t occur to him.
It’s such a shame. And, to go back to where I started, it’s a real problem. How can we bring smart new people to classical music, if we present it in a way that’s far beneath their culture and intellect?
Next: This problem isn’t limited to classical music. It infects more general discussions of the arts, and especially shows itself in otherwise eloquent calls for arts support. So in my next post, I’ll take apart a much-circulated speech by Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, to show why his mistaken assumptions about popular culture lead him down a dangerous path.
Footnote: Some smart classical music marketers in fact do market research. And there have been studies, quite beyond any immediate marketing need, of why people do or don’t go to classical performances. But the studies ask the wrong questions, I think. They focus too much on specifics. One common thread in the backgrounds of people who go to classical concerts is that many of them studied a classical instrument.
(Whether there’s a cause and effect relationship is of course a more complex story.) Or people who don’t go think ticket prices are too high, or can’t get childcare. Missing in much of this, maybe most of it, are larger cultural questions, the cultural profile, so to speak, of people who go to classical performances, and people who don’t go. What cultural assumptions do both groups make? What are they looking for when they choose their art and entertainment? What would a concert of Mozart and Brahms mean to someone whose normal culture is films like Sweeney Todd and No Country for Old Men?