A serious problem

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?

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  1. says

    Greg, this is a great post. I think you have identified a very important stumbling block for the classical music marketing and education people. Most of them are totally unaware of the underground culture in their cities, and they can’t tap into the enthusiasm that so many young people have for indie music, art, and film.

    Thanks, Dave.

    I think the underground culture is now in large part above-ground. I guess it’s underground, aka invisible, for the hardcore classical music and arts crowd, but it gets coverage in widely available media.

    And many classical musicians — younger ones, mainly — are part of this not so underground cultlure! That gives me lots of hope for the future.

  2. says

    Apropos of this, one of the great advertising howlers I’ve seen in a while is (or was a couple of weeks ago) currently up at Lincoln Center. The Chamber Music Society has/had a poster up that says: “There’s more to American music than Copland – and we can prove it!”

    So…first, evidently they have decided to cater to the miniscule demographic sliver that is the “by music of COURSE I mean classical” crowd. Then among them, they are evidently aiming at those who don’t listen to much American classical music besides Copland…I guess because they’re content to listen to the same Beethoven and Tchaikovsky pieces over and over and over? Do they think people like this actually walk the streets anymore? The mind boggles at who would come up with this poster, and who would sign off on it.

    Fabulous example, Eric. Thanks. And it’s good to hear from you.

    I guess my friends at the Chamber Music Society were thinking of the classical music audience. The poster was aimed at that audience, by people so rooted in the classical music world — and all its perceptions and orthodoxies — that they never realized how those phrases would look from the outside.

    Back in the ’90s, the New York Philharmonic had a poster with another astounding blunder, this one — though it’s hard to imagine — most likely even worse. They were trying to attract teenagers, and their poster said (more or less in these words) “Let us show you that classical music can be as much fun as classic rock.” The Philharmonic didn’t know that teens didn’t listen to classic rock, that they’d see it as their parents’ music!

  3. says

    But there’s one step they don’t take. They don’t ask what the world outside is like.

    Here’s my question — do these people not live in the same world as everyone else? Do they not watch movies directed by P.T. Anderson and the Coen brothers? Do they not follow HBO programs like The Wire and The Sopranos? Do they not tune in to The Daily Show and The Colbert Report? Do they not read books by Jonathan Lethem and Michael Chabon? Or do they live in some kind of bizarre hermetically sealed bubble where popular culture never, ever permeates?

    Great question, DJA. Thanks.

    I think the answer is — yes and no. A recent British study found that almost nobody — in Britain, the US, and Europe — literally fits your description. Almost everybody enjoys some part of popular culture.

    And I think the people I was talking about — the people who run classical music education and outreach programs — are no exception. They probably watched The Sopranos, just as many of their friends did.

    And they probably thought the show was pretty fabulous. But they practice, I thiink — and i’m grateful to you for getting me to work this through — a kind of doublethink. They respond strongly to lots of things in popular culture, but at the same time they buy into the classical music myth, or maybe I should call it the classical music ideology. They think that classical music is special, untouchable, existing in a rarrefied sphere far above the Coen brothers and Jonathan Lethem.

    So they play on both sides of this street — but the classical music side, in the end, seems to be the one they favor.

  4. Jeremy Howard Beck says

    Hi Greg,

    I’ve been a real fan of your writings for some time, and this post reminds me of a concert I went to recently at the Whitney Collection.

    For readers who have never been to the Whitney (I had never been prior to this concert), the concerts are held in an open space slightly below street level, in front of a big glass wall that looks up onto Madison Avenue. There are no walls on the first two floors, and visitors who were unaware of the concert would definitely hear all of it in the main entrance and gift shops. They could even gaze down on it from the first floor. Many people stopped on the street for a few moments to watch.

    There were about 60 seats, all full, when the concert began. By the time the first piece (a very cool “remix” of Reich’s Music for Pieces of Wood) was over, a sizable crowd of obviously not-classical-music-people hhad gathered behind the sseats. By the time the cconcert was over, the overflow crowd stretched all the way through the gift shop that occupies the rest of the floor. These people were brought in by the sheer experience of the music, which was modern and fresh–and a bit noir–and viscerally exciting, but still unlike anything they had ever heard. That concert probably introduced more newbies to classical music than many bigger-budget audience-development campaigns from the big ensembles in town. Did I mention that the audience was about 90% in the 20-35 age group, and very hip looking?

    By the way, the concert was a joint effort of SO Percussion and the avant-rock band Kneebody. All the music was either by the ensemble members themselves, arrangements of indigenous music from Africa and the Middle East, or firmly in the Downtown tradition. The musicians played in street clothes and regularly spoke with the audience the way a rock band would.

    Sounds like a terrific concert, Jeremy, and of course you’re right — this is the kind of event that draws smart younger people to classical music, the only trouble being (from the mainstream’s point of view) that standard classical concerts won’t interest them the same way.

    It’s now beyond any dispute that this audience exists in New York, and surely elsewhere (certainly in big cities). The Wordless Music concerts I’ve written about here prove that. So does last year’s Bang on a Can marathon. So did the Sufjan Stevens event at BAM. What would happen if the big classical music institutions tried to attract this crowd? They’d not only sell tickets, but ramp up the excitement of their programming. And make the younger members of their staff (and their musicians, for the institutions that employ musicians) ery happy.

  5. Andrew says

    I would also like classical music to be more “noir.” I think a lot of people feel this way and would respond positively if they only knew that such classical music existed. The problem is that this music does exist but the average listener thinks that classical music is all Bach, Vivaldi, Mozart, or Brahms. What if they knew about Berg, Bartok, Ives, Janacek, Philip Glass, Per Norgard, George Crumb, Alfred Schnittke, or Allan Pettersson? Sure some people would hate this music but others would think “wow this is cool, where has this been all my life.”

    What if Hollywood promoted only Disney movies and said “this is wholesome entertainment, it’s good for you, and everyone should like it.” I don’t think that would go over very well with the majority of people. Of course there is an audience for Disney movies but people also want to see thrillers, dramas, comedies, horror movies, and quirky independent films. It seems like that the classical music world should go take a basic marketing class and learn that you can’t make people want what they don’t like but also that people can’t want something if they don’t know it exists.

    On a related note I have been listening to the listener request program called Friday Favorites on Minnesota Public Radio. The usual daytime MPR programming is pretty much baroque and classical fluff so I was surprised to hear Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet, a piece by Philip Glass, and other “edgier” works in the middle of the afternoon. I think the music that the users have requested shows that some people want and actively seek out this type of music.

    Sometimes people in the mainstream make the mistake of thinking that all the music you named is, somehow, the advanced course — that someone has to work their way up from “Eine kleine nachtmusik” before they can appreciate it. But that isn’t true at all. It’s just as you say — to people who live in the current world, this music makes instant sense, because it has a modern sensibility.

    The success of Alex Ross’s book — which is precisely about the music you’re talking about — ought to give us some hope. If the many people outside the classical world who read it then go and seek out — or even demand — this music, that’ll be a good thing for the classical music world.

  6. Jonas Cartano says

    What a great post and very thought-provoking for me! I ended up writing a lengthy response (http://jonas-aie.blogspot.com/2008/02/response-to-serious-problem.html) but I’ll take a quick shot at summarizing… The main thrust of my post is that along with the history of education in the US, arts education by arts organizations has often been in this teacher-as-expert frame. “You should learn this because it’s good for you.” I think this is in ample evidence in the Puccini-Irresistible Man example.

    But I think that we are exposed to so much information now that the teacher-as-expert model is being challenged. Instead of tastes and sensibilities being developed by adult/authority figures, we are increasingly under the influence of peer groups and what is found in the general media.

    So, basically, what I’m trying to say is that the balance of power has shifted. In-person consumption of the arts (performances or attendance at exhibitions of visual arts) is not a given for people who have so many ways to spend their time. Arts organizations cannot just expect people to show up because it’s “important” music. In order to maintain relevance to our current, and hopefully future, audiences, arts organizations must better define what it is what makes their art form compelling, but most of all, inculcate a sense of curiosity–a sense of why the art form is worthy of further exploration.

    Arts education should not be about disseminating information, but it should be about allowing an audience to develop it’s own conclusions. Development of a deeply engaged audience member is the ideal method to increase the arts audience–they will not only attend more events, but an inspired audience member can also serve as the most effective advocate for the art form.

    Thanks, Jonas.
    Before World War II, there was a widespread “music appreciation” movement, which tried to educate people about classical music. It’s come under attack in recent decades as a middlebrow marketing attempt, which degraded classical music as art. But it’s worth noting, for our purposes here — and very much building on the ideas Jonas laid out here — that it could succeed because there was widespread agreement that classical music really was good for everyone.

    Now that agreement doesn’t exist. My sense of what people think out in the wider culture is that nobody minds classical music, nobody has any strong case against it, and hardly anyone minds hearing it, but that not many people think classical music has much to do with them, or take an intense interest in it. That of course (as I’ve been saying for quite a while) includes people with serious intellectual and artistic interests, which happen to lie outside classical music. If we want to interest them in classical music — and here, hoping you won’t mind, I’ll shift your emmphasis a little, Jonas — we don’t have to worry about their curiosity. They’re already widely curious. We have to show them that classical music is something they want to be curious about. We have to show them that classical music actually functions on the high artistic level they expect from other things they care about — and that (very much to the shock of the classical music world, if only they’d realize this) is something that’s not readily apparent.

    Example: one of the worst educational ideas I’ve ever heard presented involved Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony. At a conference, we were all told about a project in which children learned to make music that evoked a storm. That prepared them to understand the storm movement of the symphony. Granted, this was aimed at kids, but it was presented as a cogent example of what to do in a presentation to adults. The idea that the storm movement of the Pastoral would need explaining to anyone really staggers me. Even something reasonably technical as the musical details that give the impression of a storm — even that is pretty obvious, at least to any intelligent person with any experience of any kind of music. It reminds me of a video I saw maybe 10 or 12 years ago, in which a famous violinst demonstraed passages from The Four Seasons: “Here Vivaldi makes the violin sound like a chilly wind!” My girlfriend of the time, 36 years old, exactly the kind of smart person classical music organizations want to reach, watched the video and said it insulted her intellgence.

  7. Jerome Langguth says

    Dear Greg,

    This is certainly the best discussion on these issues I have found on the Web. And you make me question my own assumptions about music in a way that I appreciate. With respect to this post, I think that you are right that the efforts of classical music organizations to reach new audiences are often hampered by mistaken assumptions about “pop culture.” There is an exciting and vibrant “pop” artworld out there with all of the qualities you attribute to it (though I am not sure that it is as “mainstream” as you suggest). Certainly, its audience is on the whole not the same audience that classical music has drawn from in the past, and its members are much more open-minded and intellectually curious than often assumed.

    At the same time, I am unsure what you are claiming about recent popular culture becoming “smarter”. When you write that popular culture is “no longer shallow, brainless, or trivial”, do you mean that it once was but is not now? Are you suggesting that contemporary popular culture is on the whole more intelligent than the pop culture of the past? If so, when, precisely, did that begin to change? To start with the example of film, are the Coen Brothers really smarter than the Marx Brothers? Is contemporary indie rock obviously more intelligent that 40s jazz or 60s rock?

    Your fellow Arts Journal blogger Martha Bayles published a book called A Hole in Our Soul: The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Culture, in which she argues that contemporary popular music suffers from a lack of contact with and appreciation for its own roots in the African-American idiom. Her thesis with respect to the relative merits of past and current pop-worlds is basically the reverse of yours: the pop music of the past is richer in humanity, intelligence, and awareness of its own history than most of today’s music, which she characterizes in terms of “perverse modernism”. I am not sure where I stand on this question, but Bayles makes some fascinating points in developing her argument.

    I was also thinking about the “dark” worldview that you attribute to today’s indie rock crowd. Doesn’t this “darkness” include precisely the complaint about mainstream popular culture that you seem at such great pains to deny; namely, that it is intellectually shallow, lacks substance and depth, is materialistic, fosters a short attention span, and, despite great its technological achievements, lacks a basic humanity and decency? And isn’t this part of what draws people to this music? Perhaps the problem with the classical music world’s overtures to the youth is that it fails to capture the sense of desperation that they feel, their unhappiness with the overall state of things. Not “noir” enough would be about exactly right. As I type this, I am listening to Radiohead’s Amnesiac, which, like most of the band’s output, isn’t exactly optimistic about the current state of popular culture. Porcupine Tree’s Fear of a Blank Planet, Dylan’s Modern Times, Joni Mitchell’s Shine, and recent albums by The National, Steve Earle, and the New Pornographers share in this mood. Indeed, I would be hard pressed to come up with a single indie rock band, well-known or otherwise, that does not seem to share to some extent in this bleak assessment of the state of things. So maybe one way to connect with the desired new audience is to highlight the extent to which classical composers were (and are ) themselves worried about the overall culture, and the way that their music reflects this anxiety. I think Alex Ross does this well in The Rest is Noise, and this is perhaps one reason that his book is reaching such a wide audience. Thanks once again for continuing to post on these issues.


    Jay, your praise humbles me, and so does your close reading of my post. You’re teaching me to be more careful. These are complex issues (to say the least), and I might be skating too quickly over some of the details.

    First, about how mainstream the artistic part of pop culture is. It’s best to look at this, I think, not as an either-or kind of thing, as if these artistic pop culture things had to either be completely in the mainstream, or completely out of it. There’s a spectrum here. Bruce Springsteen can be tremendously artistic, and sell (or at least he could in the ’80s) millioins of albums. Someone else might sell very few, and many people will fall somewhere in the middle. The films most nominated for the Oscars were terrifically good, and while “No Country For Old Men” might not fit anyone’s definition of a blockbuster, it’s hard to say that anything that wins the best picture Oscar can be called “underground.”

    I wasn’t at all clear about triviality in pop culture in the past. Again, this isn’t an either-or thing. We can go back to the 1930s or ’40s and find, for instance, some truly artistic movies. But generally, in those days, popular culture was lighter than high culture, and everybody — including the people most active in popular culture — knew that. Starting in the ’50s, and especially in the ’60s, this started to change, bringing us to the point we’re at now. Whether the Coen Brothers are smarter than the Marx Brothers is probably unanswerable (what do we mean by smart? smart in relation to what?). But that the Coen Brothers go deeper — well, I think that’s pretty clear.

    I looked at Martha Bayles’s book when it came out, and couldn’t make any sense of it. She and I seem to live on different planets. If she doesn’t like today’s pop music, that’s her right, but to try to prove that it’s inferior — that it violates some assumed principles of art — seems to me (to use her word, as you quoted it) perverse.

    I agree that the darkness of today’s smart pop culture (or much of it) is precisely a rebuke to the peppy optimism of a lot of unabashedly mainstream (and commercial stuff). I’m sorry if I didn’t make it clear that I believe this. One thing that people in the arts don’t always realize is that pop culture has spawned its own internal critiques, and that plenty of people active in popular culture have the same criticisms of it that people in the arts have.

  8. says

    There is a simple way of looking at this. It is that the strict cultural gap between popular culture and the classical music culture has been created by the history of “educating music”. By breaking down the divide at the grade school level the ideology of post enlightenment culture – i.e the downgrading of popular culture as a moral issue – the change will be seen at a later date. Here in Australia college enrolments in classical muisc are plummeting and yet jazz studies are growing. Why? Because the

    proponents of classical music both in perfotmance and media are still “embedded” in a morally superior value system without realising that popular culture has evolved not only over the past 50 years but over the past 500! Kids today want more and they are taught that classical music is dull, uninteresting and a universe populated by OLD people, which is in itself an ideology of negative morality. By bypassing this at the pre school and grade school level one can always override the battle between the two cultures…Remember Schubert was once a popular culture hero.

  9. says

    To Greg’s point about talking down to non-classical consumers, it frustrates me to see orchestras use the term “Masterworks” as the moniker for the classical series, and “Pops” for almost everything else. As if there aren’t masterworks in pop music. That’s more then just a casual remark about the value of popular music.

    Some might say it really doesn’t matter. After all, that’s how it’s always been, the public gets it, Pops are Pops, and there are without question classical masterworks on all orchestras’ main concert series. On one level those terms are very clear. But what I hear being said in this ongoing discussion, with which I wholeheartedly agree, is that it does matter quite a bit. If we want to turn on more audiences to the power of classical music then we have to stop marketing (educating) with a message that is mired in an old-world model of what classical music is or can be. And most importantly, we need to be fully engaged with how the rest of the music world can inform and enrich the experience of classical music.

    Good thoughts, Paul. We also have to realize that not all classical music is masterful. Some of it is delightful fluff.

    And one further problem with all the talk of “masterworks” is that (as I think I’ve observed elsewhere) classical music will always seem to win any battle over perceived quality. If classical music and masterworks are synonymous, then the dice are loaded, and any classical piece will have a perceived quality advantage over anything in pop.

  10. known as 332 says

    A bit of a contrary view – The Chicago Symphony sent me an invite to a web-based survey. Survey had a number of activities they were trying to “cross-tab” to, including art galleries, NPR, etc. As I finished the survey I was sure I was a peg that didn’t fit into ANY of their predefined holes.

    Just as “classical-world” may be missing the “downtown art-scene” class, they’re also missing the late 30’s into 40s / married with kids / suburban couples who have to pick and choose from other committments and find that event scheduling, logistics are barriers; let alone surveys (and other elements) that convey the message that because I have priorities beyond tracking nuanced changes in the avant-garde poetry scene that I am unwelcome to hear the CSO. I may be over 30, but I’m still a generation younger than the average seatholder at Orchestra Hall.

    Enough whining – let me be prescriptive for a moment (and agree with you from the other side). Blinders need to come off – on respondent selection, cross-tab attributes. Less closed end queries, more focused open-end queries.

    One more penance for my whining – what works is the Grant Park Symphony outdoor series in Chicago. Accessible to get to, interesting programming, even the ability to make it part of kids lives. Pull down the barriers and I’m much more willing to listen to an atonal piece that otherwise couldn’t justify the investment.

  11. 0137 says

    So… Greg… I guess you’re not a big fan of Susan Jacoby?

    I’d never heard of her, until I read your comment. After a little Googling, I guess I could say, no, I probably wouldn’t be a fan. But at this site — http://www.susanjacoby.com/excerpt.html — I found a critique from her of contemporary culture that all the smart pop culture people i know would agree with. I don’t know if the criticism I’m about to make applies to her, but all too often I find cultural commentators mounting attacks on what they think is popular culture, without knowing that many people in the popular culture world would make the same attacks.

  12. Jay says

    From what I’ve read here it sounds as though the marketing departments of symphony orchestras are pretty unsophisticated. They sound like the missionaries of old going out to convert the natives.

    The gulf between the new culture and the old culture seems so wide that I can’t imagine how the inhabitants of one can even communicate with the other.

    In This is Your Brain on Music, Daniel J. Levitin writes, “There doesn’t seem to be a cutoff point for acquiring new tastes in music, but most people have formed their tastes by the age of eighteen or twenty.”

    Is it really possible to win converts to classical music? I’ve only met one person in my entire life (I’m 64) who came to appreciate classical music in adulthood and I’ve heard of a few people who became opera-lovers in adulthood. I understand that economic survival is the motivation behind these efforts at audience building but I just wonder how productive they could possibly be.

  13. Zecharia Plavin says

    Dear Mr. Sandow,

    By juxtaposing two musical cultures – the “classical” and popular – you touch an extremely important theme. I agree with you that these two musical fields dwell in two different worlds and activate two different mindsets. The problem is that the actual difference between these worlds is very rarely discussed.

    I think the inclination to listen to classical or popular music depends on listener’s general perception of the world and on his or her self-perception as a participant in that world. It is some kind of emotional foundation that richly buttresses the verbally-formulated world-outlook.

    With your permission I would like to propose some kind of interpretation of these mindsets.

    I think the tonal world of the classical music – with its popular core centered roughly between Handel-Bach and Rachmaninoff – cumulatively expresses the dream of the traditional Europe-centered listener for a society led by heroic, wise, courageous, magnanimous and caring elite. The domain of the tonality is in fact an emotionally sound metaphor for the just and noble life-framework run by people of above-mentioned qualities with universal consent.

    The XIXth century development of harmony towards ever greater sophistication clearly projected another value: the intellectual prowess of the ideal hero, dealing with ever more complicated tasks.

    For the general concert-audience this all ended with the ascension to institutional power of the avant-garde.

    In other words, the traditional concert-going public to this very day longs for music that speaks to its innermost personal-cum-social ideals, based on the instinct that the world must be led by worthy, noble, just and caring meritocrats. The longing for such a world – with actual emotional and mental involvement into the ways to build it – depicts in my mind the mindset of the traditional concert-goers, whatever their actual social position would be.

    However, people who attach themselves to the various manifestations of non-concert “popular” music display a feature that makes them definitely more contemporary. They do NOT dwell in longing for some kind of collective ideal order, instead feeling much more acutely their own current problems and experiences. They are not ready to subjugate neither their love, nor their desires and dreams to the collective, or to the universally-accepted-as-honorable. They are deeply skeptical towards any power – however democratic and formally flawless it might be. They detach themselves from the concept of power, and feel themselves proud about it. They detest “empty talk about social responsibility” as hypocrite intrusion into the world they keep for themselves and for their beloved alone.

    These people detect very well the inner nature of the classical music and its social essence, especially as expressed in the historic examples of Mozart, Beethoven, and the Romantics. And it causes them deep resentment: they detect there a powerful thrust for tyranny.

    On the other hand, for those classically-oriented this “tyranny” represents an ideal world populated by heroes with whom they can blissfully identify for the duration of musical performance, and beyond, in the cherished memory. There is no much in common among those two worlds. One way to bridge the gap would be to discuss these themes in non-musical terms (as you so successfully do): that might neutralize animosities…

    Zecharia, thanks so much for this. I think you’ve identified something real, and important.

    I wonder if there’s any way to bridge the gap. We normally don’t expect people to embrace something they don’t like. This certainly works inside pop music. Nobody expects country music fans, let’s say, to listen to Bjork. And, above all, nobody worries about that. Types of taste only becomes an issue, I suspect, when some important kind of music, with a lot of prestige, begins to decline. Then people worry about getting more support for it. I’d guess that people with the pop music orientation you describe understand — maybe implicitly, but they definitely understand — the classical music mindset you outlined. And they don’t care for it. So why should they learn more about it?

    Same thing applies in reverse. The classical music people know what they like, even if they tend, sometimes, to assume that only in their aesthetic world can there be any refinement, any tolerance, any civilization. It’s hard to imagine them getting more tolerant of the pop music way of thinking. They’ve already rejected it, by rejecting contemporary classical music. Which, by the way, helps explain why people on the pop music side respond so easily to 20th century and new classical pieces.

    Luckily, things aren’t completely black and white. Plenty of people can go back and forth between the two worlds. Certainly they do it in other kinds of art. I love Trollope, for instance — not to mention the standard classical repertoire — and I can listen to Bjork in the afternoon, then read Trollope before I go to bed. And certainly there are things in contemporary culture that share, to some extent, the ideology of classical music that you describe. Optimistic blockbuster movies (Titanic?) might be an example. I think this is one of the things that made Arcade Fire so popular when they first appeared. There was something optimistic and embracing about t hem. Our culture in any case features a lot of mixing of worlds.

    One last point (and I certainly hadn’t intended to write this much in response!). You talk, and rightly, about people from the new culture rejecting false ideas of social responsibility. But they do like real social responsibility. And this is one of the most wistful, and ironic, contrasts between the two worlds. Classical music believes itself to be the repository — and encourager — of social responsibility. But within the classical music world there’s not much action on that front. Pop music, on the other hand, really gets involved with social responsibility, in actual practice. There are charitable concerts, serious environmental efforts, socially concerned song lyrics, and political articles in rock magazines. Pop music, to a very great extent, actually does what classical music only preaches about.

  14. Deborah Porter says

    I’d like to respond to the last question posed in this intelligent and provocative post. My 11 year old daughter is an aspiring violinist, whose musical tastes and cultural exposure span far beyond the classical repertoire. Nonetheless, classical music is her medium of choice for exploring emotions, relating them to her burgeoning sense of self, and ultimately expressing them in a way that communicates deeply to her auditors. Why? I think it is because she feels that classical music is a from that she can make resonate–at least presently–with her own sense of the world. Interestingly, the way she makes sense of the world is very much informed by J.K Rowling’s oeuvre. Without going into the literary merits–or lack there of–of the Harry Potter series, there is no doubt of its status as a (popular) cultural phenomenon. For my daughter, the work serves as a rich source, indeed a canon, if you will, of emotional contexts, which she consistently (and creatively!!) draws on to make sense of the classical repertoire she learns and performs. Thus, whether the piece is slow and introspective such as Ernest Bloch’s “Nigun,” or whimsical and playful like Wieniawski’s “Variations on an Original Theme,” or dark and menacing like Oistrakh’s cadenza for the Khachaturian Concerto, my daughter’s understanding of the piece emerges from her emotional connection to the characters in the novel. In other words, she seamlessly connects classical repertoire with popular culture. Mozart and “No Country for Old Men” are not necessarily mutually exclusive once we transcend our perceptions of the them as distinctive art forms necessarily adhering to prescriptive modes of appreciation, (popular or not, intellectual or not) rather than as manifestations of emotional contexts, just as my daughter has easily connected her experience of Harry to her experience of Mozart. Just another perspective. I truly appreciate the level of discussion represented on this blog, and plan to be a frequent reader.

  15. David Chandler says

    All very interesting.

    I’ve often thought that one of the biggest problems in classical music is simply the use of the umbrella-term “classical” to describe an incredible range of music. It makes blanket dismissals all too easy: “I don’t like classical music.” When I hear that, I always say: “can you be more specific?”

    I come from Britain and live in Japan. In both countries I can’t say that I know many culturally-sophisticated people who DON’T like classical music. I know a lot of young people (more in Britain than Japan) who won’t give it the time of day, but that’s in no sense an informed judgement. In fact, I see nothing wrong with calling it an ignorant one. Responsibility for that ignorance is another matter. In Japan music is taught FAR more seriously in schools and I think that leads to a much more widespread appreciation of “difficult” music even at an early age.

    David, it sounds to me as if you might be setting up a circular argument here. I might be wrong, of course. But it seems as if you say that you don’t know many culturally sophisticated people who don’t like classical music. Then you say that you know young people who won’t give it the time of day — but their opinion is ignorant. So maybe they’re not culturally sophisticated. Does this mean, then, that people who don’t know anything about classical music aren’t culturally sophisticated, and that therefore their opinion of classical music doesn’t count?

    For whatever it’s worth, I’ve encountered endless numbers of culturally sophisticated people who variously don’t like or don’t pay attention to classical music. I define them as culturally sophisticated because they know a lot about other arts — visual art, for instance, or literature. I find it’s very common to be with groups even of professionals in other arts, and find no interest in classical music. But maybe your experience is different.