Catching up

Well, it’s been a whirlwind.

Frequent readers – and my thanks to all of you – will have noticed that I haven’t been posting much. Ever since January, my life has been a mashup. I’ve been back and forth between New York and Rochester, teaching at Juilliard and Eastman. I’ve been spending time in Washington, DC, with my wife Anne Midgette, who’s been doing spectacular work as classical music critic with the Washington Post.

I’ve been working with the Pittsburgh Chamber Music Society, helping to get their audience talking to them. (I’ll be there next on March 31, for a concert by the Shanghai Quartet.) Anne and I traveled together to Seattle, for a summit (as they called it) on the future of classical music. I gave a keynote address, Anne spoke on a critics’ panel, and gave closing remarks. Later we went to New Haven, to spend hours with a class on (roughly speaking) the music business, taught by the Dean of the Yale School of Music, Robert Blocker. Music schools, in fact, have loomed large in my life. I’ve met with the heads of two of them (not places I teach), during the past couple of months, and on Monday will be meeting with a third. No names at this point, but I’m glad that I’m consulted.

And then I’ve been composing. And working on my book! Yes, the book on the future of classical music that for quite a while I was improvising in biweekly installments, right here on the ArtsJournal site. Now the final version is under way, and as soon as I have something to show, it’s going up on the site as well. Or at least the beginning of it will.

Then we’ll see what the best way is to unfold the entire project. Eventually I’ll publish a physical book, but I’m looking for ways to unfold at least a draft of the text, chapter by chapter online. I might ask people to pay what they like for each chapter, following Radiohead’s pricing plan for downloads of their last album. (Comments? Does that sound like a reasonable idea?)

But enough generalities. As I read what I just wrote, I see I haven’t quite communicated how mashed-up it all was. I revamped my course, finding new readings, new questions to discuss in class. That took far longer than I expected, but was more than worthwhile. I’ll leave all that, though, and – in following posts – talk more about exactly what I’ve done.

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  1. Rob says

    Call me old-fashioned, but I like having hard-copy books that I can pick up, throw in my suitcase, and sit down with. I hope you publish this book ‘properly’ as well as online; I’ll certainly buy a copy.

    Rob, I don’t think you’re old-fashioned, and I should have said that there will be published copies, physical books. In fact, the online future of the book has to be part of a strategy for launching the hardcopy version, and that’ll have to be discussed with whoever the publisher turns out to be. But don’t be concerned — there will be a physical book. I’m going to change the post to emphasize that.

  2. AR says

    I have been following this blog as a classical music lover. Now I would like to comment as a former academic specializing in popular culture. This blog argues that since popular culture is the ruling culture of today, with classical music barely surviving on the margins, we need to find a way to understand the great majority of people out in the real world; we need to find out what they want, maybe incorporate some elements of it in classical concerts, and thus hope to survive. In other words, change will take place from the bottom up – the masses demand popular music, so marginal minority of the classical elitists will have to swallow their purist pride and meet them.

    This is a democratic view – majority dictates the outcome. However, history does not support it. Popular culture exists always, and it is by definition the culture of the majority, usually ignored and/or despised by the elites. But it is the elites who have the money and the prestige to bring about change. So whenever popular culture takes over the elite culture, it is usually the result of the elite changing orientation, not the masses exercising any influence. I can give an example of Indian Buddhism that started as an image-free religion that concentrated on the need of personal achievement, and later transformed to an image-rich religion that shifted to image worship. Various scholars believed that image worship was brought about by the masses’ need to have an easier and more accessible religion. But it’s been convincingly shown that masses had nothing to do with it; at some point rich monks decided to build images and commissioned sculptures for their monasteries (not for the people), and became the agents of profound change that took place in Buddhism. The change was from the top down – rich religious functionaries adopted and legitimized new religious form. Ultimately, availability of patronage and prestige is what allows a major shift in culture. Peter Brown writes extensively about various Western examples of the shift to “popular” being brought about by the elites themselves.

    The relevance of this example for classical music is obvious. When university professors and influential critics make statements that equate popular musicians with the greatest classical composers, they in fact create the prestige necessary for a cultural shift. When American president publishes the playlist of his iPod, and it contains only popular music, it further marginalizes classical music. What follows is that to bring about change, the emphasis needs to be on identifying the influential people in whose power it is to provide exposure and confer prestige. One such person is Oprah who made Anna Karenina into a best-seller, even though she had not actually read the book herself. Important to note, the book was published in its original form, the only acknowledgement of the unusual book release was Oprah’s name on the cover.

    This blog concerns itself with immediate fix to the problem, and this fix requires classical music to redefine itself. Financially successful collaborations of classics and indie rock are cited as a viable solution to the problem. Packing a lot of young people into a hall maybe commercially and personally gratifying, but it will not achieve a long-term cultural shift. Powerful and influential patrons are needed for that, if we are to learn from history.

    AR, thanks for this. I disagree with you about a few things, starting with your summary of what you think I’m saying. I’m not at all concerned with the masses or mass taste, and I don’t have any notion that classical music people have to get involved with mass taste. My whole point was that there’s popular culture that’s not any kind of mass taste at all, and that the smart, educated, artistic people who in former generations would have been oriented toward classical music are now oriented elsewhere. And that classical music now seems pretty dumb to them, because it’s not as complex or contemporary as the culture they deal with every day.

    But beyond that, I’d cite three points.

    First: popular culture is no longer necessarily popular. It’s greatly varied, and much of it isn’t popular at all. (Or, more precisely, there’s a spectrum from mass popularity at one end to near-total obscurity at the other, all of it within the umbrella of what’s misleadingly called “popular culture.” One obvious example — the films up for the big Oscars this year, which (as was so often said after the telecast) weren’t popular films. Which hurt the telecast’s ratings. Another well-known example: Captain Beefheart, a rock icon for 40 years, but who never was popular, and never will be.

    Second: I think you miss the dialectic between the elite embrace of something new, and the non-elite ferment that leads up to that embrace. Take Christianity, which certainly was established when whichever Roman emperor it was made the religion mandatory. But that never would have happened without centuries of underground Christianity. Similarly, I’m sure you remember the dispute between Clinton and Obama about Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King. Who gets credit for the civil rights legislation of the ‘6os? Well, obviously King wasn’t in any position to get it passed. It took politicians to do that. But equally obviously LBJ would never have been supporting civil rights bills if there hadn’t been a movement that changed both the political consciousness of the nation, and the political necessities in Washington.

    Another example, very familiar to anyone who knows the history of pop music in the rock era. Almost every new style, starting with rock & roll itself, started spontaneously, far from the radar of the elites. Often the elites in the music business mocked the new styles, only to be forced to jump on board later on. In the late ’60s, the elite record companies had to hire new staff people, because none of their established elite employees understood the new music of the time, the music we now call ’60s rock. Same thing happened at the end of the ’80s, though on a smaller scale, with alternative rock.

    Third: I think you may underestimate my own standing in the classical music elite. I realize — especially as I read that sentence over — that this may sound like bald-faced arrogance, but at the very least, I know I have the ear of many people in the elite, because I know who I talk and e-mail with every day. Nor is it only me. Alex Ross, who takes positions very like mine on so many of these issues, is also someone I’d define as a member of the classical music elite, or at least as someone whom the elite pays attention to. A few years ago, he published a stunning piece on the future of classical music, and it was circulated widely inside major classical music institutions. Alex and I don’t work in exactly the same way — he has a far better public forum than I do, and I might have more private contacts. But I can guarantee that we’re both reaching the elite you’re talking about.

    You won’t find most of these “el;ite” people (I’m getting tired of the word) commenting on this blog, because they can’t conduct these discussions publicly. But I think you might be surprised at how many classical music insiders, some in leading positions, are having discussions like those that take place here. My sense is that the elite — speaking very broadly here — is in the process of changing its mind about many things, and a tipping point might be closer than we think. Or else it’s a few years away, and will be driven home by a generational shift that’s already in motion. One thing that’s certain, though, is that there’s quite a large movement for change, and it’s emerged in the past couple of years very visibly, as people give new kinds of concerts, sometimes with overwhelming success. The elite, I can promise you, is starting to take notice.