What the new audience wants

In the arts — and certainly in classical music — we spend a lot of time talking to each other, and I’ve just about typed myself blue in the face trying to say that we need to talk to people from the outside world. Especially if we want to reach a new young audience!

One of the people I’ve long thought ought to be invited to talk to the classical world is J.D. Considine, a veteran pop and jazz writer whom I’ve known for some years, and currently writes about jazz for the Toronto Globe and Mail. He likes classical music (we used to talk about Baltimore Symphony concerts when he was pop critic for the Baltimore Sun),.and just sent me an e-mail that everyone who wants to extend the reach of classical music should read. I’m reprinting it here with J.D.’s permission. Note two important things: the parts about the audience liking difficult music, and about the limited appeal for this audience (“limited” being an understatement) of musical beauty. These are things the classical world doesn’t understand at all (beauty, after all, being one of its favorite selling points, just as J.D. says).

Last week, I had the chance to hear (and cover) a performance of Cage’s HPSCHD. It wasn’t quite the “standard” performance, as it only ran only three hours and relied on just five actual amplified harpsichords (the other parts were covered by a Yamaha digital piano and a Hohner D6 Clavinet). The quality of the players was wonderful– Eve Egoyan corralled the group — and they did a great job with the pre-recorded electronics and the projected art. But the smartest thing they did was to stage it less like a concert than a happening, encouraging people to walk around the room, or even in and out, instead of sitting solemnly and stoically for three hours. (They stressed the freedom of movement in the pre-concert publicity, too.)

And it was amazing. People wandered through the room, listening to the various harpsichords, occasionally chatted with the players, sipped wine or beer, and had a terrific time. The crowd was also mainly young boomers and older X-gens — just the people symphony boards pray for — as well as a smattering of seniors and 20- somethings. I swear, I even saw a kid wander through carrying a skateboard!

Now, you and I both know that this isn’t the sort of thing a major orchestra can do three times a week. Still, three times a season wouldn’t hurt. And this program (which was part of the SoundaXis Festival) pulled a pretty good crowd despite minimal publicity and a major competing arts festival (Luminato).

This made me think about something else. A big part of the attraction for the crowd at HPSCHD was that the music was difficult. Now, I ask you — would a symphony programmer ever imagine that offering challenging, difficult, abstract music would be a marketing plus? My sense is that most of ’em still believe that the way to bring in new listeners is to emphasize the beauty and melody of classical music.

Here’s the thing, though: For anyone who grew up in the rock radio era, the aesthetic “strengths” suggested by such thinking evokes nothing so much as Easy Listening Music. And can you imagine any serious music fan who’d pay money to listen to that crap?

Maybe that’s why much of the classical music that has crossed over, like the Kronos recordings or the Gorecki 3rd, hasn’t been sweet and lovely, but emotionally powerful and aurally challenging. Just like the rock and jazz also adored by such listeners. (Of course, this is where I’m drifting into stuff you already know.)

But I think the thirst for adventure is there waiting to be exploited. The internet hasn’t killed classical sales — it has helped it, in part I think because people can find what they want or discover new things, instead of having to paw morosely through a limited selection of the same old same old. And I know a lot of people fear the net because of file sharing and the notion that music should be free. But what if an orchestra decided to see that as an advantage, and offered one or two free concerts per season? Concerts full of daring and contemporary music? Concerts they promoted the way rock gigs are promoted (postering isn’t just for kids)?

Or am I just nuts?

He’s not nuts at all, of course. He’s talking about a market (to put this in business terms) that I’ve identified, too, a market of younger people who like challenging music and would respond to challenging classical programming, as long as that doesn’t smell like the concert hall. In New York, as I’ve noted (most recently in my post about this year’s Bang on a Can marathon), they do respond, but the mainstream classical institutions don’t seem to notice. I’d love to see an orchestra flexible and aware enough to give standard concerts for their standard audience, and indie concerts for the indie audience (not that he uses that word) that J.D. describes.

Here’s a link to J.D.’s Cage review. (Though you have to buy it to read the full text.)

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  1. clarice says

    This is great! I guess it goes to show that audiences – as in young indie/classical audiences – are ready for challenging contemporary classical music that does not pander to them. I fear that the post-minimalist paradigm has been tagged “the genre” that will translate most easily to the “young audience.” I could not disagree more, and also fear again that this paradigm has ushered in an “easy listening” genre of new music that, more than anything else, panders to its audience and fears making a real and truthful artistic statement, erring instead on sustained, non-episodic ear candy.

    Hi, Clarice. I feel I’m on both sides of the questions you raise. I’ve been (you know this, of course) a big advocate of the “post-minimalist paradigm,” though I’d probably de-escalate the language a bit, and just talk about a kind of music that I and others like. Even minimalism, back in the late ’70s and early ’80s, was only a paradigm in the eyes (or ears) of outside observers. Inside, it was far too varied for any such concept.

    But I’m digressing. I’m on both sides of the discussion because I like music that’s both sustained (and might have a beat) and episodic (probably without a beat). That is, I like Lukas Ligeti and Webern. And then, come to think of it, there are pieces I love like Stockhausen’s Mantra that are sustained, but very much within the non-episodic genre because of their overall construction and sound. They vary, for example, much too often, and are too much made up of discrete, identifiable musical thoughts (this is certainly true of Mantra) to be classified with, for instance, that Juila Wolfe piece for eight basses that I loved so much at Bang on a Can.

    But really, I think it’s possible to have our cake and eat it. It should hardly be a surprise that more people like easy music — though defining that might not prove too easy — than difficult music. It’s also clear that the new audience likes a lot of music that isn’t easy, and in fact that this new audience is the best shot we’ve ever had in getting people to hear — and I mean hear with real enjoyment — the more difficult music you’re advocating here.

    What I don’t want to do is go back to the pre-minimalist paradigm, an expression I use a little bit tongue in cheek. I’m talking about the new music situation in the ’70s and ’80, at least in New York, when the dominant new music concerts focused more or less exclusively on difficult, episodic works. Whatever the quality of the music (and that quality varied a lot, because the programming was strongly influenced by political, or maybe more specifically careerist choices), the concerts tended to be joyless affairs. The audience was almost exclusively composers, composition students, musicians who specialized in playing new music, and students from university music courses who were attending as a class assignment. At intermission, all the in-crowd people rushed out to tear down the music that had just been played. What was missing was any sign of real enjoyment, and above all there was a lack of a real audience, a group of people not connected to any in-crowd, who were there simply because they loved the music.

    The lack of this audience, of course, encouraged the programming to be (as I called it) careerist. Since there wasn’t any unpredictable, wildcard audience whose reaction might matter, you could simply program music by the people you thought were politically important — the people who’d helped make your own career, and the people you were now going to help. I’m not saying there weren’t some genuine musical considerations in play, but there was a lot of careerist stuff. It could be amazing to hear a prominent composer describe why he’d picked the pieces on a concert program. (And, a separate but related issue, these composers were almost always he.) Amazing, and depressing.

    The arrival of minimalism started to change that. Whether you were at BAM, hearing a new Steve Reich piece with 1000 people, or down in Soho, hearing a concert at the Kitchen (which was in Soho then) or at Phill Niblock’s loft, in either case with 40 people in the audience, there was real enthusiasm, a sense of discovery, and the participation of people who weren’t connected to the in-crowd. (More at BAM than at Phill’s, but this was true even at the small concerts.)

    And in the years following, or decades following, this continued, and grew, so that now we have a new, large, eager audience that’s ready for just about anything. If they like a Lukas Ligeti piece with a lot of drumming better than they like Milton Babbitt, well, that shouldn’t be a surprise. But many of them will like Babbitt, too — and an audience like that for Babbitt is something I’ve never seen in my more than 30 years in this business.

  2. says

    I have three words:

    YouTube, Myspace, Facebook

    Virtually every teenager & a good amount of 20x year olds (not to mention adults too!) use these websites every day b/c of the constant media and social immersion they provide … they also allow for direct communication/feedback between concert providers/performers and audience members…

    They’re also great for networking and getting in touch w/ other people doing the classical music thing …

    I think that’s the first step … I guess my take on the whole thing is that if big symphonies want a piece of the younger markets, they’ve got to get into the headspace of the people in those markets …

    The event the email describes sounds interesting … particularly getting to chat w/ the musicians (one of my favorite things to do as a musician) & is an incredibly sensical take on the entire issue …

    Hope all is well.

    Mike, a few years ago Deutsche Grammophon set up MySpace pages for some of its artists. I went to Renee Fleming’s page — pretty impressive. She seemed to have hundreds of adoring friends.
    But then, you know, the question would be what else the label is doing to reach that audience. A MySpace page alone won’t do it. Was there anyone keeping contact with the hundreds (or thousands) of adoring friends? Was anyone e-mailing them whenever Fleming sang, or was going to be on TV, or had a new CD out? Was anyone offering promotions to them? Was anyone trying to learn if these people would go to any Fleming concert, or to only some, or maybe to none at all, preferring to see her on TV and buy her CDs?

    My guess is that none of these things were done, so the move to MySpace, though in itself a good idea, was only half-hearted.

    I’d love to be wrong about this, and if I am, someone please tell me!


  3. Jonathan says

    Thanks for posting this Greg. J.D.’s comments are spot on.

    Though, of course, to see orchestras doing that sort of thing really successfully, you kind of need musicians in those orchestras who are keen to actually do more than just note-bash their way through more challenging works and perhaps even – God forbid it – communicate to the audience why and what it is that grabs them about the music.

    Difficult when you have 100 folks who are used to sitting on a stage in a very formalized setting, playing Beethoven for the umpteenth time (but not impossible!)

    Hi, Jonathan. And are you back in England now? Nice to hear from you!

    You make a good point. On the other hand, I can see at least two ways for orchestras to move ahead in spite of the truth of what you say. First, there might be five or six musicians in the orchestra who’d like to move in the directions J.D. talks about. Maybe some of them (like one of the violinists in the New Jersey Symphony, who recently had an indie classical piece premiered by that orchestra) are in a position to take some leadership.

    But then there’s the second alternative, which is for the orchestra simply to present concerts of the kind J.D. talks about. That is, to act as a presenting institution, and do these concerts with outside musicians. They can book a Maya Beiser recital when she’s on tour, or the Bang on a Can All-Stars. Or they can collaborate with local new music groups or museums or arts festivals to do the kind of extravaganza J.D. described.

    In a really large city, there could even be another alternative. The orchestra could create an indie classical subsidiary, more or less the way Kellogg’s (the cereal company) created Kashi to reach the natural foods market. The orchestra wouldn’t have to use its own musicians. It could use whoever it wanted. That would be a terrific move toward a new audience, and a new vision of the future. And, if the branding were properly handled — so that the new concerts weren’t so closely associated with the orchestra that new audiences wouldn’t come, but also weren’t so distant so that nobody gave the orchestra credit for them — the orchestra would gain artistic and hipness cred in its community, and maybe even attract more people to its regular events.

  4. Phil Hoffman says

    In the last three months I have attended, in Seattle, four chamber music concerts all with vastly different levels of ‘consumer satisfaction’. In two of the four the quartet entered, the audience applauded, the quartet played, the audience applauded, the quartet shuffled around in their chairs and then played, the audience applauded again, the quartet exited for intermission, the quartet reentered, the audience applauded, the quartet played, the audience applauded, the quartet exited, the audience continued to applaud, the quartet entered once again, the audience stood and applauded, the quartet exited and so did the audience. In one concert Beethoven’s op. 30 and in the other Dvorak’s American was played. Music TDF but my heart was broken. These live performances were about as personal as my iPod or CD player.

    The other two concerts, by coincidence, had two new pieces of music performed; one well worth hearing and the other missing the mark. But what made these concerts was the effort on the part of the performers to fashion a personal and emotional bond, beyond the music itself, with their audience. Members of the quartet spoke! They actually engaged in conversation with members of the audience, introduced themselves, shared why they choose the pieces to be performed and developed a shared human moment. My sense, in both concerts, was that I was in someone’s living room sharing time together, not confined to a musical zoo where I’m standing at a railing looking onto a display.

    So it is not only about the essential diversity of musical programming but it is also about understanding the deep emotional needs of the audience as well.

    Nicely put. Now I’m wondering about the people who might not have reacted as you do. Certainly people keep going to these concerts, I mean the ones you despair of. And some of those people, in my experience (and from everything I’ve heard) might object if a quartet talked. Some people are strongly attached to the traditional concert experience.

    Given this, it would be interesting to know what makes you different. You understand that I’m very much on your side here, but at the same time I know that some people appear to like things as they traditionally are. Do you fall into some different demographic, some other subculture? Or are the traditional people really not connecting as deeply as they might?

    Also, completely off-topic, your second sentence, your despairing one, is worthy of Samuel Beckett (many passages in Watt, for instance), and I mean this as a compliment.

  5. Paul Bowman says

    I too was around NY in those days of the early 80’s. I know what you’re talking about as far as careerist choices for programing. However, if it wasn’t for Charles Wuorinen and Harvey Sollberger, and then groups after like New Music Concert w/ Clare Heldrich, percussionist Ray DeRoche etc., we wouldn’t have the performance standards we have today. Furthermore, these folks played a lot more works they really wanted to champion, than as careerist choice brownie point scorers. The point is, what Druckman and the other post-modernist’s did, paved the way for minimalism and downtown/scene/ Fluxus LeMonte Young worshipers, putting value less on musicianship than on show. Try sitting through a 3 hour Morton Feldman piece sometime. I know that without The Group for Contemporary Music for instance, performance standards with the same rigor for standard classical music and applied to new music, would never have been attained, or at least may have come at a later time.

    So what are new music performers like myself to do? Should I offer multi-media light shows for playing Carter or Babbitt? I think that people would be open to an open discourse between players and audience. But a Lukas Ligetti style music, though paying homage to pop/rock influences, is putting contemporary music on the same par with these entertainment forms – which, with all the hard work and focus on score realization instead of free-improv interpretation is to me like saying, a Glen Gould interpretation is better than an Alfred Brendel realization.

    What is needed is another national touring program, that places Artist’s performing complex contemporary music in unusual performance situations like work places, factories, high schools etc. The ingenious performers can then have the open discourse with their audiences, in order to prove they are indeed are human, and yes we’re not too high-and mighty to relate to the audience after all. I think one would be pleasantly surprised to find out that there is a hunger for the complex, challenging music of the last 40 years – combined with the Youtube/Myspace/Facebook marketing, a fan base can also be created. One only has to look at current groups like I.C.E., based both in NY and Chicago, and see that creating a fan base can be done. But please, don’t rely on the gimmicky downtown free Improv/Fluxus/Minimalist’s – let’s continue the legacy started in this country by the Wuorinen’s and Sollberger’s of new music.

    Paul, I’m sure you’re right about the musicianship developed by those ’70s and ’80s new music groups. And we could even trace the family tree back further, to the new music performances in New York in the 1920s, and even further, to Schoenberg’s Society for the Private Performance of Music.

    Another point worth noting is that the downtown scene in the ’70s and ’80s in New York was, in retrospect, surprisingly modernist. Though people liked to make connections between a rock beat and the steady pulse in music by Reich and Glass, there were other minimalists who didn’t have that pulse, and most of all there was no pop culture presence on that scene. I know this intimately, because I was there, actively reviewing downtown concerts for the Village Voice. When a pop culture presence did emerge, many important downtown figures actively resisted it (and still do, though now they do it from a position far outside the center of any scene).

    But as for gimmicky — one person’s gimmick is another person’s art. You use a lot of loaded language in your comment, and while I respect your choices about what kind of music you like, I wish you (and others — including me, when I fall into this trap) wouldn’t be so dismissive of music we don’t like. If I wanted to, I could call Milton Babbitt’s serialized dynamics a gimmick, because there’s no way they can be made perceptible in performance. At least, with serialized pitches, one can perceive one pitch as distinct from another (leaving for some other time the question of whether the serial structures are audible). But the twelve dynamic levels that Babbitt serialized aren’t distinctly perceptible. They exist on a continuous spectrum, and the boundary between p and mp (for instance) isn’t distinct at all. So the whole idea is gimmicky, however serious Milton was about it. (I think Claude Levi-Strauss said something similar about serialism itself, back in the ’50s, at least regarding the claim that serialism was a language.)

    I could offer two examples of very different pieces that both might be viewed as gimmicks. I don’t remember the title of either, but I’ve seen them both performed. One is by Robert Ashley. You came into the performance space, and there was Bob in the performance area, eating dinner with some friends. They talked quietly, while soft electronic sounds scratched and bubbled from inconspicuous loudspeakers. That’s all that happened, and eventually you realized that nothing else was going to happen, and you could leave whenever you wanted. I enjoyed that quite a lot.

    The other piece was by Jacob Druckman. It involved a mezzo-soprano (if I remember correctly, but certainly a woman singer), and maybe instruments, or else electronics. But there was also a prominent large gong, and the singer got very erotic with it, at one point damping its sound by pressing her body against it. Again, a very enjoyable piece.

    But both these pieces could be dismissed as gimmicks. Both depend, if you look at it from the right angle, on a theatrical stunt. But then, from a more tolerant point of view, we could also say they both proceed more simply from an exuberant sense of theater, sly and quiet, in Bob’s case, and much more flamboyant in Jake’s. Which one anybody prefers (or whether you like either one at all) is a personal choice.

    As for the long Feldman pieces, I’ve heard two of them live and a third on a recording, and loved them. One person’s gimmick is another person’s art.

  6. bgn says

    I’m struck by how little the post-minimalist music that your younger audience seems to be responding to has to do with the neo-romantic music generally deemed “accessible” by mainstream arts organizations & critics.

    Very good point! Thanks for making it.

    The post-minimalist or indie classical world — or whatever you want to call it — isn’t much into romantic emotion. That’s why (as J.D. Considine points out) people in this world aren’t going to respond to classical music marketing that stresses beauty (or emotion). It’s also why the David Lang piece that won the Pulitzer Prize this year was, for David, a move into territory that he worried other composers in his world wouldn’t like. The piece was overtly emotional. The indie rock world also presents a similar picture — romantic emotion isn’t very common (which — though maybe I’m outside my comfort zone here — is why the first Arcade Fire album was such a surprise).

    The neo-romantic music that’s emerged in the last couple of decades in the classical concert hall (Danielpour, for instance) seems to respond to a desire to have new music that fits in the world of the standard concert repertoire. This is a desire that’s entirely honest, and is shared by some reasonable part of the audience and some reasonable proportion of composers. But it does put this kind of music very much at odds with new developments in the rest of culture.

  7. says

    I love this discussion. It strikes to the heart of our challenge to turn on new audiences to the power of chamber and orchestral music.

    I thought Clarice really threw out some zingers in her comment. Since everyone agrees that there will always be good and bad music in every genre, I’m going to stay away from her comment about music that “fears making a real and truthful artistic statement.” It’s the basic labeling of that music that’s out of place for me when she refers to her fear of pandering to the younger audience with “easy listening … sustained, non-episodic ear candy.” It’s not a stretch to call Schubert lieder easy listening, sustained, non-episodic ear candy. And I know a lot of contemporary music from different genres that is sustained and non-episodic that I also consider challenging and sophisticated. If we’re all so ready to welcome new models into the classical world then we need to stop using generalizations that only serve to create the boundaries we should be feverishly working to break down.

    Mike’s comment about using social networking to build deeper connections with audiences is in the right direction. And Greg’s comments are right on the money about the limited capacity of most groups to sustain that kind of meaningful back and forth network building. An excellent example of how an orchestra got around that challenge and used the internet’s viral power is the San Francisco Symphony’s Citizen Journalist Night. They gave tickets to a group of local bloggers to experience the Symphony if they would then blog about it. This project is something every orchestra or chamber series could do to bring the internet generation into the fold, if even for one concert. This kind of blogoshere buzz-making is what every pop musician is creating through their street teams, and what every orchestra or chamber series should be doing to draw in the ever elusive “new audience.” You can read more about the SFO’s Citizen journalist Night project


    In your response to Jonathan, Greg, you say that orchestras could present artists/series that would be be targeted to a new audience. The curious thing to me is that many orchestras do present special chamber series with guest artists, but they are most often more of the same traditional in-the-box programming. And the other special series that almost every orchestra presents is the traditional Pops. So the mechanisms are in place, now we just need to find the artistic and marketing fortitude to trust the music and lead the change to a contemporary sensibility in some of that programming and presentation. And in my experience, orchestra musicians, especially the younger generation, are hungry for opportunities to challenge audiences’ expecations of what classical music can be. I agree that everything doesn’t have to be on edge or full of innovation, because that is an unrealistic expectation, but the fear of alienating the core classical audience by incorporating some non-traditional artists/music/staging has paralyzed us for too long. Even something as potentially transformative as changing the name of the “Pops” series to something more contemporary is a challenging paradigm shift for most orchestras. Every orchestra, if it is to flourish instead of merely survive, will have to lead the musical Zeitgeist more and take the leap, at least some of the time, out of the traditional mindset and into the larger world of pop-influenced culture.

    Thanks, Paul, for so many cogent points. Of course a lot of classical music is ear candy (we can all make our own list), and normally we smile at that. But jump into the new music room, and some people think that ear candy is some kind of crime. Of course, the real accusation is that some style of music consists primarily of ear candy, and that this style is now fashionable, and so civilization wiill end. This discussion has been around just about forever. It popped up in 18th century England, believe it or not, when traditionalists who worshipped Corelli heard the music of a later generation — Vivaldi — and were appalled. Cheap, showy, disgusting. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t music that’s cheap, showy, and disgusting. But I’d hesitate to wrap myself in the mantle of austerity and truth, and say that my music is better than what somebody else likes. For a wonderful exploration of some of the issues involved in what might seem like an extreme case of that, read Carl Wilson’s encounter with Celine Dion in the 33 1/3 series of rock criticism books.

  8. Paul Bowman says

    That’s just it, Greg. There are performers who do play Babbitt’s dynamics and that is what I am saying-paying attention to the score and realizing a Babbitt piece, there are phrases built it that jump out at you. Harvey Sollberger and I just recorded Babbitt’s Soli e Duettini(1989) for flute and guitar, and it’s amazing how the piece speaks for itself – no extraneous interpretive excesses were needed, just realizing the score, and the phrases popped out. Babbitt finally was able to hear is music the way he intended, because of ensembles and especially New York musicians like those from The Group for Contemporary Music.

    As for “loaded” jargon – yes, I am going to have an opinion because I am an Insider in the New Music Scene as an enthusiastic performer. Here at U.C.S.D., I do not hesitate to voice my opinion that the school is too Euro-leaning in composition preferences from the grad composition students. We had Helmut Lachenmann here in May, and we did a big performance of “Zwei Gefühle” No question, the text with two speakers re-inacting Divinci text’s was cool, and having Lachenmann here coaching was extraordinary. However, there were enough uncertainties in the score that without his coaching, players would not know exactly what was meant. Writing improvisational elements into rigorously composed works is a particularly European trait, I believe.

    As for gimmicky, this whole notion of differing views on what is artistic or not misses the point. If there is to be a continuation of classical music in the 21st century, than an open mind for inclusion of rock/pop/Fluxus/Cage/Feldman elements is inevitable – just go to Berlin and hear what Ablinger, Zimmermann and others have been writing since forever. However, when you see these composer’s still wanting to emulate Cage and Feldman, then it is no wonder that the alternative we have here in the US is Aaron Jay Kernis/Robert Beaser/Augusta Thomas styles of neo-classisism, which to me, is a step backwards. Ferneyhough, Dench and Dillon are the logical continuation of the Second Viennese School, and hell, new-complexity have been around over 20 years now.

    The idea that — in 2008! — we need a “logical continuation of the Second Viennese School” just boggles my mind. I’m reminded of the premiere of Salonen’s nice piano concerto with the NY Philharmonic. At one of the performances, Salonen talked, and went into some detail (though a little vaguely) about the kind compositional procedures he used. He framed the discussion as a reaction to serialism, and went through some contortions describing the difficulties serialism caused him, because of (apparently) pressure he felt inside him to accept it, and also to reject it. And I kept thinking: “Excuse me — serialism happened 50 years ago. Why should it still force anyone to make choices about it?” You’ll understand that I’m not saying that serialism shouldn’t influence anyone who wants to be influenced by it, but the idea that it sits like a 2000 pound elephant in any composer’s past, in our era, is just crazy.

    Same with the second Viennese school, but even more so. I mean — when Debussy set out to write Pelleas et Melisande early in the 20th century, did he care about finding some logical continuation of Gluck (the classic of very serious opera composition a century before that)? Why are we still twisting ourselves into pretzels about the compositional issues of the past century? But then — we aren’t doing that. Precious few young composers worry about such things. They have other issues, and in some ways I might wish they cared more about 20th century classics (and the solid compositional technique that music showed), but still — their technical and aesthetic issues quite properly lie elsewhere.

    And I must say — you’re out of touch if you think that Aaron and Bob and Augusta Read Thomas are the touchstones of American composition these days. Younger composers, again — at least in NY — are going in very different directions. And why not cite John Corigliano or Chris Rouse? Or Joan Tower? Or Jennifer Higdon? Anyway, if you think the American composition scene is a choice between Cage and Feldman imitations and Bob Beaser, you really ought to get out more. Around New York, it’s composers like Nico Muhly who are getting attention.

    And about Babbitt. I didn’t say that effective, vivid, convincing performances of Babbitt aren’t possible. I’ve heard some myself. I meant that a literal rendering of his serialized dynamics is quite literally impossible. Dynamic markings have no objective meaning. Markings like pp and mp and ff only mean something in relative terms — mp is louder than p and softer (by a lot) than ff. So someone trying to literally render Babbitt’s markings would be forced to adopt an arbitrary decision about precisely how loud a mp note is, so that all mp notes would have the same loudness.

    I suppose that lies just on the edge of possibility — that is, a few people might actually manage to do it. But how perceptible would it be? Loudness, as I said in my last post, doesn’t come in quanta (so to speak). It’s a continuous scale. So someone trying to make all mp notes have the same loudness might find that listeners don’t perceive that at all. How can anyone remember a precise loudless level (which I suppose would have to be measured in decibels)? If, let’s say, Babbitt should write an mf note, followed by fff, and then followed by p, can any listener say for sure — even if the performance somehow renders these dynamics in some absolutely precise way — that the p note is p rather than mp? I doubt it. As opposed, let’s say, to A flat followed by E followed by B flat. No matter what register these notes are in, the intervals remain perceptible. Anyone with an ear for these things can hear the tritone between the E and B flat. But not the dynamic distinction between fff and p (for which there isn’t any name, and couldn’t be any).

    And now multiply this difficulty. Imagine now that the texture gets very complicated, and many notes are happening, let’s say in a Babbitt piano piece, with the notes coming in all registers at once. Do you really think that it’s even theoretically possible to perceive which of the 12 dynamic levels each note is at? Again, the pitch relationships are theoretically perceptible. They can be defined, and identified. If you changed one of the pitches, a sensitive ear would hear that. But suppose you changed one of the dynamics, and — careless musician that you might be — played p instead of mp for one of the 14 notes occuring within a particular measure, all of which had different dynamic markings. How could anyone be sure you hadn’t mistakenly played mp instead of mf?

    Not that I’m saying anything new. The problems with serialized dynamics were identified, gosh, 50 years ago. So we really have no more need to hash this out now than we would to find a logical successor to Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern.

  9. jerome langguth says

    Dear Greg,

    I think this is a very interesting and enlightening post, but I don’t think that the indie rock (and pop) scene is as hostile to beauty and emotion in music as you and your guests suggest. This is, I think, true of what you are calling post-minimalist music in the classical world, and of the contemporary avant-garde jazz and noise/improv scene, but indie rock has over the last decade or longer been serving up modernism and romanticism in at least equal measure. Indeed, I think the romantics have recently had the upper hand. I count on the romantic side, in addition to Arcade Fire, Iron and Wine, New Pornographers, Radiohead (at least early on), The National, The Shins, The Frames, Neko Case, Bright Eyes, Interpol, and, despite the layers of irony, some of the music of Beck. All of which are very popular acts. I saw lots of indie kids at the last Bruce Springsteen show I attended, and surely Bruce is at heart a romantic. I would guess it’s more a matter of the social scene they associate with the traditional classical music world, a general lack of a sense of music history (even pop music history), and the fact that they find the presentation of music in the traditional classical setting somewhat stultifying (all points that have been discussed here). But beauty is not really the problem

    Thanks for the discussion,


    Jay, you obviously know the indie rock scene much better than I do. Thanks for enlightening me.

  10. says

    Great discussion! We have a new music series here which is a pretty broad tent. I includes free jazz artists, Brazilian music, and percussion groups, etc. Attendance is increasing slowly but surely.

    Your mention of Babbitt reminds me of hearing Compostiion of Eleven Instruments at the Library of Congress with Arhur Weisberg conducting the Contemporary Chamber Players. It was on the same program as the Boulez Le Marteau sans Maitre. The crowd was very enthusiastic, but mostly because Jan De Gaetani was singing the Boulez.

    We had Merce Cunningham’s dance company perform at the prep school in Massachusetts around 1980, and David Tudor was doing the live electronic music. I would describe the evening as a sort of undiffentiated artistic continuum. There was very little gesture in the music, and the dancing was completely independent of the music. The audience was mostly puzzled and frustrated. Some were plainly pissed. It was a classic mis-match of expectations and results.

    Sounds like exactly what Cunningham is famous for. In New York, there’s an appreciative audience for it — for music without gesture (was it Cage?), and dancing that’s completely independent of the music. But I can sympathize with an audience that’s not used to these things, and wants something with shape, direction, continuity. In much the same way, people used to films with strong plots would see Antonioni’s art films in the ’60s, and say, “But nothing happens!” Same thing with the reaction to Glass and Reich in the ’70s and early ’80s. “Nothing happens!” Remember that I’m not criticizing anyone for saying this. Instead I’m trying to be sympathetic to two very different points of view. I never had trouble with gestureless music and plotless films, but I can well understand that many people don’t get these things at all — and that, in fact, they violate everything that most people have come to expect from art and entertainment.

  11. Robert Berger says

    The comment about musicians in our mainstream orchestras being unenthusiastic about playing new music are interesting.

    This is nothing new. There are plenty of

    stories about some of the most famous works

    in the orchestral repertoire when they were

    new, and musicians in 19th century orchestras disliking them intensely, and reacting to the music with hostility and incomprehension, and complaining that these works were unplayable. When they were new, the Beethoven symphonies were as way out as many today find Stockhausen, and fiendishly difficult to play.

    I’m not sure it’s such a good idea to have young people who know nothing but Rock and Hip Hop etc to start with

    contemporary classical music. And how can you expect people to grasp Schoenberg if they don’t even know the music of Wagner and Brahms? It might help for these young people to have the context of knowing some of the music of past centuries.