I want to thank everyone, and really warmly, for all the responses to my query earlier, and for all the comments you post here every day. You encourage me, teach me, tell me things I didn’t know, make me think more deeply, and just generally make me glad to be blogging. This isn’t just my blog, i’ve come to think. It’s in some way all of ours, mine and yours together. We’re all engaged in a grand joint effort, to rethink classical music, and to change it and make it better.
But I also want to say that not all the queries spoke exactly to what I’d asked. I wanted classical music events that exploded into our culture, or else made a community somewhere sit up and pay attention. What many comments offered were attempts to do this, or maybe even more modestly, attempts to create classical music events that might connect classical music with the outside world, without any reason to think that they’d succeeded, or at least not in any large way.
i don’t blame anyone for this. It’s a sign of where we are, of one of the reasons why classical music needs to change. The plain fact is that it doesn’t reach very far outside its cocoon, though it certainly used to, far in the past. And because it doesn’t reach very far outside itself, we’ve come to take that for granted, and I think we literally don’t notice that the field — as a cultural force — has shrunk from where it once was. And therefore we perk up a lot when someone proposes even a small step toward reestablishing contact with the rest of our culture.
It’s that reestablished contact, or the hope of it, that keeps me doing what I do. I could give — have given — all kinds of impersonal reasons for advocating change. The audience is aging, ticket sales (long term) are down, the chance of raising money from a new generation of donors, at the levels we raise it now, seem slim. A younger audience won’t like — doesn’t like — classical music as we currently present it.
But in my heart, that’s just froth on the wave, though it’s all important for the field to consider. In my heart, the reasons are far more pressing. I love classical music, but when I go to mainstream performances, I feel cut off from the rest of my life. I feel cut off from the world I live in. If I watch old episodes of The Wire (a current craze of mine), I know why I’m doing it, I know what the show is saying about things I’ve seen (at least at a distance; I haven’t had direct contact with drug dealers or police work). I know who it’s speaking to. I can talk to almost anyone I know about it.
But if I go to a classical concert, I slam the door behind me. Just about the only people I can talk to about it are people in the classical music world. Of course that wouldn’t bother me in many other areas. I like 1950s horror comics; I don’t feel any need to talk about them to most people that I meet. (Though there was a wonderful book, The Ten-Cent Plague, by my Entertainment Weekly colleague David Hajdu, about how those comics were suppressed, which speaks directly to cultural issues we still have now.) I love subways, but I don’t feel stifled because people who watched The Wire might not care about them.
Classical music, though, is far bigger than that, and one of the implicit messages conveyed by mainstream classical performance is that something important is going on, that this is art — no, Art — that it’s profound, that it needs and deserves special funding. And the music tells me, with every moment of its sound, that it really is art, but an art that’s lost its voice. Back in the ’80s, when I was plunged as deep in the classical music world (mainstream style) as I’ve ever been, I used to tell myself that my dedication was, at bottom, a religious quest. Not literally religious, but very like religion (at least some kinds of religion), because it was otherworldly, owing loyalty to something far beyond mere everyday life. Which wasn’t true of the art films I’ve loved (Antonioni, Godard), or the pop music I’ve loved, or the novels (Saramago, lately Balzac).
When I started feeling this intensely — and, even more, when I started understanding what I felt — the classical music world started to seem abnormal to me. Take new music. Why has new music been such a problem? Lisa Hirsch, in a discussion we’ve conducted in comments to my “Query” post, suggests that new operas have trouble making contact with the outside world because so few of them are produced. Fifteen years ago, perhaps, I might have said that, too. But now I’d take a different view (and Lisa, this isn’t meant as criticism of you; you have every right to disagree with me, and I’ve learned a lot from our disagreements). Now I’d turn what Lisa says (and of course what many others say as well) upside down, and suggest that few new operas are produced because classical music isn’t in contact with the outside world.
Or, to put it differently, if we were in contact with the world around us, we’d naturally do a lot more new work, and do it with far less commotion, which is what classical music routinely did in past centuries, and what the other arts do now.
So that’s what animates everything I write here, even (ultimately) my delighted disquisitions on bel canto opera. I want a world in which classical music isn’t separated from the other parts of my life, a world in which classical music comes alive with the sound and content of everyday life, including popular culture. Just as, for God’s sake, James Joyce did (to use an example I’ve used many times before), even in his two huge difficult masterworks of modernism.
And that’s why I’ll often argue for simple everyday connections, even ones that might seem trivial artistically, like the use in social networking. I don’t think we can join the world by halves. If we want a profound artistic connection with the heart of modern life, we’ll have to have the light connections, too. They’re all part of the same package, and I doubt there’s an example of an art with a flourishing and rooted lofty edge (rooted, I mean, in the life around it), that wasn’t also tied to the everyday culture of its time. So we should forge these connections in every way we can, only making sure that we keep them easy and spontaneous, without pretending that we’re something that we’re not, that our art is simple (for instance), or that we all speak the language of the present, when some of us are only now learning it.
I feel lucky to be alive right now, and working in classical music. Things are changing. Everything I’ve said here is now up for grabs, and all of us who gather at this blog — maybe even those who disagree (because their opposition gives us energy and understanding) — are engines of the change.