Why I’m here

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. 

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  1. says

    This post really resonates with me, although I’m not sure exactly what “contact with the rest of our culture constitutes” (something that has come up in a lot of posts since I started reading your blog.

    And I do think that the internet will inevitably open classical music up, even if the shape for how it will do that isn’t yet clear.

    Speaking from personal experience, I hope it isn’t a matter of dumbing it down or assuming that young folks don’t know understand what they are being offered. I had plenty of exposure to classical music when I was a kid. I grew up playing the piano and viola and had far more of a background in classical music than most kids do, but in the small outpost of Red America that I grew up in, the only access that one had to classical music was classical music of an exceedingly conservative bent and (worse) presented in an extremely conservative way. I naturally rebelled against that —

    It wasn’t until my 20s that I came back to classical music (through Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus of all places) and discovered 20th century classical music and found that radicality I would have loved to have seen in my teens. And it was only through the doorway of 20th century classical music that I began to perceive the radicality in past masters also…Part of this exposure was enabled by moving to the greater cultural offerings of the East Coast (until recently), but the truth is that with young kids the main way that I access music and other “cultural products” now is electronically.

    I’ve wondered how my outlook would have been different if music (and the visual arts for that matter) had been as widely as available even just 15 years ago as it is now. I think it would have made my teenage years much more bearable. It is only retrospectively that I can realize that I was looking for a kind of culture that, at that time in my neck of the woods, simply wasn’t available.

    Now it is, at least in principle — the question is whether folks in the know can find a way to reach out to folks who would like to be.

  2. says


    I love your blog, the power of the Internet and the mysterious pull of classical music in my life. I’m energized by discussions about what this form of art is about, who it impacts, and what it will look (and sound) like in 5, 10 and 20 years. I’ve left many classical music performances feeling euphoric—like all is right with the world—and that’s what keeps me coming back.

    I love how I have the ability to dialogue with you in this forum—with your vast experience and insight—from across the country (on my couch!) when we’ve never met in person.

    While I tried to give you a thoughtful response to your previous query, I also had a hard time thinking of the perfect example to meet your needs. Perhaps if perfect examples existed, we’d be living in a different world, asking different questions. I’m surprised you had relatively few responses. Shouldn’t every person out there in the “industry” have several examples of classical music performances that have reached out to current culture and successfully engaged a broader community?! It certainly illustrates the challenging road we have ahead of us as a community.

    I support you in your efforts. I’m with you on this quest. As I’ve explained to people in my life who don’t really get why I spend so much time thinking and talking about classical music…“it’s all about the love.” If it’s at all helpful to you, I believe there are many people out there who are advocating for change. That’s what makes this time and this art so exciting to me.

    “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” ~Margaret Mead

  3. Eric Lin says

    It was a pleasure to finally meet you as well Greg! I’m not sure that I really conveyed how much I admire your writing during our brief meeting over the summer. I think the many readers of this blog (and your non-internet writings) will say the same.

    Anyway, perhaps an anecdotal illustration would help here. There is some overlap between the theater folks and the classical music folks at the school I currently attend, and I happen to have worked and know people in both circles.

    This season, student dramatic productions include works by Edward Albee, Arthur Miller, Sondheim, a Mac Wellman play from the mid-1990s, and The Front Page, a comedy from the 1920s. This is not including the bi-annual productions of Gilbert and Sullivan and Shakespeare. Sarah Kane’s controversial Blasted and Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses from 2002 both graced the main theatrical venue…

    On the other hand, what has the classical music scene done? One orchestra does a composition contest each year and another chamber strings group generally does some student work, and I’m quite grateful that these opportunities exist. But beyond this?

    The pattern is quite obvious. Theater types go around talking excitedly about the crazy Sarah Kane play. Sondheim productions are events. For the actor, yes, Shakespeare is great. But I certainly don’t hear many (or any) person going around talking about how Shakespeare is better than Miller or Albee. That sort of distinction just doesn’t register with them. It doesn’t make sense. Albee’s plays are great too…but for different reasons. Further, and more importantly, the plays are mostly chosen by THE STUDENTS themselves. People actively recruit teams of production staff to put together an Albee play. And people are genuinely excited to do a play/musical because they picked it.

    Classical music? The new commission for the orchestra (if there is one at all) is usually treated like its spinach. The Classical music equivalents of Albees and Kanes barely register with the performers, let alone the larger community. Why? The performers don’t know about them. So how can they get excited about their music?

    Whereas your average theater geek with know who Edward Albee is, chances are the violinist in the orchestra will not know who Thomas Ades or Helmut Lachenmann is. Or care.

    Whereas Shakespeare and Albee are equals, Beethoven and Birtwistle are not. At least not for the practitioners. Until these attitudes change, Classical music is and will be marginalized.

    Thank you, Eric! Beautifully put. I’m grateful to you.

    I once did a quick and dirty survey of five big regional theater companies. Half the plays they produced in whatever season I looked at were by living playwrights.

    And here’s a parallel example. A consultant I know has worked with both theater companies and orchestras. He told me once, with a mixture of puzzlement and great concern, that when he works with a theater company and is in their office the morning after a new production opened, everyone is buzzing about what they saw. They’re debating the play, the acting, the directing, the sets, the lighting, the costumes, everything. Whereas the day after the orchestra gives a concert, nobody says a word about it in the office. I can verify that for myself, from my own experience. And in fact at big orchestras, with large staffs, most of the staff doesn’t even go to the concerts.

    And here’s something else! A study done by the League a decade ago (approximately) found that some reasonably large percentage of regular orchestral concertgoers also go to theater productions — but complain that they don’t like all the plays, because some are about unpleasant subjects. That’s enough to drive any thinking person far from classical music.

    On a completely different note — so they still do Gilbert & Sullivan at Harvard, twice each year? I’m impressed, though amazed that it hasn’t disappeared. Those productions were a big feature of Harvard life when I went there, in the early ’60s. I sang in one of them — was the Grand Inquisitor in The Goldoliers. They do them still with full orchestra?

    Thanks finally for those lovely words. I probably didn’t think to tell you, when we met, how much I’ve loved your comments. And this one I’m saving. Don’t be surprised when it shows up in my book!

  4. Zecharia Plavin says

    Dear Mr Sandow,

    You refer to extremely complicated situation.

    The modern world (“life”) is largely permeated by cynicism, not just of the adolescent kind, but also most emphatically by intellectual, “op-ed wisdom” academic kind. The pre-avant-garde Western concert music works on the foundation of straight emotional appeal. People who seek connection between concert music and “life” will quickly discover that to “believe” in the emotional appeal of Rachmaninoff and Elgar, or even of Cesar Franck and Berlioz is either naïve, or anachronistic (or so it seems). After such revelation, any enthusiasm for recruiting new listeners for such music would diminish severely.

    The pivotal point when this tragic rupture between music and “life” occurred is to my best judgment Sir Edward Grey’s speech on August 3rd, 1914, regarding Europe’s deterioration into World War I (the famous “Lamps are going out” has been said just hours after that speech). Until that moment grand politics and idealism (and Western concert music) have been going hand in hand; however, after oceans of blood having been shed in that conflict, there remained no straightforward idealism (only horrible totalitarian fundamentalisms), and since then the message of traditional western art-music was only ridiculed.

    Since World War II the Stravinsky-Boulez-Babbitt type of contempt to the idealistic core of traditional artistic idealism only gained stature and was supported by the “aesthetic autonomy” philosophers(who like to link themselves to Emmanuel Kant). Their aim was to free music from its “undemocratic” idealistic overweight, letting only the “pure aesthetics” to remain in the play. Generally people need emotional appeal; the “cool view” of the Pompidou-centre structure and its musical equivalents attracts only very few, and these few do not constitute “life in its entirety”.

    Many years ago, George Rochberg (and John Gardner) tried to rebel against the ruling postulates of a-idealistic a-emotional aesthetisms, but were condemned as “right-wing monsters” or plain idiots. Therefore, we are here with “classical music” as NOT part of this life. May be with Obama’s coming to power the life itself will develop into idealistic direction, and then the contact with traditional music repertory will re-emerge.

    I wrote something similar here about Obama just after the election. Said that I thought the age of irony (in younger peoples’ culture) would be ending.

    But are you sure you’re not making too strong a case? Was Juno a cynical movie, just to pick a quick example? Are Bruce Springsteen’s songs cynical? He paints a bleak picture, sometimes, of contemporary life, but that’s social criticism. And you look at songs from (to take one of his recent albums) Devils and Dust, like “Maria’s Bed” and “Leah.” No cynicism there. Bruce is just a big softie. Lucinda WIlliams’s current album is all about breaking through into real love. I’m talking here about things I’ve liked a lot, or feel particularly close to, but I could expand the list quite a bit. We all could, I think. There’s a lot more to life than classical music and whatever hit it took from modernism.

  5. says

    Hi Greg,

    What can we do, and what are we doing?

    In the UK many thousands of children learn a musical instrument at school, yet very few of these children or teenagers ever attend classical concerts. Surely the place to start is with this group. The music will be much more accessible to them than to those who never hear classical music. I speak to venues across the UK every day, and know that there is a constant battle to fill the seats of many venues, so why don’t we start an organised programme to offer unsold tickets free to those in full-time education? There would need to be full co-operation from schools to encourage children to apply for tickets, and this may be difficult, I accept.

    I run a classical music website http://www.bachtrack.com and in March started a “young reviewer programme” with the backing of orchestras and venues across the UK to offer 12 – 16 year olds free tickets in return for a 300 – 500 word review which goes up on the site. I don’t get nearly as many applicants as I would like, and I have to knock on teacher’s doors again and again frequently without success, but every child who has applied to me is a child won over by the music who will return to the concert hall. Many who apply play an instrument but have never attended a classical concert before. Their reviews differ hugely from each other in skill and professionalism, but what shines through each and every one is the wonder and excitement of the live performance of these top class musicians. You can find the reviews on the site here http://www.bachtrack.com/youngreviewer-reviewlist and anyone feeling jaded should read them to remember why we are here.

    I’m a firm believer that we CAN bring classical music to young people, but the educators have to inspire and enthuse about attending professional classical concerts rather than be bogged down by admin.

    I have been unable to get any meaningful publicity about this scheme because in the UK everyone has responded that it is too worthy and not a sexy enough topic. So if the music columnists won’t help, nor the music publications, how can we get the message across and get more of these children into the concert halls to understand the emotion which makes classical music so very special?

    Alison, I think this worthy venture of yours is, essentially, a brave attempt to swim upstream against a very stiff current. You’re trying to create interest in something people aren’t interested in (which I suspect is the real reason the media won’t pay attention). An alternate approach would be to make classical music interesting, so that people, all on their own, will be interested. How to do that is a long story, and I’m not right now going to defend myself against the inevitable charge that I want to dumb everything down. (As I’ve said before, I think things are pretty dumb as they are. I want to make everything smarter.) When classical music becomes a contemporary art, people will become interested. I’ve seen that starting to happen in New York.

    In the UK, I thought Maestro — the BBC reality series in which people tried to be conductors — was a big step forward. That got reams of publicity, and deserved it, because it was genuinely smart, fun, and interesting, and because it really showed how difficult conducting is. There people found a way to plug classical music into the flow of the river, rather than trying to swim upstream against the flow.

  6. says

    Hey Greg–

    I follow a zillion blogs and read them in a blog reader which doesn’t show comments. This post got me to come to the actual blog and look through some of the comments on various posts–wonderful conversations!

    A few quick thoughts:

    1) The Corigliano Symphony No. 1 “Of Rage and Remembrance” comes to mind as a piece that got a lot of attention from people, especially those in the LGBT community, who weren’t otherwise interested in traditional classical music. There was genuine cultural relevance there. It wasn’t abstract. It’s the (seemingly) abstract quality of most instrumental classical music that makes it hard for many people to relate to.

    2) The improvisation ensembles I coach at DePauw gave a concert Monday night that included some short improvised songs on topics shouted out by members of the (small) audience. A soprano sang on finding a worm in an apple; another song was a freshman guy singing about doing a “barrel roll,” which turns out to be something one can do in a video game called “Starfox” (and there was one other which i can’t recall as I’m waking up, writing in bed). These didn’t galvanize the larger community, of course, but the elements of audience interaction, spontaneity, and relevance to the young (i.e., college-age) audience who were there point to something important.

    The songs were funny, too, and there were theatrical/comedic aspects at various points in the performance. Whether there are comedic elements or not, some theatrical elements seem to make a big difference; eighth blackbird’s use of staging has always struck me as powerful, appropriate, and not gimmicky but authentic.

    3) You wrote in another post about the excitement your students had talking about the new James Bond film. There’s excitement about pop culture–one of my cello students brought that movie up at the start of his lesson yesterday, wanting to know if I’d seen it. But wouldn’t a lot of us sneer at a symphony or other program that included music from Bond films (especially in some homogenized pops-concert arrangement)? I remember talking with you and Joe Horowitz last year after the Post-Classical symposium at DePauw and relating that one of my community friends who had attended sessions commented to me that if people want to bring in audiences, look at the Boston Pops (or something like that). Both you and Joe, if I remember correctly, visibly cringed and said pops concerts were part of the problem. On the other hand, Joe devoted a large part of one of his presentations to playing part of the New World symphony with a slide show of paintings of Native American scenes, while saying it’s the sort of thing he usually wouldn’t advocate, but that he had done as a way of creating a context for recapturing the cultural significance of the piece when it was first performed (and created controversy in critical circles). But that seemed about as pops-concertish as one could get.

    I’m not sure where I’m trying to go with this other than that I’d like to see this phenomenon of pops/light classical concerts more fully addressed. My understanding has been that the Indianapolis Symphony Pops concerts are key to the financial health of the institution. Those concerts bring in people who don’t go to subscription concerts. They don’t attract me, but is there really something wrong with them? Are they really part of the problem?

    I really want to go to Le Poisson Rouge next time I get to come to NY. It’s a club atmosphere, right? With drinks and food? Now I think back to watching the Boston Pops on television when I was eleven and twelve (and the Boston Pops programs and recordings were my transition into classical music) and seeing the audience sitting at tables where they’d obviously been eating and drinking. So what’s the big difference? Other than a different, more contemporary downtown atmosphere and a different sort of programming, but a programming that still mixes genres.

    Eric! I’m thrilled to see you here again. Not that you might not have been reading, and not that you’re required to comment, but I’m just happy to see your name, and (figuratively speaking) hear your voice.

    My objection to pops concerts (I can’t speak for Joe) is that they mix the worst of pop and classical schlock. They also, in their traditional form, draw an even older audience than straight-ahead classical events. Or so I’m told. What I like is breaking down all barriers between our notions of pop and classical music, so that anything becomes possible in a classical concert. Why shouldn’t James Bond music show up on a classical program, in some form? Why shouldn’t a composer quote it, for instance? (Well, there could be expensive, annoying rights issues, but that’s another story.) More than a decade ago, Todd Levin wrote orchestra pieces with a techno beat, and got some attention (even a DG recordings), but he was ahead of his time, and the classical world largely rejected him.

    One model of what I’d like to see happen is the Evening Music program on WNYC, our public radio station in NY. You might encounter anything there. Last night, as I drove in from the country, I heard a big Messiaen orchestral piece (Chronochromie), then the Pergolesi Stabat Mater, then an engaging, slightly schlocky cello and piano piece by Kodaly (you probably know it; it was new to me), and finally somehting by Sebastian Currier. Some weeks ago, I tuned in and they were playing the wonderfully cheesy score from a wonderfully cheesy horror movie (The Dunwich Horror). I guess that would outrage very serious classical music people, but I loved it. Cheesiness is on my aesthetic map. (Now I’m trying to imagine following the Dunwich Horror score with Mahler…whose cheesiness credentials were nicely established by himself and Freud…)

    I’d love to know more about what resonance the Corigliano piece had in the gay community outside classical music. I hadn’t known about that.

    Just let me know when you’re in NY, and we’ll go to Le Poisson Rouge.

  7. David Cavlovic says

    At the risk of sounding elitist, I have always felt it difficult to talk about classical music, even to colleagues in the profession (only some, mind you, not all, but still…). As early as the 80’s when doing my undergrad/grad work, I often found myself on a different plane. I’m NOT trying to say how brilliant I was, but more to point out that lack of experience that a number of my peers had even with the standard repertoire. Two cases in point : 1) the Dean of the Faculty of Music at that time lamented to me that a number of Grad Students at the time could rhapsodize on Musica Ficta or Venetian comic opera and the use of motto arias, but could not tell the difference between a Brahms Symphony and a Haydn Symphony when presented with the scores (the problem with overspecialization is a separate issue, best dealt with at another time). I felt somewhat incredulous — until my colleagues and I were testing each other with recorded examples of various pieces and styles in preparation for an Aural exam. One snippet I presented was from Beethoven’s Third Symphony. NONE of my fellow candidates could identify the piece! Grad candidates. In 1986!

    I do not blame the general public for lack of knowledge or enthusiasm for Classical music when I see the same general lack of enthusiam, and knowledge, from those who purport to either perform this repertoire, or are educators about it. We can blame FM Radio, the Recording Industry, the George Bush/WalMart culture even. But something has been going amiss for much longer if Grad students from the 80’s were already treating the discipline as Academic rather than a living entity. It really seems as if the attitude, the excitement even for music as music, somehow took a 180 degree turn away from where it was between, say, 1945 and 1975. The trickle-down effect of apathy grows from there.

    Very good point, David. The academic approach certainly shows up in program notes, though that’s slowly changing. Old-style program notes hold the music at a distance, and note historical and analytical facts about it. Encourages timidity in listeners, whose honest reaction would surely be that they often don’t know what the notes are talking about. The conclusion then is, well, if these are the important things about classical music, then I’m not really qualified to say anything, and I’d better just shut my mouth, and listen to what they tell me to listen to.

  8. says

    Must we blame Kant for this too? I hope not.

    For one thing, it seems to me that the sort of formalism Zecharia is rejecting goes back prior to modernism (Eduard Hanslick’s defense of romantic movement was written in the name of a Kantianism as was Roger Fry and Clive Bell’s defense of impressionism in the visual arts — and these are the foundational texts for aesthetic formalism). And so much 19th concert music is “absolute” music. Or, in poetry we can think of Stephane Mallarme.

    What is significant about WWI, though, is that you can make the case that the cutting-edge prior to this became the basis for mass culture after the war (or at least a simplified version of the avant-garde), probably because there was an ideological commitment to this cutting edge among the bourgeoisie, whose culture was being repackaged to be sold to the plebs… (I am speaking tongue-in-cheek of course). Whereas after the war the cutting-edge went off in a different direction.

    This raises a different question: was that change in directions necessary? And should we really deplore it? I don’t know if it’s fair to rephrase Greg’s question as follows: “what kinds of classical music events could explode onto our culture?” I think that the answer to this question will depend upon differentiating how classical music could now from how it did in the past. . .

    In his post, Greg compared an earlier phase of his love for classical music to a religious quest, an apt comparison I think. I don’t think it’s any accident that the two forms of art that find themselves in the direst straits now — contemporary classical music and contemporary poetry — are the two that were the standard bearers of high 19th century culture, and whose practitioners most explicitly regarded themselves of high priests of culture.

    Maybe the problem isn’t that our cynicism doesn’t approximate the grand synthesis of the 19th century but that our expectations still hold onto that grand synthesis. Think of that great scene in Godard’s Weekend when Godard has someone playing Mozart in a barn while hippies do various hippy things and there is a voice-over reverie on high-art and pop-art.

    Now that’s a way of making classical music relevant. But it does so by violating our expectations of what classical music should be, by blaspheming against the God Mozart, not by packaging it into its “proper” form.

  9. Meghan McCormick says

    No offense to David, but if you have to premise your entry with, “At the risk of sounding elitist,” you just might be the reason why classical music is losing ground with main stream society. True, it is depressing to think of the ignorance that abounds in regards to classical works and especially within musicians; however we mustn’t judge others for not passing a drop the needle quiz. The longer you sit and blog about the Bush/Walmart crew and FM radio ruining the musical tapestry of America, you lose more ground. Americans’ incredibly short attention span is perhaps the largest factor worthy of blame. Americans require being entertained within 5 seconds or they drop the activity. If one does not like the initial couple seconds of a new pop song, they will probably move on. Classical music, however, takes time and patience in order to reap the rewards. The great works that accomplish immediate pleasure like Beethoven’s 5th or the Four Seasons, sell more tickets because they does not require patience.

    Currently I am trying to remedy this issue in my own work Pacific Operaworks. I am working on Monteverdi’s “Ulisse” as directed by William Kentridge. It is our hopes that by involving Seattle and SF’s visual arts communities, we will broaden opera’s scope. The merging of visual art with performance is just one way of trying to open classical music up to a new audience.

    I am hopeful that we can turn the fate of classical music around. And yes Alison, it does start with our youth. We need to raise children who are capable of sitting and actively listening to songs longer than 2 minutes, who do not need large scale special effects in order to enjoy a movie and who are exposed in a positive way to classical music.

    I think you’re selling popular culture really short here, and ignoring both the serious stuff that goes on inside it, and the serious people who pay attention to that. But that’s a discussion/debate we’ve had here many times before. One reason classical music is in trouble, in my view, is that classical music people don’t know enough about the world outside classical music, and certainly don’t have enough sympathy with it.

  10. Alexandra Ivanoff says

    I’m an American music journalist living in Istanbul. What, you may ask, is there to write about there? Plenty! The classical music world here is alive and well, maybe not as sophisticated as in the U.S., but it’s surprisingly adventurous–but most amazingly, well-supported! Turks are curious about it, mostly because they’ve heard violins all their lives from their traditional music as well as gypsy music, which is very popular here.

    The reason it’s so well supported is because when the secular republic was formed in 1923 out of the ashes of moribund Ottoman Empire, Turkey’s new leader, Kemal Atatürk, mandated that Western arts be inculcated into everyday life. He personally funded artists and artistic projects, and from his example, the next 80+ years, many foundations were set up to provide a future for classical music, including a Turkish version of Lincoln Center in the middle of Istanbul.

    So classical music here doesn’t need to burn itself out by having to fundraise to survive. Believe it or not, the biggest supporters are banks. Two of the largest concert organizations, with their own performing arts facilities, are prominent Turkish banks.

    This scenario, in some ways, resembles the European model of state support, but with a decidedly more corporate face on it. Here, the banks and other business organizations enjoy a tremendous stamp of prestige and sophistication by their active patronage.

    Why am I mentioning this? Maybe a new model is in order for for classical music in the U.S. to enjoy the vitality it deserves. The pop music machine is powerful and wealthy because it understands crowd psychology: People like to do what other people do. If lots of people go to the symphony, everybody else will want to do it too. All it takes is prominent people from any profession to attend and support. The rest will follow.

    Alexandra Ivanoff, Time Out Istanbul

  11. Yvonne says

    «I wanted classical music events that exploded into our culture, or else made a community somewhere sit up and pay attention.»

    To be fair, how many pop culture events truly do this?

    I don’t mean attract large crowds or receive the usual kind of celebrity-based media attention (Baz Luhrmann’s movie “Australia”, recently premiered to great fanfare and with a very expensive marketing campaign, might be an example). I mean, as you say, really “explode” and really “make a community sit up and pay attention”. And I read that as provoking widespread thoughtful discussion and heated debate or working to change attitudes/behaviour in some way or becoming some kind of cultural touchstone or filtering into language as a turn of phrase. Sheer popularity and commercial success might be a part of it, but not all. (An example that springs to mind for me is JK Rowling getting a whole generation of kids reading in a way they hadn’t been – that was explosive.)

    I agree that art forms such as film seem to achieve this more often (dare I say a whole lot more often) than classical music. But I also think, if we’re honest, contemporary popular art forms don’t achieve this goal terribly frequently. Not in the explosive sense you mention.

    I’d also question how many of the creators and artists in other art forms actually make it a goal to achieve explosive cultural relevance. (Did Rowling set out to change the reading habits of a generation? No, she wanted to write a good yarn and get it published.) The beauty of it when it really happens is that it’s a natural by-product, almost incidental or accidental. And I believe that classical music (or any art form) setting out to do this as a primary goal risks suffering the same fate as the guy at the party who announces that he’s going to tell a funny joke…

    This is not excuse-making for classical music, just pointing out that what we’re asking of it is just as difficult to achieve, genuinely, in other art forms, and that there is the unfortunate danger in seeking it too explicitly.

    All true, Yvonne. But point for me is that, fine, many things (most things) in popular culture don’t have a revolutionary impact, but from time to time they do. What’s really happening is a feedback loop (so to speak) between cultural forms and our lives. The cultural forms mirror our lives, and then change them. That’s pretty basic, and the history of pop music in the rock era — at least in America — proves it triumphantly. Nothing like that happens in classical music.

    I feel like repeating what I said in reply to another comment. Let’s not make excuses for classical music. If it doesn’t have the cultural force that other art forms do, or that popular culture does — and if it doesn’t have the cultural force it had in generations past — then something’s wrong. It doesn’t really matter that not everything in popular culture stands for giant change.

    And, you know, it doesn’t have to. There’s a lovely moment in Nick Hornby’s essay on a top-hit Nelly Furtado song. I’m sure I’ve talked about it here before. Hornby is in a doctor’s office in London, where he lives, and in the waiting room with him are three young kids from the Caribbean. The Nelly Furtado song is all over the radio, and the kids start singing it, note-perfectly, Horby says, and with terrific little dance moves. He loves the song, too, and feels this moment of communion with the kids. For a moment, at least, they share the same culture.

    How often does classical music do that? Doesn’t it — rather than bring people together — more often separate those who like it from everybody else? (And not in a good way.)

  12. says

    Here’s an admittedly not very well formulated thought, but: what if a talented composer–young, old, student, master, etc.–working with a small repertory orchestra or opera company decided, hey, I’m going to write a song cycle, or cantata, or chamber opera, or musical theater piece with classical components (cf. Sondheim), on something very contemporary, say on a half-dozen people who were dealing with the aftermath of 9/11 5 years after the fact; or say, on the tensions between the guards and the prisoners in Guantánamo; or, to take a different but equally pressing issue, on new immigrants trying to adapt to life in a big American city, etc. Or we might even try something far lighter, as we might have gotten with those early 20th century operas by Hindemith (Neues vom Tage–which he wrote in 2 weeks), Schoenberg (Von Heute auf Morgen), Brecht (Threepenny Opera or The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny) or Krenek (Jonny Spielt Auf, etc.). The composer might incorporate elements of–would this horrify the classical music world?–rock; r&b; hip hop; techno; trance; drone; etc. Or, using one of the examples above, what if our composer wrote an work based on a very contemporary play, by Sarah Kane, or David Mamet, or Lynn Nottage, or Suzan-Lori Parks? We could go on and on. Let’s say the work was NOT commissioned. It was NOT perfect and probably would take a while to be refined. Is there any place/way that more than a handful of people might see or even hear this work?

    My first response was initially NO, until I realized that in fact, it might be possible to preview this for a wide array of people, especially now: because of MySpace, and YouTube, and similar internet tools and media, a far wider array of people might actually be able to learn about such pieces than would be possible if we waited for orchestras and opera companies to preview, let alone stage them. My question is, are composers and orchestras and opera companies thinking about these new ways of interacting with new and old audiences, of distributing their music, of soliticiting responses, of getting work out there more economically and quickly? Do they realize how powerful a medium like YouTube really is? And do they realize that this might afford them a way to present work drawing directly from and on our contemporary culture, and to connect directly with listeners? I hope so. (I can tell you that poets are extensively using the Net in all kinds of ways to get their work out there: online journals, podcasts, audio and video readings on various websites, YouTube videos of poetry readings, and so forth, are all means being employed right now.) I know it is harder to do all this for composers and orchestras, but it isn’t impossible, is it? And how might the classical music world react if it were to take off?

    Just a small note: a close reading of European aesthetic history would lead one to designate Kant, particularly in his Critique of Judgment, as the figure who points the way forward for formalism. It would take at least a few pages, but his emphasis on perception as opposed to anything inherent in the work of art, on judgment and taste, on detaching the aesthetic strictly from the scientic laws of nature (sensory/physical) and moral laws (freedom), on purposiveness without purpose, on form and formal perfection in relation to what that form contains, on the universality (in terms of the sensus communis, etc.) and so on, all point towards the subsequent rise, in the following century (19th) of the European avant-gardes. Whether or not its earliest exponents, such as Saint-Simon, Gautier, and so on, explicitly evoke Kant or other theorists, his thoughtprints are all over their and others’ (Baudelaire’s, Mallarmé’s, Poe’s, etc.) work. I think this is perfectly fine and don’t condemn Kant as the earlier poster does, but it is fair to assign to him at least a good portion of the intellectual armature for the subsequent rise of avant-gardism, even as we acknowledge that formal and thematic avant-garde parallels (Rabelais, Sterne, even Shakespeare himself, etc.) and precedents (from throughout the European and many other global cultural traditions) should be taken into account as well.