The two paths (Where we stand, part 5)

(This is the end of my “Where we stand” series for 2009.)

I’ve notice that, broadly speaking, people take two positions on the future of classical music. Or,.rather, they take these positions if they think that classical music faces any problems. Some people think everything’s fine, but I’m going to assume that these people are a small minority, and won’t be reading this blog. (If I’m wrong, and you’re one of those people, tell me!)

So let’s assume that all of us — or most of us — think that classical music has problems. Some of us will blame the culture classical music is part of. That’s the first of the two positions. Classical music is fine, some of us think, but the culture around us needs to be taught (or re-taught) to understand it.

This view has some clear advantages. Classical music, if this view is correct, doesn’t have to change. In all the things that matter most — the repertoire, how the repertoire is played, what concerts are like — it can continue just as it is.

But we’ll need to do more education. This is the remedy this view proposes, the plan for fixing classical music’s problems, the way to find a new audience. We need to teach people to understand classical music. We need to explain its complexities. We need, in short, to teach people how to listen. Once we’ve done that, the music will speak for itself. Its value will be obvious to everyone.

And of course we need to restore music education in the schools. That’s the most important thing we can do. And the belief that it’s important is held very passionately. If the world needs to be taught to love classical music, we’d better start early. We’ve lost an entire generation, an entire generation of people who don’t like classical music because they weren’t taught to like it when they were young. We have to change that, right now. And then we’ll build a new audience for the next generation.

This position has disadvantages, of course. It’s hard to change an entire culture. There’s a danger that we’ll sound preachy, or superior, even patronizing. If we hold the hardcore version of this position  — the version in which we think that the culture at large is mostly crap, that people don’t think, aren’t creative, have short attention spans, and listen to music that’s little more than junk — then what can we say to them? Do we go out in the world, and tell people that their musical taste is terrible? That’s not likely to work.

And if we want to restore music education, how can we do that, if the problem we’re trying to solve is that our culture doesn’t value classical music? If our culture doesn’t value it, how can we get school systems — funded by state and local governments — to spend money (especially when money is short) on classical music education?

Because nothing’s black or white — because classical music still has prestige, because school systems might not say no, if (let’s say) the local orchestra offers to send musicians to teach classical music — we might make some headway. But it’s not clear how far we can get. The very problem we’ve defined — that our culture doesn’t value classical music — seems to block our success.

The second approach

The second approach is more or less the opposite of the first. In this view (which as regular readers won’t have to guess, is mine), the classical music world has created all the problems it might face. The culture around it has changed, not for the worse, and classical music hasn’t kept up. The repertoire hasn’t kept up, the way concerts are presented hasn’t kept up, the way we relate to our audience hasn’t kept up, the way we talk to the world hasn’t kept up. So what we offer, as time goes on, appeals to fewer and fewer people.

The advantages of this approach should be obvious. It gives us power over our future. Or at least it puts the means for change in our own hands. If you take the first view, and want to restore music education throughout the US, that’s a brave and noble goal (which those of us who hold the second view would happily support). But it’s not something we can control. We need school systems, government (especially state and local government), parents, and the public to join our campaign. We need government and school boards to come up with some money. Maybe they’ll do that, and maybe they won’t. There’s always a chance that we’ll mount a fabulous campaign, and not get very far.

But if we decide to change the way we ourselves do things, who can stop us? Our changes might or might not work, but if they don’t work, we can tweak them, or try something else. What we do is entirely up to us.

And there are other advantages. If we take the second view, we can talk to people outside classical music without talking down to them, without thinking we need to teach them anything. We can meet these people on common ground, because we share their assumptions. We share their culture. Yes, we know something they might not know — how terrific classical music is — but it’s much easier to tell them what we think if we know that live in their world.

And we can learn from them. One problem — I’d forgotten this — with position one is that it more or less assumes that we won’t change. We know what’s good, and we’ll teach other people to agree with us. The communication goes just one way. Position two, by contrast, allows for dialogue. We talk to the people we’re trying to reach, we learn what they care about, we learn how classical music strikes them, and maybe we make more changes. Maybe classical music changes when it encounters a new audience (just as anything has to change, when it moves to a new space).

We also get the chance to make classical music a contemporary art, which it was in centuries past. We can reflect the world around us, incorporate the world around us, speak to current life in everything we do. That doesn’t preclude presenting music of the past. In fact, it gives that music even more meaning, because it gets connected far more strongly with how people live now.

To take this view, we of course have to think that current culture is healthy. Not completely healthy — when has that ever been true? we still have wars, ignorance, ugliness — but healthy in enough ways that the healthy parts can make a difference. We’re not likely to believe, for instance, that there’s no creativity in current life, or that people have short attention spans. We’re willing to admit that they don’t pay attention to the things we might wish they’d take a look at, but we grant that they’re able to look with focused concentration at anything they care about.

We understand that popular culture has art and subtlety of its own, and that people who focus on it are just as smart, just as nuanced, just as cultured as we are, even if their culture is different. We understand that they listen to music carefully, and that, because they’re smart, they can follow classical music’s complexities (or many of them, anyway) without special coaching. We know that the things they might want to learn — what sonata form is, for instance — aren’t all that complicated, and that our prospective new audience can easily learn them if they want to.

For me, this is a very happy place to be, especially since (like so many people now, especially younger people, but not only them) I move back and forth from popular culture to the art formerly called high, without even feeling that I’m crossing any border. I feel enriched from so many directions, and I learn a lot about classical music from things that, in position one, might not seem to be connected with it, things like pop music, fashion, or film.

The problem with position two? Classical music has to change, thoroughly and decisively, in ways we’ve only just begun to learn about. That’s the first problem. The second might be that we have to work with the people who hold position one, and get them to try position two, at least enough to see what the results

might be.

The third problem is that we need to find resources — staff time, for instance, at a classical music institution, and money — to support the changes we want to make. The fourth problem is that we’ll make mistakes, maybe even costly ones, and will have to recover from them.

And the final problem — which might be the first that people from position one might think of — is that we don’t want to dumb classical music down, just to make it more accessible. Of course, I think that if we really understand current culture, we’ll want to go the other way, and make classical music smarter. But I know that there’s a danger of getting all fluffy and friendly, and perky, too, making everything fun and simple, and losing track of what our art is really about. Again, if we really understand the culture around us — or at least the parts of it we want to speak to — we won’t do that. But we should be alert in any case.

Those are the two approaches. Any thoughts, anyone? What have I missed?

Other posts in “Where we stand”:


Last year’s version, with things I didn’t say in this year’s

A new spirit, in how classical music is perceived

Things I left out of the new spirit post

Information shortage: we don’t have enough statistics about classical music

The meaning of the surge — what it means that orchestras are selling more tickets

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  1. says

    Hi Greg,

    I just think it´s important to remark that the first approach considers that people are still in the 19th century and that we should behave, feel and listen to music as our predecessors did.

    Approach two considers that somethin might have happened in the last century or so.

    Why shouldn´t music change after September 11th, after WWII, after the recent economic crisis. Sometimes we act as if we were in a mouldy black box listening to music composed by dead people in the same way our grandparents did, completely ignoring the world around us.

    Fist bump, Eric.

    I think the big cultural change — the one that left classical music increasingly beached, away from the tide — started in the ’60s. And it’s so obvious. Very little that evolved in and from the ’60s has been reflected in classical music. Or at least at the higher levels of classical music. It’s no coincidence that the audience (as far as I can tell from the data available) started to get older in the ’60s, and that the audience now has relatively few people who came of age after that decade.

    Thanks, Eric

  2. says

    Hi, Greg–

    This post makes me think…”the unexamined life is not worth living.”

    Your first scenario describes an industry that is blindly pushing into the future, without taking the time to be introspective and to look around them. The second scenario forces an ongoing evaluation of what is working and what isn’t. A willingness to present music in new ways — ways that might alienate (or make uncomfortable) some existing audience members in order to attract new ones. It involves taking risk and embracing change.

    That’s a difficult ask for a part of our society that prides itself on remaining true to its traditions, no matter how out of touch and archaic.

    You might appreciate that my 10-year-old son is going on a field trip today to see the (very small) local symphony perform. On the permission slip we had to sign, it informed us that our children MUST be dressed up to attend the symphony…no jeans allowed! “Hey, kids, this is something very different from your normal, everyday experience. It is HIGH ART. You must show your respect!”

    Anyway, I just thought that was an interesting message to send about how live classical music fits into people’s lives.

  3. Jeff Rossman says

    Although you have some excellent points and they are well written, I have an admittedly more cynical, but I feel realistic take on this “problem.” This is primarily a financial

    issue and as long as seats were filled, donations were coming in and there was some reasonable government funding, no one really cared about the “problems” of people not familiar with classical music. In fact, most of us reveled in our uniqueness from the dolts who only listened to culturally popular music. Now that the $$ well is running dry we are scrambling for untapped sources (and butts) to put in seats.

    Nothing wrong with that, I just think that part of this outcry is disingenuous.

    Of course that’s what happened! I would have thought that everyone knows that. That’s (so to speak) the prequel to my post, and in fact to everything in this blog.

    But take a look at other arts — visual art and theater, for instance. They could have faced the same problem (and theater to some extent does), but they evolved with the times. They both incorporate the culture around them. Musuems offer the best example of all. I’ve said this before, but at one point some time ago — when several people had defended the prevalence of old music on orchestra programs by saying that orchestras quite properly functioned as museums — I went to the Metropolitan Museum website to see what shows were featured.

    There were three. One old master show (Raphael, I think), and two contemporary shows. One of those was Jeff Koons, whose work is outrageously sexual. The other was a costume collection show, on the influence of superhero costumes on fashion. If classical music institutions did anything comparable, I doubt they’d be having the troubles they’re having now.

  4. Zecharia Plavin says

    Dear Mr. Sandow,

    Your systematization of approaches to classical music is brilliant.

    You ask for additional thought. Here it is (you have mentioned it briefly by yourself):

    Work together with university professors of history, culture, politics, society.

    The best of classical music – along its other qualities – revives the life around Archbishop Colloredo, Archbishop of Olmutz, around Bismarck and around the wonderful car Karl, by which the beautiful Pat Holmann travelled with her friends before her illness (E.M. Remarque).

    Art-music brings the past to present in a form of emotional life-experience. By listening to the concert music we may observe and feel life through proximity to patrician or romantically inspired perspectives, and learn much about our own problems still unsolved in our present-day life.

    However, some help is needed. I think insightful university professors from humanitarian field could wish to cooperate. Then the “third way” of listening to classical music could come – learning about life through living the history again. What would you think?

    Thanks for the compliment, and above all for the idea. I like it, and maybe I’d phrase it this way — bring classical pieces alive by placing them more firmly in the context of their own time. One problem, I think, is that classical masterworks from the past don’t sound like they come from the past. Somehow they’ve lost the flavor and content they originally had. And certainly if people can read Tolstoy and Jane Austen, they could listen to music from past centuries.

    But I don’t think this will work if we don’t also make the connection to the present day. That is, by talking about what those emotions from the past might mean today, and also by providing (so to speak) emotions from the present. Sometimes I think that if new music made up more than half of concert programs, the old music wouldn’t be a problem at all. The new music would automatically create its present-day context.

    We also have to think about presentation. How will a new audience be made aware of this expanded context? We can’t very well ask people to attend lectures before they go to concerts — not a new audience, anyway. Among much else, I think our performances have to speak for themselves. They have to be so vivid, so convincing, so varied, so dramatic, so rapt, so deeply felt, that no one needs any special knowledge to appreciate them. And I think they were that way in past generations, but that’s a longer story. Certainly an understanding — of the kind you’re talking about — of the emotions of the past would help develop the kind of performance I’d like to see.

  5. Richard Mitnick says


    Thanks for your well thought out and formulated post.

    As regards music education in public schools, I really think that this has little value for the future of Classical Music.

    I am old enough (67) that when I went to school we had both Art and Music classes. I cannot draw or paint, and I cannot play an instrument. And, I cannot say that I really learned anything in either set of classes.

    What made the difference for me was Classical Music in the house when I was growing up. My father had an extensive collection of Classical Music LP’s, running from Beethoven through Copland. There was constantly something playing on the turntable when he was home in the evenings and on the weekends.

    Now, I have my own even more extensive collection, running from Bach through Golijov in CD’s and .mp3’s purchased from Amazon.

    As regards the question of dumbing down Classical Music: The most successful area right now for classical music and an area where success is growing is not the concert hall. It is audio streaming, especially from our public radio outlets. Within this area, the two most successful attempts have been really dumbing down their offerings. They were C.P.R.N, from KUSC and Colorado Public Radio which has recently been taken down; and Classical 24 from Minnesota Public Radio. Both of these had many “carries”. Alan Rich has called them “musical wallpaper”. On the other hand, WCNY streams live from Syracuse, NY; and WCPE streams live from Winston-Salem, NC. These are great services. WCPE offers their stream in many formats for free to all comers, individuals on the internet, and stations for FM broadcast. But here, also, no one could call these two very good outlets adventurous.

    One might question the value of audio streaming for the future of Classical music; but in my opinion the future of anything revolves around money. The idea is to play something that will get one into the concert hall or the record store to financially support whatever branch of the musical arts one chooses. In my case, it is not the concert hall, I am too claustrophobic. In my case it is mp3 downloads from Amazon and I choose to support living composers.

    I financially support three Public Radio stations two of which air and stream Classical Music, WNYC, New York, and WPRB, Princeton. The third station I support is WBGO, Newark, NJ which airs and streams Jazz. I also financially support Live365, an aggregator of web audio streams.

    I have been singing this same song about Public Radio and web streaming for quite some time now, and I have recently seen it come to the fore in other blogs on Classical Music and music on the radio.

  6. says

    Position one is a caricature that has no basis in the actual outlooks of today’s administrators. We aren’t trying to turn the clock back, and don’t expect education programs to create a rapt audience. Change happens slowly in this business. It’s happening, events are being reacted to, and new programs are being created and adapted to address this world. Your analysis would have more impact with more nuance.

    Hi, Marc. This a very helpful criticism. I’d love you to say more, to set forth your version of position one with the nuance I might be missing. I’ll pay close attention.

    In my travels around the classical music world, I do have to say that I’ve met many people who took the first position, in more or less exactly the terms in which I stateed it. Sometimes even more strongly. I also know many people inside the business, sometimes in very high positions, who share many of the beliefs in position two. But they may not act on those beliefs, or state them openly.

    I’ve also had bizarre, almost out of body experiences, with people who appear to hold position one. A year ago or so I spoke at a conference, preceded by several people from large organizations who said things straight out of position one. I then got up, and offered position two. The people who’d spoken before me rushed to congratulate me, and say that they agreed. But I’m not aware that any of them changed what they do.

    The wave of hope that greeted Dudamel’s orchestral from Venezuela — and, more generally, news of el sistema — is yet another example of position one. At Carnegie Hall, when that youth orchestra played, I’ve quite literally never seen a more excited audience. Total strangers would approach each other (people I didn’t know approached me several times, not because they knew who I am, but simply because I was there) to say that this was the salvation of classical music. It’s a perfect example of position one. Educate younger people in classical music (in this case on a gigantic scale), and the future audience is guaranteed. All without changing anything about how the classical music world functions. El sistema is so traditional, in its approach to music, that it barely deals with new music, and (as far as I know, and certainly not in any prominent way) doesn’t encourage or train composers.

    One way that you could help me, Marc, is to tell me about position two activities from mainstream classical music organizations. I’ve worked closely with two major orchestras, on projects designed to help bring in a new audience, and I can’t say I found much position two thinking among any of the people i worked with. But maybe I’m missing something obvious. Help me!

  7. Ted Spickler says

    My experience is also linked to growing up in a household where classical music was played all the time. Without “learning” anything about music I absorbed the emotional communication side through repetition. We had a classical music appreciation class in school which I enjoyed BUT would have been nearly worthless if it were not for repeated music listening exposure at home. Hollywood is currently our stongest ally. Without understanding why, the mass public has subliminally learned that great orchestral music accompanies movies and hence composers like John Williams are pop idols. Note what happens when a movie uses a classical score, it ends up on a best seller list of music being sold. That’s because of exposure and repetition and the link of the music directly to emotion. Nobody needs to be taught sonata form to love this kind of music. I say the music itself does not need to change but the exposure to it is lacking for which I have no answer except, whenever possible, push the link to appropriate movie sound tracks.

    It’s this kind of Catch-22 that position two might help with. The Catch-22 is something like this: People won’t like classical music unless they’re exposed to it, but they don’t get exposed to it because they don’t like it. Understand this in a larger cultural way — it’s not that indlviduals reject classical music, and refuse to listen to it, but the culture as a whole doesn’t love it, so opportunities for exposure are limited. People in the media, for instance, genuinely have no interest in classical music, and that’s why the media doesn’t cover it.

    To break lose from this vicious circle (an understandable one), something has to change. If something changes about classical music, then — just maybe — there’s something people might want to pay attention to.

  8. Stephen Soderberg says


    I entirely agree with you concerning the trappings of presentation in classical music. I support your efforts and am involved in quiet efforts of my own and my new music colleagues to turn things around. But: at the end of the day I, at least, have to admit this is only a call to reapply the star’s makeup – not inessential to a successful production, but not really that much to do with the script, which has been ripped to shreds and is being rewritten by unknown forces as we blog. We’re all getting a severe jolt in the arts world (as elsewhere) lately – and solutions are not going to come simply from smarter, more welcoming venues and the like. I assume you’ve read the increasing resentment and sheer vitriol in many comments to other blogs and op-eds in the last few months from people who, for the first time, are finding their lives are being reduced to brute survival, so you know that any “attitude change” toward classical music is not about to happen any time soon, no matter how the product is packaged.

    In his 1987 essay, “The Insoluble Problem: Supporting Art” (pub. in the 1989 collection The Culture We Deserve), Jacques Barzun (now two years older than Elliott Carter, by the way) gives eleven “seemingly insurmountable” obstacles to supporting the arts. I don’t like to read these words, but Barzun is a first-rate thinker: his arguments are strong, we would be foolish to dismiss or ignore them, and if we can creatively overcome them – any of them – we will have taken an important step out of the wilderness we find ourselves in. I recommend to all to read the origina,l but I know the reality; so here is my own quick summary (and the shorthand lead titles also are mine, not Barzun’s):

    Financial obstacles:

    1. Zero patron growth. No new sources of money to grow the pool of patronage.

    2. Survival first. There are more acute social priorities [see current situation – suggesting even a single penny to the arts right now causes a scream to send a chill up any politician’s spine]

    3. Patron dearth/death. Previous non-profit sources are starting to dry up. (A bit different than item 1 which is about growth/replacement)

    4. Birthrate problem. Colleges and universities are reaching their “support capacity”: less students = less income = less to spread around (see the death of the Rose)

    5. Death by pop. Competition from the popular arts [despite what some may be trying to wish into reality, there is no reasonably foreseeable “merge” that will negate or ameliorate this steady drain]

    6. The institutional bazaar. Creation of an off-putting “bazaar atmosphere.” – cocktail parties in a library, gift shops in a museum, Internet product sales. Initially well meant, but profits are not necessarily going back into support for the arts mission, but may be morphing into their own reason for existing, threatening to shift the mission itself away from arts support/presentation.

    Obstacles within the arts per se:

    1. The starving artist syndrome & annual arts bailout. “Artists do not go out of business if their goods do not sell; they keep producing even if they starve.” Creates a constant need to “rescue” the artist. The same applies to arts institutions. Barzun was excoriating the annual arts bailout 20 years ago.

    2. The arts glut. There is no way in the arts to limit overproduction. Since monetary profit is not the primary motivator, there is no such thing as a “market force” that could stop the arts world from creating a glut. [Barzun devotes an entire essay to this problem entitled “A Surfeit of Fine Art.”]

    3. Alien forces. Artists view the market and their own patrons as non-art “things” things to be “repeatedly conquered.” This can result in resentment toward the artist’s own support system.

    4. Star wars. There is so much art available that the public can’t be expected to make a reasonable decision about what art to support. The star system helps the public to avoid thinking about it, but stars create “a kind of monopoly to the detriment of the large and less successful majority”

    5. Snooze art. The arts glut leads to another “protective response” from the public. Since “high art” [I know, I know] becomes commonplace; “instead of being enthralled participants, the followers of art turn placid consumers.” Maybe this is where we can jump back into classical music packaging upgrades. Gawd, we need something to justify looking forward to next season: first, do no harm; second: try hard not to let anyone go to sleep. [Note to self: try to make your comment shorter next time.]



    No, please, comment at great length if it’s going to be this good! So much to think about here. Starting with Barzun — is he still alive!? Had no idea!

    There’s more than I can respond to in the time I’ve got right now, but I’d want to look at popular culture, which right now is enormously smart (the good stuff) and encourages enormous amounts of participation. I’ve never seen such a healthy time for artistic creation, as long as we don’t limit that concept to the high arts.

    As for the merge of the culture formerly known as high (sorry; I just love putting it that way) and the culture formerly known as popular (I guess these “formerly”s are wishful thinking on my part, but still)…I think the merge is actually going on. And in many places. One is in the heads of younger people. I know classical music professionals in their 20s who just don’t make distinctions between high and popular culture. And then another place is in new music. Certainly we’ve got a lot of young composers in NY (the group around New Amsterdam Records, and many more, including, though they’re not young, the Bang on a Can trio) who don’t draw any cultural lines. And that shows in their music. An iconic moment for this was Alarm Will Sound (I think it was) playing their arrangement of the Beatles’ “Revolution No. 9” at the Bang on a Can marathon last year. What kind of music was it? Classical? Pop? New music? The categories stopped meaning anything. Likewise when Alarm Will Sound played Aphex Twin arrangements.

    But this is a long discussion. One interesting point would be to see how Barzun’s red flags waved during the ’90s. Was he prescient, or did things go some other way? Some of it seems applicable today, but maybe some of the things are cyclical.

    There’s also the famous “Long Tail,” which, if it helps the arts, raises a question. How much of the current hand-wringing about the arts involves an unstated assumption that there ought to be some consensus, some central body of art, past or present or probably both, that we can agree is “great.” And that this agreement carries some cultural force. What if that’s not true anymore? Is this harmful, or does it show that art and creativity have been diffused through our society in ways that make consensus unnecessary?

  9. Bruce Brode says

    Perhaps we should more accurately define our terms. From

    Classic: 1613, from Fr. classique, from L. classicus “relating to the (highest) classes of the Roman people,” hence, “superior,” from classis (see class). Originally in Eng. “of the first class;” meaning “belonging to standard authors of Gk. and Roman antiquity” is 1628. Classics is 1711; classical is 1599, “of the highest rank.” Of music, first recorded 1836.

    So, if “classical music” is somehow to be reconciled with ‘non-classical’ music in order to improve its appeal, maybe it needs a different handle? I know, it’s hard to change “brand” names as you run the risk of losing the market you already have in search of a wider one.

    I don’t really see the disparity between museums and classical music organizations at the ‘performance’ level. Do art museums typically mix old and new art in the same display space? I admit I am not a frequent visitor to art museums, but I don’t recall seeing that commonly. I understand your point at the organizational level, but there are performing arts centers that promote a variety of musical performances and genres.

    The fine arts in general don’t seem to lend themselves very easily to being turned into commodities (discrete units which can be bought and sold), which is what the capitalist economic philsophy that has dominated life in the Western world for centuries now understands most fundamentally. The for-profit music business is strongly being remade these days, in spite of itself, by the very market its purveyors have sought to exploit, partly due to technology but also due to evolving lifestyles. Crippled public revenues (i.e. government and foundation) do not bode well for investment in arts education at least in the near term.

    So, as Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday approaches, we can look forward to some evolution in the arts, including music by whatever handle you attach to it.

    I’ve made a study of dictionary definitions of classical music — I teach them in my Juilliard and Eastman courses — and they mostly carry some implication of “better and longer-lasting than other kinds of music.” But I don’t think that in practice the name carries much of that implication. It’s just a kind of music — Beethoven, played in concert halls, with a lot of violins. Something like that. The great equalizer is Billboard magazine, the trade journal of the record business, which runs charts of best-sellers in all musical genres. Classical music takes its place alongside everything else.

    Museums: the point, to me, is what they feature. Sure, old art and newer art may not share the same display space. But museums have not just permanent collections, but featured shows. The featured shows are what they use to create buzz, excitement, and (if I may be so crass) market share. And these are just as likely to be contemporary as old, maybe more likely, no matter what’s in the permanent collection.

    As for commodification, I’m not sure I take your point. I can’t think of much in the arts that can’t be commodified. The visual arts business, certainly, is entirely commodified. People are even finding ways to sell performance art — performances that took place long ago and will never be repeated.

    And then you can sell admission tickets, to just about anything, visual art, music, theater, dance. Meet the Composer has had great success selling commissions — or rather selling the idea that individuals can commission classical pieces. Some organizations (Bang on a Can, the New Jersey Symphony) have sold shares in a commission, or something to that effect. They solicit small contributions, all of which together go to commission a piece. Recordings of performances can be sold, audio or video recordings. Maybe it would be better to ask what couldn’t be sold! After the success of Angels in America, for instance, someone could have sold Kushner’s manuscript, the director’s notes, pieces of the actors’ costumes, written-out directions for the lighting scheme. Books are entirely commodified. Anything published between covers is put on sale. The list is endless…

  10. says

    Coming from a background of classical music lover, business and technology (i.e. not a pro musician), I agree with the broad thrust of your analysis, and it’s certainly right for the classical music world to focus and what it can do itself, not on what others should do for it. A few observations, though, all IMHO:

    The defining difference between classical and popular styles, is not the “violins vs. guitars” thing but the level of complexity and concentration that is demanded of the listener. Some people go for this naturally, others don’t: I have two very musical teen-aged kids of whom one will happily listen to a three hour opera while the other gets restive after anything lasting more than three minutes (and yet is rehearsing the Haydn Nelson mass in choir with complete delight). I dearly wish that music teachers could put more effort into the concentration and listening skills, rather than injecting the pupil with a small encyclopaedia of musical history and structure.

    One place to start is in the concert hall. I want the performers to tell us about the music – why they love this piece so much, particular things to look out for, anecdotes about the music: the stuff that folk performers do naturally. I’ve been to concerts where the performer plays an encore and doesn’t even tell the audience what it is.

    I also wonder about the way that classical promoters market their “product”. On the classical music site I run,, we let performers list their biographies, which are much in the same vein as those in a concert programme. A typical bio has a list of the performer’s teachers, prizes won, and orchestras they’ve worked with. From a listener’s point of view, I couldn’t care less. What I want to know is why on earth I should go and see this person – do they have marvellous technique, do they have a special love of some genre, do they play in a particularly unique style? If I go to see Dudamel, it’s for youthful flamboyance and intensity, if I go to see the Berlin Phil, it’s for precision and power, if I listen to a Glenn Gould or a Dinu Lipatti recording, it’s because no-one I know has ever played Bach or Chopin remotely like them.

    With some impressive and honourable exceptions, it seems to me that the vast majority of classical music marketeers, particularly in the state- or charity-backed organisations, focus entirely on their known (and aging) base of existing concert-goers, and pay little or no attention to what other businesses call “acquiring new customers”.

    The structure and timing of concerts could also change and diversify. The vast majority of concerts consist of two hours of music at 7:30pm, but there are huge numbers of people this doesn’t suit: those with lower attention span, parents, people with a long commute or simply those who work late and get hungry before 10pm. It’s not a co-incidence that most evening movies start around 9pm.

    Classical music doesn’t have to “go popular” to engage its audience. But it does need to start focusing on its music and its audience rather than on its history, its legacy and the internals of its trade. Maybe, then, some money can come in from real audiences as well as from patronage.

    (Sorry, over-long post, but this stuff matters! Thanks for a great and stimulating post.)


  11. jerome langguth says

    Dear Greg,

    Thanks for another very thought provoking post. The position that you outline here reminds me of the opening chapter of the philosopher Charles Taylor’s classic The Ethics of Authenticity. In that work, Taylor is attempting to illuminate something about the debate between those for whom contemporary culture is irreparably sick and decadent (Allan Bloom types) and defenders of the culture who find it, as you say, basically healthy (the everything bad is really good for you model). Taylor calls the first group the “knockers” and the second the “boosters.” Taylor himself attempt to articulate a view that transcends knocking and boosting by pointing out that 1) the knockers criticisms of contemporary culture are not just completely crazy, and 2) the boosters are often inarticulate in their defense of the culture. Taylor’s project is then to answer the knockers by examining the sources of the booster’s inarticulacy and to some extent remedying it (he is often a booster with the heart of a knocker).

    Applied to the state of classical music problem, Taylor’s approach might be to first sort out and understand the worries of the knockers. What rings true in the first position you discuss? I would say that the idea that there is something amiss in the culture such that the love and appreciation of classical music is threatened is an important idea, even if I reject the simpleminded version of that thesis that says things like “kids have no attention span” or “the culture is hopelessly dumbed down.” Like you, I find those things to be false. Examples of intelligence, profundity, creativity, and even wisdom, are really not that hard to find in contemporary pop culture—if one is looking in the right places. But there are powerful and discouraging forces out there as well. The pop music world represented by the major labels, American Idol, and so on. And our listening habits are being altered by technology such as the iPod, downloading, etc. I teach a history of jazz course at a small Midwestern liberal arts college, and most of my students do not listen to albums of any kind. One thing that means is that they are on the whole not sensitive to the notion of a musical work as a whole with interconnecting parts. Not a short attention span or lack of intelligence, but a failure to develop the habits that make listening to long-form pieces of music a rewarding experience. I would go so far as to say that the demise of the “pop” album is as serious an issue for the future of classical music as is the declining number of people attending orchestra concerts. Similarly, the disappearance of the local “brick and mortar” record store matters because that is where many future fans of classical music develop their interests and tastes in the first place. The problems of the classical music world are, I think, linked in many ways to these broader sorts of issues. It is our experience of music, not just classical music, that is undergoing profound alterations. Recognizing that might be the key to combating the problems you identify in the classical realm. Well, I have gone on far too long for a comment on a blog post. Thanks again for a lively and stimulating blog.


    Thanks so much for this. I don’t think there are any rules about length of comments. The length is dictated by what you have to say, and you had a lot to say. And it was all more than worth saying.

    I’ll have to read the book you mentioned. Thanks. One thing occurs to me — well, many things do, as I read your thoughts. But the one I’ll mention is simply this: In past generations, there were cultural problems, too. In the ’50s, for instance, there was a great outcry about “conformity.” It was one of the buzzwords of the age. I remember it well, from my high school years. Non-fiction books like “The Organization Man,” “The Hidden Persuaders,” and “The Lonely Crowd” all addressed this problem. Or perceived problem. As did novels like “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.” What none of these writers noticed, if I remember properly, were all the forces working against conformity — the beat generation, rock & roll, the civil rights movement, the rise of art movies (almost exclusively European, back then, but very influential in the US), the rise of non-popular, artistic jazz (bebop and beyond). All that added up to an alternative culture, which later burst forth in the ’60s.

    One thing different today is that the arts, including classical music, are offered as an antidote to the cultural problems we have, often without a word of acknowledgment that these problems are also addressed in popular culture. Popular culture is often its own best critic, and the efforts of people in the arts to say the arts are necessary because of problems seen in popular culture really won’t wash anymore.