(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
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