More testimony

A couple of weeks ago, I posted some testimony, to the power of concerts that blend classical music and indie rock, and draw an excited new audience. Here’s more, sent to me in an email from a friend who works in the mainstream part of the classical music business. He and I had been at Le Poisson Rouge together, seeing a show from the Nonclassical record label (and club night) that’s based in London. A show also cosponsored by New Amsterdam Records, a New York label, which, like Nonclassical, features music by classical composers who’re as much influenced by pop music as they are by classical.

All of which reads, to me, like a boring list of things that many readers might not know about. So let me back up. For decades now, we’ve had an alternative classical scene in New York, starting with the minimalists, moving forward through time with Bang on a Can, and now bursting out with amazing force with, for instance, the big orchestral concerts that Wordless Music did, and the big, free Bang on a Can marathons, which last all night and attract 1000 people or more.

I’ve blogged about a lot of this before. (As you can see from the last two links.) All these events involve composers who write classical music — structured, preplanned, notated — but do it in an environment informed by pop, something that for these composers is as unremarkable as Milton Babbitt being influenced by Schoenberg.

And an audience has grown — an audience of nonspecialists, an audience that surely for the most part never goes to Lincoln Center, an audience that might be attracted by the presence of indie rock on some of these programs, or by a big indie rock star who’s written a classical piece. But above all, this is an audience that doesn’t care about labels, isn’t put off by complexity or austerity, reacts with shouts and whoops, and finds the new classical pieces on all these programs completely comfortable.

On Saturday, a piece I’m writing about all this — and about the challenge it poses to the classical mainstream — should be published in the Wall Street Journal. But now I just want to offer testimony. Two people I know, with a thoroughly mainstream classical background, went to concerts like the ones I’ve described.

One said, in an e-mail she was happy for me to quote:

The melodies and rhythms washed over me throughout the evening, and I was truly moved. OK, I admit…I even shed a few cathartic tears. It just felt so RIGHT to be in a concert hall with an audience of younger people who don’t typically attend symphonic concerts. And they were loving what they were hearing. [For more, see my testimony post.]

And now this, from another friend, after another concert (also quoted by permission):

I can’t tell you how grateful I am you invited me. It was a terrific night, both personally and professionally.  I would love to go back.

One of the things that made it work for the audience was that the whole gestalt was that of an indie rock event, not classical. The age of the performers played into that — they were the same demo and dressed the same as the audience.

Note that the music at this concert — the Nonclassical event at LPR — was wholly classical, and often without any obvious pop music reference. And note also that the audience was largely silent, even though both the guy who runs Nonclassical (Gabriel Prokofiev, the composer’s grandson) and one of the chamber groups that played both told the crowd to make some noise. But still it felt like a rock show. And was tremendously exciting to a mainstream classical person who was there.

(I’m not finished with the arts and popular culture. Just needed to do some time management, a big refrain with me lately, and thought this would be a little quicker to write.)


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  1. says

    I think shows like these are becoming a lot more common, and I can see it picking up some speed here in the L.A. area as well. Incidentally, I happen to play in one of those types of groups, the A-Tribute Ensemble. Our violinist plays in classical and folk styles, our cellist has a background in playing electric bass and Indian music, and I do a lot of things done in a minimalist-y rhythmically oriented style, sometimes I like to phase also. Our shows are all improvised.

    The problem? Little to no institutional (academic or otherwise) support, despite very positive feedback we’ve been getting from a variety of people at our shows. (A lot of them think we’re playing off of a score, at least until we start doing more wacky stuff.) There’s also the problem of finding places to play — jazz clubs won’t have us, we’re a little bit too classical for rock venues, while the classical world is still stuck alternating between 19th century and New Music repertoire, neither of which attracts younger audiences. There is, of course, no money involved in any of this at this point — you can make at least a few bucks playing old repertoire, but usually not if the music is improvised. It’s unfortunate, improvisation is largely what allows for cross-genre connections to occur.

    If something isn’t done, the shows like the one you’ve described above will start to lose its luster as musicians become disillusioned with how things work on the outside. Understandably, the general public has become very skeptical of what the classical world has been producing over the last 50 years or so, so change will have to start with the way we work things on our end.

    Thanks for this, Ryan. Everything you say is very important, and you’ve taught me more than I knew before about the problems all this wonderful new stuff has.

    In New York, I think there’s a critical mass forming, so that the scene generates a lot of momentum on its own. That doesn’t mean people can support themselves from it, but the energy keeps renewing itself, and growing. Our public radio station is a big supporter of what’s going on, and there are a few clubs that regularly present these concerts. The New York Times reviews them often enough. And local presenters can be supportive. The Bang on a Can marathons, for instance, are presented by a summer festival in lower Manhattan.

    One answer for you is to become as entrepreneurial as you can, and find support. Easy for me to say, of course. I don’t have to do it!

    As for academic support, that’s a crucial point. Thanks for making it. You can see the difference it makes, if you compare two ensembles I like a lot, eighth blackbird and the Bang on a Can All-Stars. Neither group earns a living for its musicians simply by playing concerts. 8bb gets academic residencies, the Bang on a Can musicians live by their wits in a variety of ways. Evan Ziporyn has a gig at MIT, leading a gamelan ensemble.

    8bb, from that point of view, has an easier time. But they’re also limited, in some ways, because they have to play music that their academic employers want. The All-Stars are free to play more or less whatever they want, especially since bookers (I think this is true, anyway) are buying the brand name, and may not be familiar with the repertoire. I’m guessing this is less true for 8bb, but maybe I’m of wrong. Are any of my friends in 8bb reading this? Set me straight, if I’m saying something that’s not true!

  2. John says

    It seems to be a generalization to write that it’s “an audience that surely for the most part never goes to Lincoln Center”. (Although, you did put a lot of qualifiers on the word “never” to be certain.)

    If this had been just another one of the growing number of deserved accolades for LPR, it would have been fine. But here’s the thing: I’ve seen this young audience intersect with the classical audience at Lincoln Center, mostly at Lincoln Center Festival, but also at Mostly Mozart, with its late-night concerts.

    Classical institutions have been offering concerts for an indie rock audience for years, and the concerts I’ve been to have been full (I’m thinking particularly of Alarm Will Sound doing Aphex Twin or David Byrne’s series at Carnegie a few years back). Recently, we’ve heard a lot of euphoria about the advent of LPR, which indeed has taken it to a new level and which I agree is pretty great. You’re welcome to join the chorus. I just think you too often set up these false analogies: LPR is the future / Lincoln Center is only for the olds. I don’t think it’s as black and white as you make out.

    What would I do without this blog? I’d keep on making all my usual points, without people like John to say, “Wait a minute! Are you sure that’s true?” Thanks, John.

    Of course things aren’t as black and white as I make them out to be. I see younger people at Lincoln Center. Though it’s often hard to tell from the outside who they are. Music students? We have a lot of those in New York. Or a genuine nonprofessional younger audience? Probably a mixture of both, though I wouldn’t want to guess at the proportions. I can add that the NY Philharmonic has had a lot of success lately selling student tickets, and those certainly aren’t going for the most part to music students.

    All of this underlines the danger of making generalizations, especially when there’s no hard data to support them. So thanks to John again. On the other hand, something new is definitely happening, and we need to figure out what it is. When you’re at one of these events, it’s impossible (I think) not to feel both a new spirit taking shape, and a new audience. That’s one reason I did my “Testimony” posts, to show that other people feel the same way. And the person I know who most strongly has said that the audience at Wordless Music and LPR isn’t the Lincoln Center audience was someone from the mainstream classical world, who noticed the difference in the audience right away. Of course, this was at a really large event, one of the Wordless orchestra concerts, where there were 1000 people there. Likewise the Bang on a Can marathons. I couldn’t help noticing that I knew only a tiny fraction of the people there, just a handful, whereas when similar music is played at Zankel Hall, I know or recognize a notable percentage of the audience, which reads to me clearly as to some large degree an inside-the-business crowd. I asked one of the Bang on a Can composers who he and his colleagues thought the marathon audience was, and he said, “We don’t know!” Which was fabulous testimony to something new going on.

    Similarly, at Chris O’Riley’s terrific concert last week at Miller Theater, at which he played Shostakovich and Radiohead, a friend of mine from inside the business (a composer) said afterward that he felt strange, being at a concert where he didn’t know the audience. This, too, is testimony to how new these events feel, even if it’s an exaggeration to say (and thanks once more, John, for pointing this out) that nobody in the crowd would ever go to Lincoln Center.