Two things I’ve written

First, a list of innovations in classical concert-giving, which I compiled for my Juilliard course on the future of classical music. It’s just a start, and leaves out far more things than it includes. Comments are more than welcome. The list needs to be vastly enlarged, and improved, maybe not for my course, but for all the rest of us.

And second, a Wall Street Journal piece on the new alt-classical audience in New York. There’s nothing new in it for regular readers of this blog, and the blog commenter (John), who said I’m wrong to say that people in the new alt-classical crowd (or, more broadly, no younger people) ever go to mainstream classical events, will surely say, “There he goes again.” He’s got a point. I’m oversimplifying (as I acknoiwledged in my response to him).

But what’s important in this piece, I think, is a challenge to the mainstream classical institutions in New York. Why aren’t they trying to attract this new audience? I make an analogy between them and the management of a mainstream supermarket. A Whole Foods store opens down the block, and does terrific business. But the supermarket management doesn’t think that maybe they should put some organic products on their shelves.

Maybe, though, the analogy should have been stronger. Maybe the mainstream institutions are like Kodak, smugly selling photographic film after digital photography started to take hold. The truth, I’ll guess, lies between these two extremes. But the mainstream institutions ought to notice what’s going on. They’re missing the boat, both artistically and with any hope of attracting a new audience.

One thing (of many, to tell the truth) that I didn’t have space to say in the piece. Maybe one problem the mainstream institutions have is artistic. For one thing, to the extent that the alt-classical new music derives from minimalism (or is influenced by it), some mainstream people may well roll their eyes, because they’ve never quite accepted minimal music.

Second, there are two compositional styles — which loom large in the mainstream classical world — that I don’t think we hear in alt-classical work. One is modernism, and especially the European sort. Certainly there’s at least an indirect modernist influence, because I don’t think we’d be hearing all the dissonance that’s in alt-classical music if Schoenberg hadn’t lived. (Though maybe it could just as well have come to us from Ives and Henry Cowell, but that’s another story.) But very little, or maybe even nothing, in alt-classical music sounds like it’s influenced by the second Vienna school — by Schoenberg, Berg, or Webern — or by music descended from that school.

So if you’re in the mainstream classical world, and — like the New York Philharmonic or the Cleveland Orchestra or the Philadelphia Orchestra — you think it’s important to hear music by Matthias Pintscher or Harrison Birtwistle or the Philharmonic’s new composer in residence, Magnus Lindberg (or many others) — well, there’s hardly any trace of this music, or anything in it, in any alt-classical style. So maybe then you think the alt-classical styles have something lacking.

They also don’t have much trace of what we might call neo-romantic music, though that name would be a gross oversimplification for what I really mean, which is new classical music that’s written in approximately the style of older classical works, or at least with an audible line of descent from the standard classical repertoire. So again alt-classical music sets itself apart.

And mainstream purists might also object to the pop influence in alt-classical music. Of course, many people are willing to give it a shot — you might find some organizations programming both Pintscher and an alt-classical star like Nico Muhly. But maybe the alt-classical movement, in full force, might seem one-sided to some mainstream people, who in turn might seem one-sided to the alt-classical crowd. Who, however, have an audience, which (for new music) the mainstream people might not have.

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  1. says

    loved the WSJ alt-classical piece, greg. it’s amazing, if a little dismaying, that it’s commonly acknowledged that there are about a handful of classical music presenters who ‘get it’. the rest are seemingly resigned to seeing the art form die off of its own calcification.

    it’s good to have someone of your prominence and passion to sound the clarion call for smarter, hipper and more committed and passionate presentation of an art form that, always a product of its time, was never less than topical. it’s not a museum, people! it’s a living, thriving way of life!

    Thanks, Chris.

    And you do more than I do — your concerts are living examples of how classical music really could function differently. Not that you don’t know I think that! I’ll shortly have a post on your Miller Theatre show last Friday night. Shostakovich and Radiohead. Brilliant.

  2. Jon Hurd says

    Even though I belong to the aged 60+ crowd I look forward to orchestral performances of music by living and/or 20th Century composers. I am irritated by the artificial categories imposed on music, and think that younger audiences tend to simply ignore these. The only acceptable categories are “music I like” and “the rest” — with constantly shifting boarders.

    The other thing that attracts (or repels) me is whether or not the performers seem to be enjoying themselves. I have to believe that the joy goes out of having to play a beautiful old warhorse for the 50th time. And this communicates itself to the audience. Bang on a Can and Kronos concerts are exciting and fresh. Yet the season ticket holders push back at their appearance. It’s a tough job for the Christies and the Alsops, but I think they are doing the right thing.

    And you are definitely doing the right thing to bring this issue to the fore.

    Thanks so much, Jon. You’re not alone, in your age group. I’m 60+ myself.

    I agree so much about musicians enjoying themselves. Makes such a big difference. Not long ago I was talking to a musician who’s played in the NY Philharmonic for decades, and really does enjoy the performances. I think he shows it, for anyone who knows to look for him onstage. But if many of his colleagues feel the same way, they seem not to show it all. Sad.

  3. says

    There’s one big thing that makes the pop and classical genres difficult to bridge, which is the gap between dance music culture and classical culture. Socio-economic issues aside (which probably for another topic), I found that the differences in performance-practice between the two makes doing a synthesis somewhat difficult.

    Expanding on the point about attire, I know a lot of people who get intimidated by the formal atmosphere of classical music culture so they end up not going to live concerts. The classical concert experience tends to be more of a “sit-down and listen” kind of thing, and this is reinforced by the structure of the concert hall. You pay a ticket, then you’re assigned a seat, as if you were traveling on an airplane or something. A lot of people come to associate music with the idea of dance, so being confined to a chair while the music is going on doesn’t make for a pleasurable experience for a lot of people.

    Whereas say, if you go to a jazz club or a rock show, you’ll probably pay a cover price at the door then are free to roam about the room (or wherever you might be) while the musicians are playing. It’s probably unrealistic to expect concert halls to tear down all their beautiful seats, but they could probably afford to loosen up the atmosphere a little.

    But those penguin suits — in 2009? Really? I mean, come on.

    The penguin suits (and female equivalents) should go away right now. I used to think that would be a complicated decision, since musicians and management would have to agree on what to wear instead. But really it’s simple — wear business suits (and the women’s equivalent), as the players already do for some concerts. Make the change now. Why not?

  4. Eric Lin says

    “One thing (of many, to tell the truth) that I didn’t have space to say in the piece. Maybe one problem the mainstream institutions have is artistic.”

    How do we reconcile this problem? How can the artists on New Amsterdam Records coexist with Birtwistle? This is a question that hits home for me, not just as an observer of the scene, but also as a composer. What to do for someone who likes aspects of both? One option, is to be the chameleon, but that runs the risk of being disingenuous and kitschy. The second option, is to write one kind of music, but actively engage yourself in the other–whether as a promoter or performer. A third possibility–I think this is the one chosen by most, is simply to pick one side (neo-romantic, modernist, or alt-classical/minimal-influenced) and try to block everything else out.

    None of these options seem completely satisfactory to me and it’s my primary struggle these days. Nonetheless, this is a personal artistic crisis, and only tangentially related to what you’re talking about.

    On the other hand, I think the performer/programmer has a easier task. There has to be a way to reconcile the differences. What George Steel is doing at Miller is amazing (and I hope someone else manages to continue the good work next year), where Birtwistle and Ferneyhough and Jefferson Friedman and Reich and Chris (with his Radiohead and Classical piano repertoire programs are selling out quickly…I couldn’t get a ticket this past week!) can all co-exist in a season with nothing feeling out of place.

    Granted, sometimes it is just better to only have a band playing in a club by itself, or an orchestra playing Beethoven. Not every Schubert song has to be paired up with a DJ act in order to be interesting or relevant, but when it’s done right and works (as in your Messiaen example), it’s simply amazing.

    It’s just that everything’s out of balance/out of whack. There are way too many performances of Beethoven symphonies (what is it with conductors and Beethoven symphony cycles/festivals? I see it on a season announcement and I throw the pamphlet out. Talk about extraneous and irrelevant. Perhaps if one day a music director or general manager realizes that Beethoven might be relevant again if they only played him once every so often…I might show up. Hearing that 5th symphony after its absence on the program for 3-4 years? That’s an event.)

    “Of course, many people are willing to give it a shot — you might find some organizations programming both Pintscher and an alt-classical star like Nico Muhly.”

    I think this is the way to go for mainstream groups, but I often think that sometimes highly -trained musicians can become myopic with programming choices. On one hand, an orchestra playing a Harrison Birtwistle premiere before Ravel and Mozart (why?)…the orchestra/music director thinks they are doing composers/new music a favor when in fact they’re doing a disservice to everyone. Likewise, performers often misjudge the relative qualities of pieces…they think a mumble-jumble of pieces in succession is fine, as long as everything is played well. Sometimes, it’s an art in itself to decide whether Morton Feldman should end the concert following a piece by Nico Muhly. That’s just as important as the playing of the piece itself. Perhaps classical musicians need to start thinking of the concert like a recording…a group like Sigur Ros or Bjork or Radiohead probably spends hours figuring out what song should follow what, what song should end the album, what should be the first song etc. I think this is something classical musicians don’t think enough about–and putting the wrong piece in the wrong order on the wrong concert next to the wrong piece can ruin an otherwise good performance (and happens all too often). The big question is: How can Nico Muhly fit logically/emotionally/(another adverb) together with a Matthias Pintscher piece. If you can’t find an appropriate answer, perhaps the pieces simply don’t belong on the program together.

    Anyway, finding a good concert worth going to these days is difficult for me. I’ll go to something out of the ordinary like the O’Riley 2+2=5 series (If you’re reading this Chris, I’ll have to try to make it to the Schumann/Elliott Smith) which is great. The super-modernist European new music group Klangforum Wein is playing at Alice Tully this week, with some multimedia concert which looks very cool (though I doubt it’ll fill more than 50% of the seats) and (a shameless plug for New Amsterdam, as I’ve been doing a bit of work with them; thanks for the shout out Greg!) the Undiscovered Islands festival at Galapagos Art Space in May ( which promises to be awesome with both CD releases and world premieres.

    As with alt-classical not carrying traces of modernism or neo-romanticism…I think Judd Greenstein’s amazing The Night Gatherers (coming soon on Nadia Siorta’s new New Amsterdam album) is about as hyper-romantic as it can get. Andrew McKenna Lee’s ‘the dark out of the nighttime’ (also on a New Am disc) has quite a bit of modernist influence (at least to me…not sure what the composer would think).

    Also, I also don’t think alt-classical has to be defined as mainly minimalist-influenced, though it’s undoubtedly a big part. I think your example of Messiaen shows that more modernistic works CAN effectively work in an alt-classical paradigm. A few years back, there was some concert which paired Aphex Twin and Squarepusher with Cage, Stockhausen and Xenakis and that seemed to work out quite well as well.

    Hi, Eric. Thanks as always for your passion, knowledge, good sense, thoughtful ideas. You’ve defined the tangle that many of us face really well.

    One thought would be for mainstream institutions to figure out who the audience might be for the various kinds of new music they do. In some ways it’s easy. We know who likes Nico Muhly, and we know who’s most likely to like someone like Richard Danielpour (that would be the standard classical audience).

    But who likes Birtwistle? I was once talking with the marketing and publicity directors of a major orchestra, which had programmed Birtwistle on a concert with two Beethoven piano concertos. I remember how, as we were talking, they began to think that, just maybe, the audience for Beethoven and Birtwistle might not be the same.

    But who might be Birtwistle audience be? Apart from a few high-church music biz insiders. I suspect that it’s the alt-classical crowd. I remember teaching 20 years ago at the U of Minnesota, and finding that the students in my class who loved hearing Babbitt were heavily into punk. I think the alt crowd has the most open minds, of any audience group I know how to define.

    But then the question becomes what to program Birtwistle with. I think that’s solvable, probably without too much difficulty. Messiaen with ambient electronic work was an inspired, if in retrospect obvious choice, and there’s probably something that makes sense with Birtwistle. Maybe Squarepusher, even (if they’re still around).

    If a mainstream institution got an alt audience interested in anything they did — and, most important, trusting them — I think Birtwistle might not be a problem. I’d love to see this happen.

  5. says

    Thank you for your articles and blog posts on this subject. They are very thought-provoking. I would probably be classified as a “mainstream classical purist,” and am feeling almost guilty about it (!). In reading your piece here and the WSJ article, the general idea seems to be that if we want to save classical music we need to ‘let it go,’ in a sense, or at least loosen up a bit.

    We need to be willing to embrace something different that has a chance of attracting a bigger audience, like the nonclassical nights in NY, in order that the concerts we love to attend now — the traditional classical symphony or piano recital for that matter — can still exist.

    What can I as an independent music teacher do? How can I break out of my mainstream mold and take this concept to heart? How can local music teaching organizations get involved? Wow, this is no small task.

    Adrienne, what lovely questions to ask. Thanks so much for your openness to this.

    I agree with your overall point, and I love the way you phrased this. Let classical music go — and then let’s see what develops. I don’t want to say that any solution of mine, including my passion for the alt-classical things, is any kind of complete answer. I think many people in the field are finding many answers. But the key is loosening things, as you put it. Creating a larger sense of openness, encouraging teachers, musicians, and administrators — and maybe especially music students — to think of new things, and take some risks.

    But they should do all this by following their hearts. I’ve found, in teaching, that often enough my students have ideas of things they’d like to do, but didn’t think anyone else would ever listen to. I’m all for freeing the creativity that I think everybody has. And classical music will benefit tremendously.

    As for your questions! Any ideas, anyone? This is a wonderful topic for discussion. Might help a lot of people, or maybe all of us. One thought I have, Adrienne, would be to engage with all the music that your students care about. I’d think that most or all of them would like many kinds of music, or at least that they’d like music that’s different from the classical music that I’d assume you teach them.

    So what do they think about that? What music do they specially love? How do they think it compares to classical music? The point wouldn’t be to debate (God forbid) which is better, but to think about the different roles that different kinds of music play in our lives.

    The music you care about could play a part here, too. And what ideas might the students have about performing? How do they think recitals, let’s say (or whatever performances they might give while you’re teaching them), could be more interesting? What do they think might attract more people? I’m sure they have ideas.

    Anyone else? What can music teachers do?

  6. says

    [Jon Hurd said] The other thing that attracts (or repels) me is whether or not the performers seem to be enjoying themselves.

    I think that this is a really important point, and one that isn’t sufficiently discussed in the classical world, other than the sort of urban legend stories (although they are true for all I know) about players in a famous orchestra wearing earplugs to listen to the baseball game while they play. I agree that part of the problem is that orchestral musicians are asked to repeat a relatively small group of pieces on a regular basis – I’m guessing that it is difficult to get excited about playing the same symphony for the umpteenth time in your career, especially if you never particularly liked it in the first place. And especially when the decisions about how it is played are out of your hands. If you think of Edward Hicks and his between 60 and 100 different iterations of “The Peaceable Kingdom,” each time he was working out a different ‘take’ on the subject matter, and so presumably it remained fresh and exciting to him as he painted more or less the same thing over and over. Otherwise he wouldn’t have done it. Orchestral musicians have largely had to turn these matters over to the conductor in the past couple of centuries, and so it becomes a bit like working on a assembly line, I would guess – the look of the auto body might be slightly different this year, but you’re still sticking the same rivet into the same bit of the frame. Rock bands play largely the same sets night after night, but they have the option to shake it up and change it out. And fans tend to react badly when the band phones in a performance – they feel that they have been cheated, and say so. Classical audiences don’t seem to feel that they have the right to object. Although they may be the driving force that keeps the musicians under the grindstone of the standard orchestral canon – conventional wisdom seems to believe that, anyhow – how is that different than rock audiences that come to hear the latest album tour, and also expect to hear a lot of their favorite tunes on a show? Maybe if classical audiences felt free to object to a dull and uninspired performance, the players would take more trouble over this.

    My (small choral) group has a rather different problem. We very seldom repeat repertoire, and most of what we sing is fairly difficult. The repertoire on any given program may span 400 years or more, and be in numerous languages. Few of the singers are making a living as musicians – most have day jobs. We have limited rehearsals, and so we very seldom feel over-prepared or over-familiar with the music by concert time. As a result there tends to be a look of intense concentration on the singer’s faces that presumably wouldn’t be interpreted as boredom, but doesn’t look like enjoyment either. We have put a lot of thought and effort in the past few years in ameliorating that to some degree, by things like the singers consciously looking pleasant or smiling when they aren’t actually singing (during a rest, for example) or otherwise trying to drop the tension without losing their focus. It is a difficult balancing act, and some singers do it much better than others. Jon, I’m going to bring your comment with me to rehearsal tonight, because it is a great reminder that the audience does respond to the people producing the music, and not just to the music.

    Good thoughts. And I’m glad Jon’s comment might be helpful. We really have a constructive community here.

    In another comment, I mentioned a friend of mine who’s play in the NY Philharmonic for decades. He still gets excited by performances, and mentioned to me how wonderful it is for him when one of the principal players in the orchestra does something new in a familiar solo, even if it’s just a new sound on a single note.

    I can understand that some of those delights might be too subtle for many people in the audience. But still, I’d love to see orchestras (and other performing groups) start some discussions about how they themselves feel about performing. Let the principal players talk to the audience (on the Web, in the program book, maybe even from the stage) about some of the music they play, and what they want to do with it. The conductor could do the same. Give the audience something to listen for! I think that would make everyone involved feel closer. Certainly the audience would feel more involved with the musicians.

  7. says

    The New York Philharmonic starts Contact, a new-music series, this season. They’re commissioning Nico Muhly, the poster-child of indie classical music, Sean Shepherd, a young American of a neo-Romantic bent whose work deserves to be better known, and Marc-Andre Dalbavie, whose spectral works would fit right in inside an ambient evening. The programs are of *entirely* new works. And music director Alan Gilbert is involved, so it can’t be argued that this is some sort of affair that’s being pawned off on an intern. The entire series consists of nothing but premieres. The series is similar to the Chicago Symphony’s MusicNOW series, which has been up and running for more than 10 years. Why do you argue that the mainstream institutions are doing nothing to attract this nonclassical audience?

    Let’s see how well Contact does. Will it attract the new audience? Why do you assume that this new audience will go to hear anything with the Philharmonic’s name attached, even if there’s a Nico Muhly piece? The new audience doesn’t show up even for alt-classical events that aren’t pitched or promoted in the right way. They certainly didn’t come to Zankel Hall for an eighth blackbird concert of Steve Reich and Bang on a Can (an exuberant, wonderful piece co-composed by all three BOAC composers).

    Some years ago, I talked to a presenter in Milwaukee, of the mainstream persuasion, who’d taken a chance by booking an evening of Arvo Part. There’s a thriving new music series in Milwaukee, as you probably know, Marc — Present Music. This presenter found that the Present Music audience wouldn’t come to her series no matter what she presented. Maybe, if she worked hard to attract them, and had some years to continue working on it, they might come. But when she did the Part program, they wouldn’t.

    The Philharmonic might face the same kind of obstacle. The very words “New York Philharmonic” might be a turnoff. And while Contact is the main name of the ensemble — and the concerts will be at Symphony Space, rather than Lincoln Center — the full name is Contact: The New York Philharmonic New Music Ensemble. Or something much like that.

    How is the Philharmonic going to promote these concerts to the alt-classical audience? (And why do you think Dalbavie will fit right in? To me, his music has an entirely different DNA — see my next post for more on that — though I still think, as with Birtwistle, that the alt-classical audience is the group most likely to put up with Dalbavie and other European modernists, spectral or not.)

    I’ve suggested, within hearing of Lincoln Center people, that the Philharmonic might have done better to create their own equivalent of Kellogg’s Kashi brand, or Coor’s Killian. Kellogg’s wants to sell natural cereals to people who might not buy the familiar Kellogg’s products, so they bought Kashi, and they brand and market Kashi products separately. You won’t find the Kellogg’s name anywhere on Kashi products, i believe. Or if it’s mentioned, that’s only in very small print. We can find many other examples of this kind of branding.

    If I were the Philharmonic, and wanted to reach the alt-classical audience, I’d think about branding Contact without reference to the Philharmonic. Which I’m afraid might mean that Alan Gilbert shouldn’t conduct any of the concerts. Or Magnus Lindberg, the Philharmonic’s soon to be composer in residence. Maybe such a ban wouldn’t be necessary. The details could be tweaked. But I think they’d do best to project the ensemble as entirely separate from the orchestra.

    Of course, we’re assuming here that they actually want to reach the alt-classical audience! Do they? Did the people who did the main artistic and other planning for Contact ever think of such a thing at all?

  8. Eric Lin says

    Hi Marc,

    NYPhil seems about 10 years late to the game. The CSO’s MusicNOW and the LA Phil’s Green Umbrella series have been essentially doing the same thing for a while…

    Also, Judd Greenstein makes a wonderful point. With a multitude of new music groups in New York, I’m not sure why the Phil thinks its priority is to simply start another chamber New Music group. It’s an orchestra, and it has resources new-music groups generally don’t have…in that it’s a giant 100-piece orchestra. They should be commissioning orchestral pieces–a lot more, and doing things only the orchestra can. Not simply move over into territory that lots of groups have already been doing.

    Here’s Judd’s finer, and more nuanced argument:

  9. Richard Mitnick says

    Hey Greg-

    I saw your article in the WSJ, and immediately I thought of the Wordless Music Project, which is being promoted by WNYC.

    Wordless Music: Isn’t that what Bach and all of those cats were about?

    Seriously, those old cats are in the shadows, and Wordless Music is trying to bring them back into the light by presenting their works along with the more popular works of current composers.

    Does anyone know how this project is doing?


    Wordless, now in its third season, has been a huge success. Many concerts, many people attending. See their website: The man who founded the Wordless series books classical music at Le Poisson Rouge, so what I wrote about is intimately tied to what Wordless does.

  10. says

    Great WSJ piece, Greg. I think you could extend the line of thought to record labels, as well. I’m reminded of Deutsche Grammofon’s Recomposed series, which is using remixes as a means of introducing a younger, non-classical public to the DG brand and catalog. First there was Jimi Tenor’s Deutsche Grammofon Recomposed (2006), in which the Finnish musician remixed music by Steve Reich, Pierre Boulez and Erik Satie, among others, by incorporating his own peculiar fusion of minimal electronics and hypermodern lounge jazz. (More background here: Then, last year, DG invited Carl Craig and Moritz von Oswald, two noted electronic dance music producers, to “recompose” pieces from Mussorgssky and Ravel; the well-regarded techno experimentalist Ricardo Villalobos contributed an additional remix for a vinyl-only 12″ single.

    The series has resulted in some excellent music; it’s also been a successful outreach campaign, leading to press coverage in many magazines, websites and blogs that cover electronic music but would rarely think of mentioning Deutsche Grammofon. (I would suspect that it has sold well, at least for the dwindling vinyl market; I’ve seen the Recomposed remixes on many DJs’ charts.)

    I’m not proposing that every classical album release somehow needs a remix 12″ as a tie-in. But I do think this is an excellent example of the classical establishment reaching out (and helping create) an alt-classical audience—in large part by paying careful attention to the tastes and activities of the electronic- and experimental-music scenes, and utilizing the latters’ existing structures as a means for extending Deutsche Grammofon’s own reach.

    Thanks, Philip. I’d dimly heard of this, and I’m not sure DG has released these things in the US. Someone please correct me if I’m wrong!

    It’s a terrific idea, of course — as it was some years ago when Nonesuch released a CD of Steve Reich remixes. What it does, from my point of view, is, very simply, put classical music into the wider culture. Everyone, broadly speaking, knows about pop music remixes. They’re a very creative part of the ongoing music scene. So why not have classical remixes? It’s the most natural thing in the world, and by having them, we help to close the gap between classical music and the rest of our culture.

    And of course nobody who doesn’t want to hear them has to be bothered with them. As is the case in pop music, by and large, too.

  11. John Montanari says

    Thanks for the article on Gabriel Prokofiev, a couple of whose pieces will make it onto my classical radio show today, between Haydn and Sibelius. Your observation about the dearth of modernism and neo-romanticism in alt-classical also resonated with my belief that the new classical music new audiences can generally do without are the kinds that require insider knowledge of earlier classical styles to get the point. “Cool, he’s referencing late Beethoven! Wow, she’s subverting sonata form! Yikes, a gesture out of ‘Le marteau’!” Yawn…Well ok, I suppose contemporary pop/rock refers back to earlier stuff too. But at least the music it refers to occured within living memory, and is still in someone’s vernacular.

    Thanks, Joe. If I played even a small part in getting this music on your show, I’m happy. If you’re playing the Elysian Quartet recordings (which are really good), will you put the remixes, too, on the air?

    Thanks for picking up on my stylistic analylsis. There’s more to it, which I’m shortly going to address. And you’re right, of course, to say that in pop music, too, there are endless references to past styles. Pop, in fact, can become endlessly self-referential. It can be like a hall of mirrors. Critics often enough describe something new in terms of the past music it’s like — not to say that it’s derivative, but that its newness can consist precisely of the unlikely mixture of past music that it seems to represent.

    But, just as you say, all of this takes place in a context of great familiarity, and active discussion. Fans can cite the mashups going on just as well as professionals can. And if you don’t get the references, the overall style is so familiar that you don’t have trouble getting into the music.

  12. John Montanari says

    Greg: I played the 1st movement of the Quartet No. 2 in both the original and “new, improved!” (i.e., remix) versions. Hey, a little taste of club mixed into the classical didn’t hurt anyone. And as is our wont, I linked both Prokofiev’s Myspace page and your article to our on-line playlist for folks wanting more info. Keeps things fresh and timely!

    That’s my kind of radio! WFCR, for those who might be curious, is pubic radio in western New England.

  13. says

    Greg, So your argument for the New York Philharmonic’s Contact series not succeeding is because they may not market it correctly? That they don’t know how to reach out to the alt-classical audience? Do I understand this? That it really doesn’t stand or fall on any aesthetic grounds? It’s true, the marketing needs to back up the artistic product, and it has to give an honest picture of what listeners will derive from it. No question. But to argue that it’s doomed to fail because the marketing department might not do enough research or know how to do its job seems less like a repertoire question – which is what you were initially saying New York and other top institutions weren’t engaged in – and a marketing one, which is an entirely different proposition. “Of course, we’re assuming here that they actually want to reach the alt-classical audience! Do they? Did the people who did the main artistic and other planning for Contact ever think of such a thing at all?” I don’t know, but I know who I could ask…and so do you.

    Eric, I know about MusicNOW, I mentioned it in my original post above…and I was one of the series’ biggest champions……and I work for the CSO now.

    Thanks for the link to Judd’s piece. I know his music, I kind of know him, and I’ve written about his record label, and have a great deal of respect for him. But he doesn’t know what he’s talking about on this one thing. The Philharmonic started this to present new music for similar reasons to why the CSO started MusicNOW (and they share an administrator who helped shape both series). It gives people a chance to hear more new music than they would, it gives the orchestra a chance to present more new music, and more varied new music, than it could if it only presented new orchestral music. Maybe the Philharmonic should only present new music for orchestras. Fine, wonderful, lovely argument. But there simply isn’t room for a lot of it in the schedule or the budget, and so they open this other avenue. Which also isn’t cheap, by the way: You have to pay the musicians additional money to play and rehearse for this series, and rent Symphony Space. So, is the answer for the Philharmonic to play less new music? Is that really a reasonable goal?

    And Greg, don’t knock my boy Dalbavie! Yes, he’s a modernist, but those smooth textures of his would fit right in in any chill environment. His Piano Trio? No?

    Hi, Marc. Thanks for this. Really helps the discussion, I think, by clarifying lots of things.

    I really was talking about the audience in what I wrote, far more than the repertoire. For 35 years, more or less, I’ve been going to new music concerts in New York (and sometimes elsewhere), and normally the audience has essentially been the new music in crowd. There have been exceptions — Einstein on the Beach at the Metropolitan Opera in 1976, Steve Reich and Philip Glass performances at BAM and elsewhere in the ’70s and early ’80s, and, quite wonderfully, one of the concerrts John Adams did with the San Francisco Symphony, when he was composer in residence, which I happened to go to in San Francisco.

    But now something that I think is genuinely new has emerged, at least in New York — a genuine new music audience, more populist, I think than the audience the minimalists used to have. (Or maybe, in Philip’s case, still do.) The picture might be clouded, a little, at least from the orthodox classical viewpoint, because this is in essence an indie rock audience that seems to have crossed over into new music, and often there’s an indie rock element (a band, or the wonderful orchestral piece by Jonny Greenwood, from Radiohead) that attracts the audience to a concert.

    But there’s no doubt that this audience will cheer very hard for new music, and also, by the way, for standard classical music, when they hear it in the right environment.

    So I think it’s very nice that the NY Phil and the CSO want to do new music, outside their normal orchestral setting. It’s wonderful that they want to play some smaller pieces. It’s good for the players, and good for the composers. Might also be good for whatever audience comes.

    But these concerts don’t address the most exciting element in the mix now, which is the audience. Not every new music concert I go to under mainstream auspices could attract this audience, but sometimes iIll go to one — my perpetual example is the eighth blackbird show at Zankel with premieres by Steve Reich and Bang on a Can — and my gut reaction (not an intellectual position, but sheerly from my gut) is that it’s a shame to see this familiar in-group audience, even if it’s a few hundred people, when I know for absolute sure that this music could, if things were done right, draw maybe a thousand new people, who’d react with cheers of joy.

    You have to see this, maybe, to really understand it. It’s something really new, as other people from the mainstream classical world (which is where I ultimately come from, by the way) have said even more strongly, in some ways, than I have. They’ve said those things privately to me, and maybe to others, but still they’re very strong. I might exaggerate the force of what I’m seeing, but I’m not exaggerating its newness.

    So now, I guess, I’m a little like Pierre Boulez, talking about serialism when he was a kid in his 20s: “Anyone who hasn’t experienced, not just thought but experienced, the necessity for this new audience is useless!” I’m mangling the quote a little, and I don’t really mean the “useless” part. But you really have to see it. Even at the University of Maryland last weekend, when the Bang on a Can All-Stars played “Music for Airports” as part of a local version of the BOAC marathon, there was a new audience present, people that someone I know from the music school there didn’t recognize at all, and was surprised to see. With a little better planning, I’m sure they could have gotten many of those people to stay for performances of music by Glenn Kotche and Terry Riley.

    About Dalbavie. I’ve spent time with him, on one occasion in Cleveland, and enjoyed him (and his taste for fine wine) quite a bit. But his music occupies a different aesthetic territory. That doesn’t mean that people in the new audience might not like it, but I wouldn’t count on their doing so, and I certainly wouldn’t put a piece of his on a program, if I were trying to attract this audience, without giving a lot of thought to what other pieces should be played with it. I’d want, I think, to surround it with works whose alt-classical DNA is unquestionable.

    What that DNA is will be the subject of another post, as I keep promising. It’s a fascinating question, and it has a lot to do with the relation a piece might have to pop music — or rather to a world in which pop music is a constant presence, and where rhythms are felt on the offbeat, rather than the onbeats (something which isn’t true at all of Dalbavie). It’s interesting to me that there are pieces I’ve heard — some percussion pieces, for instance, on the Nonclassical show at LPR — that clearly (to me) have this DNA, even though they don’t even remotely have a pop music beat.

    But that’s a larger discussion. To get back to the NY Phil, I’m sure that the concerts weren’t planned with the new audience in mind. But this isn’t simply a marketing question. If you want to reach this audience, you have to start with the fundamental conception of the concerts, and with the programming, long before you dump it all on the marketing director and expect him (as it is in this case) to do the impossible.

    I’ve already said that, to reach this audience, the Phil might have considered branding the concerts without any reference to the orchestra. But I’d also think carefully about the programming, If, again, I wanted to reach this audience — if that were a priority — I might want to start by having indie rock bands as well as classical music, and by mostly playing classical pieces with a solid alt-classical DNA. Once I knew I’d attracted the audience, once I felt sure that they were responding to my new brand, and not just to particular bands they liked, then I might try more far-reaching programs, with some classical pieces from, say, the modernist part of the forest.

    But I’d also want to be sure that the concerts were real events, genuine shows, and weren’t simply standard concerts, no matter what repertoire they featured. How to do this is again a larger story, and I’m going to stop here. But I hope i’ve made it at least a little clear why I don’t see the NY Phil’s efforts — however worthy in the standard terms of the classical music biz — to do much to respond to the exciting new things that are going on.