Quotation of the day

From a profile in this week’s Washington Post Magazine, by Manuel Roig-Franzia:

He pads in his socks across finely woven Persian carpets —  “This one would be worth $100,000 if it were in better shape,” he remarks offhandedly. He passes the buttery soft Le Corbusier leather sofas arranged by his interior designer and the burbling fountain positioned just so by his feng shui  consultant in a living room where soothing classical music is almost always on the stereo

“Soothing classical music.” People really do think classical music is soothing. Calm. That’s a large part of its meaning in our current culture, as I said in my last post. What I’ve just quoted — such a terrific piece of writing — is a demonstration of that.

Is this good for classical music? Well, on one hand, let’s take what we can get. Who cares why people like it, as long as they buy tickets to classical concerts, buy classical recordings, listen to classical music on the radio.

But on the other hand, if this is really the impression we’re making, then something’s gone wrong. At the very least, there’s a vast disconnect — an abyss — between the way we think about classical music, and the way our culture views it. All the turmoil and passion, all the towering grandeur, all the probing emotional truth, all these artistic things we like to talk about…none of them make much impression on the outside world?

How can we change this?

(Manuel’s piece happens to be about a confessed killer. But that doesn’t affect the passage I quoted.)

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  1. David Ezer says

    Well, bear in mind the writing has a slight vagueness in it. “Soothing” could refer to the particular choices of classical music used, rather than as a modifier for “classical music” as a whole. Certainly given the feel of the scene he’s trying to set, I’d imagine we don’t have Shostakovich, Ligeti or Wagner on the stereo.

    Which isn’t to say that emotional truth and grandeur and turmoil and passion doesn’t exist in Boccherini or whatever B- Baroque wallpaper is on WQXR…but soothing is an adjective that can apply.

    So it’s a good choice for people who want quiet background music. The two problems here are 1) it’s being presented as background music, aural wallpaper, an addition to the Persian rug and Le Corbusier furniture. Which renders it inert, inartistic, not something to be listened to as conscious work but rather something purely that sets mood, and 2) it joins the fancy rug and furniture as a signifier of something “high-class.” There are other “soothing” musics but nothing that denotes “good taste” or “rich” or “fancy” quite so quickly in our culture.

    And that’s really the issue. If our interest is in accessibility, the signifiers of class that freight the music and its performance, need to be stripped away. I’d posit that cultural appreciation is a lot more egalitarian that it was a century ago — people remain pretty stratified in class but their cultural interests go all over the map. The worst example of this, of course, is performers in tuxedos. (This has positive spillover, but think also of how Penn Station and others play Mozart to keep young people from loitering.)

  2. says

    This is one of my biggest bugbears. For me it’s less about public perception and more about art music as a commodity or accessory. You’re quoted paragraph illustrates this perfectly.

    Discs like 100 Best Adagios with their sunsets and cursive font are infuriating. I’ve always wanted to create a complementary set of discs with titles like 20 Most Depressing Love Songs, 100 Best Toe-Tappers: Music to Energize Your Life or 50 Best Bombasts etc.

    In my neck of the woods there is a commercial classical station that markets art music as relaxing. The idea that art music is a sort of anaesthesia that cures what ails you. Of course, all the adverts are for AARP, fancy cars, french restaurant and holiday destinations-things that appeal to the wealthy middle-class retirees-to-be who are anxious to surround themselves with luxury items in order to alleviate their class anxiety.

    I could go on at considerable length about this but I’ll spare everyone thoughts that are sure to be rambling.

    Moral of the story – commercial classical radio stations do more to reinforce old stereotypes than anyone else.

    Solution: Use whatever outlets are available to present an alternate viewpoint. Magazines, blogs, newspapers, rooftops etc.

    When I was in Walla Walla this week, someone at a symphony luncheon asked me what I thought of wineries in the area linking the arts to wine. And wine to the arts. He hated that, and I do, too. To me, it turns art into some kind of lifestyle adornment. Reminds me of one of the most unfortunate uses of classical music I’ve ever encountered. This was in a contemporary art museum somewhere north of NY city. The art was contemporary, and playing softly in the background, functioning almost like a fragrance, was classical music. Soothing standard rep, just like a classical radio station. The music, of course, had nothing to do with the art, and was there only to impart a sense that the whole enterprise was artistic. Truly scary.

  3. says

    At the end of every semester I ask my music appreciation students (after playing them 30 classes worth of recorded music that runs the gamut from hypnotizing to downright disturbing) to tell me the pieces that they liked best and the pieces that they liked least (an easy-to-grade final exam question). Most of them end up telling me that they like classical music because it is soothing and peaceful. I always wish for more students who would end the semester with the idea that classical music is exciting, exhilarating, and engaging, but I keep getting “peaceful.”

    One student, who really hated the music we heard in class, wrote in a paper that the only time she actually appreciated listening to classical music on the radio (something that I ask them to do and write about), was when she was in distress about a family member going into the hospital. She found the music soothing.

    My community college classes, taught in the the middle of a state in the middle of the Midwest, have what I believe is the demographic makeup of most of the country. Perhaps most people don’t listen to music beyond the surface: if it doesn’t have a rhythm machine and over-driven electric guitars, then it is peaceful.

    An exception to the “soothing” impression that most people have from observing classical music being played as wallpaper, would be, in my experience, students’ reactions to concerts. It is there that they are engaged. It is when they are in the same room as performing musicians that they realized that the role of classical music in their immediate lives is NOT to put them to sleep.

    We can’t change anything, really. We can offer live music of good quality to people who want to listen, and we can try to teach community college students that there is more to classical music than a recording you might hear at low volume played in the background in somebody’s dining room.

    Thanks, Elaine. Nice to have some concrete experience, instead of simply the theorizing that I and others have done.

    I do think there’s one thing the classical music world could do to change how classical music is perceived. We all should stop talking about how inspirational classical music is, and stop describing it as beautiful, or immortal, or profound. We should instead describe individual pieces, and say without flinching what’s actually in them. I don’t say that this in itself will change everything, but it might be a step on the way to change.

  4. says

    That reminds me of the Sting + Chicago Symphony concert I attended a couple of weeks ago. Sting claimed two things from the stage that I thought were intriguing:

    1) Rock musicians count differently than classical musicians. Oh, really?

    But that wasn’t really the point I wanted to make. Here’s the other thing:

    2) Rock music is loud, classical music is not.

    Wrong again. I usually like my classical music loud. Shostakovich especially. I’m sure he can compete with Pearl Jam in loudness.

    I only had my first real experience with classical music when I was 19. I saw Parsifal at the Staatsoper (standing room!). Before that, I thought opera was the Three Tenors, and classical music was Andre Rieu.

    But then when I saw Parsifal–probably not what people would normally recommend as a first-timer opera–I was blown away. I had never realized it could be like that.

    Good thing that the Marriage of Figaro wasn’t my first opera. Mozart is a composer that might be “soothing” and is probably recommended by many as a good introduction to classical music. Sure, I appreciate the genius of Mozart, but I still can’t get into his music much. It didn’t and wouldn’t work for me.

    And as for Sting and the Chicago Symphony? Not my cup of tea. Too soothing. Give me Haitink conducting Shostakovich 4.

  5. says

    The structure of the music recording industry makes it possible to pass off classical music as part of the ambient music genre.This is because they see classical music as part of a marketing tool, rather than an amazing range of music forms. This has been exacerbated in this country by the phenomenon of Andre Rieu – who sees music as a series of waltzes, marches and popular melodies which are presented in a “schlabbertorte” fashion and then it becomes part of popular culture’s recent impression of classical music.

    Some call it “dumbing down”, I call it “marketing up”, because it makes classical music easy and digestible in little bites, which means you can sell more records.

    I often think that the “quiet revolution” in classical music marketing is a spin off from the sucess of the “chill” music of the ambient house music days.

    Eventually they will find the “loud” pedal and market that it as well. Most Classical Recording company directors are motivated by good intentions but a utiltarian market place philosophy overrides the best of inetetions because it equates a moral utiltarianism with the marketplace,.Surely one of teh most frightening aspects of current laissez faire capitalim

  6. says


    A couple of weeks ago, “Tiffany” an on-air classical DJ at WPRB, Princeton, got stuck filling in on a Jazz program. Lost? She was lost. She was playing Gershwin. This is fine music, but not what the very sophisticated Jazz listeners of this fine PubRadio station expect. Soothing it surely was.She asked for call-ins with opinions of what she was doing. As a member, it was my duty to call and say, “Tiffany, for this audience you are playing pablum. If you want to stay Classical, play some Philip Glass. At least it has some zip. If you want to go to the Jazz side, find the Ellington suites, like ‘Black Brown & Beige’ “.

    Well, tonight on WNYC Terrance reminded me of what I *should have said* . Find some of the Bernstein orchestral suites. “Our Town”, “On the Town”, “West Side Story”. Soothing?

    Soothing? Who saw Phil Kline play Bach on the Greenspace opening concert?

    Sorry if I was tangential, soothing is tangential.


  7. says

    It’s worth thinking about how people get the impression that classical music is soothing and not much more. I know of at least two possible causes: the excerpts played on stations like KDFC, the Bay Area’s only classical station and the endless “Classical Music for Your Soul” CDs compilations put out by record companies.

    Spend an hour or so with KDFC to see what I mean. They actively market the music they play, a small subset of a huge body of music, as soothing, calming, a relief from your work day, etc. And they’ve got a huge audience. And you’ll never hear anything that isn’t tonal, isn’t pretty, isn’t mellow, except on the monthly SF Opera broadcasts and the weekly SF Symphony broadcasts.

    I think it works the other way around. The broadcasters play classical music that way because that’s what their listeners want. Certainly it’s what a large part of the mainstream audience wants in the concert hall. Just ask them informally, or survey them. And it’s what many serious classical music participants (scholars, musicians, critics, educated listeners) underline, when they say that the value of classical music — or part of it, anyway — is that it’s beautiful. An undifferentiated kind of beauty, evidently, from the way many people speak of it.

  8. Ellen Rosewall says

    I really think that it has something to do with the lack of a steady drum beat. Music with a backbeat creates a physical response — and even if people aren’t dancing, they react to the beat in their brains. With “classical” music, they can let go of the beat and just listen to the music.

    That being said, I agree that most people just listen to the surface of music. I also teach arts appreciation, and while most people can describe why they like a film or a painting, they are totally unable to figure out why they like music (it has no visual cues to help). Often, they say things like “I like this song because she’s singing about love.” No, I say, that’s the lyrics, not the music. We spend quite a while listening to different kinds of music and just trying to identify and articulate the differences before we even get to challenging emotional music.

    I agree with those who have said that we need to talk more specifically with people about why we like music, what we like about it, and what music we like. My students are always willing to try when I’m enthusiastic — and specific — about music.

  9. says

    Start your children listening at an early age. My folks put it on the hi fi every evening, yes, to “calm” the little kids for bedtime. (But were also known to put on the 1812 Overture to drown out the typical sibling rivelry). I lived in AZ during the 60s, they had a wonderful program called, Music Memory in the school system. The music was piped through the intercom, and we learned a new piece each week. There was a test in the cafeteria, each piece was played and we identified (extra credit for knowing the year). Those who passed attended got to attened a live performance of the music by Phoenix Symphony Orchestra at Grady Gammage Auditorium in Tempe. It was a wonderful program! I recommend contacting you local symphony, education departments, and state representatives to get this program reinstated. Oh, and there’s more than just Peter and the Wolf, although that’s always a good start! 😉

  10. John Montanari says

    Before we jump to conclusions, we might ask what he meant by “soothing.” In focus groups conducted around the country by public radio researchers (yes, I know that the terms “focus groups” and “researchers” push a few hot buttons!), words like “soothing” and “calming” turned up consistentely when participants described listening to classical music. But–an important but–they were referring not to the music itself, but to the experience of listening to music that was orderly, intelligent, and imbued with historical significance. And they made it clear that exciting classical music could also produce the same effect.

    So, while we may want to distance ourselves from the record companies and radio stations that hype the calming and soothing qualities of classical music, it might be to our advantage to recognize that a lot of listeners turn to classical for those very qualities, whether or not the music was intended for them. Maybe that will change, but that’s the way it seems to be now.

    That reminds me of research about which music helps sick or injured people to heal — seems to be whatever music they like best.

    Consider, though, what people might say about indie rock, or art-house films, or contemporary visual art. Would people who like such things describe them as a calm or soothing?

    I’m also reminded of something a private survey some years ago by the League of American Orchestras uncovered. Orchestra subscribers also went to see theater productions, but a significant minority of them complained that the subjects of the plays were often unpleasant. That can only add to my conviction that classical music audiences seek classical music out because they find it soothing, and want to be soothed.

  11. Yvonne says

    1. John Montanari makes a nice distinction but an important one: the music itself vs the effect of the experience of listening to it.

    2. To their credit, the recording companies do occasionally come out with complementary releases such as “25 Thunderous Classics”.

    3. Sting has absolutely no idea.

    4. I agree with David Ezer. Given the context and the construction of the quoted sentence I read “soothing” as defining the kind of classical music being played, not as a description for all classical music.

    5. But ultimately, Greg, I’m with you: I always feel a pang of distress when I hear people saying that they like classical music because it’s calming and relaxing. (In part because it’s only one brief droop of the eyelids from “calming and relaxing” to “boring and soporific”.) At the same time, who am I to tell people how they must experience and enjoy an art form? One of the magical things about classical music is that the person next to me can be letting it all wash over her and be enjoying a relaxing moment of bliss in her week and I can be feeling thrilled and energised by the exact same thing, and we’re both happy.

    But yes, if I’m honest, I wish more people could discover the energising, thought-provoking, stimulating, hair-raising side of classical music, and realise that while this repertoire absolutely has its soothing moments, it actually covers a tremendous swathe of emotion and personality and can’t be so simply pigeon-holed.

    6. How do we change this? As has been mentioned, radio programming has a lot to answer for. But if people are genuinely seeking aural wallpaper from their radio listening (which for many is by definition a “background” medium), you can’t blame a station for programming where the listeners are. And it would be naive to ignore the fact that music has always had a functional aspect to it. Background and party music has a long and noble history and heck, didn’t David calm Saul’s madness with his harp?

    But my field is live performance and one of the things I’m adamant about is that we don’t do thoughtless things such as playing recordings of our repertoire as background music during interval functions. (I once attended a function where the recording was of music we’d just heard in the concert, in an interpretation by a different conductor. Yikes.) Similarly we don’t ask our musicians to play “background”. If they perform at a function it’s presented as an interlude for listening.

    So basically we don’t “use” our own art form in a way that says, this is just wallpaper, you don’t have to pay attention or listen. (Not because we’re against background music per se, but because our business is live performance and active listening and if we aren’t advocates and models for that, no one else will be.) Small gestures perhaps, but this is definitely one area where concert presenters can avoid reinforcing popular conception and habit.

  12. says

    There’s a similar problem with jazz, deemed “relaxing.” I think that this problem may begin in part in marketing: both classical music and jazz have been marketed as what I call “bookstore music,” something you hear in the background at Borders, non-intrusive, non-demanding, and not what “the kids today” listen to.

    The way to change these perceptions is to ask people to listen to music that will challenge their assumptions. When I Langston Hughes’ “Theme for English B,” whose speaker likes records — “Bessie, bop, or Bach,” I play Charlie Parker’s “Ko-Ko” and the harpischord cadenza from the Fifth Brandenburg (and of course Bessie Smith). Soothing? Relaxing? Heck, no.

  13. Peet says

    It strikes me odd that people find Mozart to be relaxing. I have never found him relaxing and I know a lot of people who feel the same way. People who think Mozart is relaxing aren’t really listening. They’re just hearing.

    Also, I love how a taste for classical music has become a cultural identifier for murderers. Hard to forget Anthony Hopkins in ‘Silence of the Lambs’ slicing up a security guard to the strains of the Goldberg Variations. One such example, but there’s plenty more.

  14. Steve Soderberg says

    OK, time for a rant.

    I think the best word so far here is “disconnect” — but of a different kind than the one Greg was suggesting. Here’s how I see it going…

    You go to a rock concert and what do you get? Pretty much the SAME MUSIC you’ve heard on the radio and downloaded from the net to your iPod.

    You go to a “classical” concert and what do you get? Very likely NOT the same music you’ve heard on the radio and downloaded from the net to your iPod.

    You hear about a new band, Folding Rubber Steroids, from a friend. They’re great. You get all the FRS you can into your iPod. You get FRS DVDs, collect FRS posters. Finally FRS comes to town on tour & you go to their concert. And what do you get? You get Folding Rubber – JUST WHAT YOU EXPECT – along with the live, mind-blowing experience. Now…

    You get into classical by listening to your local “classical radio” station. Yes, it IS soothing (although that may not be quite the right word). Beethoven & Mozart & Bach & Lalo & Chopin & Rodrigo & on & on. There is a wonderful sameness-in-variety to it (this sameness itself is soothing). Whether they play the Juilliard doing an early Beethoven or a recording of the NY Phil playing Haydn, there are no unpleasant surprises –nothing to suggest there is an “other side” to this orderly, focus-grouped world. Then one day a friend invites you to your first live classical concert. Maybe you get an orchestra sandwich, say, Haydn + Harbison + Debussy. Or maybe an “adventure”: Schoenberg + Sibelius + Imbrie + Beethoven. Whatever. You run screaming from the hall: “I’VE BEEN HAD!!!! – THIS IS NOT WHAT MY TRUSTED CLASSICAL DJ LED ME TO BELIEVE IS CLASSICAL MUSIC!!!”

    The pop world, for all its vaunted genre variety, is of a piece – it’s whole cloth (at least within genre) – what you see is what you get, whether the live article or a digital copy & whether in Brooklyn or Pocatello.

    Not so with classical. There is a patchwork quilt quality to presentations in the classical world. Outside the pedigreed and up-to-date aficionado (a very difficult person to know let alone to like) the average concert goer (in my observation) does not know, from one concert to another, what to expect. This can be very good and exciting etc. etc. for the rare “right kind of personality.” But, especially for one whose ear has been hard-tuned to Brahms — the novice who has come to think s/he knows and understands the rep relatively well through non-live hearings curated by radio salesmen & likeminded friends — creative programming for live performances can be, quite literally, a shock (as well as “proving” all the stupidisms about “contemporary” music).

    Forget the tuxedos & cells & audience age & other arguments over presentation. What the current classical world lacks that the pop world doesn’t is a continuity such that an “average” concert goer, prepped by the local classical DJ, won’t come away from the live experience feeling a victim of a bait-and-switch scam. Someone has to tell this person ahead of time that Libby Larsen is not Ludwig Beethoven.

    But what’s the solution???? Radio won’t change as far as I can tell. And live program curators – even if they wanted to – can’t emulate radio programming because they’ll get killed for running the warhorses & ignoring living composers.

    Live program curators can do this, and do do it. Go to the Charleston Symphony’s website, and look at their programming for next year. Not every programmer is you, Stephen.

    And you’re vastly oversimplifying what happens in pop, or at least my experience in that area would tell me that you are. For instance, you get into the Folding Rubber Steroids. Now their new album comes out. It’s nothing like their last two. And there’s no guarantee you’ve heard it when you go to their next show. Plus, people listen to more than one band. Plus, entirely new styles come along. Plus, some artists aren’t much like their records, when you hear them live. When I was a fulltime pop critic, a publicist told me to go see Rick Astley (“Together Forever”),. one of the most despised Top 40 stars of the time. The publicist said I’d be surprised. I was. Astley was loose and fun live, didn’t sing many of his hits, did some R&B his hits wouldn’t prepare you for, and jammed a lot. Who knew?

    Dylan, famously, is completely unpredictable live.

    Another small case in point. One of my cousins, I’ve just found out, is a Lucinda Williams fan. So am I. My cousin had just been to a Lucinda Williams show, and we e-mailed about that. Turns out my cousin had never heard Williams’ latest album, where for the first time ever she’s happy in love. My cousin didn’t even know this album existed. But she certainly noticed that something was different, and came away from the show with lots of comments about that.

  15. says

    I believe the general populace consensus that “classical music” is calming and soothing could be happening for two primary reasons. Reason one: they aren’t paying attention, and reason two… THEY AREN’T PAYING ATTENTION!!

    Going with the assumption that by relaxing classical music “they” are referring to classical music that is in the adagio range. If that is case, it is my assertion that slow music does not equal music void of emotion and intellectual stimulation, which is what I would contribute to music that merely relaxes me. If I want music that relaxes me, then I listen to something that has very minimal structure and doesn’t require me to actually pay attention to and hear what is going on.

    I will express some strong opinions here, so please forgive me if you think I’m way off base……

    It is my strong opinion that the primary reason why the lay classical concert goer becomes bored and distracted so easily is because they are not prepared to listen to the piece. They expect, like with everything else in today’s entertainment, to have the music played AT them rather than have to actually listen. There is no volume button to control, no scan button to zip through the parts you don’t like, and thus, one is forced to sit, listen, and absorb the music for what it is in its purest form… This is, in my experience, very hard for a lot of people to do.

    What is the solution? I don’t think there is one catchall answer. I think it simply boils down to people knowing how and what it means to pay attention.

    This all may sound very preachy and elitist, but I figure since I’m preaching to the choir I can get away with this rant here. I wouldn’t dare try it anywhere else. Perhaps, Greg, you can soften my criticisms?

    If “today’s entertainment” — and today’s art, in other forms — were as you describe it, then I could agree with what you’re saying. But as I said in response to another comment, just consider how people react to indie rock, art-house movies (and even a lot of mainstream films), and contemporary visual art. They don’t find these things soothing.

    I think very large cultural forces are at work, which can’t be blamed on radio broadcasters, classical record company marketers, or uninformed and inattentive listeners. Why didn’t classical music have a soothing effect, to the same degree, in 1940, 1910, or 1850? And if you’re going to say that, well, in those days, classical listeners did pay attention, and did know the pieces, then why was that? And why don’t they know now?

  16. says

    Zack and Steve, great comments – how to breach the divide between Expectation vs. Reality for the basic concertgoer? Our local symphony experienced problems w/ this in the past – after years of playing heavy Brahms, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, they got an exciting new conductor who began to play more 20th century…Stravinsky & Shostakovich made appearances. What happened? Attendance declined, though the people who did attend faithfully were more excited than ever. Essentially, the gap was widened between the average and non-average concertgoer.

    Key to closing this divide rather than widening it (again, referring to preparing the audience above) could be FAMILIARITY. Ex: Pops concerts, at least down here, are extraordinarily well-attended. Audiences flock to these concerts to hear tunes and singers they know and love – whether it’s Motown, big band, Broadway. Since they are familiar with the music, they are able to sit back, listen and simply enjoy, rather than strain the brain trying to figure out what is going on at each moment as in a Mahler symphony. The Pops setting simply takes less concentration for the average listener.

    I’m sure we all remember the first time we heard Mahler, or Shostakovich or egads – Schoenberg, it took every brain cell to follow their ideas, their language. The 10th time, we knew what was coming, and enjoyed it much more for it. Many of us posting here went to music school so we HAD to become familiar with rep for a grade in Music History – we didn’t have a choice! How can we help our average audience become more familiar with the music in the best, most convenient way, and more, how can we help them want to become familiar with it?

    – Pre-Concert Talks:

    IMO often not enough attention is given here. Many orchestras have these, often held in the concert hall, or in a smaller space on premises. Some I have been to tend to be cursory and rushed, and far too short for the average listener to take anything away. It can be difficult to speak to the congregation instead of the choir too – those who need the least education are often most of all who come!How do we make the average concertgoer want to come learn about the music?

    Make the event much more comfortable, informal, social – how about a Pre-Concert Talk with cocktails and bites? Maybe take it off premises, yet nearby. And if the MD, or guest conductor/artist can be involved, even better – the average audience is drawn to the idea of rubbing shoulders with who they perceive as “stars.” And please, DON’T make the event just for subscribers – I know this goes on, the exclusive pre-concert Green Room cocktails – I don’t feel that is the right time of the concert experience to separate the Haves from the Have-Nots. I think overcoddling of subscribers is actually a problem which can serve to alienate casual patrons – reinforcing the idea that the symphony is for “Rich Snobs”…which is another topic indeed… (Not to offend!! I just am trying to think from the mind of an average John Doe who attends.)

    Pre-Concert Talk content should also be scrutinized – the audience wants to relate to the composer – Who was this person? What was he like? What problems or joys happened in his life to cause him to express him/herself this way? In talking about the works, PLAY excerpts during the discussions so in concert themes are familiar. Keep it engaging, humorous, fun. Open it up for questions!

    In short – make the Pre-Concert Talk into The Place To Be before the concert, and the possibilities to educate open up. Podcasts, being put to good use by many orchestras, can be an easy way of delivering education as well…as long as they are put up online far enough ahead of time – people’s busy schedules may not allow them much time to listen as the week passes. Web content/background on the pieces can be utilized too – I think it has to be a multi-pronged approach.

    Just some quick thoughts…this tough topic is one a thesis could be written about honestly…

    Good points, but I have to say that for me, the real oddity here is the idea of performing music for people who don’t want to hear it. This is worth a blog post in itself. In what other performance situation — arts, entertainment, sports, anything — does anyone present an audience with things it won’t like? Anywhere else but classical music, people would find a new audience if they wanted to do something new.

  17. says

    Two quotes:

    “We must bring about a music which is like furniture, a music, that is, which will be part of the noises of the environment, will take them into consideration. I think of it as a melodious, softening the noises of the knives and forks, not dominating them, not imposing itself. It would fill up those heavy silences that sometimes fall between friends dining together. It would spare them the trouble of paying attention to their own banal remarks. And at the same time it would neutralize the street noises which so indiscreetly enter into the play of conversation. To make such a noise would respond to need.” – Erik Satie


    “Satie was right: nowadays, children and housewives fill their homes with unheeded music, reading and working to the sound of the wireless. And in all public places, large stores and restaurants, the customers are drenched in an unending flood of music. It is ‘musique d’ameublement’, heard, but not listened to….” – Darius Milhaud

    Both quoted from “Cage’s Place In the Reception of Satie,” by Matthew Shlomowitz. (http://www.af.lu.se/~fogwall/article8.html#note17)

    In Britain, in the 1950s, new suburbs grew up outside major cities. Intellectuals hated them, and wrote many essays about how alienating they were, and how the people living in them had atomized lives, cut off from other people.

    Then sociologists did studies, and found out that just the opposite was true. People living in the new British suburbs had strong community ties, helped each other, participated in community activities. The intellectuals had, as it turned out, no real information about what was going on.

    I suspect the same thing could be true about background music. Intellectuals have theories, but no data. For myself, I might dislike it, but I’m not going to assume that I know how it functions for other people. Just for instance, I’ve seen people singing along with it in supermarkets, which surely shows that, at the very least, they noticed it, and were listening.

  18. Steve Soderberg says

    With all due respect, you’re missing the point, Greg. I’m not trying to say there are no differences in sound and effect and audience preference between or within pop genres. But what differences there are are DIFFERENT IN KIND from many in the classical repertoire. Thus a potential disconnect for unfamiliar rep in classical that occurs much less frequently in pop.

    Someone who falls in love with Warhorses on Parade (not that there’s anything wrong with that) on their local “classical” radio station is in for a big surprise when their discovery of classical music prompts them to attend their first live concert where they get their brain scrambled by Boulez’ Marteau (from which they can’t gracefully escape).

    If you seriously believe that Brahms is to Babbitt as Lucinda-Williams-unhappy-in-love is to Lucinda-Williams-happy-in-love, then your ears are on a different planet than mine.

    Well, of course I don’t believe that. But you’d made quite a global point about pop fans, saying that they always heard what they expected to hear. I wanted to show that this isn’t so. Your point about classical music is another point entirely, and I’ll address it in a moment, but when you compared classical music to pop, you caricatured what actually goes on in the pop world. (An all too frequent thing, unfortunately, when classical music people engage in these debates.)

    As for your classical point, I look at this very differently from you. I think the phenomenon you mention is one of the ugliest, and most improbable (if you look at it simply as human behavior) things about the classical music world. We actually force people to hear music that they don’t want to hear. As I said in response to another comment, where else in the worlds of performance — arts, popular culture, sports, whatever — does such a thing take place? Do we force art-house films on people in multiplexes? Does Sonic Youth ever play a set in the middle of a Rolling Stones show? Anywhere but in classical music, such a thing would be completely absurd, commercial and artistic suicide.

    And yet we do it. It’s stupid, and, on a simple human level, discourteous. Anywhere else in the performing universe, we’d give the standard classical audience the warhorses it wants, and find a new audience for everything else. In the pop world, I should add, that’s easy, because the audience is so very large. There’s a workable niche for almost everything. In classical music, we’re probably afraid that there wouldn’t be any audience for Babbitt, so we don’t go out and look for one. That’s shameful and absurd. And so unenterprising! If you ever see me saying that the pop world is generally more intelligent than the classical world, this would be one of the reasons. They know that different kinds of music appeal to different kinds of people, and act accordingly, with results that make reasonable sense, commercially, artistically, and simply on a human level.

  19. says

    Sadly, you’re right, Greg, why do orchestras even try to perform 20th c./contemporary music (or ack – even late Romantic!) if people really just want to hear Haydn, Mozart, Brahms and Beethoven?

    Once a friend took me to see a local prog rock band – she expected me to find it overly loud (which I did!) and to hate it, while on the contrary, I appreciated the muscianship and had my mind opened to how interesting the genre of music can be – sometimes in a similar way to classical with the complexity of the guitar solos, the band’s communication, the crazy rhythms the drummer was throwing down. I think it shouldn’t be any surprise that it isn’t an uncommon occurence for a rocker to find an affinity with Mahler, Varese, Stravinsky and the like – there is at a fundamental level a common language. We keep hoping if we just get people into the concert hall, they might end up to their surprise liking the exotic meat in the familiar warhorse sandwich.

    SoWhat about Programming Questionaires specifically? Has anyone ever gotten one of these from an orchestra? (Especially if you are/have been a subscriber?) Poll the audience – what was their favorite piece or program they heard that season? What pieces/composers do they want to hear in the future? Who are YOUR favorite composers? Break this down by demographic as well. Perhaps this is already being done at many places.

    I did get an online questionnaire from the orchestra I used to subscribe to since I did not renew this year. The questions asked focused on trying to pin down reasons regarding having a “busy schedule” and “worsening financial concerns” – of course, both of these were a factor. But the programming questions were few and very general – did you like the programming, yes or no. For those NO’s, it is essential to find out what is wanted – the communciation must be better.

    Some orchestras experiment with era-specific concerts, ie. an all-John Adams program, all Classical period, etc. Is there data this approach has been effective so far? It would seem targeting programs to certain segments of the audience + a Pick-Your-Own subscription package is a fair way to give the audience only what they want to hear. I would be interested to find out how these approaches have worked for orgs that have tried them so far. The increasing number of new/contemporary music ensembles that have cropped up in recent years also helps to cater to the more adventurous listeners – as a subset of the orchestra (thinking of LA Phil’s Green Umbrella) this could be an idea too, depending on the interest of the community.

    From what I’ve seen, orchestras know very little about what kind of programming their audience wants. And they especially may not know how much their audience hates much of the new music they play. That, in my experience, doesn’t come out until you get audience members in a room, and get them talking.

    It’s hard to do these surveys, or rather hard to do them in a way that will generate useful results. One reason for that is that audiences don’t completely know what they want, and also can’t fully imagine the reality of programming ideas that might be suggested to them. They might, for instance, respond very positively to the idea of programs that concentrate on music they love, and then, if the programs go very far in that direction, find them too predictable, and stop buying tickets.

    To my knowledge, whenever orchestras have tried to find out how many people in their audience like new music, the numbers come out very small. Sometimes, in fact, shockingly small. But ideally we’d have a lot better data on all of this than in fact we do.

  20. Steve Soderberg says

    There’s so much here…. So I’ll pick just one thing, because it hits the raw bone of what I hear you preaching in so many contexts.

    You wrote:

    “I look at this very differently from you. I think the phenomenon you mention is one of the ugliest, and most improbable (if you look at it simply as human behavior) things about the classical music world. We actually force people to hear music that they don’t want to hear.” etc.

    My response:

    Welcome to the world of art.

    Welcome to the world of free speech.

    Neither art nor free speech are defined by popular opinion or preference.

    A wise man said: “The crowd is untruth.” The same wise man said: “Being trampled by a herd of geese is a slow way to die.” I can only hope there are still people out there who get this. But neither Greg nor the headlines make me hopeful.

    I wrote a long reply last night, and this morning decided to remove it, because I think it was intemperate. I’ll replace it with something else shortly.

  21. Steve Soderberg says

    Greg also wrote:

    “Live program curators can [emulate radio programming], and do do it. Go to the Charleston Symphony’s website, and look at their programming for next year.”

    I’ve had a moment to check out the Charleston SO’s website, and it does not make your point, Greg … though it may APPEAR to if you don’t read the fine print.

    For the following I must first say that each and every CSO program I looked at I (for what it’s worth) consider to be excellent programming. Despite Greg’s unnecessary and less than subtle snide aside, I myself have very few biases regarding what makes a “good” program. My comments here have to do with packaging and advertisement as presented on the CSO web site.

    What they have done is created two primary series: “Masterworks” & “Backstage Pass.” This season (08-09), there was virtually no fundamental difference between the two (argue if you want — that’s the way I see it). The Backstage Pass description leads with what the words sound like: “intimate and up-close experience” and secondarily discloses that the programs pair contemporary with classic rep. But look at the Masterworks series, and you’ll find the same kinds of pairings.

    Now go to their 09-10 season and you’ll find what evidently Greg was determined to point at as an instance of live programming following the radio war horse model. Look ONLY at CSO’s next season’s Masterworks series & that is exactly right (and I’d personally happily attend any of these). But now look at their 09-10 Backstage Pass series. THAT’s now where the contemporary went (and again, as individual programs they look outstanding).

    What they have done, with minor exceptions, is to put a wall up between familiar and unfamiliar — between expected and unexpected. Personally, I know of only one other instance where this has been tried & it had some success. The reason to do it is obviously to placate/attract two very different kinds of audience PLUS the hopefully large overlap that can swing both ways (… and also so people don’t throw drinks at each other during intermission).

    The only concern I have is that they’re not yet up-front enough (at least on the web site, and that may change) about just what the Backstage Pass series is. The Music-Stopped-With-Brahms person will probably spot the unfamiliar names & avoid the series, but the classical radio prepped newbie is still not being adequately prepared. If I had a say, I would change the series name because it implies a closer contact with the music, the musicians, the hall, whatever — but does NOT imply the “adventure” or “challenge” aspects of the music per se on these programs. I would also “go for it” when describing this series. If you’re going to put the wall in place — and I for one think it’s a good idea — you should use descriptive language that is challenging rather than trying to find wimp-out words that say “it’s not that bad really.” (That only worked once in Baltimore for opera a few years ago.) In sum: if you’re going to put up the wall you should clearly tell everyone what’s on either side. It may be too much, but I would even tell everyone WHY the wall went up — they might get some unexpected appreciation from both sides.

    So, Greg, it does not look to me like there was anything resembling classical radio emulation going on here, but some astute analysis of their situation. A look at the full picture shows that they made a strategic change to their series model — probably after carefully analyzing their demographics and attendance.

    And more power to ’em.

    PS: That I am in favor of the “wall” in this situation does NOT imply that I am in favor of all walls.

    Thanks for setting me straight, Steve. I stand very much corrected.

  22. says

    That’s truly amazing. I thought maybe it was religious in nature. It always amazes me how much time and effort you pour your time and effort into this wonderful post.