Another book riff

Here’s another riff from my book — or, rather, again, a riff on what’s going to be in the book. It continues the last riff I posted here, as I gradually riff my way from the beginning of the book to the end.

Comments are more than welcome, as always. And an apology for not keeping up with the comments many of you have recently posted. I’ve been a little crazed with many things, including preparations for my Tunisia trip.

Here’s the riff:

Rebirth: The Future of Classical Music

by Greg Sandow

[Again from Chapter I, Rebirth and Resistance, extending my previous riff about how the chapter — and the book — might start. This is how the chapter might continue.]

So we’ve had a dose of heady inspiration. Rebirth! What a terrific concept for classical music.

Where do we go from here?

Well, it might be time to step back, and ask some questions.


If classical music really is changing, which it is — and if, through those changes, it might be reborn — why are the changes happening?

For two reasons, I think.

First, there’s the crisis in classical music, the fear that classical music is slipping away from thecontemporary world, and that its audience is shrinking. That leads people, even at the biggest classical music institutions, to wonder how they might reach out, and speak to the outside world.

Second — and, I think, much more important — there’s the simple fact of change. Cultural change,going very deep, and gaining speed for the past two generations. Ever since the 1960s. Maybe since the ’50s!

So who does that cultural change affect? More or less all of us. Including those of us who work inclassical music. We’ve all changed. We think differently, we have different ideas. And so we want to do classical music differently. Thus, we — individually, collectively, sometimes independent of each other, sometimes inspired by each other — start doing new things.

And that’s especially true of younger people in the business, music students, young musicians, youngerpeople in classical music management. Younger people in classical music — as I’ve seen from teaching them, for a start — live in two worlds at once, the classical music world, and also in the wider cultural world they share with everyone else their age. They watch the same TV shows their friends do, go to the same movies, listen to the same bands.

But their friends, often enough, don’t pay attention to classical music at all. So younger people in classical music become a bridge to the rest of their world. They can leap the gap, if anyone can. They can find ways to present classical music, that will grab the attention of people their own age.

Which is a big reason why I’m hopeful for the future. But don’t think classical music won’t change, when younger people start giving classical concerts in their own way.

Rebirth won’t be rebirth, if it’s only a new way of packaging something old.

More questions. How far have the changes gone? Not all that far, to tell the truth. So many exciting things have happened, as I’ve said (in my first riff). But you can still go to classical concerts — as we all know — and see more or less what we would have seen five, ten, or twenty years ago. Musicians in formal dress. An older audience. And, on the program, the same old lovely, familiar, comfortable classical masterworks. Nothing against them, but they just don’t reflect our own time.

And yes, I know some things have changed. Musicians might talk to the audience. Program books, at least at a few of the biggest orchestras, might be designed to look like slick, professional magazines.

But guess what — these changes, and others like them, aren’t enough to make a big difference. A conductor can say a few words to the audience, and then turn around — wearing formal dress — and conduct the same familiar masterworks to the same older audience.

Same with other changes — conductors not wearing formal dress, for instance. By themselves, these things don’t change the essential concert ambience. Maybe they’re first steps down the road of change, but they’re only first steps.

Even new works — classical pieces written this month, or this week — may not make much difference. The audience might hate them. And, more crucially, they may taste like they were written for the classical concert hall, without any savor, not even a trace, of the world outside.

Which brings me, to end this riff, to what I think are the two kinds of classical music change. First, changes made by mainstream classical institutions. And, second, changes made outside the classical music mainstream, which, taken together, create a new kind of alternative classical music world, which I’ve been labeling (on the model of indie rock), alt-classical, though maybe indie classical would be just as good, if not better. The alt-classical changes go a lot further. Here we see classical music starting to be fully reborn. But of course there are more of the mainstream changes, since there are so many mainstream classical music institutions, and alt-classical is still something new.

There’s also money. You can make a living in the mainstream classical world. If you’re lucky, if you get an orchestra job, if you really hustle. It might not be easy, but many people (especially including musicians) do it.

But you can’t make a living in the alt-classical space. Maybe a few people can, but the financial models for doing it basically don’t exist. If you’re a string quartet, life might be hard, but at least, if you’re booked by a mainstream performing arts center, you get a fee. Play in a club, and maybe it’s a thrilling gig, with a new young audience right in front of you, but where’s the money? Well, you’re not doing it for money, but without your mainstream bookings — and, most likely, your university residency — you won’t survive.

The mainstream is shrinking, though. So chances to make a living from it may well start to disappear. So here’s a challenge for the future. How can we develop financial models for the alt-classical space, so musicians (and everyone else who makes a living from classical music, managers, administrators, publicists, you name it) can survive in it? And even thrive.

Other blog posts about Rebirth:

A brief but thorough outline of the

entire book

My earlier riff, on the first part of chapter one,

showing how the book might start

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  1. Janis says

    I think there’s also an issue of the world above the musicians themselves. In a way, the musicians are like the counter help in the restaurants of a large corporation. They are as far down the ladder as you can get in some ways, the most outward-facing interface between the “institution” and the outside world. Changing how the musicians themselves interact with the world is like an institution changing the canned greeting phrase that their customer-facing employees use: should they say “Welcome to our restaurant, how can I help you?” or “Welcome to our restaurant, how may I serve you?” or “Welcome to our restaurant, how can I meet your needs today?”

    The changes have to percolate upward as well, in the back offices, which presents major difficulties. Many of those positions that make marketing and programming decisions are held by people who are, to put it mildly, not exactly members of the working class. To some extent, this is unavoidable since if you are after fundraising (which ALL back-office types are in the end), you want people with rich-guy rolodexes who know people all over the country that they can hit up for a few big checks. These are also positions that you can’t rely on having generic “young people” coming in and freshening up. Even their entry-level internships are often unpaid, not the kinds of positions that can be taken by kids who have to work for their bread.

    Ultimately, the only way to appeal to the outside world is to bring the outside world inside … and in the upper echelons of decision making for these large institutions, that faces a massive uphill battle.

    Pop, rock, and other forms of popular music have (had?) a headstart on this in that the initial movers and shakers in the industry came from working or lower-middle-class backgrounds. Most of the musicians did as well. I was surprised to discover just how many of the rock musicians that I love the most came from very humble backgrounds, often as the first-generation American-born children of immigrants. The uniformity is kind of surprising. They appeal to the average person because they ARE the average person, and they know how to write songs about us because they are us — or at least were raised as us before they made a zillion dollars.

    That has probably shifted in recent times, at least in the back office areas of the popular music establishments, and we’re definitely seeing more kids of established musicians becoming pop stars themselves; there may be a sort of “pop aristocracy” developing that will make that type of music less relevant over time as well.

  2. Janis says

    Another quick underline: in order for this new perspective to really stick, and not be perceived as a new way of marketing the same old stuff to “them,” the change must not be confined to the farthest out (and lowest-ranking) edges of the whole world. And that’s what entry-level new-kid students and rookie musicians are, the entry level people further from the decision-making center and closest to the “customers.” People in that situation are ALWAYS the lowest ranks. They can’t carry this without support from within the back offices and upper echelons.

    Expecting a newbie musician to take the risk of pushing a new view of the music without that support is just asking too much of them. They can’t change things too much if they have to go into a masterclass next week and get shrieked at if they try to actually apply these new forms or have to appeal to the same old frumps when trying for jobs, and no amount of outreach from them will make a dent if the program and marketing decisions are made by people who are still invested in the old way.

    The change must begin with the highest ranking people in that world. This will free up the newbies to feel more comfortable trying new things, knowing they have the support of those above them. Otherwise, you may be asking the most vulnerable people, furthest from the decision-making processes, to carry the lion’s share of the load, which they can’t and won’t do.

  3. John Shibley says


    Myth teaches us, mercilessly, that before there can be a re-birth, there must be a death.

    In my organizational development work, I have often seen organizations that want the renewal of a resurrection but think they can get there without suffering the dissolution that is death. They want to go straight from decline to re-birth. You can’t. To get the kind of dramatic re-creation that is a true rebirth, you need to let go completely of what was.

    Now, it’s not always necessary to have a re-birth. In fact, its tricky business dying and being re-born, so any organization that can avoid it should avoid it. Sometimes all that is required to prosper is an incremental change – an adjustment of what was in recognition of circumstances that have changed, but have not changed so much that the fundamental organizational form is left inviable.

    I think the question for classical music is, have things changed so much that the only way a new, viable form can emerge is for the old one to pass away completely, or can the current form adapt?

    Wise comments, John, as always. I think classical music will evolve a rebirth that doesn’t involve a complete death first. But some people, I do understand, react to the changes as if something they love is dying. And in some ways, I have to admit that’s true. People who love classical music in its traditional form may find there’s a lot less of that in the world, a decade from now. And, much as I want change, I sympathize with their feelings.

  4. Janis says

    Hm, not sure about rebirth-death as the most accurate model, now. Mythically, rebirth follows death, but in the world, one usually finds just simple, constant evolution, punctuated equilibria where things settle in a certain form for a while, then shift. Sometimes the shift is painful, but it always happens.

    Then again, even change involves the death of what went before. But I don’t think there has to be a large-scale overall die-off. Just punctuated adaptation, periods of quiet followed by periods of adjustment.

    It’s not often as clean as everything old being swept away, and something new being installed in its place. That’s too neatly defined. Like freeway overpasses, things need to be adjusted while also in the process of being used, and that ends up with a more biological than mythic model. You end up with old stuff that should have been canceled out long ago being used alongside newer innovations, plus the interface between them that must be worked out. Sit and wait long enough, and different types of music may “hive” off and become separate from one another, and then cross-pollinate a hundred years later.

    Ah, well. Bedtime. :-) Nighty.

  5. Rafael de Acha says

    Greetings, Greg. Insightful stuff all those premises – how classical music and the world have been rapidly changing and, beyond that, the still much-too-slow-to-react traditional institutions and the quicksilver and aptly-named by you “alt-music” scene which changes by the day and defies our abilities to keep up with it. Most of all I think you defined clearly the function of young musicians as both working artists and ambassadors from our old world to the new world of their non-musical peers.


  6. says

    Great observations, Greg. But what I find interesting is that there are still many smaller orchestras–and, when approaching them with concerts, and new projects, they are able to deal with it all more simply than the larger venues in some respects. They have fewer concerts per season and less staff, which can make things run more efficiently (not always), and leave nore budget for guest artists. Having said that, there are still many major orchestras that can do the same–they have great administrators at many, and are doing creative outreach to their cities.

    You’re right. It’s a world that’s not enough known about. Doesn’t get much media coverage, so most people don’t know what goes on there. I’ve heard that some administrators would rather not work at large orchestras, because the institutions are just so difficult.

  7. Jennifer says

    I appreciate Greg’s direction on this, and I really hope that the book actually takes on the idea of what alt-reality can exist for classical music. Is it that we change the environment around the actual concert like museums having Friday night jazz & wine in hopes of getting people to maybe wander in the galleries (which they rarely do). Or is it more of a mash-up approach like Matt Haimovitz? Why is it thousands show up for free concerts in parks, but not for paid performances in the venues – is there some notion of value that provide the key to expanding classical audiences that still have a hope of sustaining musicians, contemporary composers, and the thousands of jobs nationwide that (currently)exist because of classical music?

    Ruminations from someone who was leading marketing & development for a small, progressive orchestra in a major metropolitan area.

  8. Frank says


    Finish the book and get it out in paper – not just among the electrons!

    There’s much talk that the world is going electronic – but I don’t recall any TV or radio talk shows interviewing authors of blogs or electronic articles. Paper is the Rubicon for serious people and serious ideas.

    Completing a book – any book, requires discipline and seriousness of purpose in finishing the boring but critical final details. Once published, weak sections, lapses in style, and mistakes are exposed forever without the opportunity for changes (as in electronic media). That’s a formidable obstacle for many if not most people, and it winnows the field. Of course, paper books still don’t winnow enough, but they do so FAR more than the millions of blogs that now exist.

    A temptation to not hurry in getting your book finished may be the convenience and attractiveness of just blogging along, one thought and interesting riff at a time.

    A barrier that should not be a formal barrier for you, but is for university faculty, is that speaking candidly about issues involving audiences, decline of classical music, critiques of contemporary music, etc. remain essentially verboten for faculty of American conservatories and university departments of music. Violation of the taboos by nontenured reformist faculty can potentially cost them their jobs, or at the minimum, their professional standing.

    Surprisingly, perhaps, as funding shrinks music departments have not broadened their outreach, making themselves more useful to society at large. Rather, I’m told, departments tend to circle their wagons, and hold even more tightly to formal professional activities – because promotion and tenure remain based largely on peer-reviewed literature and formal credentials.

    For example even the cofounder of the Sonneck Society (now American Music Society) and tenured professor of music at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, Nicholas Tawa, could not risk the opprobrium of violating sensitive and sacred academic doctrine with his pathbreaking book, AMERICAN COMPOSERS AND THEIR AUDIENCES (Scarecrow Press, 1995). He delayed its ;publication until after he retired.

    Not a single one of the recent writers of books about American music – Hitchcock, Horowitz, Haskell, Teachout, or even Alex Ross, who claims affinity to general music lovers, has mentioned Tawa’s book or those of Henry Pleasants – the only substantial works to deal objectively and candidly with the realities of 20th Century American activity in “serious music”. Even the Amazon online page for Tawa’s book lists no reader reviews. I explain this by the fact that the don’t know about or if they know, don’t dare touch the subject, while the book is too scholarly to reach nonprofessional audiences.

    The professional musical establishment uses a time-tested strategy for dealing with nonconformist publications. Ignore them! This has worked very well – even for Pleasants’ once bestselling book “{The Agony of Modern Music”. Over time, lack of mention of Pleasants’ books in curricula for music students and other widely read trade books allowed memory of his devastating and largely unanswerable critiques to become forgotten.

    Getting into sensitive areas that you include in your book outline is inadvisable for American academics, but the risks seem minimal for you. Your book could gain star quality and become a subject of cocktail discussions and strong interest – especially among younger musicians. You’d risk having your credentials and the importance of your findings deprecated by the establishment – and maybe you don’t want to lock horns with it that directly?

    But I maintain that without calling spades something other than digging implements, and getting the evidence where people can see it withough doing doctoral dissertations, no major changes can take place. The musical ground will remain in the possession of an establishment that cannot afford to empower audiences and amateur performers , etc.

    So that’s the challenge, Greg. You’re the only one on the horizon with the insight, and the documentation to tell the story. I’d like to urge that you get a contract with a publisher to hold your feet to the fire and get the job done!

    Warm regards, Frank

    Thanks for the compliments. I know many people in established positions agree with a lot of things I say. I’ve been told more than once that they look to me to say what they can’t say themselves, because of their positions. Just as you suggest!

    But why do you think I’m not working hard on the book, and won’t find a print publisher? My strategy is to build the book online, and build support for it inside the industry (an effort that’s going very well, in ways I can’t discuss right now). Looking for a print publisher will come a little later, when I can show a publisher how much support the book already has, and how widely it’s going to be read. I also get feedback from all kinds of people when I put the ideas in the book online, and that helps make it stronger.

  9. Fred Lomenzo says

    As an active composer who reads and occasionaly makes comments, I look at some of the discusions in a different perspective.In previous years while a member of the the New Jersey composers guild I composed and had performed several electronic pieces. Although they were well received and I enjoyed working in the medium I started noticing a problem. Instead of the endless possibilites I initially expected ,I was eventualy struck with the overwelming limitations of the medium. The problem with much of todays contemporary music is that it is not so inovative as it is restricting.In effect if we take traditional music and put it on the right and take some forms of contemporary music and put it on the left (atonal , minilism ect.) the farther we go to the left the more restrictive and limiting it becomes not the opposite.The further we go away from some of basics of composition in the name of progress the further we go away from creating music as opposed to creating sound played by skilled musicians. What we are sometimes injoying, if anything, is their skill as musicians and not the composition. Using percusion and odd groupings of instruments to add variety has limits. Yes, we need new music. There is an audience starving for it. What we give them is up to the serious music community.The majority of concert goers are not excited with much of whats been offered.

  10. Janis says

    Fred, I’ve been wondering about the polarization of the experimental stuff and the “traditional” stuff myself lately, just doing a mental compare-and-contrast with radio-play versus prog rock, which I think is illuminating.

    I’m starting to think of the experimental classical music (you guys seem to have settled on calling it “contemporary”), along with prog rock, as the R&D department for a given genre of music. That’s where you stretch the boundaries, test new things out, try stuff that might or might not work, that sort of thing.

    So I’m not seeing a linear spectrum so much as a circular sort of thing, where the prog stuff is deep inside doing the testing, and the more “traditional” stuff is what ends up making it out to a general audience.

    You don’t invite your general audience into your R&D department — by definition, “experimental” means “prone to failure,” and you don’t charge people money for something that might not pan out. (Well, not if you want them to come back again, you don’t.)

    However, there is always a niche market for tours through the R&D department — other geeks who are into the guts of what you’re doing (for music, that’s other musicians, for computers, it’s coder geeks, and for cars it’s gearheads) will always be happy to try out something new and be what the tech industries call early adopters or beta testers.

    But this is always a niche market by definition. Period. Fans of that sort of prog-classical (I’m less fond than Greg of the term alt-classical) will never be the largest market, and you can’t sneak people into liking it. (“We’ll play them some of Ginastera’s Argentine dances, and pretty soon we’ll have them listening to Cage!” Ain’t gonna happen.)

    So, this sort of experimental classical music is better conceptualized I think as the inner workings of music, the R&D department where new things are tried and tested out. There will always be a niche market of fans who like to hear this sort of stuff — but it will always be a NICHE, and it will always be composed of other geeks who are doing the same thing for fun or professionally.

    Again, I’d sooner see this all compared to prog rock than to the current alternative music scene. Prog rock will occasionally produce an upwelling of something that’s radio-play friendly, but that’s an unusual event.

    It’s also worth noting that (in my opinion at least), the best rock bands of my own youth were the ones who came OUT of prog. (Note that they came OUT, though.) Yes, Genesis, and Journey all started as hardcore prog bands playing only to other musicians (other geeks who like to see the inner workings, in other words) and lacking major radio play.

    After three albums, Journey was pretty much told to get a singer and get a hit, or get off the label — and I think that illustrates a huge and very illuminating difference between rock and classical. There’s a big fiscal motivation to rock that doesn’t hold in classical at this point. As a result, that world — while it loved prog and still does — learned very quickly that it was not going to fly as a finished product. The classical world is still somewhat insulated from money concerns, or likes to kid itself that it’s above them. As a result, they keep trying to push their prog stuff as a finished product, and people keep walking out. Rock’s absolute dependency on money is a very bad thing in many cases, but in others, it forces them to stay connected to audience opinion.

    It’s also worth noting that when these bands went in a more traditional direction though, they generally blew everyone else out of the water. Their old-school fans accused them of selling out, but audience adored good, more traditional music played by people who had really cut their teeth on very challenging material. The bands also expanded their audience greatly; prog rock appealed overwhelmingly to all-male, white audiences — and they prided themselves on it. (We’ve probably all heard that old prog saying, “When chicks come in, art goes out.”)

    You hit the nail on the head when you said: “What we are sometimes injoying, if anything, is their skill as musicians and not the composition. Using percusion and odd groupings of instruments to add variety has limits.” It limits the audience also. The music world will never get the majority of the audience to like super-experimental stuff. Ever. You just don’t attract most users with the gadgets you have sitting in R&D.

    Rambling aimlessly on a Wednesday morning … I should save these comments. I’m probably contradicting myself right and left in them.

  11. Janis says

    A few other comments, underlines, and expansions:

    1) You can’t make someone like something they don’t (expanding on what I said about Ginastera and Cage up there) by sneaking up slowly enough on them. There seems to be a belief held by a lot of people who like the more artsy, experimental classical forms that if only they can lead the audience there in small enough baby steps, they’ll be loving it eventually. They won’t. Speaking as a hardcore, bootleg-collecting fan of some 80s bands, I cannot force myself to like (most of) their early 70s prog experiments no matter how much I love them. Similarly, I’m just not going to make the jump from Ginastera to Cage, period. I just don’t like it.

    2) People want an idea of what they’ll be hearing. Greg’s talked about this a lot — aiming for your audience. Fans of a given band want to hear what they can expect from that band; that’s why they’re fans of it. People who loved VH when I was growing up would not have stayed fans had they gotten ambushed by a bunch of Neil Diamond covers. And yet people who go to “the symphony” are expected to sit there and enjoy anything they play. “The symphony” is almost the only band that is expected to have no set sound to it, playing anything written between 1600 and now, be it The Mendelssohn Thing that I heard this past weekend to “The Rite of Spring” to all the atonal stuff that you are all talking about.

    So people who go to orchestra concerts want to hear what they think of as “proper” classical music. Fans of a hop-hip group don’t go to their concerts expecting Glenn Miller, either. And if they got it, they’d also stop going. What’s needed is more, smaller institutions with specific tastes and repertoires so that people can go hear “their” band and can have a sense of loyalty and “being a fan” of a specific set of people and sound — and being part of a specific audience. Most pop and rock bands’ fans bond over being fans of that particular band. The music needs not only to connect with the audience, but connect the audience to one another. On the whole, classical music has been shite at that lately.

    3) We have to try not to use judgmental terms when talking about certain audiences. It’s easy for me to talk about 70s/80s arena rock as “proper” rock well-suited to a properly educated classical/operatic ear but … well, that’s my own judgment speaking because that’s how the approach was for me. There are a lot of people who love one and dislike the other. I happen to dislike bebop pretty seriously, but a lot of people love it. The lead flute of the LA Chamber Orchestra, who ROCKED Vivaldi this weekend, LOVES the stuff. Thank god he didn’t play any of it when I heard him, but he can reconcile loving both in his head, clearly.

    It’s important to think past words like “staid” and “conservative” when talking about people who like more melodic music, and “adventurous” and “curious” to describe people who might like the more experimental forms. These words come loaded with judgment, and are full of the assumption that the speaker/writer is in the latter group. “Staid” simply becomes a synonym for “I can’t convince them to like what I like, damn it.”

    It’s just a matter of liking a genre of music and not wanting to be ambushed by something else flying at you out of left field. An audience who went to hear atonal stuff would feel cheated and annoyed at having to listen to Haendel, too — and would be just as put out as the people who wanted to hear Baroque and had to sit there for two hours listening to stuff they disliked. (A single person would feel the same way — I wanted to hear Vivaldi this weekend. On another weekend, I might go to a different type of performance and sit down wanting to hear pop or rock.)

    We have to be careful not to label either audience “stuffy” and “unwilling to be adventurous” for not wanting to hear stuff they didn’t expect and might not care for. They just know what they like, and that’s what they paid to hear and expected to hear.

  12. Langston says

    People like what they learn to like. If classical music isn’t presented as normality, but a specialty item, it does not become an intricate part of culture. I don’t believe the issue is that most people dislike classical music–even the old stuff. I think it’s just not on their agenda. It’s not an intricate part of their reality.

  13. Janis says

    People like what they can play with. If classical music is presented as something apart, something untouched, something the liturgy to which can’t be added from, edited, or taken away, it does not become an intricate part of people’s lives.

    Artists don’t spend years in art schools doing paint-by-numbers of the Mona Lisa. Why should musicians?

    How can something become an intricate part of anyone’s reality when it can’t lose the impermeable membrane that separates it from influencing and being influenced by its surroundings?

    How can music become an intricate part of my life if I am forbidden (tacitly or explicitly) from letting parts of ME soak into it? The “soaking into” can’t go only one way.

    Pop and rock music, and the other forms that I’m less familiar with, are part of people’s reality because they feel free to pick it up, pull the lid off, grab the bits inside, and mess with them. There’s no velvet rope. As long as people feel like they will get their hands smacked for touching the music, it will not integrate itself into their lives — because it’s not a matter of the audience adapting itself to unchanging, untouchable music. The music had better adapt as well.

    Basically, if I can’t play with it, I don’t want to be bothered. I imagine other people feel much the same. The powers that be in the classical music world can come across too often as a really bitchy homeowner’s association that won’t even let someone hang drapes that can be seen from the outside. :-)