Finishing my impulsive three-part series on how/why contemporary classical music — as presented by mainstream classical music institutions — isn’t really part of current culture.
In the first two parts — here and here — I showed how, both now and in the past, new classical music, and especially modernist new music, didn’t connect with other cultural developments. How modernist literature touched on popular culture and everyday life, but new classical music didn’t. How modernist music in 1960s Paris — Boulez — looms large in classical music thinking, though at the time it was film that was the vital French art, addressing contemporary questions in ways Boulez never did.
And how atonal music dominated prestigious composition in the 1950s, and still retains — in the classical music world — its dominant prestige, along with a sense of somehow still being new, even though since its dominance we’ve had waves of new styles, starting with minimalism in the 1970s. (Which in fact even began in the ’60s, if you count In C and Steve Reich’s early pieces. Though the ’70s were when it burst out into prominent view.) While in visual art, the new styles that came after abstract expressionism took a much more prominent place in the mainstream.
And how museums now reflect the development of contemporary art, showing — even the biggest ones — a much more vital assortment of new styles and sensibilities than major classical music institutions do when they program contemporary music.
All of which means that contemporary music — as we meet it, once again, at mainstream classical institutions — doesn’t function as a branch of contemporary art. Instead, it comes off like an oddball, specialized branch of classical music, and as a result appeals largely (and this is especially true of modernist new music) to a tiny fragment of the classical music audience. As opposed to reaching a contemporary art audience — and, overlapping with that — even parts of the wider audience for art of all kinds.
The strongest sign of this: That contemporary music concerts at mainstream classical music institutions don’t as a rule draw artists from other fields. While new music events that feature current styles do draw those artists, and have drawn them ever since the dawn of minimalism.
I have to acknowledge, though, that new music presents some problems that new work in other arts might be free from. Music seems to touch our emotions very deeply, for one thing. That can make new kinds of music harder for some people to accept, if they’re profoundly tied, in their emotions, to the old styles. (Though wouldn’t that work the other way, too? That people feeling the pull of new kinds of culture will happily embrace music that reflects the new culture, even if they haven’t heard anything like it before. For instance: teens embracing rock & roll in the ’50s, painters embracing minimalism in the 1970s, the beats celebrating bebop, advanced artists gravitating to Wagner in the late 19th century, Proust — confined to his bed — setting up a special telephone hookup so he could listen to the premiere of Pelleas et Melisande.)
Music also takes time. If you go to a gallery and hate a painting, you can walk right by. If you’re at a concert and hate a new piece, you have to sit there till it’s over. (But that doesn’t seem to bother people when the style of music at the concert really speaks to them. When thousands of people come to a Bang on a Can marathon, all of them can’t possibly like every piece, but you don’t see mass walkouts.)
And music has to be performed. Performances may not do new pieces justice. Performances of atonal music, especially — and especially orchestral performances — may make the music sound harsher than it really is, because the musicians haven’t yet learned to play it beautifully.
Finally, music even in the 18th and 19th centuries didn’t fully reflect the culture around it, something we almost never think about, and which might be due to how much music costs. Only the conservative powers that be, for instance, could afford to present big choral pieces in the 18th century, so it’s hardly a surprise that nobody wrote oratorios with texts by freethinkers like Voltaire. And in the 19th century, there weren’t operas that unsparingly depicted poverty, as Dickens did in his novels, or showed us the minutiae of bourgeois life, as Flaubert did, or brought the new urban culture alive, like Balzac.
(Which, parenthetically, leads to the modern spectacle of Verdi scholars glorying in how well Verdi handles what in its time was essentially popular melodrama. If they were literary scholars, they’d have been dealing with ideas on a higher level. I say this, by the way, as someone who loves Verdi. Italian opera might even be my favorite music, and I’ve loved reading the impressive scholarly discussions of it that have been published in the past generation.
(I do laugh a little, though, I have to say, about scholars who celebrate Verdi’s popularity, writing with great excitement about how barrel organs played Verdi’s operas in Italian streets, when these same scholars for the most part have no contact with music of our own time that has that kind of popularity.)
Still, I’ve labeled these considerations as excuses. I’ve tried refuting some of them, but even to the extent that they may be true, they don’t alter the reality. Contemporary classical music — once again, as it’s presented in the mainstream classical world — doesn’t seem to have much contact with contemporary life or contemporary art, and people coming on it from the outside can’t help noticing that. And reacting to it. By not going to the concerts. Whatever the reasons for all this might be.
So how do we make new classical music come off like contemporary art in other fields, so it can draw a comparable audience. And I’m not — by the way — equating popularity with value here. I’m just stating a truth. We’re not drawing the kind of artistic and intellectual and just generally curious audience that contemporary art has shown that it can draw. And that means we’re not relating to our culture.
There can be small but vital audiences, that make a difference, just as large ones do. Take the Velvet Underground, who — according to an old (and obviously exaggerated) joke — had only 10 people buying their records, but then each of those people went on to start an important band of their own. I saw audiences like that at downtown new music concerts in New York in the 1980s — forty people, or thirty, or twenty, but all of them engaged and aroused by what they saw, and not all of them professionals in new music (which was who largely went to the uptown performances of modernist atonal work).
Besides — I mentioned earlier that I saw (and stood in) lines around the block for a Jackson Pollock show at MOMA. Can anyone — however much he or she might be suspicious of how shallow popularityi can be — honestly tell me they wouldn’t be thrilled to see that for Schoenberg, Xenakis, or Boulez?
So, then: What can we do? I’ve seen one deliberately explicit attempt to address this problem: A study (which I heard presented at an Association of British Orchestras conference I attended a few years ago) about what the contemporary art audience looked for in events they go to, and how new music concerts might appeal to that audience. I don’t know where that study went, but it was lovely to see people — four top marketers, in fact — thinking along those lines.
But studies might not be necessary. As I keep saying, for more than 30 years now, starting in the early 1970s, I’ve seen large audiences turn out for new music. What draws them, clearly, is music in the latest style — minimalism in the ’70s and ’80s, alt-classic
al music now.
And, please, there’s something going on here besides trendiness. It’s the feeling of something new in the air, something changing, something vital, something important. Remember that these weren’t mass audiences. A thousand people, if that’s an accurate number, hearing Steve Reich’s Drumming when the piece was new isn’t exactly the same thing as millions of people buying a pop album. (Though the success of singer-songwriters, early in the ’70s, and of punk and disco later in the decade, was also due to people smelling something new in the air, and rushing to music that reflected it.)
That’s true even if a thousand people seemed, at the time, like a huge audience to people used to the much smaller crowds at concerts featuring Babbitt and Wuorinen. And even if people who liked the dominant atonal people felt suspicious of those larger crowds. I was there. I certainly wasn’t looking for easy stimulation, and the excitement I felt at a Reich event was miles away from — let’s say — my thrill at seeing Star Wars for the first time, more or less in the same era. Reich went far deeper, and thrilled me far more.
So to make new classical music part of current culture — and part of current art — you need to do the music that reflects what’s happening right now. That’s likely to be whatever the newest style is, or maybe what was the newest style a couple of years ago, because it can take the world a while to catch up with something new. This is evident in every other walk of life, and in every other art. Why shouldn’t it be true of music?
Connect with the current world, and you’ll draw a current audience. This isn’t a calculation, a plan, a maneuver, a marketing trick. It’s genuine. If you yourself breathe the air of new and different planets (to paraphrase the famous Stefan George line that Schoenberg set, when he ventured into atonal territory in his second string quartet), you’ll naturally be drawn to — and program music — that also breathes that air, and when you present those programs, you’ll attract other people who also breathe it.
But this absolutely doesn’t mean that only new, bright, untried, and — in the larger, long-term picture — maybe even shallow things get done. What you do, when you concentrate on new work that reflects current culture and attracts a current audience, is create a context. You have people coming to your concerts, expecting something vital, that will speak to them.
So this becomes your chance to program anything you want. Remember that the new audience — the alt-classical audience — is, to judge from the music that they’re drawn to, one of the most musically curious and open-minded groups of people that we’ve ever seen. To use a clumsy word, they’re polystylistic. They’re aware of music in many, many styles, often respond to it, and are well aware that if they themselves don’t respond, someone else does.
That helps makes them open-minded. Curious. Eager. Ready to hear anything. Even in the music they like — indie rock, let’s say — there are many styles, with many people having preferences of their own, but still acknowledging the music that they may not like so much.
So once you’ve got an alt-classical audience, play Webern for them. They’ll listen far more eagerly than the standard classical audience does. As long as you play Webern with passion and commitment — and play it really well, they’ll very likely respond. Certainly they’re more likely to respond than any other audience you’ll find, outside the tiny ingroup that likes that music now. (And no way is that a putdown of the music. Webern, as I’ve said many times before, is one of my favorite composers.)
Case in point: Back in 1988, I was visiting professor at the University of Minnesota, and in one class I taught — it was a graduate course in music and politics — I had the students listen to Milton Babbitt. Who loved him? The punk kids, the kids who loved punk rock.
We don’t need to ask for the moment why they liked him, whether they heard any of the structural delights that Babbitt revels in. (Any more than we’ll ask how many people hear those niceties in concerts that draw the small but faithful Babbitt audience. Or how many people in the mainstream classical audience follow all the folds of sonata form in a Haydn symphony.) The point is that they responded to Babbitt, really eagerly. And that’s something we haven’t seen, outside the little band of faithful, and something — surely — that we should be grateful for. (Even if it’s just one small straw in a wind whose ultimate direction we have no way of knowing.)
(This, of course, is a rehearsal, if you like, for things I’m going to say in my book.)