Fourth book riff


outline of my book

riff 1: The rebirth of classical music

riff 2: Why is the rebirth happening?

riff 3:  Resistance to change: the value of classical music

And now, riff four: Resistance to change: reasons for resistance. (Feel free, if you like, to copy and paste all of this and keep it for reference, or send it to anyone you like. Just don’t violate the Creative Common license at the end.)

Greg Sandow Rebirth: The Future of Classical Music fourth riff from chapter one     

Resistance to change: reasons for resistance.

Some of the resistance feels like nostalgia, deep nostalgia. People love classical music. They enter a classical concert hall, and feel like they’re coming home. So of course they don’t want classical concerts to change. They won’t feel at home anymore.

I remember – and the memory touches me – a leading figure in the symphony orchestra business, saying at a private conference that, if classical music collapsed, he and his colleagues might need grief counseling.

But there can be other reasons for resisting change, which in some ways function as explanations of nostalgia – explanations of what people think they’ll be losing – but which people take seriously:

  • Change will dumb classical music down.
  • There’s no need for change, because classical music is doing just fine as it is. There isn’t any crisis.
  •  Any problems that classical music might have can be blamed on our culture. There’s nothing wrong with classical music, but our culture is now too dumb to support serious art.

Let’s look at these reasons. (And can anyone suggest more?)

Change will dumb classical music down

What, some people might think, could be better proof of this, than Maestro, the BBC classical music reality show that I talked about in my first riff? Because what could be dumber than a reality show? Or take that further. What could be dumber than TV? But this is an old cultural prejudice.

It was stronger in the past, for instance in the early 1960s, when CBS (yes, the TV network) commissioned an opera from Stravinsky, and even though they let him write anything he wanted, some of his friends thought he’d sold out by having anything at all to do with TV.

And now this prejudice comes into conflict with (no pun intended) reality. Some reality shows are dumb. Or, for all I know, nearly all of them. But some aren’t, and Maestro surely wasn’t. Yes, it was brash, slick, and breezy, and full of dumb jokes. But the contestants (as I said in my first riff) really had to conduct an orchestra, and if they conducted badly, we could hear that they were bad.

One of the contestants (Goldie, a dance-music DJ) lived and breathed music, right to his fingertips, but he fell down when he conducted an aria from a Mozart opera, accompanying a singer, and couldn’t handle the upbeats (quick little notes that the orchestra had to play after a pause, but before the main beat of the melody).

Goldie – even though he melded beautifully with the singer – couldn’t show the orchestra exactly when to play these upbeats. And so, for just those few notes, the music sounded thin, and tentative. The judges (two of whom were famous conductors) told us what was wrong, talking exactly as classical music professionals would normally talk.

 Here’s another example.

“The violins come in, in the second quaver in the bar,” said one of the judges, Simone Young, music director of the Hamburg Opera, in Germany, pointing out a problem she’d noticed. (She’s Australian, and uses a British musical term, “quaver,” when we in America would say “quarter note.” Though her meaning would be clear in any language. The violins, at this moment in the music, start playing on the second beat.) “And on the second note they play, the brass come in. And you showed me nothing in that bar that would have showed the brass when to play.”

Which is exactly how she’d talk if she taught  conducting at a top music school. You could watch more serious classical music telecasts for years – telecasts of performances by major orchestras or soloists – and never learn half as much (or a tenth as much) about conducting as one Maestro episode could teach you.

 And of course in the book I’ll run through other ways classical music has changed, and show that they’re not all dumb. For instance:

Jordi Savall, the probing viola da gamba star, conducted Haydn’s Seven Last Words, a musical meditation from the 18th century on the last words Jesus spoke, as recorded in the Bible. Except that Savall used new texts, new literary meditations on those final words, written by two important writers, one of them being José Saramago, surely among the most profound literary voices of our time. And an atheist. This doesn’t demean Haydn’s music. Instead, it gives the music new meaning, and new power, as it finds new context in the way we might think today about the meaning of Christianity.

The Royal Opera, in London, holds a competition for very young composers, asking them to write a fanfare that the company can use, at performances, to signal the end of intermission.

An opera company in Europe produces Bartok’s short opera Bluebeard’s Castle, performing it twice in one night, staged in radically different ways, to show how the opera can have many meanings.

Though of course some new developments really are dumb. Like this deranged PR thrust from the Philadelphia Orchestra, inviting the world to come to a performance on Thanksgiving Day:

“Gobble up the sounds of The Philadelphia Orchestra this Thanksgiving. Don’t miss the chance to purchase tickets to this weekend’s Mozart and Bruckner concert for only $30. Log in at with the promotion code TURKEY or call 215.893.1999. Take advantage of this great offer! You will be thankful you did!”

The link between turkeys and Bruckner would be…well, what? So how could Maestro – at least to some people – seem dumb? The problem has to be the TV culture that pervades the show, the chatter, the bad jokes, the breezy soundbites, sometimes coming even from the judges. This isn’t an artistic tone of voice, the tone used in the past when people talked about art.

I could say that’s a good thing, because it puts classical music into the world that most people live in.

But for some people, tearing classical music out of its refuge would surely be a problem. They won’t feel at home anymore. Classical music, they’ll think, has lost its dignity. It doesn’t feel like art. It feels cheap. And dumb.

This, once more, is a cultural prejudice. Why should intelligence come only in one kind of package?

But I can sympathize. As I’ve said, I grew up in that high-culture world myself. I remember how superior I felt – and also how isolated — even as a kid, because I liked opera. And how insulted I was, way back in sixth grade, when our music teacher had us singing show tunes.

Of course, I could turn this prejudice upside down. I could ask if people who want to keep classical music in its protected place are, really, just uncomfortable in our current world. Which they have every right to be, if that’s how they feel, but why then say (or imply) that people who feel comfortable watching a reality show have to be dumb?

I’ll want to say that gently. And not at any great length, because it’s a thought that really belongs later in the book, in the chapters (see my outline) where I’ll ask what classical music is, and explore how it functions in our current world.

Though here’s a question I’ll ask right now. Why should we think that classical music, in its traditional form, isn’t dumb already?

Heresy! The music, of course isn’t dumb.

Though wait!

We should remember that not all classical music shines with scholarly intelligence. Quite a lot of it was written, back in its day, simply as entertainment. And was, in a sense, the TV of its day. Rossini, just for instance, wrote many operatic comedies, full of silliness. In one of them, L’Italiana in Algeri (“The Italian Girl in Algiers,” a perfect setup for a sitcom) there’s a moment of wild confusion, and everyone onstage sings about the noises they hear in their heads – a bell going “ding, ding, ding,” a hammer going “crack, crack, crack,” a drum going “boom, boom, boom.” While the music sweeps up and down with wild abandon. Somehow, in the classical music world, this now counts as refined high art, when really it might just as well be a skit on Saturday Night Live.

But I’m not talking about the music. I’m talking about how we present it:

  • Musicians wearing formal dress – with the men looking like butlers in a 1930s movie.
  •  Music from the distant past dominating concert programs.
  • The same familiar pieces, repeated over and over again. (As if a symphony orchestra was Top 40 radio.
  • New music forced on the mainstream concert audience, whichdoesn’t want to hear it. Nobody looking for the audience that mightwant to hear new music.
  • Scholarly program notes, printed in concert programs -so scholarly, sometimes, that much of the audience can’t understand them. And which might also miss the whole point of the enterprise. I’m remembering a program note for a Metropolitan Opera performance of L’Italiana in Algeri, which talked at length about details of Rossini’s orchestration, which instruments he favored, and how some of what we hear isn’t what he actually wrote. Without ever saying that the opera is meant to be funny.
  • Institutions – symphony orchestras, for instance – that nevertalk about what’s intended in a performance. That play a Beethovensymphony for the 23d time, or the 123d time, and never say what makes this performance different, or what the musicians are trying to accomplish with the piece.
  •  Not connecting to present-day culture. And, worse, being visibly unsure about contemporary life.

Example: A recent Philadelphia Orchestra press release – I guess it’s my day to beat up on the Philadelphia Orchestra – which talked about music that was “downloaded.” With the word in quotes, as if downloading was something new, which we’re not quite sure of.

This list would just be a start.

Disclaimer: Many things I’ve listed here are changing. We see less formal dress, for instance, than we used to. But I’m talking about problems classical music has had for many years, in its traditional form, which some people don’t want to change.

There’s no need for change, because there isn’t any crisis.

What’s remarkable here is that people don’t seem to know the facts.

For instance, you hear people in the classical music world say that the audience for classical music isn’t aging. Which of course would mean that its present age – 50 and above – wouldn’t be a problem.

And some of the people who say this are important people in the field. “Classical music has never been the passion of the young,” wrote one of them, a year ago, in the Wall Street Journal. “It is an acquired taste that requires both encouragement and education.” Note how special this man thinks classical music is. It’s so great an art that only mature people can understand it.

And a New York Times article – by one of the paper’s classical music critics, splashed a few years ago all over the Sunday Arts and Leisure section – said both that the audience wasn’t getting older, and that studies of the age of the audience were never done in past generations.

But all of this is wrong. Studies of the audience age were done in the past, and they show a younger audience than we have now – dramatically younger, in fact, with a median age in its thirties.

Readers of my blog have seen me present this data, which you can find here.And there’s a lot of anecdotal data to support those studies. There’s also more recent data, gathered by the National Endowment for the Arts, which shows the classical music audience steadily growing older since 1982.

So here we have a telling disconnect. People are making proclamations without knowing any facts. I’ve even seen one very prominent person in the field cite studies from the past that, or so he said, showed that the audience has always been old. But when I asked him what studies these were, he couldn’t name them.

And people don’t even know the NEA data, which for decades has been published and publicized, and now can be downloaded from the NEA’s website.

Is what’s going on here – at least to some extent – willful self-deception?

But then the classical music world, as I’ll show later on, isn’t good at keeping track of data. Or even gathering it. We don’t know – and isn’t this just a bit shocking, given all the talk of a crisis? – whether classical music ticket sales have, in recent decades, gone up or down.

So this is yet another way in which the classical music world seems dumb. Even in a time of perceived crisis, it can’t (or won’t) measure how well – or how badly – it’s doing.

But – returning now to people who don’t believe in the crisis (and who, of course, can be protected from needing to believe, because data is so scarce) – sometimes these people just aren’t very logical. They make optimistic arguments, which really don’t make sense.

For instance, the Wall Street Journal essay I quoted from earlier also says:

[T]he classical music world has never been healthier; since the early 1970s the growth has been robust….The number of concert venues, summer festivals, performing ensembles and overall performances in classical music and opera has increased exponentially over the last four decades. There are currently nearly 400 professional orchestras in America, according to the League of American Orchestras, while 30 years ago there were 203.

But our population has grown. So if we also have more orchestras, wouldn’t that (in part, at least) be because we have more people? Cities that once weren’t able to afford an orchestra – because they didn’t have enough funding, or a large enough audience – now, with a growing population (and also, maybe, more prosperity) can build a base for one.

And If we adjust the growth of orchestras (using the numbers in the Wall Street Journal piece) for the growth in population, then that growth really does look quite a bit smaller.

Meanwhile, according to new NEA data, the percentage of adult Americans who go to classical music concerts – even if we have more orchestras – has fallen nearly 30% in the past 30 years. That looks like a sign of serious trouble.

In my next riff – which will take us into chapter two of my book — I’ll show why there really is a crisis. In the book, I’ll present detailed data, though maybe not too much of it, because (as readers have told me) many people do realize that we’re in a crisis, and also because I don’t want the book to get mired in statistics. If I need to, I can always present more detail in an appendix.

Classical music’s problems can be blamed on our culture.

Here we cut to the chase, to some of the deepest reasons why some people – as part of their support for classical music — reject the contemporary world. They think our culture is stupid. And also shoddy, loud, and devoid of any creativity.

If this were true, then of course we’d need classical music as a refuge, and an antidote.

I’ve heard so many people talking like this. I remember, for instance, a keynote speech delivered at an orchestral gathering, by a symphony conductor who said that in our culture there isn’t any quiet, there isn’t any peace, there isn’t any room for thoughtful reflection.

These polemics go beyond classical music, and involve all the arts. Or, rather, all the canonical high arts. Because the arts as a collective enterprise – meaning the arts as traditionally conceived, and also as organized into advocacy groups, like Americans for the Arts – are looking for a stronger toehold in our culture, for more support (and, very specifically, for more funding).

And often the argument for supporting the arts will either ignore popular culture, or assume we all agree that popular culture is horrible. I’ve seen, for instance, a speech by a foundation executive (it circulated widely on the Internet) that hyped the arts – in lovely poetic terms – by saying that they function as our collective family photographs. They’re the memories that tell us who we are.

The speaker then noted that he’s (among other things) a southerner, and gay. And so his family photographs include William Faulkner and dance pieces by Bill T. Jones.

I can only smile at that. Isn’t he forgetting country music, which tells a lot of southerners who they are? (White southerners, anyway. If they’re African-American, they might look towards blues, gospel, and old-time roadhouse R&B.)

And don’t gay men identify with the Village People and (at least when I was in the pop music business) the Pet Shop Boys? Not to mention Judy Garland.

So this argument for the arts is both unconvincing and incomplete. It’s unconvincing, because who’s going to believe that we need the arts as family photographs, when we already have cultural reference points (most of which go deeper, I’d have to say, than Bill T. Jones).

And it’s incomplete because it doesn’t say what the arts really might offer. What, for instance, could William Faulkner tell us that country music doesn’t? This might be more profound question than you might think, if you read – just for instance – Greil Marcus’s evocation of southern culture in Mystery Train, his pioneering study of the cultural roots of rock & roll.

Which is to say that the musical roots of southern culture go very deep. But that doesn’t mean that Faulkner doesn’t offer anything. What is it, though?

Arguments like this one will only convince people who are convinced already. Or who, along with the speaker, think that we live “in an age of demonization and fear of difference,” that our “popular cultural context…often seems to value humiliation over humanity,” and that our young people (apparently as a general rule) “prioritize the ‘bombardment’ of sensation through violent film and video over the contemplation and deep understanding of experience.” (I’m quoting from the speech, of course.)

Not that these things don’t happen, but they’re addressed in popular culture, which provides its own critiques of its problems, and offers its own antidotes.

Besides, are the arts any guarantee of humanity? History would seem to say otherwise. Just think of the Nazis, who (let’s never forget) promoted classical music. Or think of the Metropolitan Opera, which desegregated its stage only in 1955, seven years after major league baseball signed its first black player.

Another prominent arts figure gave a commencement address at Stanford University, back in 2007, in which he wistfully looked back to the 1950s, when on network TV we could hear performances by (among others) opera singers like Anna Moffo and Robert Merrill. (Those were the singers he named.)

His point, of course, was that the absence of opera on network TV shows our culture growing shallow:

Graduates [now] face the choice of whether they want to be passive consumers or active citizens, whether they want to watch the world on a screen or live in it so meaningfully that they change it. That’s no easy task, so we must hope they don’t forget what the arts provide. Art is an irreplaceable way of understanding and expressing the world…[and so on]

But did watching Robert Merrill help make you an active citizen?

Here I’ll speak as a lifelong opera fan. We don’t have baritone these days who sings Merrill’s repertoire – the heavier Verdi roles, for instance – with a voice as lush as his.

That touches on something I’ll go into later in the book, the state of classical music performance today. Classical music, as I’ll show, can learn a lot from its own past.

But nobody ever said, back in the old days, that Merrill was a smart or creative singer. When he sang opera, what he did got called art, because then, as now, we automatically think of classical music as art. But that’s no guarantee that anything would really be artistic.

Contrast Bruce Springsteen, whom we might see on television now. He writes his own music. He writes his lyrics. He thinks about where we are and where we’re going. He inspires millions of us. And not cheaply.

One of our leading psychiatrists and social philosophers, Robert Coles,wrote a book about what he means to people. The book, published in 2004, is called Bruce Springsteen’s America: The People Listening, A Poet Singing.

David Brooks, the New York Times columnist (and a conservative, no less, not the kind of thinker who’d usually write in praise of rock stars) wrote this about Springsteen, just a couple of days before I finished this riff:

[Springsteen’s] manager, Jon Landau, says that each style of music elicits its own set of responses. Rock, when done right, is jolting and exhilarating. Once I got a taste of that emotional uplift, I was hooked…. I followed Springsteen into his world. Once again, it wasn’t the explicit characters that mattered most. Springsteen sings about teenage couples out on a desperate lark, workers struggling as the mills close down, and drifters on the wrong side of the law….

What mattered most, as with any artist, were the assumptions behind the stories. His tales take place in a distinct universe, a distinct map of reality. In Springsteen’s universe, life’s “losers” always retain their dignity. Their choices have immense moral consequences, and are seen on an epic and anthemic scale.

There are certain prominent neighborhoods on his map — one called defeat, another called exaltation, another called nostalgia. Certain emotional chords — stoicism, for one — are common, while others are absent. “There is no sarcasm in his writing,” Landau says, “and not a lot of irony.”

Then there is the man himself. Like other parts of the emotional education, it is hard to bring the knowledge to consciousness, but I do think important lessons are communicated by that embarrassed half-giggle he falls into when talking about himself. I do think a message is conveyed in the way he continually situates himself within a tradition — de-emphasizing his own individual contributions, stressing instead the R&B groups, the gospel and folk singers whose work comes out through him.

So by putting Springsteen on TV instead of Robert Merrill (or whoever his contemporary equivalent might be), have we gained or lost?

I’d say we’ve gained a lot. We have a star who creates his own art, who says something of his own, who helps to show us who we are. (Robert Coles’s book is full of people for whom Springsteen provides some treasured family photographs.)

And we also have a working-class guy from New Jersey, who reflects his roots, not someone trained to lose himself in an elite form of art. Which shows us how art and creativity have spread through our society, and aren’t just limited to those trained in the art forms sanctioned by our elites.

If this isn’t progress, I don’t know what is.

Of course I’ll have to defend Springsteen as an artist and a musician, from anyone who says that his character and his influence might be stellar, but that his music is trivial. And that something might erode in us, if we hold Springsteen up as any kind of musical model.

Should I put something about this here, or save it for my later chapter on pop music and popular culture? Here’s one example of Springsteen as a musical artist, from a film about the making of his album Born to Run (included in the boxed set celebrating the 30th anniversary of that album).

His sax player, Clarence Clemons, talks about recording a solo in one of the Born to Run songs. He laid down many versions of it. And then he kept on playing, while Springsteen, sitting at the mixing board, cut between the recorded versions (which he knew by heart), showing Clemons exactly which spots he’d liked the best. Clemons said – with the greatest admiration – that this was the most rigorous artistic leadership he’d ever encountered. (Clemons, I’ve read, also talks about this in his just-published book.)

But of course I’ll have to say at least a little about Springsteen’s songs, and how I think they stand up in a musical universe that also includes classical music. A later chapter in the book will be all about popular culture and pop music, and will demonstrate in full detail how – in our era, if not necessarily in the past — pop songs can be serious music.

And of course there are many, many more examples I’ll give, to show how creativity has suffused our society, in a way we’ve never seen before.

People, in fact, demand participation in their culture now. So we have companies inviting ordinary people to make commercials for them. People, all on their own, making endless video mashups, taking off from Brokeback Mountain, finding unexpected gay subtexts in old movies and TV shows. People knitting clothes to put on stuffed animals, imitating Project Runway.

But of course the problem, for many people, is that much of this new expression doesn’t happen in “the arts,” or more precisely in the areas we’re used to calling art. Can clothes knitted for a stuffed animal be as artistic – as valuable to all of us – as a poem printed in The New Yorker?

That question (and, even more, the reasons people might give for their answers) could almost serve as a Rorschach test for attitudes toward art. I wouldn’t even try to answer it, except maybe to say that – for me – the fact that endless numbers of people are doing creative things with knitting (and sharing it all online) is more important than any New Yorker poem. And that if you think New Yorker poems, taken all together, are more important than anything anybody knits, then would you deny that a society with an explosion of creative knitting might not – as another flower from a growing tree of creativity – produce more poets (even good ones) than a society where people largely do what they’re told?

Though – returning now to classical music – there might be one more question to ask, before this chapter ends. It’s a teaser for something else I’ll talk about in much more detail later in the book. Many people in the classical music business think we need change. So – as one of my friends asked this week in an e-mail — “Given all this, why don’t we do it? Why is it so hard? What’s keeping us from doing what we know we have to do?”

My next riff (exploring chapter two of the book): Why there really is a crisis.

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  1. Janis says

    Quick note:

    “Isn’t he forgetting country music, which tells a lot of southerners who they are?”

    I have a friend descended from a family of moonshiners in Kentucky; ironically, she’s now a lawyer. When she goes back to visit that side of her family, there is literally no such thing as a house without at least one guitar in it.

  2. Richard says

    As an instrumentalist and composer of instrumental music(singers hate me because I don’t write vocally gratifyng music) Though I could be thought of as alt. classical I’m more of a “modernist” than most, I guess I’m out of luck, But you’re right.

    Alt-classical music doesn’t have to be accessible, or easy to perform, or easy to listen to. There’s plenty of pop music that isn’t easy in any way. The key is how the music feels. Is it difficult in the world most people live in, or is it difficult in a world of its own?

  3. Robert Berger says

    Yes, classical music has its problems, but so does every other field of human endeavor.

    But I reject the notion that our orchestras and opera companies etc are to blame for any lack of an audience, young or not, or that they have failed to make it worthwhile to attend concerts and opera etc.

    I don’t think that classical music is in need of radical and immendiate change in the name of making it more “relevant” and making audiences “connect” with it, whatever that means.It has always been changing, and is in many ways vastly different from the past, as there is now greater diversity of repertoire being performed and recorded than ever before,

    and the internet and other technologies have

    transformed classical music in ways that people from the pass could never have conceived of.

    But we must not judge it by the standards of pop culture and music;it’s a completely different animal from these things. For one thing, it’s been in existence for centuries, unlike the popular music of today, and we have an unprecedented accumulation of classical music avaialable to us,live or recorded.

    That’s why it’s wrong to complain that we still perform music from the past.

    What good would it do to stop playing the music of Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and other giants of the past? And contrary to

    conventional wisdon, there’a absolutely no lack of new classical music today. It co-exists

    with old music as it should.

    Where’s the conflict? Why shouldn’t we have both old and new classical music available to us?

  4. says

    Hi Greg, I just want to say that I’m really glad you’ve added this fourth riff to the book. I’m a 26-year-old Juilliard grad studying Creative & Cultural Entrepreneurship in London. My background is in opera and I’m having an interesting time observing the classical music scene here, especially as a young person who also happens to be a big fan of popular music/culture.

    I may be going out on a limb here, but I don’t think my generation will be as resistant to change as the currently dominant ones. In fact, I know quite a few young musicians who are keen on that type of synergy that you’re suggesting. The biggest challenge they face in developing that is, of course, precarity of employment.

    This is just an undeveloped riff of my own. I’m looking forward to how you develop this.

    Rose Kue