Diversity challenge

Happy new year, everyone. I’m back, and relaunched into many projects, including my book, of course, but also some rebranding, which notably includes a complete redesign of my website. (Which is so creakily obsolete that I’m almost ashamed to give you the link. Maybe I should think of it as folk art.)

Stay tuned for updates on this. Including the book. Here’s a peek at a revised version of all those riffs — improvisations on the book’s content — that I posted over the past months. More on that in my next post.

But here’s something my friend Ray Ricker sent me as a reaction to my riffs — an important thought that belongs in my book. Very helpful, getting reactions to what I post! Ray is director of the Institute for Music Leadership at Eastman, and also Senior Associate Dean for Professional Studies there, and professor of saxophone.

His thought is about cultural diversity, and how it’s leaving classical music behind. He wrote this for his fine blog on the Polyphonic.org website, Eastman’s online community for orchestra musicians.(Where you can find me doing video interviews with various orchestral people; there’s one featured on the Polyphonic homepage right now).

Normally I’d just link to Ray’s post, but I thought what he says is so important that I wanted to offer it without any need of a further click. WIth his permission, I’m doing that:

When my wife and I visited the Netherlands a couple of years ago we were fortunate, at Judy’s persistence, to get tickets to the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam. We started a couple of months early trying to book tickets online, but they were “sold out.” Knowing that tickets often get returned on the day of the performance, we went to the concert hall that afternoon and talked to the ticket people. They put our names on a list (we were first on it), and they told us to come back a half an hour before the start of the concert. Long story short, Judy charmed our way into the Queen’s seats. The Queen did not attend the concert that evening and the seats were made available at the last minute. I’m not kidding. We got them–the best seats in the house. (I don’t know why I’m setting the stage like this.) Anyway–It was their new conductor’s debut, (Mariss Jansons), and he did Mahler 6–the one with the hammer blows. The percussionist with the hammer must have made it himself. It was gigantic and beautifully made, all of wood. He picked it up like he had a Strad in his hands.

As we waited for the concert to start, I looked around the hall and noticed that the patrons didn’t look like any of the people we were seeing on the street. The concertgoers were stereotypical “Dutch people,” in my mind–good sized with mostly fair complexions. But the people on the Amsterdam streets were much more diverse. There were many more dark-skinned people–I suppose from Turkey and elsewhere in the Middle East. I thought to myself, “The people in the streets can’t be listening to European classical music. I’m not hearing it anyplace out here. The demographic of Amsterdam must be changing. But if it continues to change who will be coming to these concerts in 50 years?”

Now, scroll over to US orchestras? In my mind it’s the same as the Amsterdam example. As I look out at the audience at a Rochester Philharmonic concert [Ray plays clarinet in the Rochester Philharmonic], the attendees don’t look the same as the general population of Rochester. I ask myself, “Why were US orchestras formed in the first place?” My guess is that the population was predominately of European descent at that time, and they probably wanted to experience or recreate the culture of their homeland. It felt natural to them.

Thinking about the well-documented changing demographic of the US towards greater numbers of citizens with other than European (read: white) ancestry, I can’t believe that this population, in 50 years or probably less, will want to sit in a concert hall and listen to Mahler. It’s not in their DNA or culture. And that’s not a put down. They also don’t get exposure to this music in schools. If I keep going along this line of thinking, I don’t see a bright future for “classical” music in general or US orchestras in particular. Sure this music will be with us, but will professional musicians be able to make a living playing it? That’s already difficult to do today in all but the largest US cities.

In order to maintain their competitive advantage, companies must spend time and money trying to envision the future, asking themselves questions like: Who will be our customers? Where will they live? Will they need our product? In what form should it be? Etc., etc. As musicians it is probably a good idea for us to do the same. If I were a young musician just graduating from music school and bent on a performing career, I would be asking myself these questions too. I would also be flexible and ready to take advantage of opportunities that may arise.

When trying to envision the future, I am reminded of this quote that is attributed to hockey legend Wayne Gretzky. It’s a good one. When asked how he always seemed to be in the right place at the right time, and consequentially scored more goals than others, he replied, “I don’t go where the puck is. I go to where the puck will be.” Orchestras and musicians–maybe we should try to be like Gretzky.

Thoughts on this?

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  1. David Cavlovic says

    There is a way of bringing the puck to the young player, in order for the player to later in life visualize where the puck will be: it’s called hockey camp. The musical equvialent simply no longer exists in North America, the Glenn Gould School notwithstanding. It has not been part of our academic or social culture, since the 60’s (WAY before there was major immigration from so-called third world countries), to include an appreciation of Art Music (I am purposely avoiding the term classical) in school curriculum. One wonders whether the dumbing-down of the public school systems in North America is a subconcious attempt to keep immigrants from third world countries “in their place”, since the majority can afford nothing more than public education. This is a different arugment than one often hears about the “political correctness” that a public education supposedly fosters. I wonder, though, if that is the same problem in Europe?

    And if traditional European culture is taught in the school systems to recent immigrants, then it may very well be true that European culture, as has been stratified by centuries, has lost relevence to a constantly evolving population.

    Whatever the reason, perhaps classical music has boasted a cultural superiority for far longer than it should have (and quite possibly beyond the recognition of some of the “big names” of classical composers, who saw no contradiction in writing “popular” music side by side with their “solemn” compositions). It is probably high time for it to be a niche interest (one I dearly love), which ironically gives it the benefit of being, in this Internet age, equally accessible as any other music-type.

    Hoe that makes some sense. It IS Tuesday afternoon, at work, after the Christmas holidays, with a LOT of coffee in my system…

  2. Tristan Parker says

    I thought about something similar last night, while I was going over in my mind some areas that I thought you had overlooked, at least in what I have followed of your work.

    I was thinking from a different direction, though. A chamber series I attend (Simple Measures, in Seattle) often likes to highlight the use of other musics in classical composition. The last show opened with a heavily bossa-nova influenced piece, and they’ve played Debussy’s Gamelan-influenced music, plus a few others in this vein.

    There’s a sociology term for that: “Cultural appropriation”. It’s extremely difficult to do it sensitively, because of the power-imbalances that usually come with it. It often projects an attitude, especially in Debussy’s case, of “Oh, your music is pretty, but I can improve on it by making it conform to the rules of real music”.

    I know I’m not doing them justice, but cultural appropriation is about power-dynamics and perception, not about authorial intent. Perspective has a huge influence on this sort of thing: most white people think that the character Calpurnia in “To Kill a Mockingbird” is a powerful character, but I’ve been told that she can also be seen as stereotyped and offensive.

    I’m not condemning Debussy, or any of the other composers and performers who do this. But there is a dangerous blind-spot created by the history of the cultures associated with Classical music.

    Thanks for this. Serious issues you raise.

    It’s hard to draw the line between genuine cultural fusion, and mere appropriation. The key, most likely, is the point you raise, whether one of the cultures involved thinks that it’s superior. If Debussy, let’s say, thought western music was better than gamelan music, then his use of gamelan should raise a few eyebrows.

    One of the notable moments when this point was raised was about Paul Simon’s Graceland album. Appropriation of African music? Or a genuine tribute to it, and fusion with it? The debate has died down, as far as I know, and people now tend to think (as far as I know) that the use of African music is entirely genuine.

  3. says

    Greg, when you did the link for the website, you typed a comma instead of a period after www

    Guess I am good for something

    You’re good for a lot!

    Right now I’m in debt to your sharp eyes. Thanks.

  4. Janis says

    There’s also a danger in imagining that one has to bring classical music to other cultures, many of which have their own classical tradition that the European one will have to learn to compete with.

    I guess what I’m saying is that there’s a serious danger in having a “trousers and Bibles to the natives” attitude when doing this, especially when the other “darker” cultures (and my own was classified as one of those within my own lifetime, which should tell you how flexible these definitions can be sometimes; my mother and father both went from being called a half-N-word to white in three decades) …

    Anyhow. Sorry for wandering — especially when the other “darker” cultures have profound, old, extremely accomplished classical traditions of their own. Why worry about why there are no dark-skinned people coming to hear Mahler when you aren’t likely to see many light-skinned people going to hear Simon Shaheen or much classical Indian music, one of the most complex and oldest classical traditions in the world?

    I think that some people from those cultures simply have so much good stuff already that European classical music is just going to have to understand that it will be competing with a lot more than it used to compete with. It had an artificial monopoly in the 19th and early 20th centuries. With recording technology and increased mobility, it’s just got a smaller slice of the pie, and that’s not going to change.

    I don’t know where I’m headed with this. I just think I’m trying to caution against the very standard “white collar liberal” reaction to looking around at their social circle and feeling bad for there not being more darker people. It may just be that, to the darker people in question … what we have to offer is not that interesting compared to the centuries of tradition they have on their own. :-)

  5. Janis says

    Translation of all that rot: people who go to hear Shaheen probably don’t angst over why there aren’t more white-collar Anglos there. They just listen and enjoy. Perhaps they enjoy the possessiveness of having a special connection to “their” music as well, somewhat like I’ll admit to doing when I listen to opera.

    When lovers of European classical music angst over why there aren’t many “dark” people (like I said above, southern Europeans no longer count for some reason not of our doing) in their audiences, it can tip into the arrogance of angsting over the fact that they don’t have the global dominance they once think they had. There’s an assumption that their music should be the one that everyone hears and knows, when that may not be the case.

  6. says

    I don’t think people from the former (white) European powers believe that “their music should be the one that everyone hears and knows”. European art music has been so prominent for so long that it’s hard to conceive that it could fade away. But as Ricker says, demographic shifts will make it harder for performers of European art music to make a living.

    However, I think that technology will play a big role faster than demographics. Either technology will allow ever easier access (maintaining the need for musicians), or it will reduce the need for an orchestra in every city (why go to small city concert when the technology of, say, 2030 can bring the NY Phil into my living room and it’s just as good as being there live?).

  7. Eric L says

    Why is this remotely surprising? As much as many classical music aficionados would like to believe otherwise, people don’t ONLY listen to music for ‘quality,’ whatever that may mean. In image of the performer is equally important, and the current image of Classical music is very, very Caucasian. East Asians have made considerable inroads, and it’s arguable that the biggest star in Classical Music is not White (i.e. Yo-Yo Ma). But in general, the music played is mostly composed by Caucasians, as are most of the superstar performers. There is a reason why Gustavo Dudamel made, and is making, such a huge splash.

    Get some people on stage that are both talented, and reflect diversity, and chances are you’ll have a better chance of drawing a more diverse audience. (Again, this is not a necessary or sufficient condition situation; I can imagine a diverse audience at a concert of largely white musicians, and vice versa, and I certainly don’t think that if the orchestra looks like the convening of the United Nations it’ll guarantee a diverse audience) But I’m pretty certain that without it, the audience will never be substantially diverse.

    (Note: The whole thing would likely have to be correlational, rather than causal. i.e. if you have a diverse orchestra, it probably is a result of a more diverse collection of students attending conservatories, which means more people from different backgrounds are studying and likely classical music IN THE FIRST PLACE, which itself is an indicator for a potentially more diverse audience in any case.)

  8. Janis says

    “I don’t think people from the former (white) European powers believe that “their music should be the one that everyone hears and knows”.”

    I do sometimes hear some of that echoed in laments that no one teaches that sort of music in school. No one teaches sitar or oud, either. It’s just the absence of any music instruction at all that’s more the problem. The assumption is definitely that theirs is the quality stuff, and that it’s competing against rock and pop alone. Violin versus Fender. That’s how it’s seen all too often, and even then, the Fender — beloved of working class white kids everywhere — is seen at the enemy.

    “But as Ricker says, demographic shifts will make it harder for performers of European art music to make a living.”

    I agree that it will become harder for performers of that type of music to make a living from it, but few people expect to make a living from the instruments I’ve mentioned above, or from the oberheim synth or the electric guitar. Very few people make a fortune on a Strat, and “guitar heroes” are few and far between.

    I’m not sure that “diversity” is getting at the heart of the issue in any of these cases, or that addressing “diversity” will make it easier for people to make livings on their oboes or violas.

    I guess I’m zeroing in on the fact that demographic shifts really aren’t at the heart of it. It feels artificial to me to try to shoehorn “diversity” into the question to hand, which is how the shape of the classical music “industry” was an artificial and unsustainable creation of a very few elite people in the past 150 years, and how that unnatural position could only be held for so long. The greying of the white audience and the fact that the next generation of white people isn’t even filling in the gap indicate that skin tone isn’t really the issue. The whole thing was unsustainable and was going to collapse the minute technology enabled the destruction of the velvet rope.

    Classical music no longer holds an artificial monopoly over the musical culture because thanks to (as you said) technology, we can all get access to damned near anything. There is no longer a clearly demarcated border between creator and audience. The traditional classical music industry was all about that demarcation. “Come all ye and worship us, especially our conductor. We aren’t you.” I’ve used this analogy before, but it’s very … churchy. The priests who have been blessed to interpret the “scripture” for the lay people, who aren’t at that rarefied level.

    It’s not a matter of demographics; it’s just that there needs to be someone nailing 95 something-or-others to a door someplace, freeing up the sacred texts to be played with and looked at by ordinary eyes. That’s what the technology is doing. It’s doing for music what the printing press did to the Bible, and the relative darkness or paleness of the audience isn’t even a drop in the bucket to that.

    Swerving a bit:

    Also … what does a “diverse” orchestra look like? A few dark faces in among the people holding Western acoustic instruments? Or a couple Les Pauls and ouds scattered in among them? You can’t break people of their own cultures and instruments, and I rarely to never see this acknowledged in any discussions on this topic. Classical fans seem to think that people can be considered just butts in seats separate from their own preferred instruments, music, and culture. I’ve been bitching about this for a while — the way to make the music live is to hand it over to “them”, the “they” that the industry always wonders how they can attract.

    And they will bring their instruments and music with them. As an Italian, classical music and opera is pretty much my home turf, but even I can’t leave my love of arena rock behind when I go to a concert. Even I can’t stop thinking, “Why the HELL doesn’t anyone try this stuff out on an electric guitar?!” once in a while. Anyone whose origins are even further away from Europe will probably be sitting there going, “Why am I watching a bunch of people playing instruments and music that have nothing to do with me?” Where’s the ouds? Where’s the wood bells? Where’s the koto? Hell, where’s the Hammond organ?

  9. says

    Hmm–I actually thought I posted a comment about this issue on your “City Opera’s back — with an improvising orchestra!” blog post, Greg. But it seems to have been eaten or something.

    I’ve been seeing something along these lines for some years now–having worked on the inside of some presenting organizations and now just playing with non-standard (read: non-Euro-American) ensembles I’m not at all surprised that this would be a trend.

    See, when you say “Alt-classical” for years i referred to non-Western “Art” music (e.g. Hindustani raga; Ottoman fasil; Egyptian waslah; Thai piphat) as “Alternative Classical” music. I guess even wiki has just defaulted to the more cumbersome “Non-Western Classical Music” so…

    Point being, with changing demographics, there’s going to be little reason for folks of non-European descent and heritage to favor Western Classical music when they may very well have their own art music traditions (same with pop music). I think we in the states (and possibly other European countries) overestimate the popularity of both our “high (e.g. Classical Music) and “low” (e.g. Pop/Rock) art.

    There’s a fascinating study of popular music by Deanna Robinson that set out to test the “cultural imperialism hypothesis” (basically the idea that cultural transmission is a one way affair from Western culture to the rest of the world) called Music at the Margins: Popular Music and Global Cultural Diversity that sought to demonstrate how pervasive the cultural imperialism is only to come out with the tentative conclusion that Western pop music isn’t nearly as popular as most people and cultural critics thought. I tend to agree with that conclusion given my own experiences and what little research I’ve done on my own on the subject matter.

  10. says

    Look at Venezuela’s El Sistema. If we begin by restoring music to our the fabric of our lives, whatever diversity is needed will spring naturally from our citizens. Their academics will also improve. Society will be the winner and culture as well.

    But don’t most people already have music in the fabric of their lives? That’s exactly where the diversity comes from.

    I’d rewrite your comment to read: “If we begin by restoring western classical music…” But then we have a problem, because western classical music never was part of the fabric of most people’s lives, especially in non-western cultures.

    Are you sure you’re not demeaning all music that isn’t western classical music? By implying, whether you meant to or not, that people who don’t have western classical music in their lives don’t have any worthwhile music at all? And if you didn’t mean that, why did you say that we need to restore “music” — the whole enchilada, the very idea of music itself — to the lives of people who obviously have it already? Just not western classical music.

  11. says

    It has been seven years since the beginning project of a regional orchestral organization for young people in Central Connecticut.

    Our approach is pretty different from just about anyone else’s. It works!

    We believe that the study of Classical Western music is for everyone, and we now have two ensembles, a beginning and a more proficient, to accept all young people who wish to play.

    We believe that the study of the orchestral music we teach Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, etc., are a corner stone to building personal traits that will then last a lifetime. It is the study, the team work, the interpersonal relationships, the physical eye-hand coordination, the dedication, and training of ‘the ear’, the ups and downs of rehearsing, the performance experience itself is what we are ‘selling’ to parents and young musicians. That we use Classical music is important because it also teaches world history, art appreciation, it bring families together with a common conversation and it helps parents see their children in a slightly different light- as their own operators, as capable, as accepted into a congenial group of like-minded young people. Musicianship~Friendship~Leadership,are the three important values that we aim to help young people claim as their own.

    Now, you put that together with the fact that we accept rank beginners and help them experience all that we teach, both musically and other as outlined above- THAT is the essence of what we need to do all over the world. We need to be bringing whole families of people into Music, not just for the sonorities, but for the basic, 24/7 things that Music teaches. Then you can plug in any music, and scores of people will be more than willing to attend live concerts because there is something other than one ‘cultural’ experience for them to enjoy.

    I couldn’t care less what cultural or language is in their homes, they come to us for the ‘whole package’- as EVERY immigrant family has since the beginning of the US, (in our case).It is practical and enjoyable and helpful and it sounds great. Why can’t people learn that this is what brings people out on a cold, snowy night?

    Start offering developmentally appropriate adult Music programs – that, say, teach English or another important skill, with the concert in the US and BINGO, we will see people filling the seats! Yes, I am serious.

    European cultural icons are all over our country. So, go with it- play more Spanish composers- play more Polish composers, whatever your town’s demographic- bring together those people who long for the better life already, something from the nicer part of their former homeland, just as the organizers of the major orchestra (perhaps not unsustainable) did way back when, and give it to the new-comers! Give me a chance to attend too, with my Nordic/Celtic background and we’ll all have a very fun night out. Make it practical, sociable. Translate this to your demographics and voila- interest. Happy and Healthy New Year everyone!

  12. says

    While I agree we need to be conscious of cultural imperialism and “white collar liberal” knee-jerk reactions, I still think the diversity problem in classical music is real and should not be ignored. We know demographics are changing, the traditional classical music audience is fading from the radar. Whole swaths of the American population now come from non-European cultural backgrounds. In just 20 years Hispanics will comprise 20% of the US population.

    If pop, rock, hip hop and R&B transcend racial barriers in the US, why shouldn’t classical music strive for the same appeal? With the right marketing, new venues, and especially inventive and sensitive programming, I don’t see why classical music can’t healthily diversify its audience without pandering. Of course, better music education is the more direct root, but Janis’s comment does make me pause:

    “I do sometimes hear some of that echoed in laments that no one teaches that sort of music in school. No one teaches sitar or oud, either. It’s just the absence of any music instruction at all that’s more the problem.”

    I agree here, and this reminds me of a question that sometimes nags me about El Sistema: why Western classical music? Could not such a program have been founded on traditional Venezuelan music?

    I don’t think there are any easy answers to the diversity challenge in classical music, but I also think chalking it up to natural cultural divisions and doing nothing misses an opportunity and fosters further irrelevance.

  13. Janis says

    Possibility: that the inclusion of improvisation alone may at least help open up European classical music (where does Russia fall in this?) to the interest of other cultures.

    I say this because the Western classical tradition is pretty unique in the world in that it’s almost completely yoked to its notation and the eye. It’s almost totally focused on literacy. I can’t think of a single other culture’s classical tradition that is so focused on that one thing. Indian classical music, Arabic, and the African stuff I’m familiar with all consider improvisation to be an indispensable, central part of its whole aesthetic.

    It may be that the welcoming of improv skills may open things up automatically. Once you state that something can be messed around with, people can bring their own cultures with them when they pick up any instrument and express what’s inside them through it. Dunno, but it wouldn’t surprise me. Stop worrying about there being a “right” and a “wrong” to the music; that’s a form of imperialism in art right there.

    Improvisation was a big, big part of the western tradition in the past. Yet another reason why one route to classical music’s future goes through its past.

  14. Janis says

    “If pop, rock, hip hop and R&B transcend racial barriers in the US, why shouldn’t classical music strive for the same appeal? With the right marketing, new venues, and especially inventive and sensitive programming, I don’t see why classical music can’t healthily diversify its audience without pandering.”

    Another argument for improvisation and the 95-somethings nailed to the door.

    These forms of music transcend some racial and ethnic barriers because the “scripture” was written by those people, many types of people (some of whom are mine). It’s much easier to feel moved and uplifted by music, and to feel almost patriotic toward it, if it and the entire culture surrounding it were created by people like you. :-) It’s easier to be moved by your own liturgy.

    Classical music still has this “hands off” attitude that says that it’s all been written and there’s no adding to it or taking away. It’s like an eternal past tense in the minds of many people. How can I connect to something that is walled off from me by 200 years of dust?

    The marketing doesn’t have to change. The whole way people think about the music is what has to change, both the intended audience and the priests to which it’s been entrusted for the past century and a half. I ran into the “Canon Rock” phenom thanks to this blog, and that is a perfect example of what needs to happen to this music for it to start breathing again. And that’s not a matter of marketing, “hip” venues, or programming. Nor is it a matter of the kids who are playing it going to a concert hall (or a trendy club), sitting there passively and listening to someone else do it. It’s those people “out there” actually playing the stuff, their own way.

    The classical is trying to wonder how to attract an audience, and that’s the whole problem. The people you want to attract aren’t interested in being a mere audience. Maybe you’ll get a few superficial dilletantes here and there, but the lifeblood types who can really breathe new life into it and bring it into the future aren’t interested in sitting there. They want to roll up their sleeves and dig in themselves.


  15. says

    “If pop, rock, hip hop and R&B transcend racial barriers in the US, why shouldn’t classical music strive for the same appeal?”

    This is purely anecdotal on my part, but I highly doubt that ‘pop, rock, hip hop and R&B’ transcend any racial barriers, regardless of the ethnic origins of the creators. I’ve often seen it quoted that Taj Mahal laments the fact that he plays primarily to white audiences. And although it’s disputed, there is the widely accepted claim that middle-class white suburban youth are the biggest consumers of mainstream hip hop.

    And don’t even get me started on pop/rock. You’re not going to find a diverse audience at a Phish, Andrew Bird, Sonic Youth or Katy Perry show. Well, maybe Katy Perry. The only musical examples that come to my mind (again, anecdotally and entirely without substantial evidence) are the big pop superstars: Madonna, Michael Jackson (RIP), Beyonce, etc.

    I guess, I think that this issue we’re discussing is a lot bigger than the art form and I don’t necessarily believe it has that much of an affect on the future of classical music. Maybe diversity plays a minor role, but if it were truly an indicator of musical importance, then why aren’t the previously mentioned bands also being affected?

    For the discussion of diversity, perhaps we can look at parallels in sports? From my limited experience, baseball and hockey audiences are not so diverse. Basketball audiences, on the other hand, are. What’s the deal?

    Basketball is a big African-American sport. Big on the street, and look at all the black players on NBA teams.

    As for pop music, when I was a pop critic, black faces were rare at Springsteen shows, and I think I was the only white person at a Luther Vandross show I reviewed. I only saw mixed black and white crowds at Prince shows, and hiphop.

    And there are smaller demographic slices. Metal had its audience (or collection of audiences, depending on which metal genre you were talking about), goth had its audience, folk another one. And so on. The notion of any single pop audience doesn’t work.

  16. Janis says

    Rose, I’ve heard some black people complain that mainstream hip-hop is a blackface show — black people acting like what stereotypically black people are “supposed” to act like for the enjoyment of white audiences. I don’t know how true or not it is, but it wouldn’t surprise me. The jailbait pop princess act is about as realistic a reflection of the life of your average woman or girl.

    There’s definitely stuff there that connects to people who give classical music a pass, though. I’ve got one foot firmly in both worlds, but I can easily see why some of my blue-collar compatriots wouldn’t give Haydn a second glance when I hear Styx’s “Blue Collar Man” or Journey’s “Still They Ride” or much of anything by Springsteen. There’s just no competing with that sort of music for the hearts and minds of the people about/by/for whom it was written.

    Your point is definitely taken though; classical types tend to see “pop” and “rock” as all one thing. They see a diverse audience and don’t look closely enough at it to see just how granular and unmixed it is at the band level. There’s a zillion bands, so there’s something for everyone, but there’s not much mixing within each group.

  17. Janis says

    “Yet another reason why one route to classical music’s future goes through its past.”

    What was classical music before it became classical music? What was an opera when you went there with your friends after dinner to see the new blockbuster that just got premiered last week? What was a scherzo when you pulled your violin out from under your bed to play it with your friends after drinks and cards — and you didn’t know the punchline?

  18. Paul says

    Go Janis! I really loved your comments, which highlight the challenges orchestras face to diversify their product.

    As Greg mentioned in an earlier post, the NEA’s recent Survey of Public Participation in the Arts and the League of American Orchestra’s Audience Demographic Research Review present powerful fuel for this discussion. Judith Kurnick’s nice article, Climate Change, in the JAN/FEB issue of SYMPHONY offers another excellent summary of those findings. But I was surprised that near the end of the article as she outlined some of the issues orchestras could consider to combat the declining audiences (and thus lack of diversity, my commnet) there was not a single mention about the notion of changing the music orchestras perform. I wish our industry’s discussion would include (in our own mainstream media) a robust challenge to what is being played, rather than so often focusing on how we present/market/network the experience of orchestral music.

    Changing what orchestras play and the programming context in which they perform the classics should, I think, be the core issue. How orchestras market and present themselves is secondary. That secondary element is crucial, for sure, but so often it feels like we get caught up in trying to figure out how to connect classical music to a larger audience when indeed it’s just that audiences’ tastes are not as monolithic as they used to be and demand a more diverse programming mix than most orchestras are willing to experiment with.

    It’s not the delivery of the content that keeps people interested in the long run, it’s the access to an amazing amount of diverse content and ideas that stimulate us to think in fresh ways and open us up to new worlds of ideas and push, pull, tug and challenge us to engage with the latest new idea, music, restaurant, book, whatever.

    So let’s focus more on the content mix and then deal with how we’re going to send that mix out into the world. The orchestra field’s response to the NEA/League report should be nothing less than a paradigm sift on the programming side that catches up to the sophistication being developed by the marketing/outreach side.

    This gets to the core of the diversity issue that is challenging orchestras. When the institutions responsible for holding up their art to the world fall behind the public’s appetite and become followers rather than leaders, then certain audiences will go somewhere else. The Chicago Symphony is all over this with the bold appointment of electronica composer Mason Bates, aka Masonic, as one of their composers-in-residence. I can’t wait to see how the diversity plays out at his concerts with the CSO. Hopefully, that will inspire other orchestras to stretch and bravely diversify their programming to more accurately reflect the world we see (and hear) walking on our streets everyday.

    Hi, Paul. You’ve nailed one of the big problems here. Classical music institutions want to keep doing the same old thing, even while they adapt to new conditions. Orchestras are particularly clueless here. Or, rather, stuck. So Judith, I think, is very much caught in the middle (not that I presume to speak for her) — giving all the reasons for major change and still not challenging the central fact of orchestral performance, which is the music that orchestras play.

  19. says

    “I can’t think of a single other culture’s classical tradition that is so focused on that one thing. Indian classical music, Arabic, and the African stuff I’m familiar with all consider improvisation to be an indispensable, central part of its whole aesthetic.”

    Very true–though I also think there is a bit of a continuum. It’s too tempting to create this sharp dichotomy between Western High Art culture that has created this meticulous notation system which favors a ‘literacy’ approach to playing music while contrasting it with ‘everything else out there’– whether that be Pop/Rock, World Art (or Sacred–since Western music notation arose primarily out of the medieval Church) Music traditions or folk musics.

    There are several other notation systems that several cultures have created for their art musics–Russian Znamenny chant notation; Armenian Khaz notation (which paralleled the Znamenny notation) and Hampartsoum notation (which became the default notation for several thousand Ottoman music compositions); Korean Chôngganbo notation (which is an extraordinary that was created by King Sejong who also created what many linguists consider the most perfect alphabet, Hangul); teh Chinese gugin tablature and modern jianpu…all of which are part of musical systems with varying levels of an implicit improvisation structure.

    What’s interesting to me is the shift towards Western music notation (with the exception of the Chinese jianpu) over the past couple of centuries which parallels nations’ adoption of Roman alphabet systems for their languages (over a longer period of time).

    We take the Western music notation for granted as the default standard as much as we take it for granted that Western Classical Music is the default “Art Music” and Western pop/rock as the default “populist music” and make our comparisons and contrasts relative to those standards which, i think, can be just as problematic as not. With that Western Classical Music context as the standard it’s easy to start with the assumption that it contrasts sharply with the art musics of other cultures especially vis-à-vis the whole improvisation issue–but the West isn’t unique in its approach to a set performative approach to music which is heavily tied to a notion of ‘music literacy.’

    Jon, I’ve let too many of your posts go by without saying how much I value what you say. Thanks so much for taking the time to contribute here. You’re adding a context that many of us so badly lack.

    To what you say here I’d add one thing — that western music has had other notation systems. Too often, we might treat the notation of medieval music or Gregorian chant as not much more than steps on the way to the notation we have now. But notation that doesn’t divide music into repeated groups of beats (that doesn’t have barlines) suggests a very different view of rhythm than what we have now. And the thought of people singing polyphonic music from parts without barlines — that suggests a more fluid relationship among the parts than we think of today.

    I’ll find the comment of yours that disappeared. Probably it was flagged as spam, mistakenlly.

  20. Janis says

    Paul: ” … audiences’ tastes are not as monolithic as they used to be and demand a more diverse programming mix than most orchestras are willing to experiment with.”

    I watched a really cool doco a while back about music and the Philadelphia Orchestra, where one of the musicians (a trombone player) remarked that he couldn’t play a solo from a Mahler symphony in the style of Gerschwin. He added, “I could do it, but I’ll lose my job.” Another horn player (who’s no longer with them) was really feeling stunted because he couldn’t jam the way he liked to.

    AGH! There’s probably similar creativity lurking in all of the people in the orchestra, and they’d love to get out front and show off their stuff. Why the hell, in the venue of one of the greatest assembly of musicians on Earth, is there no room for that sort of thing? That’s CRAZY.

    I’d love to have an orchestra program where they played the Mahler symphony that the trombone player was talking about, all the way through. Then, they backed up and played a specific short theme from it, and the conductor turned around and said, “We’ll now have the following musicians (and name their names, maybe a couple of violinists and some brass, five people maybe) come forward and play that in the style of bluegrass.” And they do it.

    And then the whole orchestra plays another little theme from the symphony, and then the conductor turns around and says, “And now the following musicians will demonstrate what can be done with that theme in the style of Gerschwin.”

    Then, they pick another theme out, and they play it in a Latin-flavored style. Then another, and it’s time for Elton John or classic rock. Then, Duke Ellington super-classy swing style.

    And the conductor doesn’t get to conduct or control that music. The musicians are given full rein; THEY come forward, and the performance is THEIRS. Prior to the performance, the orchestra would be told what was going to be done: “Which of you want to form a small ensemble and be the one to do the salsa-style Mahler? Okay, we have five names. Now who does the swing style Mahler?” And so on.

    Why the hell should that guy NOT be able to play Mahler like it’s Gerschwin? That one comment hinted at a huge untapped pool of creativity and thirst to express that could engage the musicians, make the music more alive as people hear it in multiple styles, and encourage people in the audience to go home and play with it themselves on whatever instruments they may have. (Let’s face it, Pachelbel’s Canon is as out of place on a modern acoustic piano as it is on a Strat anyway.)

    Perhaps the orchestra can announce that they want to do this and then have a citywide contest for electric guitarists in the city high schools; the winner gets to come and perform on stage with the orchestra when they hit the Mahler-as-rock part. A high schooler with a saxophone, or even a kid with a drum kit could be part of it as well.

    Just something to SHOW people: “Here! You’re supposed to play WITH this stuff. We love to do that, we celebrate it, and we expect you to do the same.”

    Bonus: having just a couple of the musicians come forward and play would turn the rest of the orchestra into audience members and lower the barriers between them and the people in the seats. It would also turn the musicians into individuals and not faceless acolytes to the music gods.

    It might also have musicians all over the country literally clawing their way through brick walls to come be a part of the orchestra that made a habit of doing this. :-) They’d murder one another for a chance at a gig like this.

    Jon: Hangul IS the most perfect orthography ever created. :-) I am now officially fascinated by all the notations you’ve mentioned, too. What books might you recommend for someone interested in this sort of thing?

  21. says

    NEWS FLASH Music is moving in the direction of many small niches that don’t all appeal to vast swaths of people NEWS FLASH

    I’ve been to concerts where they play the Grieg Peer Gynt, and then turn around and play Ellington’s arrangement of it. Or at least, have the Jazz at Lincoln Center band play the Ellington. It made the Grieg sound like the corniest thing ever written. And maybe it is, but I’d prefer to think of Solveig’s Song as the tender lament that it, also, is. I don’t want to hear “Dude Looks like a Lady” dressed up to be played by an orchestra, and I’d rather not hear Mahler dressed down to be played by a bluegrass group. If the clothes don’t fit, don’t wear ’em. Unless of course it’s all to be done for humor. Then we’re talking about something else entirely.

  22. Janis says

    *shrug* If the Principal Trombone of the Phila Orch thinks there’s something there, then why not give it a pop? I’m willing to trust a musician of his caliber.

  23. Janis says

    Besides, that’s what “public domain” means. It’s everybody’s toychest, and everyone gets to play. No gatekeepers. :-) That’s the whole point of public domain, to give the public a free common sandbox in which to play and create.

  24. says

    Thanks, Greg–I appreciate having some really good and interesting content to bounce ideas off of so…

    And no worries about the missing post–I’ve pretty much repeated most of what I had said there in response to the comment that George Steel made about Jewish audiences. Well, the gist of it at least–I think the examples I had given from the ISO might have been of interest, so maybe I’ll get a chance to bring them up again later.

    Janis–I’m actually off for Texas for a few shows in a bit, but I will get back to you with some resources for other music notations–if you would, please send me an email ( silpayamanant @ gmail dot com ) so i don’t have to clutter up Greg’s blog with a notation bibliography! 😀 Though the wikipedia article on music notation seems to have a good overview of those I mentioned as well as many others I didn’t–including Indian sargam which I had to pleasure of reading/learning a bit (at least an anglisized version) in a Hindustani music workshop with Srinivas Krishnan.

    And Greg–you are absolutely right–I hadn’t much thought about the lack of bar-lines issue in Medieval Chant notation and neumes and the implication for how that structures the idea and cognition of what music is.

    And Janis–yes, I think Hangul is the most brilliant writing system ever created! Any alphabet with symbols that serve as both a sign for phonemes as well as a diagram for how to sound the phonemes just cannot be over-appreciated!

    Going back to the orthography issue I’ve read alot of research and studies into how orthography can subtly shape cognition. It is interesting to see the types of correlations between reading direction as well as symbol type (phonograph/ideograph/logograph) tend to group together in almost predictable ways with certain types of cognitions. I would suspect that it would be the same with the ability to read different types of music notation given their given their different orthographies. If I were to ever go into the field of music cognition–that would most certainly be my area of study!

    Which brings us to the other tangentially related question of–what happens when there’s a shift in music literacy (which as I mentioned there is) to Western music notation? there’s extensive literature about the effects of Romanisation of linguistic writing systems and I’ve come across a number of references to complaints by Arab musicians and Music theorist bemoaning the effects of how by using a Western music notation system musicians are slowly losing the ability to play the quartertones and microtones that is so integral to the art of maqamat.

    Anyway–that’s for later I suppose–hope to read some more interesting discussions when i get back on Sunday unless I’m lucky enough to find some WiFi service on the road!


  25. Steve Soderberg says

    I thought “The New Simplicity” only referred to a style of music, some of which is pretty good IMHO. But evidently “The New Simplicity” also refers to a style of speaking and writing about music. How else to explain someone saying “African music” and the entire room either silent or nodding as if it made sense.

    For a really (too) simple layman’s guide to “African music” you all might try the article “Music of Africa” in Wikipedia. You don’t have to read it, Greg, just glance at the map. Then tell me what you mean by “African music.” (And please, don’t dig the hole deeper with the usual “Everybody knows …”)

    I understand it is au courant to pay lip service to “World Music” (without the need to have the foggiest idea what that means). So if anyone wants a little more in-depth idea of the HUGE diversity of musics in the world in which Africa represents one of the more complex parts, you might try reading about some of the rhythms that have been collected by ethnomusicologists. For a partial list based on a particular trait in common, try: http://cgm.cs.mcgill.ca/~godfried/publications/banff.pdf.

    Meantime, I’m going to go listen to some Asian music.

  26. Janis says

    For me, it’s mostly east African. (I love the sound of almost anything in the mbira family.) But you’re right — it is almost impossible to nail down ONE sound for a whole continent’s worth of music.

  27. says

    Just a quick follow up to my comment yesterday. I most definitely should not have applied the “transcends racial barriers” label with such a broad stroke to rock, hip-hop, etc. and like everyone else I want to add to the chorus of “Go Janis!” cheers. This has been an eye-opening conversation.

    To clarify, I was mostly taking issue with comments that implied classical music was and will always be an essentially white entertainment…I don’t think this is a healthy attitude for arts organizations to adapt. But I agree with Janis’s idea that attracting new people strictly as “an audience” is not going to work; something deeper needs to change, with technology, with participation. Then, perhaps, the programming, venues, concert structure will transform naturally.

  28. Janis says

    And with education. To keep banging on the reformation model that I seem to have become enamored of lately, we need to stop the cycle of priests creating priests who expect a centralized authority and start encouraging real creativity in music education.

    Technical proficiency is vital, but so much magnificence has been created by people with less than perfect technique. Lugansky could bury Billy Joel and Dennis DeYoung in terms of technique, but damn if Joel and DeYoung didn’t create some amazing stuff. I’d sooner be one of them, and the lifeblood of music is people like that. (Ideally, we’d all be Gabriela Montero and be divinely inspired at both.) There just needs to be an awareness that one shouldn’t need 15 years of nardbusting training before one is considered acceptable.

    And that that doesn’t mean accepting sloppiness or “dumbing things down.” (Like I said, Lugansky or DeYoung?)

  29. says

    The Petronas corporation in Malaysia not only built a beautiful concert hall under the Petronas twin towers in Kuala Lumpur, and greatly assist the young Malaysian Philharmonic, they even built a pipe organ in a country with only a small few Christian churches and AFAIK fewer organs than you can count on one hand.

    Not only are the orchestra very good, and record with BIS, they have a reasonable attendance from people of many different ethnic backgrounds, mostly Malay.

    I wouldn’t blame the problem on a failure to appeal to ethnic tastes, classical performance is falling down badly on its failure to appeal to its traditional core causasian audience, who are far more likely now to be found at Bruce Springsteen or the Who.

    This situation is worsened by the often patronizing way in which all music is marketed and the pretentious cack which passes for the output of many professional “composers” which do an excellent job of alientating even much of the existing classical audience.

  30. Ariel says

    The basic premise is so off the mark

    that everyone is writing the same baloney . All feel good and how bright we are writing ,dare

    I say pseudo intellects hard at

    work ,each showing their own lame approach to the so called problem of classical musics’

    decline and what will replace it

    or how to keep it going, from the baloney Janis writes (Doesn’t she ever sleep ?] to nonsense from Laura . At first this stuff

    is read with amusement ,then

    it gets pathetic- the blind leading the blind .The result

    of an American education at

    its worst .

    We thrive on disagreement here, but this comment and another one from Ariel crosses a line. Both express only scorn, without giving any reason for scorning what’s being said, or the people who say it. I’m leaving this and the other comment up, as warnings to others. But I’ll delete any future comments with anything that I consider to be personal attacks.