Continuing…

A solution from Melissa Dunphy, which is cited on our “Solutions” page, but deserves to be read in full. Melissa sent it as a comment (thanks, Melissa):

Not to toot my own horn (OK, I am tooting my own horn; we composers sometimes have to do whatever we can to get attention), but I wrote a political cantata that was performed in the Philadelphia Fringe Festival last year, received a fair bit of national press, including features in the Wall Street Journal, the Huffington Post, and MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow.

[Greg says: tooting horns is allowed. Welcomed, in fact, if the horn is playing something we all need to hear.]

It’s being given a second performance in April at the Bard Conservatory by a conductor who is also wrestling with the questions you discuss.See his blog.

And I hope very much that you don’t consider this too spammy, but I have to include a link to the fundraising website for the project.

[Not spammy at all. Good for you, going out and using Kickstarter to raise money for your project. Let's not pretend that the work we do doesn't need money. And in the current climate of entrepreneurship, who's going to raise the money if we don't do it ourselves?]

[When I followed this and the last link, I saw that I know the conductor involved with this, Noah Weber. He's full of ambitious ideas, especially an audacious one, about arts organizations reconstituting themselves as profitmaking entities.]

I’m proud to say that many, if not most, of the audience at the Fringe Performances were not “typical” classical music concertgoers. I had crossover from the theater scene, hipsters who heard about it in the alternative press, and of course, politically interested people (and at least one high-profile political blogger). One audience member approached me in tears after the show, radiant that I had “made something beautiful out of eight years of horror.” I received thank-you notes from all over the country, including from real-life figures involved in the events upon which the cantata was based.

The classical music world has walled itself in. There’s nothing wrong with a composer wanting to play only to the people within the tower (or to even smaller walled gardens on the tower grounds), but in order to extend your reach outside, you and your art have to be involved in something outside. The reality is that we’re no longer going to reach a new audience with “Symphony No. 2″ or “Marimba and Cello Duet.” But tie your music to our broader culture, and you’ll appeal to people who live in that culture. Maybe you’ll even be able to lure them into our tower afterward.

I don’t meet many people outside of the classical music world who say they love Ligeti. Ask them if they enjoyed the soundtrack of 2001 or Eyes Wide Shut, though, and you’ll get a different answer.

On Melissa’s last point, compare Adam Matthes’s experience, playing Xenakis for an audience of architects.

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Comments

  1. says

    But tie your music to our broader culture, and you’ll appeal to people who live in that culture.

    It’s a basic principle of marketing. But is it the real aim of a composer? I mean, do you write a piece to get a broader audience? I don’t think so. A lot of composers, considered as “wanting to play only to the people within the tower“, are reaching a large audience without compromises: Helmut Lachenmann, Pierre Boulez, Eliott Carter… If you want to have a huge audience, go write some songs for Madonna.

    Well…Carter has a large audience? Where? I’ve yet to see it. At one big Carter performance I went to in NY, I think I knew about 25% of the audience. This is a revolutionary concept you’re putting forth hear. What, exactly, do you mean by “large”?

    And do you really think there’s nothing between Carter and Madonna? And do you think that Madonna makes compromises to reach an audience? Or is she doing what she wants, and that happens to coincide with what a large audience wants? And what about Bjork? Someone who does have a genuinely large pop audience, and clearly doesn’t make compromises.

    I think you might be trapped in the middle of mythology — a mythological belief that anyone who cares about an audience inevitably compromises their art. Wasn’t true of Haydn, wasn’t true of Verdi, wasn’t true of Brahms when he wrote popular piano pieces and made a fortune from them, and it isn’t true of Bruce Springsteen.

    But the main thing goes beyond that. It’s not the large numbers you want in an audience, but the sense of contact. Composers like the ones you named have no — repeat no, absolutely no — contact with any culture outside the tiny bubble of modernist classical music. They don’t even have contact (at least in the US) with artists in other fields. Or with scholars or intellectuals. They’re isolated. Is this a good thing? Contrast, for an obvious example, the artistic community Gertrude Stein was in, in Paris in the early years of the 20th century. There you had artists of all kinds, who at that point had a very small audience (even the ones like Picasso and Matisse, who’d later become world-famous). But they were in touch with larger artistic currents, something that I don’t think either Carter or Boulez is today.

  2. says

    Thanks for saying that, Pierre-Arnaud!

    Personally, I have no interest writing music for the “broader audience”–there are more than enough people already doing that, IMO. Most of the music I do write, and do learn how to play is music for underserved audiences in the US. Whether or not I write another pop tune, or piece of classical music, most of which is designed for and caters to Caucasian audiences, it’s not going to matter much.

    But every time someone from a minority ethnic community comes up to me after a show to let me know that they appreciate there being someone doing music they enjoy or writing music which is influenced by music the they resonate with or playing a folk, pop, or art music piece written by someone else from the culture they are from that brings me far more satisfaction and enjoyment than connecting with an audience which has more than enough music already being written for them!

    I’d better clarify what I mean by “broader audience.” I mean an audience broader than the classical music audience. I mean an audience that plays some role in our larger culture. This doesn’t mean it has to be a mass audience, or even a large one. Remember the famous old line about the Velvet Underground. Ten people bought their first record, and all ten went on to found important, path-breaking bands. Compared to most classical composers, I’d say the Velvet Underground had a “broader audience,” because they were — to quote Joyce — forging the uncreated conscience of their race.

  3. says

    Not that I’m meaning to disparage contemporary composers–one of the main reasons I just couldn’t see myself becoming, say, a symphony musician, is precisely because of the lack of interest those organizations have for music being composed now.

    Any composers who are writing now and getting their works performed–Kudos to them for that and kudos to them for finding creative ways of marketing their works.

    If it were the norm for classical music organizations to perform works being written now, I suspect I would have easily found a reason to continue in the field!

  4. says

    I think the concept of “a broader culture” is misunderstood. You should take a listen to her piece at http://melissadunphy.bandcamp.com/album/the-gonzales-cantata-live-at-the-rotunda

    Classical music used to address socially relevant issues. Beethoven wrote political music (Fidelio, the 9th Symphony, etc.), as did Mozart (Die Zauberflöte), Verdi (Rigoletto, Attila), Shostakovich, Wagner, Weill, Mahler, etc. When did addressing your countrymen become equivalent to “selling out?” The Gonzales Cantata confronts a serious issue in the American Government, specifically the level to which partisan politics has turned career politicians into criminals by necessity. Either you play the game (often involving illegal or morally questionable practices) or you will never be promoted. I don’t see very much popular or classical music trying to address their environs.

    The topic for the Cantata was not chosen as “a compromise” to reach a larger audience. From what I have seen, Melissa is passionate about politics and saw this farcical display of our government’s dysfunction as a way to express her frustration. I drove four hours to see this piece performed because I thought it was a brilliant topic. As soon as I got home, I wrote to her. It was not because I wanted to present a “blockbuster,” but because I thought it was a great piece that had the capacity to communicate with a vast audience about something relevant to our time.

    When studying a composer, I often go through books on the social and political movements that surrounded the composition of the piece, to help inform my interpretation of it. Will people look back at what is being written today and find any connection to the period?

    Noah, as I hope I’ve made clear in other responses, people have taken my concept of “broader culture” and equated it with blockbusters, which is emphatically not what I meant. Of course you weren’t looking for a blockbuster. If you had been, you wouldn’t have been presenting a classical piece at all.

  5. says

    No, Noah

    I was more referencing Pierre-Arnaud’s usage since he seemed to be taking it a little bit differently. I actually enjoyed listening to her piece and the Rachel Maddow clip when Melissa first posted her story in the comments. And love the how she and everyone involved brought it into a Fringe Festival context.

    I think Classical music still addresses socially relevant issues–it just happens to be the case that those issues resonate with an ever declining (and aging) audience (at least here in the US and possibly in Europe). And unfortunately the socially relevant issues that it does deal with are more tied to the insularity of the culture of the population that supports and patronizes it (take that how you will).

    The Cantata is a brilliant usage of the source material of public proceedings, and if ever performed near me I would very likely attend it. But regarding its dealing with socially relevant issues, while it is true that inept and nepotistic the government indirectly, if not directly, impact us in the States it still might not be speaking to the more immediate and pressing needs of sub-populations in the States.

    Of course, I would argue that neither does Euro-American Pop music do that and seems to be doing that less and less as more and more people have access (mainly due to net based media but also because of changing demographics) to a rich variety of art, folk, and popular music from all over the world.

    I was particularly struck by a Dance Marathon fundraiser I recently played with my world music group. Being an audience of primarily Caucasian students at a small private university it was interesting that they responded best to the World music dance tunes (in some cases, even knowing specifically what kind of dance step to do or referencing the dance moves viral-video associated with the particular artist that made the tune popular) while being relatively ‘blah’ to the Euro-American disco, rock, and jazz dance tunes we played.

    While the students may not understand the social, economic and political backgrounds of the artists who originally wrote the music or the cultures from which the music came, it didn’t impede their ability to connect to it more directly and more enthusiastically than the music that they presumably have longer exposure to and experience with (and for which the likely did have some knowledge of the necessary social, economic and political background for).

    That kind of reception can be as powerful a politico-economic statement as the experiences I’ve had with non-Caucasian audiences I mentioned above if for no other reason than these populations of current and future audiences aren’t going to be nearly as interested in consuming (and possibly making) music that has such close cultural, economic and political ties to the country they are living in as past populations have.

    I can count it personally a good concert going week while living in the Midwest when I can go see an Arabic/Flamenco group, Chirgilchin (Tuvan throat singers), a university produced Chinese Opera, a hindustani vocalist, an Irish Sea Shanty group all within the span of one week without having to live on either of the coasts.

    It wasn’t that way twenty, even ten, years ago in these parts and that’s a good thing as far as I’m concerned. Once we get some contemporary “Classical” music groups/musicians performing more regularly in the area, then I’ll be more than content. Add a few noise concerts to the mix and I’ll be ecstatic!

  6. says

    It’s a basic principle of marketing. But is it the real aim of a composer? I mean, do you write a piece to get a broader audience? I don’t think so. A lot of composers, considered as “wanting to play only to the people within the tower”, are reaching a large audience without compromises: Helmut Lachenmann, Pierre Boulez, Eliott Carter… If you want to have a huge audience, go write some songs for Madonna.

    This. Right here. This attitude is one of the biggest problems facing contemporary music today.

    When did we create this artificial divide between “art” and “pop” music? When did composers suddenly decide that we’re creating art only for ourselves, and trying to reach a broader audience is somehow the opposite of art? This is such an odd twentieth-century false construct to me. Pre-1900 composers from Lasso to Liszt have always tried to appeal to the masses by writing relevant – even occasionally “gimmicky” music, and they’ve actively marketed their music to as huge an audience as possible so they can actually make a decent living. Now when you try to do what successful composers have been doing for hundreds of years, you come up against this contemptuous brick-wall attitude of pop-hatred.

    This is why we are drowning ourselves in irrelevance. In one short century we’ve gone from being some of the most well-known, influential and important artists around to a niche mostly ignored by the general population.

    You know what I want to do as an artist? I want to communicate. I am passionate about reaching and connecting with my audience. And when I see that audience at concerts of my music, I don’t want it to only be made up of other composers, out “supporting the community.” I want to give reasons to young people for paying attention to contemporary music and not just “Madonna.” (News flash: nobody listens to Madonna anymore. I think you mean Lady Gaga.)

    When did this desire to communicate with people outside of our monkeysphere become a “compromise”?

    Amen, bravo, and you go, Melissa!

  7. says

    To Jon Silpayamanant: I enthusiastically applaud and support what you’re doing, and in some ways, I think that it’s related to what I’m trying to do. To me, the “broader audience” is underserved* by the contemporary art music scene. While other types of music cater to young urban populations, for instance, the contemporary classical scene seems to aim itself squarely at middle-class, middle-aged white people, many of whom have an active contempt for (or perhaps worse, a kind of condescending but entirely superficial interest in) the music of other social populations. I see this over and over at concerts and also in the composer community, which is still largely made up of middle-class, middle-aged white people (and – still! – usually male).

    I don’t like to cash in on the fact that I’m a woman of obviously mixed race, but I’m glad that I am. I recently participated in a children’s concert (there’s another audience underserved by the genre!), and it was profoundly significant to me that children as young as three were seeing me on stage and being told “This is a composer.”

    I’m also a (often raving) feminist, and one of the inspirations behind my own production of the Gonzales Cantata was the desire to present music by a woman, for women to sing, highlighting a feminist issue (the gender imbalance in US politics). In particular, I strongly encouraged women of color to audition and participate in the Fringe performances, because there were certainly no women of color in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Likewise, I doubt you’ll find a larger underserved audience in contemporary classical music than women of color – or even simply women. There are some women who participate, of course (though I still think there’s an enormous gender imbalance), but who is the music really aimed at, and who’s writing it?

    * Aside: At first, I misread this word in your comment as “undeserved” and was mightily confused as to whether you meant that the audience didn’t deserve the music, or the composers didn’t deserve the audience :P

  8. a curious reader says

    just for curiosity’s sake, can anybody point me to music that is “targeted to the white male” ?

    im really curious to hear this music.

    Hi, curious. You might start with metal. The audience for metal is heavily male. And heavily white.

    In the culture beyond classical music, it’s easy to find things targeted at white males. Maxim magazine, Hooters, the Spike cable channel.

    And, if we dare say this, the standard classical composers are all white males. Something you might suddenly notice, when you’re at a performance of the Magic Flute, and you see that the opera takes for granted the idea that women don’t do much except chatter, and that Monostatos (if the text hasn’t been censored) is both evil and black, with the two things explicitly linked together.

  9. says

    First, to both Noah and Melissa

    Apologies to you if my posts seemed unnecessarily snippy or if either of you took offense with them. I wasn’t meaning to offend.

    And just for the record: I absolutely do not agree with the part of Pierre-Arnaud’s contention that composers like Helmut Lachenmann, Pierre Boulez, and Eliott Carter are reaching a large audience without compromises. If anything they are barely reaching the people within the tower since that tower is evolving as well with the changing demographics.

    Melissa, to address some of your points–your first post. Pretty much agreed on most points though I do sometimes wonder if we might not be romanticizing a musical past when Classical Music might have been “more relevant” than it is now–or at least a musical past that might or might not have had as sharp a divide between art music and popular music.

    As for your second post:

    the “broader audience” is underserved* by the contemporary art music scene.

    Touché! Nicely put–and really can’t we say that about the Western Art music scene as a whole?

    I recently participated in a children’s concert (there’s another audience underserved by the genre!)

    I think it wouldn’t be too far of a stretch to say that that audience is underserved by most genres–particularly the local and regional pop and rock acts (since the national and international ones at least often play larger GA venues). But even the content of the tunes of the national and international pop and rock acts are particularly well suited for audiences of children. That’s been one of the issues my the Central Asia duo is having a difficult time developing presentations since we’re wanting to expand on our experience studying and performing that traditional music and dance while creating a narrative using source stories from the cultures from where the music and dance originates. But that material is probably just as unsuitable for a audience of children as contemporary pop and rock songs about sex and violence. There’s a reason that, say, Disney movies seem so sterile in many ways–and much of that has to do with “cleaning up” the original story material to make it suitable for mass children consumption.

    and one of the inspirations behind my own production of the Gonzales Cantata was the desire to present music by a woman, for women to sing, highlighting a feminist issue (the gender imbalance in US politics).

    Now see, Melissa–that is one of the best things about your Cantata. As much as pop and rock musicians (and even classical musicians) would like to say that since we’re in a country where there are no laws or rules restricting women from composing and performing in bands. It still doesn’t change the fact that (again making a distinction between the local/regional levels and the national/international levels) few women are actually in bands (while the ratio is more even in the classical music world in the States there’s obvious an imbalance when we look at the number of women composing and/or conducting).

    Those are some of the reasons I am really enjoying my performing experiences with the World Music group I mentioned in the previous post, as well as the Central Asian group I mentioned above, as well as the Arabic ensemble I perform with locally. While my World Music group may have the widest repertoire since we do also cover a number of Western pop and rock tunes over the years we’ve probably played with a few hundred pop/rock bands and the experience was leaving much to be desired as I couldn’t even step into a venue without wading through clouds of male testosterone.

    The past couple of years we’ve focused much more on performing for one of our primary audiences, bellydancers, which just happens to be a population that we didn’t normally see represented as much at the rock and pop shows (especially onstage), namely women. Similarly for my Arabic group whose audience is nearly evenly divided between Arab-Americans and bellydancers–which just translates into audiences that are proportionally women heavy (since the Arab-American half of the audience was pretty equally divided between women and men).

    The other nice thing about my Arabic group is that I happen to literally be the “odd man out”–the other three musicians are all women which sometimes leads to interesting discussions with the Arab-Americans during breaks of after shows since 1) none of us are Arabic or have any Middle Eastern Heritage, and 2) for the most part women don’t generally play the music we’re playing in the in ensembles in the Middle East.

    So I can entirely agree with what you said:

    Likewise, I doubt you’ll find a larger underserved audience in contemporary classical music than women of color – or even simply women. There are some women who participate, of course (though I still think there’s an enormous gender imbalance), but who is the music really aimed at, and who’s writing it?

    But would amend that to include the vast majority of Western Rock music (if not Western pop music as well).

    Again, I would like to say kudos to you for what you’ve done with the Cantata–I’ve often had to bite my tongue around my [mostly] male colleagues in the classical music field when discussions of women in classical music comes up as much as I hate doing it–but having women like you doing what you are doing makes it easier not to!

    Oh, and I think had I meant undeserved it would have been B) “the composers didn’t deserve the audience” :P

  10. says

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