Points of light

Been used before, I know, meaning my title. But should I say “solutions” every time? Anyhow (for those who remember the elder Bush) I’ll offer only three of these, not a thousand. Anyone have more names I could slot in, in place of “solutions”?

But any way you slice it, these are good ideas.

Call it “sound art”

Here’s a communication from Margaret Crites, a composer who’s getting her master’s degree at Baylor University. (And do visit her website! A classy job, she did, putting it together, full of personality, and everything exactly the right length. Her music is just right, too.) 

I’m quoting what follows with her permission:

I worked as an artistic productions intern for the Ojai Music Festival in the summer of 2009. Every year the festival puts on a series of contemporary music concerts by the most outstanding musicians (last year, the main guests were eighth blackbird; Pierre Boulez has conducted at the festival multipe times). At any rate, the festival takes place in a small town called Ojai in rural south-central California. Part of my job as an intern was to advertise the festival to Ojai residents and get people excited about contemporary music. I was able to talk to various shop owners, families and friends about classical music and share with them why attending the concerts at the Festival would be worth their time. Some people could not gain interest, but many of my conversations proved worthwhile. It seems that when I described music as “sound art”, people could get a better grasp on what the intent was, rather than utilizing the stigmatized term of “classical music”. It was a very cool experience!

To which I’ll add: Even big classical music institutions promote themselves without any research on whether their promotions — slogans, graphics, approaches — are likely to work. So Margaret’s discovery looms larger than you’d think. It’s something big orchestras and major new music groups may well not know. Others, of course, should find out if they get the same results.

And if anyone has other promotion ideas that worked, let me know!

Added later: Forgot to say that “sound art” is a term already used for…well, sound art, art pieces conceived not as music but as art, and created from sound. But I think this makes Margaret’s idea even stronger. For those outside the classical music world who know about sound art, new classical works now have a context they didn’t have before. Though not all new classical pieces really would be sound art. Anything that sounds the way music normally sounds would strike art-world sophisticates as, simply (and not very interestingly) music. But the term still might help people rooted in pre-20th century music understand something new that they’re hearing  (Thanks to Todd Reynolds, for reminding me of all this.)

“Covered in Chills”

Added later: When I wrote this, I forgot the most basic point. We in classical music are very, very, very bad at saying why anyone should care, why anyone should come to our concerts, why anyone should love classical music even half as much as we do.

We just can’t find the words. This shows up very clearly in classical music marketing and PR, as I’ve often said before. But it also comes up in conversation with musicians, and especially in planning their careers, if you try to do it strategically. And especially if they might want to reach a new audience!

“Why should anyone come to hear you play?” That’s a question that, in my experience, few classical musicians can answer. It’s not that there can’t be any reason, but most musicians haven’t thought out what the reason might be. They tend to say, “Well, I’m very good,” or “I’m playing great music.” But many musicians are very good, and all classical musicians play great music. What makes you different?

There’s always something, and often it emerges in conversation with musicians. It always emerges in the final assignment I give in my Juilliard course on the future of classical music. And some time ago I posted some answers to the question, gleaned from many sources. Worth a read, I think.

What follows should be read in the light of what I’ve just said.

I get all kinds of promotional email, from classical music institutions and classical music publicists. Much of it, to be honest, makes my eyes glaze. Almost always, what’s missing is any reason why I should hear the concert/music/recording/artist in question. Yes, they’re acclaimed/virtuosic/rising/whatever, and yes, here’s the repertoire, and here are some quotes from reviews.

But so what? All these promotions, in the end, say the same thing, the only difference being the different names slotted in. This is useless. Give me promotions that say something different. That tell me something that might matter. Something that might jerk my eyes wide open.

One company that does that is Schwalbe and Partners. They send promotional email with arresting subject lines. “Covered in Chills.” “Sheer Strangeness.” “Gorgeous But Shocking.” And what about this one, both arresting and quirky: “Furious Winter and Quivering Hymen.”

And yes, maybe some of this — for some people — goes over the top. But I also get promotional email blankly titled “Press Release.” What’re the odds I’ll rush to click on that? And for all the fine publicists, including friends of mine, who’ll title their promotions with just-the-facts-m’am bluntness — “Present Music at Turner Hall Ballroom March 27” — I think a little headline-writing panache wouldn’t hurt, so I’ll have at least a glimmer of the fascinating stuff that Present Music (a long-established, very good, and quite successful Milwaukee new music group) is offering.

Schwalbe backs their headlines up. “Covered in Chills”? Someone said that happened to them when they heard bass-baritone Douglas Williams. “Sheer Strangeness”? That’s from a Gramophone review of Jacob Lindberg, lutenist, describing something he brought out in a piece by Silvius Weiss. “Gorgeous But Shocking”? A reviewer’s reaction to soprano Sindia Seiden’s low notes in a Handel aria. “Furious Winter,” etc.? Someone’s take on characters bass-baritone Andrew Foster-Williams impersonates in Purcell’s The Fairy Queen.

You still think this is over the top? You think it might backfire? You think these artists might not be that good? You think  — if you’re a publicist — that your artists are just as chilling, just as gorgeous but shocking, or maybe even more so? Make me believe it! Your artists might be the most sheerly strange I’ll ever hear, but still you’re not giving me a reason, in the middle of a busy day, to read your press releases. While I’ll very likely click on Schwalbe’s.


  1. As for backfiring: Yes, they’re giving their artists quite a lot to live up to. But suppose the artists really do live up to it? If I heard their people, and agreed with the headlines, then you’d better believe I’d read everything they send me.
  2. I’d better work on my own headlines!
  3. I can’t recommend a visit to Schwalbe’s blah website. They can do much better.
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  1. Yvonne says

    It would be so nice, though, if the Schwalbe subject lines weren’t in all caps. They’re wonderfully arresting enough, and don’t really need to send that shiver of annoyance that can come from being yelled at in your inbox.

    Good point, Yvonne. For some reason I’m not annoyed, but others will be. They don’t have to use caps. I’ll make sure your comment reaches them.

  2. says

    One of my favorite informal reviews of one of my noise shows was a tag line I would use for promo back in the day:

    “I’d never imagined that a metal box and a chain could sound like the hand of god smacking the shit out of the humanity.”

    Makes me want to hear your noise shows!

  3. says

    Great article – and thought provoking. T the Centre for New Zealand Music we struggle incessantly with a way to succinctly describe the vast diversity of music we promote and provide. ‘Contemporary classical’ has been the usual compromise despite the inherent oxymoron! A competition run some years ago by national broadcaster Radio NZ Concert was won by an entry: ‘The music formerly known as classical’ . Perhaps we could give that a special symbol?

    ‘Sound art’ is good – just a question of whether it is TOO broad (or whether that matters).

    I like “the music formerly known as classical.” Which I think is a phrase used by some high school students in the US who wanted to get beyond the usual classical music boundaries.

    “Contemporary classical music” seems like a non-starter, to me. As you say, it’s an oxymoron, and on top of that, nothing concrete comes to mind when I hear or read those words. I prefer alt-classical, as I’ve said far too many times, because at least that term — by analogy with alternative rock, alt-country, many other uses of “alternative” — holds out the promise of something not just new, but also something that rejoins a kind of culture that many people identify with, and understand.

    If you want to see how much of an oxymoron “contemporary classical music” is, compile a long list of dictionary definitions of “classical music.” You’ll see that contemporary composition isn’t included in those definitions at all. This is something I’ll write about in chapter four of my book.

  4. DCW says

    The problem isn’t marketing, its still and always has been modern music/sound art.

    Greg aren’t you just suggesting wrapping a turd in a prettier wrapper? It’s still a turd. Sound art isn’t going to fool anyone into thinking their hearing something they couldn’t do very easily with a few pots and pans in their own house for free.

    “Part of my job as an intern was to advertise the festival to Ojai residents and get people excited about contemporary music.” From Margaret Crites.

    Advertising might get people in the door but if the music doesn’t excite anyone they aren’t going to come back.

    For the modern composer/writer/performer of classical music/sound art to think that the solution to their problems is just a change in packaging (just change the name!) shows a completely closed mind to the outside world.

    Could it be that the reason few people are interested in modern classical music/sound art is because it just isn’t that good? That when people actually say this to the composer/performer the answer in return is “hey, you just don’t understand it. Your not used to this, give it a few more listens and it might sink in.” Perhaps it really isn’t a question of “not getting it” simply because there isn’t anything “to get”.

    You’re more than entitled to your view of this. But what would you say to people who like the music you’re talking about?

  5. says

    “Makes me want to hear your noise shows!”

    Haha–you might just get your chance someday. Looks like I’m going to come ‘out of retirement’ as it were–got a gig opening up for the Enigma’s sideshow this July–hadn’t done a noise show in years–so it will be good to flex those muscles again. If you want a preview of what that looks/sounds like (warning: turn your sound down a little) here’s a clip from a show I did during a tour I did in ’03: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CyUXNu8rkXI.

    I agree with the “the music formerly known as classical” phrase, though it is a bit unwieldy. Alt-Classical still has other connotations for me given how many non-Western Classical music genres exist out there (though I guess “Non-Western Classical Music” has become the default term for those).

    “Art Music” might be more inclusive though it has some negative connotations and too often seems to degenerate into “Artsy-Fartsy Music.” *sighs* Just not sure what’s going to be useful here.

    Yes, it did go into spam limbo. I rescued it.

    I think we’re just going to muddle through, terminologically. Terminology, in any case, isn’t the worst problem we have.

  6. Etienne Abelin says

    interesting discussion – how do you all like “classical reImagined”?

    I like it!

  7. ray says

    “Classical reimagined?” As what? Why does it need to be reimagined in the first place?

    If people want to play jazz or pop or folk music, fine – but what’s the point of calling it “alt classical” when it really isnt classical music at all? And “noise shows” are not going to appeal to more discerning listeners. Yes, of course some people would prefer noise shows to Beethoven, but then some people would prefer Stephanie Meyer’s novel Twilight to Melville’s Moby Dick. Which is the better book?

    I used to write 12 tone music (i write tonal music now) – and even I can admit this music has mostly failed to connect with classical music audiences (or anyone else for that matter), the way “new music” in general has -its been around for decades now and most listeners just dont like it, because it makes no sense to them. Even the new music that makes some (distorted) use of tonal harmony doesnt really “catch on” with most people (this includes minimalism) – the majority of classical listeners (who arent fading away as fast as some seem to think) still want the “traditional”classical music with “traditional” harmony (something Pierre Boulez found out when he because the music director of the New Your Philharmonic).

    Maybe the fact that music education in american schools has mostly vanished is an explanation for people being less knowledgeable about classical music. In any case, I dont think noise shows and “classical” performers playing nonclassical music is a real “solution” to anything. Yes, I know, this is “elitist'” blah blah blah – but I have no problem with that!