New book riff — the culture ran away from us

At long last, here’s the latest riff from my book. Or, rather, the first part of it. It’s long, so I’ve divided it into two parts. I’ll post the second part here in a week. But if anyone wants to read it now, it’s here. And the complete riff, both parts combined is here.

These new riffs cover chapter three of my book. See the outline (revised, by the way), to see where it fits. It’s about the gap – the abyss – between classical music and the rest of our culture. And how that’s the reason for the aging audience, and declining funding and ticket sales.
I think it’s full of good stuff. But it took too long to write. And then the first people I sent it to – my closest advisors on this book – found some problems with it, and so I revised. The revisions made the riff (and ultimately the book chapter that will come from it) stronger, but I’ve learned a lesson. These riffs are too long. The time I spent with this one could have been better spent writing the book itself.
So future riffs will be shorter, and more frequent. I’m already working on the one for chapter four. Which will be about the definition of classical music. Not a trivial question at all, as you’ll see when I quote some standard dictionary definitions, suffused with assumptions about classical music’s superiority. I’ve come up with a value-free definition, which will show what makes classical music unique — and why it’s valuable, why we don’t want to lose it — without insulting any other strand in the great worldwide musical tapestry.

Comments on the latest riff are always welcome. More than welcome. I learn a lot from them. And for links to everything I’ve posted from the book so far — along with links to previous versions of the book — go here.

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  1. Gene says

    Some very interesting ideas! One suggestion: Mozart’s (and da Ponte’s, and Beaumarchais’s) Marriage of Figaro is a notable outlier to your argument that music and opera historically never engaged with social or political issues. While the most confrontational lines from Beaumarchais’s play were cut from the opera, its treatment of issues of class (symbolized by the “droit de seigneur”) was still daring and revolutionary, and might be seen to have anticipated the storming of the Bastille three years later.

    Good point. Though I’m not sure I said “never.” The Mozart opera, from what I understand, is toned down some from Baumarchais. But still, the class conflict is there. As it is in Don Giovanni, for instance in Masetto’s aria.

    Which then makes me think of the emperor’s famous reaction to Figaro, when it was premiered in Vienna: “Too many notes, my dear Mozart.” In other words, he had a purely musical reaction, a very common one at that time (see the published reviews of the Don Giovanni Prague premiere, for instance), that Mozart’s music was too complicated. What he apparently didn’t say was “Shocking, Mozart. Are you trying to foment a revolution?”

    Above all, thanks for pointing out something I’d neglected. This is one of the many reasons I preview my riffs!

  2. Jerome Langguth says

    Dear Greg,

    Thanks again for hosting such a fascinating discussion for all these years. Here are a few thoughts and questions that occurred to me as I read through the riff.

    1. I think that the analogy with cinema is strained, in that you are comparing an artistic medium (film) to a particular form in another medium (“classical” music). Isn’t asking why “classical” music didn’t move with the times in the 60s rather like lamenting the fact that 18th and 19th century painting is not much like Warhol or Stella?

    3. Why is it important that Bach and Beethoven be performed alongside the new music you are advocating for; or, if they must, why the 50/50 split? I agree that they are important, but why do they have to occupy the same cultural space as new music? Why not let new music carve out its own space and seek its own affinities (maybe new art music, world music, folk, indie-rock, and experimental jazz). Your argument seems to assume a monolithic classical music culture that must be able not only to present new musical works for the 21st century, but should also be able to present the music of the 16th-20th centuries in a revivified way. Is there some chance that this is part of the problem? Maybe this is what Cage was trying to get at with his “Beethoven was wrong” comment. Give new music a chance to breathe and stop looking furtively over its shoulder at its venerable ancestry. On the other hand, maybe what I am saying is that “classical music” should let new music find its own way in the culture, which to some extent it already has (Cage, Stockhausen, Reich, etc. seem to thrive outside of the classical music bubble).

    2. What about John Cage? Perhaps Cage’s effect, like that of the minimalists and Stockhausen, was greater in the artworld outside of the classical bubble (Stereolab’s “John Cage Bubblegum” comes to mind), but wasn’t part of his point precisely to reconnect the concert hall to the world? He also apparently liked rock music, and would probably be in sympathy with many of your ideas.

    3. Most of the ideas discussed here and on your blog seem focused on live performance, presentation, promotion of concerts, and composition. What is missing is a discussion of recordings and the role those play in attracting new listeners. Part of the story from the 60s was the success of the rock album, which is a work of art in its own right and not just a document of a performance. Although there are classical albums (Kronos Quartet), it seems to me that most classical music recordings still come across as documents of performances and compositions rather than as albums. We might care who the performers are, for example, but the “production” of a classical recording is supposed to be invisible and unobtrusive. This could be part of the explanation for the aging audience problem, as rock and pop fans (at least until the digital revolution) tend to like albums.


    Terrific points, as always, Jay. Thanks.

    I see that in the final version of this I should make clear that classical music stands alone, or virtually alone, in its focus on the past. So it’s not simply a comparison of classical music and film. It’s a comparison of classical music and every other art. The reason film — or, anyway, film as described in Mark Harris’s book — makes such a powerful comparison is because of the clear-cut institutional changes. The formation of a new film critics’ association, the NY Times firing its film critic, Time magazine changing its mind about Bonnie and Clyde. That shows cultural changes having a tangible effect.

    I agree that new music needs to find its own audience, and shouldn’t be forced on the mainstream classical music crowd. But this is very much a makeshift, forced on us by the unnatural situation I’ve tried to describe. New music should be an honored part of the mainstream. Later in the book I’ll describe at some length how anomalous I think its position is. And the audience that new music finds is, on the whole, pretty small, though it’s been growing lately. Or growing in some places. I talked recently to a group of student composers, and they didn’t seem to have much hope that they could find an audience of their own, inside or outside the classical music mainstream.

    A lot of my feeling about this comes from my own 40-year experience in the new music world. It’s pretty weird, despite what seem to be successes. Here’s one take on it. Suppose you ask moviegoers to pick the five best films of the year. First, you don’t even have to say “new films.” What else would you mean? And active moviegoers could easily pick their favorites.

    In the art world, that would be harder. The five top new artworks of the year. Or at least the five top artists. But because new art is so vividly covered in art magazines and newspapers, and is shown in museums and galleries — and is reproduced in art magazines and elsewhere — I’m sure many people could take a stab at the choice.

    You won’t have seen the new plays produced all over the US (to limit the scope just to that), if you’re an American theatergoer. But you might have read about them, if you take an active interest. And if you’re an active theatergoer in NY, you’ll know what the leading new plays produced there were.

    Now compare classical music. What were the top five new pieces premiered in the US during the past year? How many people, in the active classical music audience, would even care? Let alone be even able to name five new pieces. Limit the scope just to New York. Hard to believe an active theatergoer couldn’t name several new plays. And had surely seen at least one or two of them. But an active classical music lover might not know what new classical works were. New operas, maybe. There are few of them, and the ones at the Met and City Opera stand out enough to be prominent. But new instrumental pieces? I doubt most concertgoers would know which they were. Or, more crucially, care.

    Seems to me, going back to the way you originally made your point, that you’re allowing classical music as an art form to stand more or less the way it is, being largely about the past. So then you can invoke the apples/oranges rule when I compare classical music to something else. But is this really a good thing to do? Does it hold up if you compare classical music not just to film, but to visual art, pop music, theater, poetry, dance? Then doesn’t classical music stand alone? People who follow visual art in NY all know about the Whitney Biennial, for instance. And one of NY’s two leading art museums is called the Museum of Modern Art. Yes, that name might be taken to refer to 20th century art, but — do we have a Modern Music Orchestra playing anything like a comparable role in the New York classical music scene?

  3. says

    Great reading – the riffs and comments. Thanks to all.

    Further complicating the ideas of course is the notion of music from diverse cultures, especially when it comes to ‘new’ music by which we might presumably mean anything written in the last 50 years? For example, in a country like New Zealand which, being relatively ‘young’ in terms of internationalised culture and isolated until the telecommunication revolution of the internet, developed a particular musical ‘voice’ that initially looked back to European ancestors and then rapidly has embraced a far more diverse and multicultural influences: predominantly Polynesian and Asian with a smattering of other world music and jazz.

    While some would bemoan the ‘aging audience’ and ‘falling ticket sales’ it is by no means universal and frequently when ‘new’ music is included in the programme the audience is far more demographically spread than one might expect. Rather than the works themselves, sometimes it is the timing and presentation of the concerts which needs to move….

    And on the other side of the coin: one of our New Zealand composers (John Psathas) has described the kind of music that he creates as “evolving at it’s owen pace, not subject to the vagiires of fashion…” whiuch is as good a definition of new ‘classical’ music as I’ve come across. In the end, perhaps this new ‘classical’ music should not buy into the popularity stakes of being the next ‘hot thing’ or a six-month ‘hit’ anyway.

  4. jerome langguth says

    Thanks for your remarks in reply to my last comment. I see your point about film and the other arts compared to classical music. I expressed myself badly, I fear, in my first post. I don’t think that everything is fine as it is in the classical music world, and I have never really bought into the “apples and oranges” view either. My original point was just that the overarching narrative of “classical music”, according to which “serious” or “art” music just is classical music, might not be terribly useful today. The (possible) implication is that “new music” and “classical music” don’t necessarily fit together as moments in a single narrative anymore. Perhaps the world of classical music is no longer best thought of as a single, monolithic, realm of art-music; and musicians, composers, and presenters of music should feel free not to place the music of newer composers alongside recognized masterworks of the classical canon (though they might if it made artistic sense). As you mentioned in an earlier post, a composer like Steve Reich or Terry Riley might compose music inspired by John Coltrane and Indian classical music rather than by 16th-19th century classical music. My question was whether assuming the continued existence of a unitary “classical music” realm that unites Bach, Beethoven, and Reich in pretty much the same way we have traditionally conceived of such historical linkages is responsive to the rich complexity of the contemporary scene. In suggesting this, I thought I was amplifying what I take to be a central theme of your blog; that the world of classical music has in many respects not kept pace with the broader musical landscape.

    Jay, I’m sorry if I misunderstood you. In any case, I love what you’re saying here, which in some ways reinforces things I’ve said for a long time, and in some ways challenges me. That is, I’ve long said that classical music events need to have more new music in them. And you, if I’m understanding you right, wonder why that has to be true. Because in many ways new classical music — or a lot of the stuff that really feels current, in terms of what’s going on outside classical music — is more closely tied to music that isn’t classical.

    I guess I’m envisaging a future in which the current classical music world has greatly changed. And in which somehow Steve Reich can be seen as somehow in the same universe as Brahms, and also in the same universe as drumming from Ghana.

    But maybe that will never happen! In pop music, different kinds of people listen to very different music, and maybe it would be culturally and artistically healthy — as well as just plain natural — if this happened in classical music, too. Certainly at the present moment, big classical music institutions need to keep on doing things the old way for their existing audience (and funders), while moving in new directions for the new audience they need to attract, if they’re going to have the future. I guess I’ve assumed that at some point, these two approaches more or less merge, but maybe that’s not a very logical assumption. You’ve really given me something to think about! Thanks.