Long, challenging, instrumental, beatless

Previously, in this series of posts: a piano teacher talks about how much independence and creativity kids in bands have.

The subject of this series is attitudes toward pop music in the classical world, and how a disdainful attitude isn’t just wrong, but hurts classical music.

Here’s the second installment, posted by Kate Nielsen in her blog God Help Me, I’ve Started Blogging. Earlier in the post (full disclosure here), she says nice things about me. Thanks for that, Kate, and thanks especially for emailing me to tell me about your post. What matters in it, I should hardly have to say, isn’t her Greg Sandow praise, but her very savvy thoughts about marketing and the new audience, as follows. Note especially the last two paragraphs:

Classical Music enthusiasts complain about dwindling sales but the ability of classical recordings to reach new audiences is being held back by the same people who want the genre to remain elitist and won’t accept change for fear of ‘dumbing down’ or not doing things the way they have always been done.

The idea that Classical Music requires some sort of specialist, trained ear to really appreciate is pure nonsense and there is no reason why it should be marketed in the apartheid way that is currently is. Rock magazines talk about Reggae. Jazz magazines talk about Hip Hop. Most real music fans have a very catholic range of likes. What makes Classical Music people think they are so special?

I know plenty of people with tastes for long, challenging, instrumental, beat-less pieces of music. They listen to classical music if it is on labels like ECM or Rune Grammofon and promoted via blogs and websites that carry other styles of music that they also like. In fact I know a lot of people who obsessively seek out this kind of thing. They wouldn’t think twice about buying a collection of string quartets or an album of orchestral music if it was presented to them in this way.

But they won’t know about it if it’s only reviewed in Classical Music publications and they won’t buy it if it has a picture of a violinist in an evening dress on the cover.

I asked Kate to tell me more about the people she’s describing, and — with a blend of modesty and precision we all might emulate (including me) — she carefully specified what she knows and what she doesn’t know. What she feels she can speak about are the people she knows who do what she’s described. There are also people she doesn’t know, and she can’t speak for them.

The people she does know, she describes as “music enthusiasts in their 30s and 40s who work in the creative and media industries in London and NYC.” She adds that “it’s fair to say that 30-40-something creative types are an adventurous audience musically. And that they spend decent money on buying records (and MP3s).”

This sounds like an older version of the young audiences I’ve seen, and blogged about, at concerts in New York. It’s beyond dispute, by now, that there’s a large potential audience for classical music, who won’t be attracted to normal classical concerts or recordings.

It’s also beyond dispute that these people listen to a lot of serious pop music. And so, my friends who dump on pop, or despise it, or rage against it, or tolerate it but think it’s artistically inferior — how are you going to bring this new audience to classical music, if you keep telling them that most of the music they like is crap?


Footnote: I hadn’t heard of Rude Grammophon. It’s a Norwegian record label, which on its website is described this way:

Rune Grammofon is a record label dedicated to releasing work by the most adventurous and creative Norwegian artists and composers.

Being music enthusiasts almost to the point of absurdity, we don’t want to limit ourselves to certain genres, as long as there’s real heart and personality. With an increasing number of indifferent records bombarding the market place, we modestly aim to recapture the magic connected to the discovery of new artists and buying their records. Our aim is to put love and care into each release, giving it the best possible design and packaging. No plastic, ever. All releases come in the digipak format with exclusive design by brilliant designer Kim Hiorthøy.

I’ve been listening to tracks from their releases, and love them. People who rage against postmodern bogeymen will probably hate this stuff, but anyone comfortable with Stockhausen and Bjork should take it in with as much delight as I’m having.

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  1. says

    A) Kate should look at the covers for CSO Resound (where I work) and Virgin Classics, and then say the cover art is awful and fusty and no good at all. People frequently write to me praising the artwork alone.

    B) Kate should then tell me how to get my albums, which consist of orchestral music, reviewed by Pitchfork. This is a two-way street between classical music and music writers and pop-music fans, and the writers who enjoy writing about Style X and classical music are few and far between.

    I’ve tried to get CSO Resound posters put up in Chicago record stores. Non-starter. Which I understand, because it’s your store and classical music doesn’t necessarily fit the image you’re trying to project, no matter how well it’s designed and packaged.

    I’d say the CSO Resound and Virgin Classics covers show how far classical music still needs to go. They’re perfect examples of art that just doesn’t cut it in our current culture. For one thing, they’re too text-heavy. For another thing, they have no apparent point of view, though they’re somewhat attractive, in a fairly vague way. But I get no take on life from them, no idea of how my life is going to improve or change if I listen to the music the covers supposedly illustrate. No wonder record stores don’t want to post them! I wouldn’t. And it has nothing to do with classical music.

    Anyone can Google these two labels, and see for themselves. I’d recommend going to the CD Universe page for the labels, because that way you can see a number of covers quickly.

    I’d also recommend a look at the covers Naive used for its Vivaldi opera singers. Some of them are truly arresting, and play directly into the tremendous sexual excitement that was inherent in Baroque opera. I’ll admit that they don’t relate much to the experience of listening to those records, but still — they’re full of spunk.

    As for Pitchfork, why, exactly, would you think mainstream classical releases fit their zeitgeist? I remember years ago when Sony Classics had a lot of success promoting a Glenn Gould reissue to pop writers, but that’s because Gould has attitude. One of those CSO performances with Haitink conducting, let’s say — well, they’re fine inside the classical world, but they don’t have any attitude at all, no apparent point of view on life. So in a musical world (indie rock) where point of view is all-important, it’s hard to see why anyone would be interested.

  2. Yvonne says

    The Gardiner Bach Cantata series also features arresting covers. (These are the ones that feature close up photographs of faces from a whole range of different, non-Western, cultures.) Again, you could argue they don’t relate much to the listening experience or to the musical/theological content, but they do pop out from the shelves in a record store and are memorable, simply because they boldly use imagery that is never seen on classical music covers.

    I like those covers a lot. I think they’re making a point — that the musical or at least the religious impulse in the music is universal. Not sure that’s really true, since the Lutheran slant of the texts is very particular, not universal at all. And quite dour, when you listen carefully to several cantatas in a row. But yes, wonderful, gripping, honest imagery.

  3. says

    You’re right, Greg. We should just pull up the stakes now, and quit. God, why didn’t I see that before?

    I don’t know what motivates you. I don’t know why you go around dumping on the people in the trenches who are trying to fix things. I do know that people write in to me saying they like the album covers, and bought them on that basis alone.

    I also know there are several thousand people all over the world that enjoy those Haitink albums. So it saddens me somewhat that you don’t. But I know that his forthright, all-about-the-music, not-about-me style isn’t for everyone. Luckily, it’s a big world and you can find other recordings that fit your needs. I bet you have a friend or two you can give those promo CDs away to.

    Marc, with all respect, you’re foaming at the mouth here, not paying attention to what I said, and not really making sense. Did I say those recordings are bad, or that I don’t like Haitink’s conducting? (I have a very fond memory of him, at his advanced age, literally jumping off the podium at a Boston Symphony performance of Ein Heldenleben. A performance which, musically, was sensational.) Not at all. I said that the covers, while very attractive, didn’t have a point of view, and might not interest an audience outside of classical music.

    I’ve spent a lot of time, in many cities, with people working in the trenches to make things better. I might not always agree with them, or them with me, but that hasn’t stopped me from working with them, or having them as friends, or learning a lot from them, or being hired by them to do projects or to consult. I’m about to spend a week in Australia, where I’ve been invited to meet dozens of people who won’t agree with me about everything I or they think, but whom I’ll talk with very happily, and surely learn a lot from.

    Which will happen because we’ll all treat each other with respect, and not blow up at the first hint of disagreement.

  4. says

    Greg, what you wrote about the Haitink albums – or a representative Haitink album – was, “…[W]ell, they’re fine inside the classical world, but they don’t have any attitude at all, no apparent point of view on life. So in a musical world (indie rock) where point of view is all-important, it’s hard to see why anyone would be interested.”

    To me, saying that something or someone doesn’t “have any attitude” and that “it’s hard to see why anyone would be interested” within a particular scene is close to indistinguishable from saying that you don’t like it. It’s a better, more nuanced way of saying it, of course, but it comes down to the same thing.

    I haven’t tried to get those Haitink albums reviewed on Pitchfork, for similar reasons to those you mentioned. There’s no real angle with a Mahler symphony and those critics. I used that site as an example because they do have some influence (a lot, really) on the music-consuming audience and putting music on to people’s radars. What I was trying to say was that we can try to get our music and musicians noticed by the larger popular culture (and we should).

    But the larger popular culture also has to make some effort. This isn’t a bad, must-eat-your-vegetables kind of effort, it’s the sort of thing that leads hipsters to start listening to Sharon Jones. Great singer, great performer, but retro-soul doesn’t have the same immediate audience that electro-pop does. It takes a little bit of effort, or maybe curiosity, to get out of one style and into another.

    And tastemakers have a roll in that, and if you (i.e., me) have a difficult time getting the ear of the tastemakers, it’s even harder to get music fans’ curiosity directed your way. That’s all I’m saying.

    Peace out, Marc