“Revolutions are NOT begun by the Establishment!”

On the League of American Orchestras’ Orchestra R/Evolution blog, I posted something that won’t exactly take my regular readers by surprise. I suggested that the most important thing orchestras can do is to see themselves as those who don’t go to orchestra concerts see them. Or, more broadly, to start functioning in the larger culture that classical music fled from over the past two generations.

I got a wonderful response in a comment from Rick Robinson, a bass player with the Detroit Symphony. I’m posting it here with his permission. Eloquent, to say the least. And right on target.

As a black musician in a great orchestra, I concur that we have so LITTLE resonance in our larger community that I’m usually too embarrassed to tell strangers what I do for a living… fearing they will give me the usual lip service of how PROUD they are of me yet they have never come, or even WANTED to come to a concert.

We feel the love of our donors, subscribers, volunteers and sponsors, but if the otherwise savvy concert-going man on the street doesn’t consider us a good time because he feels alienated, we either need to find a way to make it REAL for him or keep ignoring him!

I desparately want to engage him but it’s going to take some crazy new music that blends classical with styles that speak to him already… and it’s going to take some clever amplification. Then it’s going to take some speaking from the heart like a BEAT poet about how Bach and Mahler empowered me to overcome fear and inferiority.

I go to hear great jazzers in my neighborhood and discovered why improvising is so RIVETING… whether as foreground OR background. When I hear rock music, I know that the body fully resonates to the strum of the guitar, the buzz of the bass and the intoxicating patterns of the drums. Volume is key.

For this reason, I believe a TRUE revolution can only be driven by musicians… musicians able and willing to TRANSCRIBE the orchestra experience into a jazz or rock-LIKE experience.

I’ve started two “symphonic bands” that COULD possibly do this with some investment. But revolutions are NOT begun by the Establishment!

I love that last sentence. Which among other things would seem to mean — and I’ll stress that this is my interpretation, not necessarily Rick’s — that the League can talk all it wants about revolution, and invite the whole world to join the conversation, but won’t be able to do much to make a revolution happen.

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  1. ray says

    Make the symphonic experience “more like rock or jazz?” HOW? Attempting to combine classical and “popular” music never works – Gunther Schuller has been pushing this for years (“third stream” music) and even Milton Babbitt wrote “All Set” for jazz ensemble, but there’s no real audience for it, aside from a few sympathetic composers and critics.

    And unlike the person quoted in the article, I dont see where “improvisation” is such a big deal – i’m an organist and composer and I can improvise organ preludes in church (I do it all the time) but to me WRITTEN DOWN music comes first!

    What is a “symphonic band” supposed to be? It certainly wont be anything classical, and all that results is “crossover” music (pop songs intermingled with something that’s supposed to sound “classical,”) who needs that?

    To me, all this talk about classical music supposedly “dying” is a great exaggeration – this music still has an audience – naturally a smaller and more sophisticated one, since to truly understand it you have to know something about it. Shakespeare plays have a smaller audience for the same reason. And while on blogs like this one, all the emphasis is put on live concerts, look at classical radio stations, which large numbers of people like.

    I’ve met truck drivers who told me they started listening to the classical stations because they got tired of what the non-classical stations were playing (something I understand completely)!

    “Crazy new music” appeals only to an extremely small segment of the classical audience – it wont bring people to the concert hall. Actually, it’s been driving the mainstream classical audience away for decades – putting more of it on programs wont make the people who hate it suddenly learn to be more accepting.

    Thanks to recordings, the audience for music has become increasingly fragmented – people who like any type of music can have that and they dont need anything else. What’s wrong with that? Classical music has an audience – accept the listeners who are there! More people like it than you think.

    Well, that last point is something I’ve discussed in this blog for years, and written about in the riffs from my book. Go to the “Rebirth” link on the top right of my blog, and read the “Dire Data” chapter. The classical music audience has been shrinking, over the long term, and the classical music world — though rarely is this discussed in public — knows this very wel, and is worried about it. If the classical audience (and with it the big classical performing institutions) looked like it could sustain itself, we wouldn’t be having these discussions.

    As for combining classical and pop, your examples are a bit long in the tooth. A new generation of composers has no trouble at all combining the two idioms, and has had great success doing it (as also has been chronicled here in my blog for some years).

  2. says

    Actually, I’d somewhat dispute the claim of this post. What you’re talking about is fostering disruptive innovation within an existing institutional framework that discourages it, because it is inconsistent with the organization’s existing processes, values, and business model. This general problem has been extensively studied in the context of business innovation, with the most well-known authority on it being Clayton Christensen of the Harvard Business School.

    In his book “The Innovator’s Solution” Christensen recommends as the most successful approach setting up semi-autonomous subsidiaries specifically to introduce new innovations into the market, instead of trying to bring innovations to market through the existing organization. The subsidiary would be a separate profit and loss center given the freedom to explore alternative business models and pioneer new markets,

    In Rick Robinson’s case that would correspond to his orchestra sponsoring him in setting up his proposed “symphonic band”, providing him some basic administrative support, but otherwise getting out of the way. Rick would be free to use his own methods to raise funds, reach out to prospective listeners, recruit musicians, find suitable venues, etc. If the experiment failed then the orchestra would simply withdraw its support, and if it succeeded the orchestra would have a new “line of business”, as it were.

  3. says

    This is interesting, especially in light of today’s blog about whether classical music is ‘superior’ to other genres. As long as the powers-that-be in classical music-making are guarding the fort it will continue to be tough for anyone trying to do anything different to make an impact.

    I’ve been running the Dilettante website for 2 1/2 years now, and we’ve been treated with condescension and suspicion by the ‘Establishment’ since the day the site launched, with a few rare and refreshing exceptions. Mostly, it’s been arms crossed, a foot tapping, and an expression that reads ‘who do you think you are?’

    I agree with Rick Robinson that revolutions are not begun by those people, but I’d go further than your interpretation: I’m tired of organisations like the League deploying jargon about big tents and joining ‘conversations’ when the reality is that they’re really only willing to engage with the usual suspects.

    So true!

    I’ll look forward to browsing your site. The link you offered has one too many l’s — correct one is http://www.dilettantemusic.com

  4. ray says

    Well, maybe some composers have had “success” combining classical and pop music – but what kind of “classical music” are you talking about? I cant see a sonata form and a pop song going together.

    I mentioned the Milton Babbitt and Gunther Schuller examples because they’re still living composers (at least Babbitt is), and those attempts to combine avant-garde music and jazz failed when it came to gaining public acceptance by either the classical audience OR the jazz audience.

    I dont see why there’s a need to combine them at all – let classical stay on its side and let the other kinds of music do the same!

    As I said in the other post, classical music has an audience – naturally a smaller and more sophisticated one, since to completely understand it you have to know something about it. If a person listens to a haydn symphony and doesnt know what a sonata form is, it’ll just sound like notes rushing by – but when you DO know, its a different story!

    Maybe there is a small audience for “alt-classical music” combined with pop music, but for orchestras that’s not practical, since the audience that goes to symphony concerts isnt going want to hear either one in the concert hall. Besides, if the “standard repertoire” is going to be played, that music wont exactly fit in with it.

    I know plenty of people who like classical music and people who are classical musicians themselves and none of them have any interest in new music – when they hear it, it makes no sense to them. Now there’s something composers need to think about. And its not just atonal avant garde music – the same goes for “minimalism.”

  5. says

    If a person listens to a haydn symphony and doesnt know what a sonata form is, it’ll just sound like notes rushing by – but when you DO know, its a different story!

    I disagree with this. The sonata form is based on putting some material out there, playing around with it, and then recapitulating it in slightly different form. Even if you don’t know that there are supposed to be two themes and the second one is normally in the dominant, etc., you can get the gist of what’s going on if you’re listening with some attention. (“Look! There’s that first theme, except it’s in the minor mode, and the key keeps changing!”) My appreciation of sonata-form works long predated my appreciation of sonata form – in fact, it was reading that some of my favorite movements from classical works were in sonata form that made me want to investigate the form.