More that I said…

…in Australia. This finishes my paraphrase of my keynote talk at the Australian classical music summit, as summarized from my notes.

The story so far (you can read the first part here): our culture has changed, but classical music for decades didn’t change with it. This is why the field is in trouble, why we’re seeing declines in ticket sales, a sharp drop in the percentage of adults who go to classical performances, drops in funding, and other declines.

Implications of all this

First: If classical music’s problems are due to how far it strayed from our culture, then people in the classical music world must learn to understand the culture they’re in. We have to learn to see the world as it appears to people who aren’t into classical music. I don’t think we’ve done that very well, and that — to me — is one of the classical music world’s biggest failings.

Second: Music education isn’t the answer. We’re not going to renew classical music by teaching it in our schools. There are many reasons for this, but the simplest is that it won’t work. Kids may learn to like classical music, but they’ll also — as is only natural — get caught up in the larger culture, in which classical music doesn’t have much to offer. Maybe some of them will go to classical performances when they’re older, but it’s hard to imagine enough of them going to replace the audience we have now. (It’s also hard to imagine how, in the US, we’ll ever get cities and states to put up the money for classical music education, given that money is short, and — a rather serious stumbling block! — people aren’t interested in classical music in the first place.)

Third: There’s a tendency, in the classical music world, to beat up on the media, to blame it for not covering classical music, and to demand more coverage. This won’t work. Of course the media doesn’t cover classical music. People aren’t interested in it. To go to the media with an aggrieved sense of entitlement won’t — to put it mildly — be convincing. If we want media coverage, we’ll have to do things vivid enough for the media to want to cover, all on their own. (And this, in keeping with what I said in at the end of the last installment, means doing smarter things, not — as many people fear — dumber things.)

Fourth: In our current culture, classical music doesn’t seem very interesting. It doesn’t come across as a contemporary art, doesn’t deal with contemporary life, doesn’t probe into the contemporary world with powerful artistic impact, the way a profound TV series like The Wire does. It doesn’t reflect the sound, the feeling, the thoughts, the emotions of our current world.

And there’s something brain-dead about the way classical music presents itself. My favorite example: the instrumentation of orchestral works, as dutifully listed in orchestra concert programs. (“Three flutes, one doubling piccolo, three oboes, one doubling English horn, three clarinets, one doubling E flat clarinet and one doubling bass clarinet…”) At least in our big orchestras, these lists don’t correspond with what the audience sees on stage. The composer wrote the piece for four horns, two trumpets, and three trombones, but what’s on stage are five horns, three trumpets, and four trombones.

Why? Because the principal horn and trumpet have the royal privilege of not playing some of the ensemble passages in their parts, so they can save themselves for their solos. An extra player sits on stage to play those passages. The top trombone part will sound better, in soft music, with two players on it instead of two.

These are fascinating details of orchestral life. But they’re never explained to the audience. And meanwhile the instrumentation lists — night after night, week after week, year after year — don’t correspond to what the whole world can see on stage, and nobody seems to care. If that doesn’t show a disconnect between classical music and the world — even with its own world! — I don’t know what does. We’ve ossified. We’ve forgotten that we’re a group of people, doing things for other people, who may have thoughts about what we do, and may notice discrepancies in what we present.


Classical music isn’t going to die. It’s going to be reborn, which I why I’m calling my book on the future of classical music Rebirth. Though the rebirth might in some ways be painful, because it’ll involve some profound change.

The good news, though, is that the process already has started. Classical music has been changing on its own, becoming more like the rest of our culture. We see this in big organizations, smaller ones, and, sometimes explosively, from individuals. Performing musicians, for instance, or composers.

And this means classical music is getting smarter. It’s getting more alert, more lively, more thoughtful, less ritualized, less ossified, more in tune with the other arts — painting, theater, dance, poetry (not to mention more popular arts like film, fashion, and graphic design) — and more in tune with our current lives.

It’s becoming — at last reflecting changes that started to happen in our culture long ago — more informal, more transparent, more individual, and more creative.

In the future, I can imagine a classical music world in which at least half of all performances are of contemporary music, music by living composers. A classical music world in which the old masterworks find their place — and, more important, their meaning — by constantly being heard in the context of the music of our own time.

I can imagine new classical music that sounds like the music elsewhere in our culture — classical music that often has a beat (as the works by many young composers already have), that reflects trends in jazz, pop, and world music, just as classical music reflected the vernacular music of past centuries. (Except a lot of what happens in jazz and pop and world music today isn’t only vernacular — it’s art.)

I can imagine a classical music world in which people in the audience know what performers are trying to do — in which conductors and soloists and chamber groups would explain their goals in a performance, state the difficulties each piece gives them, and lets the audience follow their success — or failure — in meeting those difficulties.

I can imagine a classical music world that reflects things in contemporary life, a classical music world in which (just for example) competitions take on some aspects of reality shows, because judges would state in public what they thought of everyone’s playing, and in which musicians in the competition wouldn’t simply play, but would be given challenges — to play a piece twice, for instance, in two entirely different ways, or to play a new work they’d never seen before, in which the composer hasn’t indicated tempo, dynamics, or articulation. We’d then see how much musical imagination the musicians had, not just how well they’d learned to play the music they’ve practiced.

I can imagine a classical music world that reaches beyond classical music and its standard audience, as my cellist friend Peter Gregson does in London, where he’s resident artist at a members-only club whose members are rising, upscale, powerful people in media, exactly the kind of people we don’t see going to classical concerts, or funding them. Peter also has released his first album, not on a classical label, but on a series Peter Gabriel curates for the high-end loudspeaker company Bowers & Wilkins. Peter Gregson, in other words, is going outside classical music, to reach an audience attracted by the wide-ranging taste of one of the most artistic musicians in pop music. In the future, I can imagine a classical music world in which everyone reached audienc

es of that kind — in which those audiences would be the classical music audience.

And I can imagine a classical music world in which the playing of classical music is reinvigorated and transformed. A classical music world in which musicians discuss performance enhancements — mood lighting, talking to the audience, projecting thoughts about the music on screens during performances, showing videos. And then decide not to add any of those things, but instead to play the music so vividly that no enhancement is necessary. For the old masterworks, especially, this would be a revelation. To rise to the occasion, to make everything in these pieces so clear, so contrasted, and so dramatic — or else so quiet, so probing, so rapt — that nobody needed any education or explanation to follow what’s going on, and so that even people (like me) who know many of those pieces by heart would sit up, open our eyes and ears, and hear the music as if we’d never heard it before.

That, to me, would be a profound kind of rebirth, and I’m looking forward to it with the greatest excitement.

This, to me, is the best exposition I’ve ever given of my ideas about classical music, what’s wrong with it and where it’s going. I’m available, needless to say, to give this talk (at greater length, if anyone wants that, and with much more detail) anywhere, arrangements permitting. I’ll create a single PDF from my two installments of this, and make it available for anyone to download.

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  1. Muzition says

    “…play a new work they’d never seen before, in which the composer hasn’t indicated tempo, dynamics, or articulation.”

    That would be really cool! I’d like to hear that.

    Glad you like it!

    I owe the idea to Ben Verdery, the guitar professor at the Yale School of Music. He does this when he auditions prospective students. All credit to him for thinking of it!

  2. Michael Cooper says

    Thank you for these excellent thoughts, Greg. I personally also suspect that one other symptom-and-cause of Classical music’s diminished appeal in the popular imagination centers around another socially influential factor whose emergence coincides with the beginning of Classical music’s ossification: film. (Part of the semiotic code of Hollywood films aimed at mass audiences is that if a character or institution is associated with or likes music that sounds “Classical,” she, he, or it is almost always evil, corrupt, or murderous — how many piano teachers who’re also murderers are there in real life? far fewer than there are in the movies. — or at best irrelevant. The stylistic features of the “bad” classical music are precisely what you identify: no beat, obviously white, no acknowledgment of imaginative elements that have emerged in the non-Classical world, and so on. The millions of audience members who attend these films every year are implicitly but potently instructed that music that sounds “Classical” *is* what those sounds are associated with in those films. We probably shouldn’t blame them for their distaste for it, and we probably should blame ourselves for our failure to recognize the truth — and the ramifications for art — of what Germaine de Staël stated already in 1800: “an artist must be of his own time.” Music that inserts its continued relevance by relying on the fact that it’s called “Classical” has no more credibility in that claim than do the findings of large corporations when they’re investigating the viability or questionability of their own company’s products.

    My own two cents, submitted not as a supplement but as an expression of gratitude . . .

    Thanks, Michael, and what an interesting point. I’m thinking of Vincent Price in “Laura,” who evasively answers the detective’s question about where he’d been the night of the murder. “At the symphony.” “What did they play>” “Brahms’s First and Beethoven’s Ninth.” We know he’s not telling the whole truth.

    Where do we place films that glorify classical music? “Immortal Beloved,” “Carnegie Hall,” even, in its sweetly sentimental way, “Moonstruck.” I’d love a list of films where classical music is coded the way you describe, so I can benefit from your greater knowledge.

    Thanks so much for your warm words, and your thought.

  3. says

    When you delivered this presentation in Sydney, the comment about instrumentations really made me laugh. But it also made me want to jump up and interrupt.

    Because here in Sydney, the orchestra does indeed list instrumentations at the ends of notes. It’s not done “dutifully”, though, but because enough people have said they like it and find it interesting, especially in large-scale works or works with unusual instruments. [They also love the performance history information. But I digress.]

    More to the point, in Sydney we often take the opportunity of the instrumentation listing to give some context, especially if the make-up of the orchestra isn’t discussed in the notes. For example, explaining that this was a typical formation for a city or a period of composition. Or pointing out something unusual about an instrument, perhaps an instrument being omitted that you’d usually expect to see there.

    For example, pages 12 and 17 in this recent program. And page 11 in this one.

    It’s true these lists don’t note or explain the presence of, say, a bumper horn. (Bumpers are mentioned/explained in Sydney programs maybe a couple of times a year – you can’t talk about everything every time.) But as Osbert Parsley has pointed out, such lists are really about parts, rather than players. Perhaps an improvement there would be to specify that there are parts for x instruments.

    I’d also add that Sydney programs go to a great deal of trouble to draw people’s attention to what they’re seeing on stage as well as hearing. We care very much about that. For example, next week the SSO plays Bernstein’s Age of Anxiety. The “speed read” note in the margin of the main note begins [italics mine]:

    Bernstein’s second symphony is a curious thing. It’s called a symphony (Symphony No.2) which suggests an abstract, formal orchestral work. It has a nickname (Age of Anxiety) which points to a literary inspiration in Auden’s poem as well as suggesting a narrative or philosophical underpinning to the music – not abstract, then. Then, to add to the ambiguity, as you watch the stage being set after the Candide suite, you could well be forgiven for thinking that you were about to hear a piano concerto.

    Yvonne, much of this is a tribute to your terrific work with the Sydney Symphony. Which isn’t to say that in Australia you all might not generally be more creative in how you use this information.

    Once, when I was writing program notes for a major American orchestra, I tried to be creative myself — to add to the list of instruments a few comments on how some of the instruments were used in that particular piece. That was greeted with, I swear, absolute horror. I never understood why. Apparently some powerful people thought the unadorned list had some archival value, and couldn’t be tampered with.

  4. says

    Thanks, Greg! I agree that this is your best summary so far, clearer than ever that the problem is not our culture’s abandonment of classical music, but rather classical music’s abandonment of contemporary culture.

    I really like your reminder that re-engaging will require smartening up, not dumbing down.

    One of the main features of the rebirth will be a diversity that is almost unimaginable now. We won’t be able to recognize classical musicians by what they wear, or where they perform, or what tools they use, or who the composers are.

    Thanks, John. Means a lot, coming from you. And I love your vision of the future!

  5. Michael Cooper says

    I have a theory about those other films, too (those who’ve heard it have found it convincing). The list of the ones that fit squarely with the point is lengthy; I’ll send it in an e-mail. The notion works well enough that I’m now able to predict the “whodunnit” aspect, or foretell that some seemingly benign character will eventually turn out to be a dramatic antagonist, on the basis of this musical proclivity (my family and friends have been pretty impressed). The accuracy rate is somewhere in the 90%-95% range.

    For now, suffice it to say that the Classic example of the arch-evil Classical-music lover is Hannibal Lecter (of The Silence of the Lambs and Hannibal), whose cannibal episodes are directly attached, in the films, to Glenn Gould’s rendering of Bach and a botched performance of the Scherzo from Mendelssohn’s incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Lecter’s passionate devotion to this Classical music mirrors his utterly sociopathic psyche precisely. It has been years since I read Thomas Harris’s books on which the movies are based, but my recollection is that this affinity for Classical music is *not* called for by the books — i.e., that the films introduced it as a device for character portrayal. But as I said, it has been years (and at that point I was just a kid who knew only a bit of Mendelssohn and less Bach), so don’t hold me to that.

    I’ll send an e-mail list later, just FYI.

    Best wishes, with thanks again for these excellent posts,


    Thanks, Michael. Very, very interesting. I’ll look forward to your email, and to discussing this with you when we meet next year.

  6. says

    Thanks for this summary. It has taken me some time to get to it. Your thesis ties in well with the Ken Nielsen Manifesto about which you wrote recently.

    While I agree about the pointlessness of seeking more classical music education, there are important and broad benefits from a general music education from an early age. As long as it is eclectic and not highjacked by any particular genre, the recipients will come out with a real understanding of the complex foundations of our current musical cultures. Some of them may even be less frightened by a contemporary classical performance than many of today’s audiences, brought up with what we used to think should be a classical music education.

    I was taken by your imagining “….classical music that sounds like the music elsewhere in our culture — classical music that often has a beat”. The Australian group Taikoz has demonstrated this admirably. They have taken on the ancient Japanese culture of taiko and developed a unique approach which has enthused a broad classical audience as well as many others. The former think of them as theirs. The latter would not even give classification a thought. The ensemble collaborates as happily with Shakuhachi as with a saxophone quartet.

    I have no doubt youth will take us all forward. But there is a need to bang a few heads together among many of our “white tie and tails” wearing classical musicians to make them realize there is more to do out there than revisit what they consider to be “good” music.

  7. says

    I’ve been following your blog for quite sometime, and I agree wholeheartedly that this is the best exposition to date of all of your ideas. It’s clear and concise. Bravo!

    One thing that you’ve mentioned here is something I have been stewing over for the past several months: the utter lack of creativity (or as you put it, “imagination”) in the classical music world. There are, of course, exceptions, as always, but as a composer I have found that most instrumentalists and, unfortunately, most composers would likely fail at a standard creativity test administered by psychologists. I find that creativity is simply not valued in academic music education, although those who succeed in their careers are usually creative in their approaches to their art and their ideas about what they do and how they do it.

    This last week I happened upon a reality TV show on the Bravo network titled “Work of Art”. In it, many artists compete to become “the next great artist” (and I found that part a bit pretentious) by completing a series artworks using subject matter and media that have been provided to the artists in each challenge. Contestants are eliminated, etc.

    My wife, an academically trained visual artist and graphic designer, upon seeing the challenges issued to the artists (e.g. “Make a work about your childhood, using only the materials found in this children’s playroom” or something to that effect) casually remarked, “This reminds me of college.”

    Such training would be unheard of for composers, “Go home this week and write one complete piece per day, each one about a different kind of soup”. Although such precise directions are a boon to creative thinking (which is why they are used in the visual arts), I know for a fact that such a request from a composition program would produce severe anxiety, and ultimately quitting or failure among many of its students. That kind of diverse “imagination” and adaptability is simply not expected in music education and it is certainly not a prerequisite to becoming a composer (or performer), whereas I feel that it is certainly a prerequisite for becoming a visual artist (or writer, or choreographer, etc.).

    I daresay that if music students (of all sorts) were actually encouraged and taught to be imaginative in their pursuits, we would end up with a much more interesting classical music milieu, and a much more vibrant art to appreciate and enjoy.

    Thanks, Sam. Many of my students, over the years, would strongly agree with you. And thanks for that bit about “The Next Great Work of Art,” a show I’ve watched a couple of times. I agree — classical composers (and performing musicians) aren’t given challenges like this. They should be!

    David Del Tredici told me he once started a composition seminar by asking his students to keep a diary in music. Something completely new to them, I’m sure, though I don’t know what the results were.

  8. says

    Bull’s-eye Greg. An excellent distillation of the status quo, and the changes needed to achieve a “a classical music world in which the playing of classical music is reinvigorated and transformed,” as you say.

    I think you are articulating a meme that is becoming more pervasive. While some are resisting change, many (most, in my view) crave it. Some are trying to institute it.

    You mention Peter Gregson. Other examples:

    – Jason Nett: Canadian rock guitarist / composer in residence for the Vancouver Island Symphony. He’s on record as saying that orchestras today are nothing but “glorfied cover bands.” He believe every instrument should be mic’d, and the orchestra moved out of the traditional hall (

    – Matt Haimovitz had been performing the Bach solo cello suites in bars, with great success.

    – Windsor Symphony conductor and MD John Morris Russell has brought dance, film, narratives and more to the Windsor Symphony, again with great success (i.e. attracting audiences who would otherwise never attend).

    This subject matters to me for three reasons:

    1) I’m a classically trained musician who works exclusively in jazz, but I listen almost exclusively to classical. I want to see the music survive, and thrive.

    (2) Jazz appears to be recapitulating the historical trajectory of classical, moving from being a creative to a re-creative art. Jazz is calcifying. It is facing many of the same challenges (“symptoms” as you call them,) as classical. There will surely be common solutions.

    3) As a member of the Executive of the Glenn Gould Foundation, and Director of the Glenn Gould Lectures,I work to promote the legacy of Gould, i.e. excellence and creative vision in the media, technology and the arts. Your work, and the entire search for classical music’s renewal is an exercise in creative vision. I want to be there as the exercise evolves.

    Professionally, I’ve literally put my money where my fingers are by developing a project called Symphronica ( It’s meant to be a melding of jazz and classical. NOt third stream. Not pops. My compositions arranged for my piano/ bass/ drum trio with orchestra. Not the usual pops ‘footballs’, ‘pads’ and ‘goose eggs’. Through-composed plus improvised music. Accessible, but undiluted, music.

    I’d love nothing more than to tour Symphronica on the club circuit. (Oh to have the financing for that!)

    Thank you for your work Greg. Much appreciated.

  9. Jeffrey Nytch says

    All I can say is, AMEN!

    Thanks for this great summary — not just of what you’ve been saying all along, but of what the classical world needs to hear.