I’ve said I gave a keynote speech at the Australian classical music summit, but I haven’t said much more about my presence there — here or here — because what they did, I thought, was more important than what I did.
But, for anyone curious, here’s what I said in my talk. I’m paraphrasing myself from notes, and giving just a summary. Often I record my talks on my iPhone, but I didn’t do it this time, and no other recording was made.
Added later: Forgot to say here that — in my talk — I stressed that my thoughts were only about what I’ve observed in the US, and sometimes elsewhere, in Europe and the UK. I have no authority to diagnose problems in Australia, or to prescribe solutions.
The biggest problem classical music has now is that it hasn’t kept up with our culture. Our culture has changed (has been changing for two generations). Classical music hasn’t changed nearly as much. Our culture has become more informal, creative, and participatory. Classical music is only starting to move in those directions. It’s still largely formal, handed down from above.
Two other cultural changes stand out.
First, popular culture has developed its own serious art. So we no longer can talk about classical music (and the other high arts) standing opposed to cheap mass entertainment. Classical music now coexists with subtle, complex new forms of musical art, which to a contemporary audience may seem more intelligent, and certainly are more deeply tied to contemporary life and thought.
Second, we’re seeing the end of white, European hegemony in the world. This is more than a grandly vague, suspiciously PC statement. White, European-based culture really is losing its dominance, and it’s natural that music that still largely reflects only white, European-based culture will lose its dominance, too.
And there’s something else. Even western culture has now been infused with music that’s largely non-European. That began when African slaves were brought to America. They fused their own music with the European music they heard in their new world, and the result was blues, jazz, gospel, R&B, rock — the whole array of contemporary nonclassical styles, whose partly African origin shows in the largely nonclassical way they use rhythm. So even white people now take for granted a musical culture that now has a largely non-European core.
(This is the larger meaning of a simple fact, that pop music has a beat.)
Results of the cultural shift
It’s because classical music hasn’t changed with our culture that we see all the familiar signs of trouble in the classical music world. Often these signs are discussed as if they themselves were the the problem, but to me, bad as they are, they’re really symptoms of something different.
It’s a familiar list. Because classical music hasn’t kept up with our culture, we now see:
- the aging of the audience (which, as I’ve often said here, has been going on for 50 years; go here for the evidence)
- declines in the number of classical radio stations, declines in media coverage, and in classical recording
- a change in what cities look for, if they want to attract up to date people — they no longer need an orchestra or an opera company; now they want bike trails, cultural diversity, and a local band scene
- a decline in classical music ticket sales
- the sharp decline, reported by the National Endowment, and confirmed by the League of American Orchestras, in the percentage of adult Americans who go to classical performances
- a decline in funding for classical music, which looks like it will be worse in the future, because (as has been widely reported, most recently on the Crain’s New York Business website) younger people with money don’t donate to the arts.
I’ll finish this in my next post. (Which now is here.) Note the difference between my approach, and what I think is the more usual classical music point of view. The more usual view is that classical music is wonderful, and the rest of the culture has somehow lost sight of that. So what we need is classical music education in our schools, and lots of outreach. Once people get to know classical music, as they did in past generations, they’ll come to love it.
My view is that classical music is way out of touch, and has to get more like the rest of our culture — which (to allay a common fear) will make it smarter, not dumber.