[changes made since I first posted this]
Late Friday night, maybe a little bit under the radar, I relaunched my book, Rebirth: The Future of Classical Music. I put a substantial chunk of it right here, at the end of this post.
Shortly I’ll make it available as a PDF download. Future plans? I’ll keep posting chunks, until I have enough to sell as an ebook. I’m thinking there will be more than one ebook, and then maybe a larger, full-length book compiled from all of them. Not that I’d turn down a print publisher.
But that’s the future. Below is the start of the book. Let me know what you think!
This is a text in progress. I’ve been making tweaks, which I post here without comment, though I did note one large addition. The opening of the book, I’ve found, could be the hardest part to write, because until I’ve written the rest, I don’t know what the opening might need to emphasize.
REBIRTH: THE FUTURE OF CLASSICAL MUSIC
I – Crisis and Change
last tweaked: Monday, 9/13
I’m writing this book at a wild time for classical music.
In some ways, it’s a dark time, because classical music has been losing ground in our culture. This is why we’ve been talking for so many years about a classical music crisis. We see classical music disappearing from our schools. We see it vanishing from mainstream media. In 1980, two-thirds of the music writing in Time magazine was about classical music. By 1990, two-thirds of it was about pop. Now, Time almost never writes about classical music, and newspapers are getting rid of their classical music critics.
We’ve seen classical music shrink on public radio and public TV. We’ve worried (and rightly) about falling ticket sales, about classical music institutions running large deficits, and — maybe most acutely — about an aging audience, an audience that, as it grows still older, might fade away, and not be replaced.
And, to cap all this, the Philadelphia Orchestra is going to declare itself bankrupt. This is gigantic news. Yes, classical music institutions have money problems, and have had them before. But never before has one this large and this honored — an orchestra that (for people who care about classical music) is a household name both in its city and around the world — announced that it can’t sustain itself.
We might want to ask if we’re now at a tipping point. Is classical music — this great, noble art form — itself not sustainable, at least in its traditional form?
So, yes, we’re in a dark time. But it’s also a bright time, because classical music is changing. And in fact changing dramatically. [CHANGED]: It’s true that the largest, most visible performances — by the most famous opera companies, orchestras, string quartets, piano and violin soloists — are still, pretty much, what they’ve been. Which is to say largely formal, and focused on masterworks from the past.
But springing up everywhere — in big cities, small towns, in what we might call an emerging indie classical music world, and even in the heart of the classical music mainstream — is something quite new.
One part of what’s new is how classical music reaches us. The Metropolitan Opera famously streams some of its performances to movie theaters. And, at the start of each season, it streams its opening night to giant video screens, both at its home in New York’s Lincoln Center, and in Times Square, the heart of Manhattan.
The big opera companies in San Francisco and Washington have streamed performances to baseball stadiums. In Columbus, Ohio, the orchestra — recovering from near-extinction — wants to reach its audience in every new way it can.
And there are new ways of thinking. One cornerstone of the old tradition was an unquestioned belief in the superiority of classical music — a conviction that it’s better than music of other kinds, that it’s the only music that’s serious, the only kind that can be called art.
But not many people believe that anymore, and in fact it was challenged as far back as the 1970s, for instance by Christopher Small, a pioneering pianist and educator. In three books — Music of the Common Tongue, Musicking, and Music, Society, Education — he compared classical music to music from other cultures, including African-American music. He suggested that it might, by comparison, seem stiff and hierarchical, isolating audience members from each other, and from the musicians playing for them. As opposed, he said, to other music, which fostered community.
And a new generation of musicologists — at major universities — looked at classical music in new ways, for instance with feminist eyes. They also studied pop music, taking it seriously.
Some of their findings created some shock. Do we dare say that classical masterworks reflect — and transmit to us — the now-obsolete ideas about men and women that prevailed in previous centuries?
Well, you might ask, why wouldn’t they? Everything else in their time did.
But the notion disturbed many people. Weren’t these pieces transcendent, untouchable, timeless? That’s what we’ve been taught. So wasn’t it wrong — even offensive — to highlight anything in them that, in our time, we might want to question?
More mildly, classical music institutions have tried to find a new audience. The Cleveland Orchestra — one of America’s largest — even created a special department to do that, called the Center for Future Audiences. Their goal, they say, is to lower the barriers that discourage attendance at concerts, and thus to attract more people. especially young people. They want, in the words of their press release, to find “the youngest orchestra audiences in the country by the time of our centennial in 2018.”
They don’t know yet how they’ll do that. But there’s no doubt they think that they need to, if they want to survive.
Not that we haven’t seen other attempts — countless attempts — to make classical music accessible. A marketing executive for a classical record label told me, back in the ‘90s, that he’d banned all references to classical music as art. Too forbidding, he thought.
And why not do that? If you want to sell classical music, do what it takes. Otherwise, you’ll go out of business.
But for me this is going too far. Throwing out art? That’s like throwing out life itself. The whole point of the most profound music — and of the most profound films, novels, visual art — is that all of it takes us to places we need an artist to show us. So why pretend that’s not true? Why pretend that smart music isn’t so smart?
Since one of our problems, in classical music, is that even smart people — with education, artistic awareness, graduate degrees — aren’t going to classical concerts, why not reach out to their intelligence? Why not find a new group of smart people, who’ll learn to respond to classical music? That shouldn’t be hard to do, in our present age, when — as I’ll discuss later — IQ scores are rising, popular culture is deeply smart, and people never have had more adventurous musical taste.
(All of which comes as a shock to some people deep in the classical music world. They still believe that popular culture is shallow and vile. More on that, too, later.)
But I do understand what this marketing executive meant. Classical music, as has been so often said, can seem forbidding to outsiders. Though I don’t think the problem is art. Instead, it’s all that formality. You go to a concert. What should you wear? When can you dare to applaud?
And, maybe worse, you look around, and — if you’re young, or African-American, or Hispanic, or if you’ve got tattoos, or you thrive in alternative culture — you’ll see hardly anyone like you.
Why not, then, try to make classical music more friendly? So we’ve had classical CDs in cute packaging, classical CDs that offer you music to play during brunch (with, in their liner notes, brunch recipes).
Or why not give classical concerts with light, jokey commentary? I’ve given commentary like that myself, when I co-programmed and hosted a concert series for the Pittsburgh Symphony. We called it Symphony with a Splash, and we even did stunts. One night we asked for a volunteer from the audience to have his head shaved, while the “Bacchanal” from Saint-Saëns’s opera Samson et Dalila played.
You get the connection — Samson, Delilah, removing somebody’s hair. And the stunt was spectacular. The orchestra found a theatrical haircutter, who learned the music, and timed her work to it. As the piece ended, she brushed the man’s shaven head clean. And on the last chords she kissed it.
The audience loved this. And so did the musicians, or at least those I talked to. And maybe it wasn’t so dumb. Our series, despite its good humor (or maybe in part because of it) was in fact very smart.
The audience loved this. And so did the musicians, or at least those I talked to. And maybe it wasn’t so dumb. Our series, despite its good humor (or maybe in part because of it) was in fact very smart. We played (and explained) John Cage’s famous silent piece, 4’33”, in which no sound occurs. (Its title, for those who don’t know it, comes from its length.) In part it’s a piece for the audience, letting them savor the silence, and, even more, to attend to the sounds — rustling, breathing, shifting of feet, mechanical whirrs from the guts of the hall — that arise by themselves.
It’s a lesson in life, in mindfulness. We surrounded the Cage with music by Webern, one of the great early 20th century modernists, whose pieces often are short. We picked one of his shortest, a movement from his Five Pieces for Orchestra, which lasts barely a minute.
What makes that piece hard to hear, I said to the audience, isn’t so much its fragmented, modernist sound, but its brevity. Just when you’ve settled yourself to listen intently, it’s over. So we played it twice, once before the Cage, and then again afterwards. After four and half minutes of silence, would Webern sound more inviting?
But back to the head-shaving stunt. That wasn’t my idea. It came from one of my Pittsburgh collaborators, the Symphony’s Vice President of Artistic Planning, Robert Moir.
He’s one of the most committed classical music insiders I’ve ever worked with. To call him not serious would be impossible.
But he also likes to have fun, as most of us do. So what happened — when Bob proposed this adventure — is not that we cheapened classical music. The “Bacchanal” isn’t a very serious piece; it’s just a wild dance. So why not amuse ourselves? What we did, as I see it, is give ourselves permission, even in classical music, to do something wild.
Which of course is against all the classical music rules. And that brings me to what I’m convinced is the most profound of all the changes I’m setting forth here. Classical musicians are truly expressing themselves.
Why is that new? Well, remember what lies at the heart of traditional classical music. Formality. Old, revered masterworks. An audience sitting in silence.
How do you learn to play these masterworks? You study them. reverently. Serve as their acolyte. Walk in the footsteps of greater musicians. Understand that you don’t just speak for yourself, but for something much greater — the deathless art of the great composers. Your job is to embody their deepest intentions.
It follows, then, that a large part of training in classical music is learning what not to do. Each composer, each period in music history, has his or its proper style. You learn to stay inside that style. You might be barred, my students have told me, even from doing everyday human things, like smiling while you play, or moving your body.
In past generations, the discipline wasn’t so severe. Classical musicians of the past — as we can hear on old recordings, and see on old films — had more personality. I think that’s because the tradition, back then, had more life, more presence throughout our society. More acceptance. More understanding. So musicians could give themselves to it more easily.
But now — which is something else I’ll explore, later on — our culture has changed. It’s freer, more spontaneous, less tied to the past. Which is one of a number of reasons why the classical music tradition stands aloof from our world. And why entering it can seem difficult. My students have told me they feel they’re expected to play the way others want them to, without much talk about what they themselves want.
But my students — and all classical musicians — of course live in the world that has changed. So it’s no surprise that they’re bringing these changes — belatedly, maybe, but also decisively — to classical music. They’re talking to their audience. Not allowed, under the old formal rules. But now even top-rank conductors do it, at top-rank symphony concerts. In one concert that Maxim Vengerov, one of the world’s leading violinists, gave at Carnegie Hall, he finished the first piece on his program, turned to the audience, and (so I’m told) asked, “Any questions?”
Musicians — again, sometimes even leading conductors — are dressing less formally. They’re playing all the music they like, even if some if it might not be classical.
Musicians in Denver — under the name Telling Stories — play classical chamber works that they love, and, in between them, read stories they’ve written. Some classical musicians give concerts with indie rock bands. A cellist I know invites his audience to comment on Twitter while he plays, and projects those comments for all to see. And reacts to them.
Young composers for years have been writing music that sounds like the culture around them, drawing on sounds not just from classical music, but from jazz, Jimi Hendrix, hiphop, metal, whatever music they love. Their music might well have a beat.
At the University of Maryland School of Music (where for two years I was in residence), the musicians who played in the orchestra found sweet, evocative ways to present themselves as individuals. (Their conductor, James Ross, played a big part in this.) At one of their concerts, they hung baby pictures of themselves in the concert hall lobby, with printed stories, in which they told how they first fell in love with classical music.
At their concerts, they all waer black, but not formal black. No suits, no tuxedos, no gowns, no white tie and tails. And against the black, some of them wear accent colors they pick for each performance. At a concert last year, they chose blue and green, because they were playing Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, a piece overflowing with love and joy about nature.
When you looked at the stage, you saw blue and green highlights — a scarf, a deeply beautiful shawl, socks, blue and green ribbons hung from the tuning pegs on a double bass. The result was relaxed, but alive, festive, but never obtrusive.
Some people might say that all of this — colors, baby pictures, stories from childhood — has no real connection with what matters most, the music. Or that it all might detract from the music, by making it seem less serious.
But I don’t agree. By expressing themselves, the students made a commitment. The commitment engaged them, involved them. Why wouldn’t it deepen their playing? And why wouldn’t the audience — seeing how much the musicians so clearly cared — feel more involved with the concert? And pay more attention.
We need to learn more about these innovations. Nobody tracks them. There’s no catalogue of what’s been done. Nobody, as far as I know, even begins to have any idea of how widely these things have spread. (Which is one role this book can fill — it can help make at least some of these changes much better known.)
And because nobody tracks what’s been happening, we don’t fully know what effect it can have. I suspect that, if we did know, we might be delighted. In Britain — to cite just one example that I find encouraging — the BBC aired a reality show, on which celebrities competed to become symphonic conductors.
The show was called Maestro, and ran in 2009. You might say it was silly. A comedian, or a dance DJ, conducting Beethoven? (The contestants who survived till the final round had to conduct the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth.) And it’s true that the show was full of TV-style jokes, sassy one-liners, everything that, in traditional classical music, we might say wasn’t serious.
And yet at least some of the contestants learned to conduct. The audience watched them learn. And heard the show’s judges — who included two world-famous conductors, Simone Young and Sir Roger Norrington — critique the contestants’ conducting.
And so by the end, if you watched every episode, you’d learn a lot about how conducting works. You’d even learn fine points. Goldie, the dance DJ, conducted a Mozart opera aria, and didn’t take care with his upbeats. That seems like a small detail — quick little notes, that come before the main beat. But Goldie didn’t know how to conduct them. He didn’t know how to show the orchestra exactly when those notes should be played. So, for brief moments, the orchestra sounded tentative. The judges nailed that.
I smile when I think about Maestro. Just a reality show — but it taught more about conducting that you’d learn if you watched a year of serious classical music telecasts. (Of the kind you could once find on PBS.) It’s odd, I think, that those serious shows wouldn’t teach you anything. They were serious in the way they presented the music. But the commentary all too often was gush, about how wonderful the music is. Or how distinguished the musicians might be.
Instead of that, I’d love to hear the smart, informed commentary we get when we watch sports on TV. For classical music that might mean serious talk about exactly how good the performance is, about what makes it distinctive, about the conductor’s technique (if we’re hearing an orchestra concert), and about what approach to the music h/she is taking.
You could even present two points of view on all of that. Or more than two.
But most important lesson, I think, is that when you bring individuality — initiative, personality, ideas — to classical music, the results can be dramatic. The music comes alive. Everyone sits up and listens.
Here’s an other example. Orchestras all over the US are trying, these days, to get more involved with their communities.
But how do they do that? The Brooklyn Philharmonic — under new, young leadership — is trying something dramatically new. They’re using their community’s music. They want to reflect their community’s heritage. Which, in Brooklyn, will include hiphop — in a collaboration, planned for June, 2012, between the orchestra and star rapper Mos Def. He comes from Brooklyn’s leading African-American neighborhood, Bedford-Stuyvesant (or, more simply, Bed-Stuy). In this performance, he’ll do some of his songs, accompanied by the orchestra, playing arrangements of Mos-Def’s music made by one of American’s leading younger composers, Derek Bermel.
Also on the same program: Leslie Uggams, who’ll sing songs that Lena Horne was famous for. (Horne also came from Bed-Stuy.) Plus the finale of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. Plus a remix of that finale, to be made by someone from the community. They’ll have a competition to choose that remix.
Now, you could say there should be more Beethoven. Or you could say that this program smells like some kind of pandering. But it’s not — it follows directly from what the Brooklyn Philharmonic’s new artistic director, Alan Pierson, has done before, as artistic director and conductor of Alarm Will Sound, a New York ensemble that plays new classical music.
With that group, Pierson did his own versions of serious pop — dance music tracks by Aphex Twin (whose music can make the odd, fetching sounds the classical world finds in new classical pieces). And also a staggering instrumental arrangement of the Beatles’ “Revolution 9.” Though there, too, the Beatles, in effect, met Alarm Will Sound halfway, because in that song they themselves had adopted the sound of what was happening in avant-garde classical music, late in the ‘60s.
But hiphop is part of Alan Pierson’s musical world. It’s certainly part of Derek Bermel’s, as I know from talking to him. Bermel, in fact, along with composing, has had his own rock band.
In New York, large crowds turn out for concerts combining classical music and pop. One watershed, for me (and for others I know, who’ve worked in classical music for years) was a concert of contemporary classical orchestral music, put on in 2008 by a group called Wordless Music. The headline work on the program was Popcorn Superhet Receiver, written by Jonny Greenwood, lead guitarist of Radiohead.
Which happened to be a fully classical piece, with no trace of rock, not even a beat. It’s inspired by something you don’t find in mainstream rock or in mainstream classical music, the sound of static on shortwave radios. That means it’s full of intensely unusual sounds, and jumping, irregular rhythms.
But Greenwood’s name attracted an audience — 1000 people, on each of two nights. If they liked Radiohead (a favorite band of many classical composers) then of course they were ready for something that wasn’t conventional. And they cheered for Popcorn Superhet Receiver. And in fact for the entire program, which also included John Adams’s Christian Zeal and Activity and Gavin Bryars’s The Sinking of the Titanic, two works in what we could loosely call a minimal style, works that offer a beautiful stasis, with (in the Bryars piece) slow, shifting seascapes of sound.
In London, this May, 5000 people showed up for a weekend — with concerts morning, afternoon, and night — of music by one of the founding minimalists, Steve Reich, matched with many composers (a dazzling number, in fact) who might be his successors. The London Symphony produced this event, which made it one of the few mainstream classical music institutions that’s moving with the changing musical times.
What’s emerging, at concerts like these, is the new audience that so many people in classical music wish they could find. And also emerging, I’d think, is a debate that the Cleveland Orchestra might want to have. Can you attract a young audience to conventional classical programs? Or do you need to embrace the culture of that young audience?
[ADDED 9/12] In play here are two visions of classical music’s future. In one of them, we keep playing the old masterworks, and keep building concert programs around those pieces, as we do now. We draw a new young audience by lowering ticket prices, making concerts more friendly, and — in some versions of this scenario — finding ways to educate the people we want to reach, to overcome their ignorance of classical music, and help them understand what they hear, so they won’t be intimidated when they come to a performance.
In the other vision, classical music changes, to become much more like the culture around it. It’s reborn as a fully contemporary art, which among much else means many more performances of new music, and fewer of the standard classical works. New music, most likely, becomes the norm, and the older works, great as they are, take their place alongside pieces being written now.
You’ll have guessed by now that I like the second vision. The advantage of the first one is that things don’t have to change very much, and — crucially — that you don’t alienate your existing audience, keeping them happy while you make a transition into a new era.
The disadvantage, though, is that you’re still speaking the language of the past. I’ll say much more about that in a chapter on cultural change, coming soon. The advantage of the second vision, meanwhile, is that you do speak the language of today, and that you also might, conceivably, reconfigure the entire performance format, eliminating — because of both these changes — any need for advance education. (Though advance education, I think, is problematic. This also is something I’ll talk about later. But if one problem is that people are intimidated by classical concerts, why tell them they need education in order to like them? Won’t that just intimidate them still more?)
Another advantage — though maybe this is just another way that you speak the language of today — is that you become like the other arts (except, I guess, ballet). About half the plays theater companies do are by living playwrights. Most of the films we see are new. Art museums of course have large collections of old art, but their featured shows tend to be contemporary.
But then the disadvantage, when you follow this path, is that you might well distress your current audience, who are your main supporters, financially and otherwise. You might have to go down two roads at once, doing performances the old way for your old audience, and something very different for the newer one you hope to attract. Which, as (most likely) you’re vividly aware, doesn’t exist yet, and, once you attract it, may not donate as much money as the old one did. That’s in large part because it’ll be younger, and younger people have less money available.
Yet another disadvantage is that some of the new works performed by mainstream classical groups may not speak to today’s culture, because they’re written in older classical styles. (That’s another large question I’ll talk about later.) And a further problem is that the people running classical music institutions may not be fully literate in the new, changed culture around them, so they might not readily grasp what a younger audience will want.
So even though I embrace the new vision, I understand that it might not be easy to adopt. But what if it’s what we have to do? How can classical music be the only art form (or very nearly the only one) that doesn’t resonate with the present day? And do we really think that younger people will come to old-style concerts, in any large numbers? I’ve seen the new young audience (the one I described earlier) cheer for older classical works, for Shostakovich, for instance, and Bach. But what brought them to the concerts they cheered at was something more current, with (so to speak) piercings, tattoos, a sense of adventure. And attitude.
So this is a wild time. And an exciting one. Anyone, in classical music, can blaze a new path. Music schools, feeling the change — and worried, because the old ways no longer work — are starting to teach their students to be musical entrepreneurs.
I might finish with a quick summary. For years we’ve had a classical music crisis. Now — as the Philadelphia bankruptcy shows — it’s getting worse. But the changes are classical music’s response. Or, better still, the response of thousands of people, responding as individuals, blazing new trails of their own.
But now the changes need to go further. It’s time to tie them together, to learn what works and what doesn’t, and to start drafting workable strategies for longer-term change.
And above all, we need to make the changes sustainable. If you play in a symphony orchestra, you make a living. If you play in a club, as many musicians are doing, you might be paid nothing at all.
So that’s the next challenge — to (in very blunt language) make these changes pay, so that musicians can make a living in the new era, just as they have in the old one.
But however that happens, all these changes together build the road to classical music’s future, to its joyful, maybe even volcanic rebirth. And they’re well on their way.
[I've posted many drafts of the book in the past. You can find them all here. They didn't add up to a book, but they're good reading.]
© 2011 by Greg Sandow