More good news

This from Britain, where

I’ve been aware of this for some time — note my blog posts after my visit to London last year, about the Roundhouse, a pop venue, where classical concerts draw a big pop-oriented audience, and about the large crowds for a festival of music by Steve Reich and younger composers identified as his successors. Produced, I might add, by the London Symphony.

But in the last month or so, the Guardian ran two pieces — linked in the bullet points — about a British classical explosion. Yes, these pieces were long on generalities, and short on numbers. But both writers seemed sure that something was going on, drawing on their first-hand observations, and on the success of many performances.

Some quotes:

We’re currently seeing a melding of genres and a breaking of boundaries across the music world. This recent trend – listeners moving to the avant garde after they start demanding more from the mainstream– has long been acknowledged within pop. In recent years, mainstream pop artists have even started adopting aspects of the avant garde in their search for fresh output: it’s a dialogue that has benefited artists, labels and listeners alike.

In a world where listeners no longer define themselves along firm genre lines, music is increasingly just that – music. As a result, we are now witnessing a musician-led movement gleefully adopted by listeners, in which classical is being rebranded from the ground up. Even the term “classical” itself seems obsolete in the face of what’s being produced and consumed.


[The increased audience for [edgy contemporary] works is the result of a campaign to reach people interested in the cutting edge of other contemporary art forms, rather than those who prefer to hear Beethoven.


It’s the weirdest pieces which get the strongest reaction….People are looking for something to get their teeth into.


[]M]any people arrive at the avant garde of contemporary music via the wilder shores of pop.

Not that the melding of indie pop and contemporary classical music is anything new. And the London phenomenon happens in New York, too — large crowds for new music events, plus a new audience for classical music at festivals not billed as classical (like Tully Scope and White Light at Lincoln Center).

This is very good news, and supports — is a crucial part of — what I blogged earlier about how we should think much bigger, when we talk about enlarging our audience.

A second commandment, for the future of classical music: Think big. The new audience is larger than most of us imagine it is. 

(The first one was: respect the culture outside classical music.)





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  1. says

    I think the money quote is by Esa-Pekka Salonen (in the second article): “There’s a trend in our culture to be constantly up to date because we’re connected through the internet, and an art form that would be entirely backward-looking and museum-like would make no sense. People are interested in what’s happening right now.” I think this is exactly correct, and accords with the common experience of myself and other indie music fans: We are novelty seekers, and listening to contemporary classical music (up to and including stuff that’s being written right now) is more novel and hence more attractive than listening to “real” classical music.

    In fact, I would go further and claim that, far from being the neglected and even at times despised scene it’s traditionally been in the eyes of many classical listeners, contemporary classical music (which in this context extends back to the 1970s, 60s, or even 50s) will actually be the primary vehicle by which young audiences in the 21st century will eventually discover and come to appreciate “real” classical music. In this context Handel / Mozart / Beethoven / Brahms etc. are analogous to the Beatles / Rolling Stones / Who and other classic groups of the 60s and 70s. Few would disagree that in terms of quality and staying power the Beatles (say) have it all over the latest Pitchfork favorites. But… typical popular music fans don’t start out listening to the Beatles and move forward; they start out listening to groups of their own generation, and then those who are more serious listeners move backward as part of a process of deepening their musical knowledge and exploring the influences (often one or two times removed) of their current favorite groups.

    I believe such listeners’ approach to classical music will be the same, so I think trying to introduce them to Beethoven and friends straightway will be much less successful than bringing them in with Reich, Ligeti, Stockhausen, etc. This is especially true since the popular music groups they listen to have in many cases been fairly directly influenced by Reich (e.g., Sufjan Stevens indulging in some Reichisms and Glassisms on “Illinoise”)–it’s music that has direct relevance to their heartfelt musical tastes in a way that 18th and 19th century classical composers do not (or, at least, do not yet).

  2. says

    Greg, after reading your last post (and yes, all the comments), and now this one, I’m confused, and a bit disturbed…

    How do YOU define ‘classical music’??

    The way you describe Bob Dylan and the subtleties/layers of so much pop music, why do you not consider pop music to be classical?

    And where does one end and the other begin? There are many people out there who think Yanni and Kenny G are classical. This leads to things such as ‘crossover’. Then we have things like ‘bang on a can’, is this really classical, is it pop?? What about ELP, Jethro Toll, etc? Experimental rock? And all the film composers? And Jazz? Johann Strauss Jr.??

    Ever since sound recording was invented, musical genres have multiplied like rabbits. At the same time what many people think of as classical music was confined to the world of Academia (always a dead end for any art). But what if, perhaps, true classical music was absorbed by many popular musics, jazz, film music, even ambitious rock bands. Much of it was watered down of course.

    Anyway, what sort of ‘classical music’ are you seeking to revitalize? Only musicians who describe themselves as classical?

    I apologize for all the questions! In the meantime I’ve got to get back to my music…

    • says

      Nathan, how do we know what music is country music, which is hiphop, which is folk music, which is Indian classical music? Answer: there are stylistic traits we recognize, and also cultural traits. Same with classical music. I’ve written before about how to define it, a tricky operation because dictionary definitions (all the ones I’ve seen) do one or two bad things, and maybe both. They simply point to classical music — it’s chamber or orchestral music, they’ll say, as opposed to jazz or folk music. Or else they’ll include value judgments — classical music has permanent interest and value, or structural complexity, or it’s music in an educated European tradition (stress on “educated”). You can read some of these definitions if you go to the website for my Juilliard course on the future of classical music — at — and find the class in which we ask what classical music is. Then click on the assignment which offers many readings on the subject.

      I’ve made various efforts to define classical music, and come up with something like this, very approximately — it’s the historical music of the western cultural tradition, and (most of the time, anyway) it’s music whose unfolding over time is planned by a composer, the way a novelist plans the structure of a novel, and a filmmaker plans the structure of a film.

      We could also talk about the instruments used, the fact that the music tends to be written out in advance, and also about a kind of cultural vibe, always remembering that we’re very approximate, and that many kinds of contemporary classical music behave very differently. In some cases, for instance, a composer sets a process in motion, without specifying performance details.

      What I _don’t_ make part of my definition is any claim to superior artistry, because I think many kinds of music have that, Bob Dylan included. So his music isn’t classical because it plainly isn’t — it’s not in a western (European) cultural tradition, isn’t planned to unfold over time in any particular way (compared to a symphony, for instance), and also uses sounds that are readily recognized as not classical music — electric guitars, bass, drums, electric keyboards. (Thinking of Dylan’s latest stuff.) And of course his vocal sound isn’t the sound we find in classical music.

      Today in my course we listened to seven pop songs (you can find them, again, on the class website), and talked about why they wouldn’t be considered classical music, and whether they could be considered art. We pretty quickly ran across the cultural prejudice that only classical music can be art, and something that sounds as colloquial — and so much like music you’d hear in a bar — as Frank Sinatra does, wouldn’t be classified as classical, no matter how artistic it is.

      In the end, I think it comes down to explicit and implicit things about culture. It’s not hard, generally speaking, to tell which music lives in a formal concert hall, and which music lives in a club. All of which can change! But for now, I think these differences exist, and are easy to perceive and understand.

      • says

        >>>But for now, I think these differences exist, and are easy to perceive and understand.

        Then maybe that is the very problem? Like the article you quote says- “the term ‘classical’ itself seems obsolete…”. Why not ditch it entirely, especially if young people shy away from it?

        But I have a different idea of what makes music classical. It doesn’t have anything to do with style, because there are so many different styles within classical music, and indeed any style can be (and has been) used in classical music. Bernstein has examples of several.

        Instrumentation is also problematic, Bach can be played on anything (indeed, in any style). Most might agree that back-up orchestras don’t necessarily make a band’s music classical. And even though venues carry associations, like concert halls for classical and clubs for pop, the venue certainly doesn’t define the music. Indeed, I’ve heard classical music in clubs (the trend grows), and I’ve heard popular music in concert halls.

        Development in music is the best argument for what separates classical from pop. But even here there are PLENTY of examples of classical music that doesn’t develop, at all, and plenty of popular music examples that do develop.

        For me classical music is like classical literature, or art. If it stands the test of time it’s classic. Does this imply some sort of superiority? Well… yes. But to be clear I would also consider the truly excellent works of popular music to be classical. There are a lot of popular masterpieces out there that in 200 years might stand next to Mozart, Dali, and Pushkin, and will be considered classical as new cultures are born.

        Many living composers consider themselves classical, and this is a very noble goal to work towards. But time will be the judge and will likely brush aside many of these, and likely hang on to many that aren’t today considered classical. Just something to think about.

    • carlos fischer says

      I would like to address my thoughts on what is Classical music (CM);

      ‘It is the written music of European origin and tradition and all music related to this origin and tradition ‘ .

      Some clarifications are needed :

      WRITTEN MUSIC refers to the music registration by the composer – in detail – previous to performance and also refers to the transmission of music through time.

      EUROPEAN ORIGIN AND TRADITION refers – academic issues aside and being practical – to the music originated from Europe since the Gregorian chants until today’s music that builds up a clear tradition of European written music.

      MUSIC RELATED TO THIS ORIGIN AND TRADITION refers to the music of non-european composers clearly influenced by this origin and tradition. ( which means also that it may influence this tradition ).


      Despite the denomination “Classical Music” appeared for the first time during XIX century designating only the music from Bach to Beethoven and that the great conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein said in his Young People’s Concerts lectures that CM it’s only the music from the Classical period ; we may say that both approaches are imprecise ,contradictory and arbitrary because:

      1.- Etimologically , “Classical” means something like “ of first class” . Be “elitist” or “pedant” it is the denomination that remains and even though there’s still some confusion ; there’s no valid reason whatsoever to change it and/or to restraint it. Denominations apart, what’s most important is to understand what really CM is .

      2.-Leonard Bersntein said that Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sheherazade it’s not CM because it wasn’t written in the classical period. This assertion was perhaps Lenny’s greatest musical mistake committed in his highly successful career as conductor, composer and educator. My question : what was Lenny’s generic denomination to his own music? Modern music? Contemporary? Post-Classical? American classical? Or as he use to say : ‘Exact music’… maybe he wanted to coin this denomination ….which is absolutely inadequate …at least for me. ..Exact music? …no please! I hate mathematics! ( my emphasis of course).

      To make it clear, Bernstein’s and all (CM) composer’s music have something in commom : It is a very personal and highly individualistic record of musical notes, instructions, orchestration, letters, etc. that reflects the composer’s musical intentions to an extent to what the composer considers the appropiate way he -playing the role of a performer- would perform his own music and thus , how it should sound. Though idiomatically different, Rimsky-Korsakov’s and Bernstein’s music share the same tradition ( please review CM definition above) ; they had similar approaches ( each one in his temporal, geographical, aesthetical, intellectual contexts of course) : As example, both composers wrote symphonies and both were influenced , in some way, from the already rich symphonic tradition …from the classical period inclusive. In this sense, there is no way to get lost ; Roberto Sierra’s symphony No.3 “La Salsa” (2005) is clearly CM as much as it is the great Mozart’s symphony No.41 “Jupiter” (1778) and Bernstein’s own symphony No.1 “Jeremiah” (1942) .

      If you read the whole chapter of this educative series with Bernstein’s explanations about what is CM you will find many contradictions. Despite his invaluable contribution to CM , he also was the most notable musician who rooted a permanent confusion about this music genre . With his assertion, he restrained Haydn’s, Mozart’s , Beethoven’s influences over later composers ; he “ignored” earlier composers influences ; he broke up the composers bonds that shape this great “ genealogical musical tree “ denominated right or wrong Classical Music.


      Art music, erudite music, serious music, academic music and so forth , because these adjectives reflect subjective and exclusive judgements…..there is many “Art music” that is not Classical as much as there is CM for “light amusement or entertaining”.

      Concert music. Although a great deal of CM is clearly concert music ( or intended for ) ; Ballet and Opera music aren’t strictly concert music. That’s why some composers write “suites” for concertante purposes. Also, there is CM for strictly educational purposes (Bartok’s Mikrokosmos ; Bach’s Inventions and Sinfonias, etc.); and , finally , there’s a lot music from other genres that could be called “concert music”.

      Music played with acoustic instruments , predominantly string and wind instruments . Electronic synthesizers (Stockhausen), Electric guitar (Bernstein) , magnetic tapes (Rautavaara) and many electro-electronic devices and other gadgets make part of lots of pieces of CM. Also , there is CM played with percussion instruments only ( Reich, Rouse, etc.).


      The cello version of Kashmir( Led Zeppelin piece transcription by cellist Maya Beyser) . This version is just a Rock piece arranged for another instrument.

      The piano and symphony orchestra version of Rhapsody in Blue . This fantastic “concerto” it is a “classic” but not classical ; it’s a Jazz piece arranged for piano and orchestra.

      Folk music of European countries.( have not written tradition)

      Jazz ( it is a genre from USA) ; Rock music and Pop music , which don’t have the rigor of written tradition as CM does and also are the result of a collective effort : One write the letters, other(s) write the notes , and other(s) arrange, etc.


      A big part of film music. Camille Saint-Saens wrote the first original film soundtrack, many others later on ( Prokofiev, Shostakovic, Glass to cite a few) have written film soundtracks with the same traditional rigor as CM composers they are.

      David Chesky’s Concerto for electric guitar and orchestra .

      James Macmillan’s Concerto for percussion and orchestra ‘Veni,Veni, Emanuel’ .

      Stevie Reich’s ‘Clapping Music’ which is performed by clapping the hands only.

      The scores from the Baroque and Renaissance periods discovered in churches of the Jesuit missions in Moxos and Chiquitos ( Santa Cruz de la Sierra , Bolivia).

      Nikolai Kapustin’s music – particularly his piano compositions- These are perceived idiomatically as Jazz . In fact , they sound like jazz and obviously are Jazz influenced ; however, their conception and structure are clearly Classical.

  3. richard says

    But time will be the judge and will likely brush aside many of these, and likely hang on to many that aren’t today considered classical. Just something to think about.

    Ah, yes, history will be the judge, and the cream will always float to the top.. As if personal biases and the dictates of fashion don’t influence history. You are working under the assumption that some sort metaphysical and objective “Good” and “Bad” can be attached to music.

    • says

      Yes, but let me clarify a bit-

      I’m not trying to say Time, while judging, is the perfect judge. Even after 300 years great things are often overlooked while bad things hang around. However time is the ultimate judge as far as society as a whole is concerned. So imperfect as it may be, I think this is how it works, and (at least in my opinion) it does a pretty good job. Of course the work is done by all those champions of specific music working to bring it to larger audiences, the audiences make decisions of their own and may or may not help perpetuate what they’ve heard.

      So Time decides what society as a whole thinks is good or bad. For better or worse.

  4. JRinDC says

    Greg, have you addressed in a past post how hard music publishers make it to perform contemporary classical music. A professional church choir and orchestra in wanted to put on Arvo Part’s Passio. Part no longer owns the work. A publisher does. Said publisher wanted $3000 for the instrumental scores. They required purchase of 20 choral scores at $90+ a piece, even though we planned to use only 16 singers.

    Do the math. At $25 a ticket for a lenten concert, we would need to sell 175 tickets just to break even on the music rental, and probably, truth be told, we wouldn’t get more than about 100-150 to the performance. On top of that you got to pay a quality orchestra and singers. By pricing these works this way, music publishers are assuring that these compositions will only be performed at major halls and then only when said hall dares to program them.

    The concert in question was cancelled. You want to make classical music more exciting? You want to turn people on to new works? Then let us perform them! Don’t make it so hard to do so. Maybe in this day and age the great composers, if they care about their works actually being performed, should pay more attention to their publishers’ behavior and start self-publishing their works. They might even make more money.

    • says

      We have a lot of problems to fix. I once spoke to a high-ranking person at a major music publisher about problems like the one you mention. They’re so fixed on making money that they don’t see that they’re standing in their own way. And they make so little money! Which might suggest they need a new model. Most composers, I think, will do better self-publishing their work, if they don’t mind taking the time and money to make it available.