Building a young audience (more on new music)

I know that much that I’m saying is hard for some people to accept.

And I sympathize.  Change can be difficult. Major change can be more difficult still. And fundamental change — radical change — can be wrenching.

So when I say that the repertoire classical musicians play will have to change, I can see why many of us might be upset. I’m thinking now of people deeply engaged with classical music as it is now. We all — I’m very much including me in this group — got into classical music because we loved it.

And what that meant, obviously, is that we got into it because we loved the old repertoire. That’s true of me. I remember a moment when I was in college during the early 1960s, when — in the common room of Adams House, at Harvard — I heard a concert in which someone plucked the strings of the piano. I was outraged! Thought that the piano would be damaged. What I loved about classical music back then was opera and lieder — Verdi, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Fauré.

(Though — jumping ahead now to points I’ll make later — I was also watching with the greatest excitement, films by then-avant-garde European directors like Antonioni. Which shows my overall cultural taste at odds with my classical music taste, making me a microcosm of the larger cultural problem I’m discussing here, which is that the culture’s tastes have changed, leaving classical music behind.)

So since we love the old repertoire, it’s natural for us to think that others will love it, too. If they don’t, we think, it’s only because they don’t know it. Or because they’re scared off for some reason.

We also know that — no matter how often I and others might say that a younger audience won’t be attracted to concerts consisting largely of standard classical rep — some younger people definitely are attracted to that music. I of all people know that, since I’ve been teaching at Juilliard for 16 years, and my students of course love the old masterworks. Their devotion to them, in fact, is very moving. I’ve had contact with young classical musicians in countless other ways, too (teaching elsewhere, working with orchestras, speaking at many music schools), and always their devotion to the core classical rep is vivid, unshakable, and, again, deeply moving.

Beyond that, we all know cases when younger people who don’t play classical music have been swept away by Beethoven, or Mahler, or Mozart, or Bach. Yvonne Frindle cited a lovely example in a comment she posted, in which a large young audience loved a standard classical piece, liking it more than something by Thomas Ades.

I’ve even learned that at one big American orchestra, the younger people who do come to concerts say, when surveyed, that they like the older music better than new music.

But now it’s time for reality to set in. What’s happening at that orchestra is, pretty clearly, a selection effect. The younger people who love the concerts they give are the ones attracted to the old music. Left unanswered is how many of them there are, and whether there might not be more younger people who don’t come at least in part because the old music doesn’t — taken as a whole — speak to them strongly enough.

Which brings me back to the large point that I’m making. I told a story about Joanna, my former girlfriend, who back in the ’90s wished (as an outsider to classical music) that classical music could be more noir. Or, more generally, more like the culture she felt was hers. One commenter quite properly objected that this was only an anecdote, and (since I’d made the same point about the story Yvonne told) that anecdotes, on their own, can’t prove anything.

He was right. I should have said that this anecdote was only one of many I might offer, all showing more or less the same thing. For instance, in the ’90s I took a date (again, someone with no classical music background) to a concert by the Emerson Quartet. They were playing late Beethoven, and also Berg Op. 3. I was worried about what my date would think of the Berg, and tried to prepare her, asking her to imagine an art museum, with Beethoven being the old masters, and Berg being in the rooms with abstract art.

When the piece was over, she was annoyed at me. I didn’t have to say all that, she said. The piece was easy for her to hear. It sounded, she said, as if Berg was drunk. Now, I and other classical music sophisticates might think that’s a simplistic way to hear Berg’s work, but on the other hand, there’s something to it. The early atonal pieces by the Second Vienna School composers are, rather famously, drenched in uneasiness, if not outright angst. They don’t depict normal mental states, and emphatically aren’t meant to. So the “drunk” reaction, though rather simple, isn’t off base at all. (Think of Pierrot Lunaire, moon-drunk.)

Same thing when kids at a summer music program I taught at in the ’70s thought some of these early atonal pieces sounded like film scores, for horror films. That’s not a crazy reaction (and it’s one adults, too, have had). In fact it fits with Theodor Adorno’s famous belief — and remember that he was a friend of Schoenberg’s and Berg’s, and strongly supported their work — that atonal harmony represents frozen pain.

We now have a culture in which we don’t try to pretend that happy endings always happen, that (to use a phrase of Henry Miller’s) everyting isn’t, in the end, “merry and bright.” Hence film noir, and the sense Joanna had that an art form as important as classical music should catch up with her culture, and be more layered, ambiguous, dark, pessimistic. Which atonal pieces — the early ones, at least (what happened when 12-tone music came in is another story) — clearly are.

More anecdotes. The whooping, cheering crowd at the NY Philharmonic, when Alan Gilbert conducted Ligeti’s opera Le grand macabre. Subscribers turned in their tickets, which then were resold to the kind of younger people you never see in such numbers at standard Philharmonic events. And, as I said, they whooped and cheered.

Likewise the younger audience at the Mavericks concerts at the San Francisco Symphony. I met someone who’d been to them at a party once. She’d just moved from San Francisco to NY. We were chatting, as one does at parties, and she asked me what work I did. When I told her, she said that she’d loved MTT’s performance of the Ives Fourth Symphony. I asked her if she ever went to the NY Philharmonic. “No. Why would I?” she answered (or words to that effect). She’d pigeonholed them as an orchestra that played largely old music. Instead, she said, she went to the Next Wave festival at BAM — a festival of performances in advanced artistic styles, at which whatever music might be played is almost certainly new. She’d never go to classical concerts if they play mostly old music.

And then there are the big audiences for the Bang on a Can marathons in New York. Or for Present Music, the new music group in Milwaukee, which is a resounding success. I mention them because, back in the ’90s, I did a piece for the Wall Street Journal about a tour by Estonian groups, who played Avro Pärt. They were presented in Milwaukee by an established chamber music series, whose director told me that new music fans in Milwaukee — and Present Music, back then, had a few hundred subscribers, and could get as many as 600 people to its performances — were so dismissive of the chamber music series (because they identified it with old music) that they wouldn’t come to it even if it presented something they’d like.

Or the Wordless Music orchestra concert in New York a few years ago, which I’ve talked about here many times. A church with 1000 seats was filled two nights running, for a concert of John Adams, Gavin Bryars, and Jonny Greenwood. Greenwo0d, of course, is the lead guitarist in Radiohead, but the piece of his played at this concert wasn’t anything like a Radiohead song. It was, instead, something like Penderecki’s Threnody — a piece with dense clusters of sound, without melodies or steady rhythms.

The audience loved it, as it loved the other pieces on the program. A friend of mine from the mainstream classical world, someone with extensive high-level experience at orchestras and at a management company, looked at the crowd, and said to me: “This is the young audience we always say we want to attract. But they’d never come to anything we do.”

And in fact I think I’ve never seen an audience at a standard classical concert with as many young people — who paid for their tickets — as I saw at Wordless Music or at Le grand macabre, or certainly at which a large younger audience loved the music so much. The closest I’ve come to that, maybe, was one night when the New York City Opera lowered its ticket price to $25 for any seat in the house, for a performance of Madam Butterfly. That was the youngest paying crowd I’ve ever seen at an opera house, though it wasn’t as young, or as excited, or as visibly (by dress, body language, tattoos) immersed in current culture, as the audience at Ligeti or Wordless.

I can see that this set of posts will go on longer than I thought. So I apologize for making this one in part just a footnote to the last. I’ll go on with more specific thoughts, with helpful reading, and with repertoire thoughts when I post next.

Why the photos — in this post and my last one — of people with tattoos? Because I’m saying our culture has changed, and I can’t think of a better quick visual shot of that than the tattoos people so commonly have now. When I was young (in the days when classical music still attracted a large number of younger people) these tattoos were unthinkable. Inconceivably, on anyone respectable. And now? They’re all over. The man with tats in my last post was working on his Mac, just as I was working on mine, opposite me in a coffeehouse in Adams Morgan, in Washington. The woman in this post I photographed at a fairly upscale farmer’s market in Warwick, NY. As respectable an upscale wife and mother (she was shopping with her child) as you’ll find anywhere. With this lovely — and, pretty much, unhideable — tattoo on the back of her neck. 

A thought experiment: Yes, I know that younger classical musicians (who, after all, live in the same culture as people their age who don’t like classical music) might have tattoos. But can anyone imagine an audience full of people with tattoos sitting silently in a standard classical concert hall, for a standard classical concert? I can’t. 




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  1. says

    Hi Greg,

    I agree (as always) but thought I’d add this: We need to do more than simply play music by new classical composers. After all, these are people who have grown up in and have been absorbed by the orthodoxy that has caused the problems that this blogs outlines.

    When we talk about getting young people into concert halls, we should mean onto the stage, onto the podiums and into the programmes as well as into the seats. I’d love to see avant pop music written by interesting bands alongside string quartets by Ades and perhaps Schubert’s Trout Quintet (as on that great album) all played by top young players straight outta college.

    On a more amusing note, here’s how not to do it:

    • says

      Hi, Joe,

      You’ve taken the words just about out of my mouth. I’m going to say exactly this in a future post.

      I’d love to see what the link lead to! But the video was removed by the user’s request, said YouTube.

  2. says

    Sort of bridging from the comments made in your previous post — someone mentioned the idea that the old people liked the Ades piece while the younger crowd went for the Tchaikovsky, which they thought was bizarre. But if you think about it this way — that younger people generally look for something different from what’s considered “normal” or “mainstream” — it shouldn’t be too surprising.

    The problem is that people aren’t “freaked out” by atonality but are largely bored with it at this point. If you’re looking for harsh and unforgiving sounds, there are plenty of noise and metal groups all over the place that do exactly that, so the avant-garde no longer has that ability to sell themselves in that way. I’ve played a lot of atonal works to younger people and they tend to brush it off as “just another modern work” that speaks of pessimism and desolation. To be fair, there is an audience for that sort of thing — but they’re not coming to classical music concerts to get them. That’s probably why the Tchaik went over so well, because it reminds people of a time when there were still optimism and hope.

    Successful entrepreneurial ideas give people what they need, not what they want. What do people need right now? They need music that gives them a reason to look forward to the future…something different from the desolation that you see everywhere at this point. As Kyle Gann says, “people don’t need to go to the concert hall to be reminded of the fact that life can be awful.”

    I’d say that the vast majority of new repertoire fails to accomplish this in any meaningful way — it seems like the medium is stuck between “modern desolation” and “naive optimism”, while its audiences (who’re generally pretty well-educated) aren’t really buying it any more. Minimalism was a good and necessary change of pace for the medium, but unfortunately its aesthetic of “stasis” still continues to hold it back.

    As far as I can tell, improvisation is classical music’s best bet for restoring this type of mindset back into its performance-practices. By this I don’t mean that we should be performing Baroque works all the time, but use improv as an integral part of the concert experience of contemporary music and newly created works. A neo-Baroque era, maybe? I think this idea is catching on quite a bit, and you can already hear it in what minimalism seems to be turning into at this point in time.

  3. says

    One thing that I can’t help but think about when reading this particular set of posts is cost, as new music simply costs far more to perform than works that are in public domain. I think about this a lot because a large portion of the works for an ensemble of Ad Hoc’s size – 8-18 players (ish) – was composed after the turn of the 20th century. And I love the rep, and I agree with your larger point.

    But… when I’m faced with cutting a check to the Stravinsky estate that could essentially double the already small stipends that my musicians are receiving, well… I may have to program a Mozart octet instead. And I think it’s important to embrace the creativity as part of having limited resources- it just means that we have to work harder to make Mozart fresh and contemporary. But I think financials are something that are often overlooked in discussions about making classical programming more contemporary.

    Obviously, we’re a very new group with far fewer resources than bigger, older organizations. But even for a symphony orchestra, programming a John Adams work over a Beethoven symphony is a financial risk. The Adams may or may not effect ticket sales to a degree that offsets the cost of performance rights. Could you argue that it’s a long term investment in audience-building? Sure. Personally, I’d be far more likely to attend the Adams concert than the Beethoven concert – and I happen to love Beethoven. But a lot of institutions are forced to make the short-term bottom line their top priority. That’s a problem in itself – often self-inflicted, I think – but it doesn’t change that reality.

    To be clear, I’m not at all saying that composers shouldn’t be paid for their work, and a discussion about the ethics and politics of intellectual property regulation is beyond my scope. But from the front lines… this is a big factor when it comes to making programming choices.

    • says

      Very good point, Rebecca. Money influences programming quite a lot, even at the largest institutions. A great advantage of playing the old works is that they’re free (if you don’t use a copyrighted critical edition). Large orchestras have them all on hand, so they don’t even have to rent the parts. But if they do a new or copyrighted piece, they have to pay both a royalty and a rental fee. And in these days of tight budgets…

      • richard says

        Their are more than a few composers that are avoiding the traditional publishing houses, and are self-publishing, or working in composer co-ops. In these cases, fees are always negotiable. I, for one, wouldn’t be surprised if the old-time publishers eventually go out of business when the “Omnia Opera” of composers like Bartok and Stravinsky enter the public domain.

    • Adam Matthes says

      This sounds like an argument for an inclination I’ve felt for a while, and that is: classically trained performers need to write more of their own music. If they write the music, they don’t have to write a check to another composer or publisher. Plus, I don’t know how much the classical industry acknowledges that a lot of their war-horse composers were accomplished performers and promoted their own music by performing it– particularly in keyboard repertoire–but I find the shift to a segregation of performer and composer to be holding back the progress of programming. Performers can and should perform other people’s music, and I think it would actually give more significance to those pieces on a program, i.e., “Now that I have played a set of my pieces, I will perform this sonata by Hindemith, who has been an inspiration to my creativity.”

      • says

        That’s a very good thought. In our time, composing (I think) has been marked as a special talent, one that only a few people (and probably not most performers) have. But I think that’s not how things are. As you say, Adam, in the past performers very often composed. And in other musical genres, writing your own music is common (to put it mildly). So I’d encourage performing musicians to try composing. Many would be good at it!

        • richard says

          As a composer, I’ve played my own work as have a lot of my composer friends played their own, so it’s not unheard of. But unless one is a pianist, we still have to conscript others.

  4. says

    When it comes to playing new compositions in the concert hall there seems to be fairly narrow ideas in play. From what I’ve observed, we are mostly stuck with either holding a competition for those ‘sweet young things’ or playing a piece by a well established professional. Music Directors do not seem willing to take a chance on the unknown.

    I hold a composition degree, but I am also a novelist and the process of ‘discovering’ a new author is dramatically different than that of discovering a new composer. In the literary world agents and editors have a clear submission process which is published and kept current. Authors can see these guidelines and submit work that is in-line with them for a chance at being chosen. To my knowledge NO music Director or Conductor has a similar submission process. There is no correlated way that a composer can be discovered.

    What about connecting with composers who have a body of work that hold interest, but haven’t yet been played by a major symphony. I am pretty sure that these composers would jump at the chance to have their piece played because exposure counts; the fees would be far less than those of the ‘known’ composers.

    One thing that is common for young people is the love of discovery. Youth gain status in their peer groups by being the first to discover a new band, a piece of tech, a style. Imagine the energy that could be brought to the concert hall by this atmosphere of discovery!

  5. says

    Thank you for your insightful comments about how to keep classical music alive and well. I had an interesting series of experiences the past week at 3 new music concerts in NYC that give me hope for our art: So Percussion’s marathon at LPR, Oceanic Verses through the River to River Festival and the Dutilleux concert by the NYPhilharmonic as part of the Marie-Josee Kravis Prize. Lots of young people in evidence and cheering crowds at all 3 events. It also tells me that today’s musicians can dare to dream and do what it takes to see their vision come to light. Here are some additional comments:

    • says

      Thanks so much, Astrid. I was at a concert last night at the University of Maryland which also showed what can happen. Students at the National Orchestral Institute were give control of a concert, and created a tapestry of John Cage, Arvo Pärt, Paul Moravec, Bach, and improvisation that began in the lobby before the concert formally began, and flowed seamlessly from one piece to the next. Roars and whoops when it was over. The curator of the NOI concerts this year had been reading my posts, and said this was exactly what I’d been looking for. I couldn’t agree more.

  6. says

    As you say Greg, some young people respond to old music and many respond to new music. In my mind you’ve just make the case for young music lovers to take in both, any and all that is going on. Each is searching for inspiration and hopefully a BALANCE of different sources of inspiration.

    We probably all know friends who can’t STAND certain bands, singers, composers or eras of music that WE love. We may try to convince someone with what it is we value about this composer but can’t easily articulate it and give up. The problem it seems to me is articulating the value, esp. in non-academic terms. The first step might be articulating a comparison between a common favorite and the one in dispute. Another will be to listen to or play an example, gesturing what the music or singer does that speaks to us. This same form of gesturing will speak to many who may be curious to know WHY we enjoy the old masters (or try to compose like them, in my case).

    I’m convinced that gesture, movement and dance are key to understanding the standard rep. (Try “air violin” or “air conducting”!) I’m also convinced that the standard rep has “mo meat on them bones” than most new music… more tension and release and catharsis, even to play the same work a hundred times. We can reset the context for the old stuff and even refresh the music itself with arrangements. Let CutTime® show you how!

    • says

      Great points, Rich, and I’m glad you promoted your own group at the end. Why not? You’re walking the walk.

      And good point about what strong music the classics are. I was at a concert this weekend in which the first movement of the second Brandenburg was the only old piece on the program. (I’ll blog about this after the holiday.) The most extensive piece was Paul Moravec’s tribute to the second Brandenburg. Well, with all respect to Paul and his compositional craft, Bach is the one who knows how to move with utter security through long spans of time. So good to hear! But it came through so clearly in contrast to the newer music. Don’t get me wrong — the newer music (by Cage, Arvo Pärt, and Moravec, plus a vocal improvisation by the musicians) was fine. Especially the movement from the Cage string quartet, played like the sounds of a ghost, from the balcony. And the audience whooped for the Moaravec. But Bach was the master. Though again I want to stress that he seemed so refreshing precisely because of the context. If i’d had to hear the entire piece, and other old pieces, I might have said, “Oh, come on. I know all this stuff by heart.”

  7. says

    Here is an opera singer that was recenlty on America’s Got Talent who has a gothic vibe to his look. Listen to how the audience reacts to him.