Building a young audience (more on the culture change)

There’s a quite a lot to read on the changes in our culture, the ones I’ve been saying that leave classical music behind. For instance:

The section on nightlife from Richard Florida’s well-known book, The Rise of the Creative Class

Florida describes people whom he thinks are central to any city’s economic growth, young, smart, curious, creative people, the people corporations would most like to hire. Florida’s thesis about how crucial to economic growth they are has been disputed, but his description of them sounds exactly right to me.

What do they do at night? They avoid “big box” entertainment, and instead seek out varied nightlife — clubs, galleries, theaters — where they can meet artists and explore diverse offerings, things that feel authentic and spontaneous. Florida mentions local bands, a dance troupe from Senegal, or a small-theater production of an 18th century comic play. Right at the start of this section, he says that symphony, opera, and ballet performances aren’t a draw.

I’ve assigned this in my Juilliard course on the future of classical music. It’s clear that the creative class — as Florida evokes them — won’t be going to classical music events, as we present these now.

(There’s an updated version of the book, just out. I’m eager to read it. As soon as it’s available on my Kindle…)

The Mansion on the Hill: Dylan, Young, Geffen, Springsteen, and the Head-on Collision of Rock and Commerce, by Fred Goodman

Talks among much else about how pop record labels had to hire new staff in the Sixties, because their existing people didn’t like or understand the explosion of new kinds of music. And also didn’t understand that music’s new audience. (Much the same thing happened when I was first in the pop music business, at the end of the ’80s. The explosion wasn’t as large as the Sixties one, but still, record labels were hiring recent college graduates because their existing staff didn’t understand the new alternative bands.)

Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood, by Mark Harris

One of the most important books on our cultural change. We now accept films like Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate as classics, but when they were released, in the ’60s, they were revolutionary. French avant-garde films — Truffaut, Godard — influenced film fans in the US, some of whom then went to Hollywood, and turned things upside down. How big was this revolution? Gigantic. The film critic’s association split in two. The New York Times fired its movie critic, because he didn’t understand the new films. Time magazine (then hugely influential) first panned Bonnie and Clyde, and then — can you imagine this? — published a lengthy retraction. Times were changing, and popular films now could be subtler, more sexual, more artistic, and more layered in their view of right and wrong.

Say You Want a Revolution” (by me)

My piece for Symphony magazine about the Mark Harris book, and its implications for classical music. Suppose classical music had had a revolution in the ’60s like the one in film. Would our audience now be young?

A passage on music from John Seabrook’s book Nobrow: The Culture of Marketing, the Marketing of Culture

John Corigliano recommended this book to me, and I’m sure to others, too. If I’m remembering correctly, he saw it as a wakeup call, something to show people in classical music how far the culture moved away from them.

I’ve assigned an except in my Juilliard course, and you can find some of it in a collection I prepared for the students, of thoughts about the nature of classical music. Seabrook, a writer for the New Yorker, grew up in a suburban family, and assumed that, like his parents, he’d be going to the Met Opera and the New York Philharmonic when he was grown up. Instead, he goes to see the Chemical Brothers at clubs. With marvelous evocations of what those clubs are like, and what the classical department of a big record store looks like to someone who doesn’t listen to classical music.

Artistic Expression in the Age of Participatory Culture: How and Why Young People Create,” by Henry Jenkins and Vanessa Bertozzi (a chapter in Engaging Art: The Next Great Transformation of America’s Cultural Lifeedited by Steven J. Tepper and Bill Ivey)

Rather jaw-dropping — the art younger people, including teens, come up with on their own. Hard to doubt, after reading this, that we’re in a new culture, and that the top-down assumptions of our classical music world (these are the masterworks, this is what you should think about them) just won’t fly anymore.

[Added later:] Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Popular Culture Is Making Us Smarterby Steven Johnson

How could I have forgotten this lively and seminal look — quite provocative to high-art purists — at how smart popular culture has gotten? Of course, the intelligence of popular culture is taken for granted by most people these days. (I’ve read, for instance, a discussion of why IQ scores have been going up, which offers the growing intelligence of popular culture as one explanation. And notes that this is something everyone knows about.) And especially familiar is the intelligence of much popular music — so familiar, in fact, that Johnson says he doesn’t need to discuss it, because it’s something everyone knows. Which I think is a shame, because it makes this book less persuasive for those who need to know popular culture better. But still the book is invaluable. (And its main title — Everything Bad is Good for You — of course is ironic.)


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  1. Gordon Self says

    “Suppose classical music had had a revolution in the ’60s like the one in film.”

    I think in some sense, it did – the beginning of the minimal, and the immediate predecessors of the spectral. Reich and Ligeti did more than any others, in their own different ways, to get me interested in ‘classical’ music. But they were almost prevented from reaching me by the establishment that likes to call itself classical – so I had no idea until in my early 20s that there was any notated acoustic music out there that could interest me.

    Although the various modernisms have had a much better hearing in academia than minimalism did, both seem to have been actively resisted in much of the concert world. A couple of weeks ago I heard a student performance (free admission) of Per Norgard which was one of the best concerts I’ve ever been to. Yet at the big classical venue of the same city (Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, UK), I missed Helen Grime’s absolutely awesome Virga because I wasn’t willing to sit through the hour of common-practice symphony that came with it. I absolutely feel that any music that’s been made with great skill and care (regardless of age), should be maintained for all of its fans, but this mixed-up programming punishes everyone.

    I strongly agree with your support for new music – for me this is overwhelmingly the most important change that’s needed.

    • says

      Very good point about minimalism and everything beyond it. I should have been more careful, and said that mainstream classical music didn’t change. In the ’60s, there was even quite a lot of music that had a ’60s vibe. Think of Stockhausen’s Stimmung — six singers sit in a circle in a darkened space, and chant B flat and its overtones, while intoning “magical names,” for instance names of various world religion gods. A hippie piece, if you like. But quite mesmerizing, even now.

      I was deeply involved with minimalism when it began, going to Steve Reich concerts in New York, sitting on the floor in rapture with 1000 people. While, just as you say, the mainstream (and especially the contemporary music establishment) paid no attention. And often badmouthed the music. I remember established composers telling me, with utter disdain, that the only reason Philip Glass evolved his minimal style was to make money! A truly absurd notion, since when he started, Philip couldn’t get a commission, a grant, or a university teaching job. Or get his music played on established new music concerts. He had to form his own ensemble to get his music played, and to make a living he drove a taxi and worked as a carpenter.

  2. says

    I thought that the quote, “Talks among much else about how pop record labels had to hire new staff in the Sixties, because their existing people didn’t like or understand the explosion of new kinds of music. And also didn’t understand that music’s new audience.” was very interesting. If you have people running classical music organizations that do not understand the potential audience that would help them flourish then they are only going to focus on the audience they all ready have. Not that I think that you ignore the people who are supporting classical music currently but a concerted effort to reach a younger audience will be good for the current foundation audience as well as the future of classical music.

    • says

      Exactly my point, Matthew! It’s fascinating to see change sweeping through other parts of our culture, while it arrives so slowly in classical music.

    • says

      Thanks. I have a new website, and on its server, URLs are case-sensitive, which they weren’t on my old site. I forget this from time to time.

      Of course I’ll fix the link, but I’m happy to let your comment be public. I believe in acknowledging mistakes. I’d like to think that doing so helps create a climate of more honesty. And it’s also helpful to others who get things wrong from time to time. Often we feel we’ve blundered horribly, when in fact all we’ve done is be human. I think it’s good to set an example of that, so that other people, having done what I just did, can smile and say, “Oh, well, Greg Sandow did it, too.”

  3. adrianna81 says

    I remember when Tom Hank’s movie in the 80’s cleared every record shelf in America over a weekend when the film-goers heard a great american-born soprano, Maria Callas, sing “Suicidio”. Great art, whether new and innovative, or classic and rooted in times past by truly gifted, well-trained, artists whose excellence gains them exposure will build audiences, generate revenue, and enrich the world. instead of sex appeal or competition prizes awarded before the elimination rounds being marketed to the hilt, give me someone whose soul burns a whole in the stage when they share their gift with the world any day.

    I also remember seeing 6-10th graders cheering at a matinee performance of ” La Rondine” because the star-crossed lovers found each other in the end. The adults in the expensie seats were almost insulted by the outburst in the middle of the scene. That opera company’s subscription rate was fueled by ticket sales of students bringing their parents to the opera. A poll was taken in Germany among opera lovers regarding their attendance of theatrical performances. Over 60% said they no longer went because they couldn’t stand the modern deconstructive approach of Regietheater, and the bad singing. I think addressing two little things like this would bring immediate results. But of course, we now have theme programs, branding, and revival of originality no one alive ever witnessed. Who needs talent?

    P.S. R & B music had nothing to do with Ph.D’s deciding to eliminate music education from public school systems. R & B was taken out of the small clubs and local black radio stations, co-opted and covered by Pat Boone, the Beatles, Elvis, and the Rolling Stones, where it reached an international market. The Brits incorporated classical orchestra arrangements and choral traditions in their music to the delight of their many fans. I think it was less of a shift, given the pre-existant small margin of classical music per se as a bastion of the rich. Rather, music in general expanded and market competition for ears by classical music purveyors was not as innovative. These gents overlooked the teenage market until it was too late.
    Solutions may be found in long-term music education and featuring great seasoned talent instead of GQ/Elle styling on budding artists in the early developmental stages of their lives..

  4. Dymitry Wos says

    “Something everyone knows”, oh really? Many people that I had corresponded with in various underground music scenes for several years considered it a self-evident truth that popular musicians are largely incompetent and openly said so, often with justification. Not all of them were musicians, and those that were had some musical understanding but had never studied it very rigorously. Some of them did take an obvious interest in classical music, at least compared to most other people in their late teenage years through early thirties. They were rarely familiar with any but very well known composers, so any classical discussion would be short lived or revolve around Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Vivaldi, and Wagner to the point of tedium. Amongst the collections of the few with more extensive classical collections, there was no Gershwin to be found, the few who had heard of John Cage dismissed him as a fraud, and none of them displayed any interest in jazz or indie rock. Those who listened to very little classical music did have a reasonable understanding of the skill involved as opposed to their main musical style. One discussion on an industrial forum about disappointment with the current scene featured a poster suggesting that a classical musician should take an interest in this style and make an album that would surpass everything else being made. Another on a black metal forum proposed that the main limitation of the style was its musicians having the ability to write classical style patterns but not to develop phrases and forms to a classical extent. Clearly such people would be very unlikely to take serious offense if someone thought classical music were a superior style, and in my experience they were never fazed in the slightest by outsiders complaining about their “elitism”. Nor were these people generally enthusiastic about non-musical forms of popular culture either; the most memorable example was a Russian martial industrial and neofolk enthusiast who explained that he would have liked to have seen Al Qaeda drop a nuclear warhead on Hollywood, to the general approval of the rest of the chatroom. Such people not only have potential for a greater interest in classical music but also see no need to feign humility or a love of pop culture. The so-called contemporary classical scene, by contrast, has absorbed much pop culture already, just not the most current sort, as will be shown later.
    In forums and interviews, when other non-mainstream musicians explain what else they listen to besides the style they play, they usually mention styles that have notable similarities, most often with similar melodies and harmonies despite different structures and arrangements. Classical musicians, however, tend to listen to practically random unrelated styles. Members of darkwave or martial industrial projects often listen to classical music and clearly incorporate many elements of it, even some black metal or EBM bands fit this description as well, but how many classical musicians in the same age range listen to darkwave or martial industrial, let alone black metal or EBM? According to the internet (including but not nearly limited to nowhere near as many as those that listen to mainstream rock and fusion jazz, for some inexplicable reason. No one with any musical knowledge could possibly find Bob Dylan, Miles Davis and Radiohead to contain more classicism than Elend or Triarii.
    While classical music is obviously doing very badly, it has already long been dormant in any productive sense, and will remain that way unless more people take a stand against popular music. Or, more importantly, against the few styles that incompetent musicians and journalists love to force on everyone who presents a potential threat of displaying decent taste: blues, jazz, and rock (particularly “classic” rock). Calling any one of these styles out on its faults, many of which would have been obvious to any fairly intelligent person two centuries ago, results in infantile “waaaah! show respect! they were influential and they had feeeelings!” outbursts more often than not (occasionally including “without that style your favourite music wouldn’t exist!” assertions which can be easily refuted with actual music theory). This attitude appears to be most prevalent in the United States and England, and may have a connection not only to the inability of America and England to produce music to the standard of continental Europe (which is already much lower than it should be) but also as to why classical music has a higher market share in many continental European countries. America has always been an environment too vulgar and backwards for an aristocratic art form to truly thrive, though there have been surprising individual exceptions as far as musical understanding. The best explanation that I have seen of the aesthetic and technical incompetence of blues was made on a forum by an individual from the United States who did listen to classical music, but he was also a black metal and dark ambient listener and a non-musician. The explanation was solid enough, but a classical musician could have included more detail (for example, in addition to making people aware of the terrible melodic motion, predictable chord progressions, irregular rhythm, and poor intonation, one could certainly also explain how the first contributes to the awkward voice leading and a lack of counterpoint, which should normally be easy to avoid when using the second, and why the fourth has always been antithetical to classical aesthetics).
    This discrepancy in people who speak out is even more obvious when one considers that most major cities have many more people performing in orchestras alone (not counting choirs, early music ensembles, keyboardists, opera singers and so forth) than the sort of underground musicians I am referring to. For classicism to return to music, either the darkwave and martial musicians are going to have to raise their standards of playing ability and thematic development by an order of magnitude, or the classical musicians need to wake up and do their own fighting. Yet as far as the internet is concerned, most of the people aggressively speaking out against blues, jazz, or rock are from extreme underground scenes; classical musicians who do so are an extreme rarity. This is puzzling, as while an underground musician would have a good reason to speak out against popular music, a classical musician would have even more of one. They would not only have a deeper understanding of its faults, but also recognise that because of the extra effort and time they have invested that a greater injustice is being done.
    An article from the Art Renewal Center once made a very apt observation about the tactics of people in the contemporary art world: controlling all the institutions, promoting primitivism as “progress”, and then turning around and crying about how the terrible reactionary elitists are oppressing them. The tactics used by the so-called contemporary classical world are not very different. They lack the persuasive skills to sell sharks in formaldehyde or cover parks in orange fabric, so they tend to flail around begging for money more often, but are equally devoted to interfering with the production of real art.
    The most notable agents are conservatories. Not do they accomplish an impressive real-life imitation of the academy of Laputa by means of the sort of “research” that readers can see at, but they also make a strong effort to cover up their inability to train competent composers, generally by hiring professors who talked their way into a long list of meaningless academic awards, or pushing the performing students harder. Nor are conservatories known for their ideological integrity; one can only imagine how many conservatories could have promoted classical principles through the course of their history, downsizing when needed, rather than selling out to the avant garde and then selling out further by starting jazz departments. An especially alarming example of the consequences that I have seen occurred around two years ago, I remember looking through the biographies of a number of student composers (from the classical department, not the jazz department) who would be putting on a concert at a somewhat local conservatory and receiving quite a shock at just how unoriginal all of them were. Almost every one described the composer playing in rock bands as a teenager, then developing an interest in jazz shortly afterward but before registering for the conservatory, and might as well have been the same copy-and-pasted biography with different names and dates merged in. Of course, I stayed home that evening. Shortly before, I had suspicions that conservatories pushed a type of conformity that was antithetical to classicism and that critics were making up nonsense about “all the snobby classical purists out there”; this incident removed all doubt. Last year, another conservatory in the same city displayed a required listening list for their composition department that included songs by Pink Floyd and Simon and Garfunkel (in this specific case, they really should just offer something more “representative of the current culture”, such as Brokencyde or Attack Attack, and get it over with once and for all). The simplest introduction I could suggest for readers who would want a greater understanding of why jazz is incompatible with classicism is the article “Does Jazz Put the Sin in Syncopation”, which has a few inaccurate assertions but also useful insights about music that no one in America has had the sense to publish in 90 years, particularly in paragraphs 11 and 15.
    In addition to the conservatory employees, many other individuals such as journalists and concert directors assist in some of their delusions. One small but obvious such delusion is the false dichotomy between “accessible” and “difficult” pieces. Readers with some ability for critical thinking can consider two things. First, whether any of the most highly technical pieces from the renaissance, baroque, or classical eras are as chaotic, jarring and hideous as the “difficult” pieces that questionable composers and journalists cry about the audience not appreciating. Second, whether any of the simpler pieces from the renaissance, baroque, or classical eras intended for home performance feature nearly as many identical repetitions, disjunct melodic intervals, extended chords, or syncopated rhythms as the “accessible” pieces that questionable composers get praised for writing. Another convenient way for the establishment to slither its way out of having to produce actual classical music; giving listeners a binary choice between two flawed approaches to music, both implemented in a way that makes no sense.
    Yes, mismanagement and poor advertising by concert directors is a problem, and should be spoken out against. The willingness of conservatories to take money and teach nothing of value is a larger problem, as are excessive tolerance of popular music and intellectual dishonesty, and the last three should be spoken out against more strongly than the first.
    Why did I go to such lengths to include all of that? My intent is not to convince, as I knew from the beginning it would not. It is not to shock, as that would be easy to do so with less content and less rigorous logic. Nor is it to undermine any credibility, as anyone who calls attention to the decline of classical music while defending tragic mistakes in musical history has none to lose. No, this is what happens when a critic who promotes “solutions” that are part of the problem for too many years, not only fails to recognise enemies that should be obvious to a child, but regularly defends them, decides to pass judgment about what he thinks is “smart”. A mind persistently devoid of logic does not promote intelligence, much as a confused mind does nothing for order, a vulgar mind nothing for beauty, and a weak mind nothing for valour. The history of classical music, more so even than the other arts, not only counters the trendy idea that people have become smarter over recent years, but provides stronger backing than ever for Evola’s belief that people lost the ability to think clearly after the French Revolution. The writings of empty corporate mouthpieces like Steven Johnson will surely never stand the test of time in such a manner.